How does a third language through daycare affect a child’s minority language?

Question

Dear Rita and all the Family Language Coaches,

Let me begin by thanking you for providing such a fantastic resource for multilingual families! I would really appreciate your input on developing a family language strategy for my 15-month-old son.

I was born in the UK and spent the first four years of my life in Rome, Italy, where I was raised bilingually (Italian/English) by my English mother and Italian father. I then returned to the UK and went on to study German and French at high school followed by French and Italian at university, and currently work as a translator/editor from French and Italian into English. Languages have played a crucial role in my life and I would like to pass the gift of bilingualism (and possibly trilingualism) onto my son.

My husband, son and I currently live in a small town on the West coast of Canada, just north of Vancouver. I have been speaking Italian with my son since he was born, and am delighted to say that he now has around fifteen words, mostly Italian. However, I lack support in Italian both inside and outside the home.

My husband is monolingual (English), so when we are together with our son we only speak English. The same goes for our family and friends – the only language my son hears outside our home is English. I have tried to find Italian-speaking babysitters here in town, with no luck. The Italian Cultural Institute in Vancouver is a great resource, and runs a range of excellent Italian classes for children of all ages, but it is an hour’s drive from here.

I will be taking my son to the Institute’s Italian language nursery rhyme classes which run for an hour on Tuesday mornings. The Institute also hosts a highly regarded Italian preschool for three- and four-year-olds, but unfortunately the two-hour round trip makes it an impractical option for my son moving forward.

This brings me to my next point. Although Italian language speakers and resources are scarce in my small town, we have a thriving Francophone community, a good French immersion program (K-12), and a handful of excellent Francophone daycare options for younger children. And of course, I also speak French myself!

In the absence of Italian language support, I have been thinking, rightly or wrongly, that my son might benefit from going to a French language daycare (with a view to his joining the French immersion programme at age 5). My reasoning for starting him at a French daycare is that
1) any language input he receives other than English at this point may ultimately help reinforce his Italian (in the sense that, if he experiences other children speaking different languages, it will “normalise” his own bilingualism and make him less likely to rebel against speaking Italian in the future), and
2) an obvious collateral benefit is that he could become trilingual!

I was recently offered a place at one of the three French daycare centres in town. If all goes well, my son will be going to the daycare just one day per week (for now), from 9am–3pm, totalling six hours. The daycare is a small, friendly environment run by a lovely French lady out of her own home. She looks after four or five other children between the ages of one and five. My main concern is that rather than enhance my son’s linguistic abilities, this single day at a French daycare will only confuse him and detract from his Italian and English learning.

The daycare provider has recommended that my son increase his days to at least two, and ideally three per week if he is to stand a realistic chance of becoming fluent in French. However, I would like to stick to one day for the time being as I think it is a little soon. I may consider increasing the days to two once my son is 18 months old.

The following are three scenarios I am weighing up:

  1. Keep him at the French daycare for one day per week, increasing to two when I feel he is ready.
  2. Take him out of the French daycare and concentrate on Italian and English until I feel ready to put him into the French daycare for two or three days per week.
  3. Forget about the French daycare completely and concentrate on Italian and English until my son is ready to go to French immersion at age five (Kindergarten).

Ideally I would like to stick with scenario 1., but am worried that six hours per week of French are not enough to make a significant impact on my son, and that it will only end up harming his Italian and English. I would, of course, be able to support my son’s French language learning by speaking French with him, but again would appreciate your advice on this.

How much time/how many days should I spend speaking French with him, as opposed to Italian? Will I confuse him by being the sole parent to speak two languages? I am entirely on my own here as my husband can offer no support!

I look forward to hearing your thoughts!

Many thanks in advance.
Luisa

Answer

Dear Luisa,

Thank you so much for your wonderful feedback – knowing that our site helps multilingual families keeps us going!

You already have two languages in the family (English and Italian) and plenty of resources for a third (French) in the community, so you are in an ideal position to raise your son to become trilingual. Your question is whether you should put your son in a French daycare and if yes, for how many hours per week.

Like I have mentioned on many occasions before, children do not get confused by hearing multiple languages around them. There is no need for you to hesitate to expose your son to French through daycare due to this. As he is still learning his languages, he may well occasionally mix them up, but this is completely normal for a child whos is simultaneously learning two or more languages. Your son will soon learn to keep his languages separate.

Your situation is ideal in the sense that your son will have different people or situations for each language: you – Italian, dad – English, nursery – French. Six hours per week will give your son a good introduction to French, but it will take him some time before he picks up the language. In this sense I agree with your daycare provider, that increasing this to two or three days a week would speed up the learning process. If your aim is for your son to learn French quickly, then the increased French exposure would be beneficial.

Another aspect to keep in mind is how your son gets on in the nursery with only six hours a week. Is he happy to attend, even if he initially does not understand much of what is spoken around him? (Usually kids are content in such situations, as long as they otherwise have fun, feel safe and are well taken care of.)

With two languages in the home, this is already your son’s “normal” language environment. If he gets used to always speaking Italian with you, and you stay consistent in using Italian with him, he is unlikely to refuse to speak Italian with you. As such, I don’t see the need of the French nursery to enforce the concept of multilingualism.

You may consider increasing the use of Italian even when English-speakers are present. Discuss this with your husband and explain why it is important that Italian is the main language between you and your son. Offer to translate whenever needed and encourage your husband to ask if there is anything he wants to understand. I would recommend that you also check in with your husband from time to time to make sure he does not feel left out with the increased use of Italian in the home.

English will no doubt become your son’s strongest language at some point. If he attends a French immersion program at kindergarten and school, his French skills will also be advanced. Depending on how the program works and how much other French exposure he gets, he may well become fluent in the language at an early age.

Looking ahead, your biggest challenge will be offering him enough Italian exposure to develop and maintain the language once he spends more time at nursery and later at school. For this reason, it is important that he gets a solid foundation in Italian during the time when he spends most of his time with you. Like you say, there are plenty of opportunities for your son to learn French, but there is only one you.

I know you mention that there are not many opportunities to meet up with other Italian-speakers, but do try to arrange so that your son also gets to hear Italian from other sources. It is important that he learns that mummy is no the only person who speaks this language! As soon as he has a bit more patience to attend online video-calls, arrange to connect with your Italian-speaking family and friends. Read this article for ideas to foster long-distance relationships with family.

Taken all the above into account, I would recommend that you concentrate on Italian for now. If you want your son to learn French early, then keep him in the French daycare for a day or so per week. I would not increase the time spent immersed in French until you feel that his Italian is well on its way.

Although you know French, I would also not yet recommend that you switch between the two languages. You can introduce a bit of French through song, rhymes and play if you want. However, for the sake of Italian, the most important thing is to get a routine in place where Italian is your common language.

Wishing you a successful trilingual family journey!

Kind regards
Rita

Rita Rosenback

  Rita Rosenback Rita is an author, Family Language Coach, blogger and speaker, who was born into a bilingual family on the Swedish-speaking west coast of Finland. After studying languages in Finland and Germany she worked as a university teacher, translator, interpreter and manager of multinational teams. Rita is now a full-time writer and coach and has been living in the U.K. since 1998. Rita is the mother of two grown-up multilingual daughters, who are the inspiration for her book: “Bringing up a Bilingual Child”, an easy-to-read guide for parents, where she navigates the reader across the “Seven Cs of Multilingual Parenting: Communication, Confidence, Commitment, Consistency, Creativity, Culture and Celebration”. Currently English and Swedish are Rita’s main languages, but she instantly switches to Finnish or German or to her Finland-Swedish dialect when the opportunity presents itself (and when push comes to shove, she can communicate in a very basic Punjabi). Rita is the creator and driving force of this website, and she gives talks and holds workshops for parents and teachers on the topic of bilingual children. She also coaches families on how to make the most of their languages and raise their children to become confident speakers of the chosen languages.

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