How to maintain two family languages for a trilingual child in an English-speaking environment?

 

Question

Hello,

I am a Spanish-speaker, my husband is a German-speaker and we live in England. Our three-year-old speaks very fluently both Spanish and German. She is remarkably good in both; I would say at least as good as children being raised with just one language. Her English is getting better but much more slowly and less fluent, since she doesn’t watch television (we don’t own one). She sometimes watches Netflix, and only things in both Spanish and German. I am not saying that television teaches them language, just how little exposed to it at home.

My husband and I speak mostly English with each other but, especially during mealtimes our own languages, since our “language police” doesn’t allow us to speak each other’s language and feels left out if we speak English all the time. I am not worried about her English not being as good, as she is really social, and she interacts with children who are either Spanish-speakers, German-speakers and of course at nursery, her “best” friends are English-speakers.

I am more worried about maintaining the learning of both Spanish and German. She is doing really well, but once school starts, she might switch to only speaking English and leave behind both our languages. We don’t have plans of leaving the UK so far, and I would feel so strange to speak to her in any other language.

My question is, should we enrol her in some sort of language school for German and Spanish and if so, should it be in both languages at the same time? I have observed other kids who were really fluent in their parents’ languages not speaking them at all anymore. Our girl is doing so well, it would be a real shame.

Thank you very much, best wishes,
Ana

Answer

Dear Ana

Thank you for your question about maintaining your two family languages, German and Spanish, for your trilingual child, a 3-year-old daughter, who is growing up in an English-speaking environment.

Let me start with saying how impressed I am with your little girl’s language skills! Being confident in speaking two languages and well on the way to learning a third is fantastic at that age. This bodes well for her future as a trilingual.

Another thing which is very encouraging is that she acts as your “language police”. This means that you have established a routine where she expects you to speak German with her and her dad should stick to his native Spanish when he speaks with her. Make sure you maintain this routine and it will be your best “defence” against English taking over as her preferred language with you and your husband when she goes to school.

Your question is whether she should also attend some German and Spanish classes to strengthen her family language skills. If you find some weekend classes that she would enjoy taking part in, by all means, go for it. Before enrolling her, make sure that there will be age-appropriate tuition and that the teacher will have a chance to adapt according to the children’s language skills. For her age, the tuition should be play-based with a lot of activities. The classes may be of great help once you want her to learn to read and write in German and Spanish, as this is something parents often struggle to find time to do.

There are however many other ways you can support her German and Spanish, here are a few ideas for your trilingual child:

  1. Find other families with children who speak your languages and arrange playdates. The effect of seeing other children speak their languages is very powerful for children who are learning more than one language at home.
  2. Involve the extended family in regular online calls, so your daughter gets used to speaking the language with other adults as well. Depending on her patience, you could even have someone read for her. Check this post for further ideas.
  3. Arrange visits to areas where Spanish or German is spoken. The experience of being immersed in a language and seeing that it is used everywhere in the community, in media by other families etc. “normalises” the language. It is no longer only something used in your family.
  4. Create dedicated language areas for German and Spanish in the home. These could be for example in her room. One area for everything German: books, music, toys (monolingual toys are a great help), albums with pictures of German relatives and friends, souvenirs – anything you can think of. And a similar area for Spanish.
  5. When you watch children’s programmes in either of the home languages, sit with your daughter. Make the viewing experience an interactive one by discussing the characters and the plot. You can even stop and ask questions during it, for example: What do think the rabbit will do next? Where will they go now? Why did she do that?
  6. If possible, try to lessen the amount of English spoken in the home. How well do you understand each other’s languages? Have you ever tried a bilingual conversation where you speak Spanish and your husband speaks German? This approach would have the added benefit of both of you learning more of the other’s native language.
  7. Make sure you keep up with the vocabulary she is learning in English once she goes to school. She will need the right words and phrases in German and Spanish when she wants to tell you about her day. Remember that she has been immersed in English all day, and if she is eager to tell you something when she comes home and does it in English, let her share her news. You can have the discussion again later in the evening and recap it all in the home languages.

The most important thing is however that both you and your husband are consistent in speaking your native languages when you address your daughter directly. While mixing the languages will not confuse her, it is a question of maximising the amount of exposure to German and Spanish, when English gets a more dominant role in her life.

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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