How to start speaking your native language with a 2-year-old to make her trilingual?
Me and my husband: I was born and raised in Latvia (Latvian native language), and my husband was born and raised in Italy (Italian language). We both learned English in school, and we communicate in English between us. We live in Italy.
We would love our daughter to speak Latvian, Italian and English. Our daughter: is 2.5 years old. I am a stay-at-home mom, and she spends most of her time with me. We communicate in English. My husband (every evening) and his family (1-2 days a week) speaks with her in Italian. Her books, toys, educational tools and videos are both in Italian and English. I have no worries about her learning Italian language, as she has great exposure to it. In fact, she understands everything in English, but choses to communicate with everyone using Italian words.
Our concern: We would love that she also speaks Latvian, as that is the only language she can use to communicate with family of my side. She only speaks with them one hour a week on a video call but does not understand them.
How can we implement Latvian language in our daily lives to not confuse everyone and specially her? Also, I feel like my English vocabulary is not good enough, and I could teach her more vivid and rich language if we would speak Latvian, instead of English. I am starting to regret choosing English as our main language, and I would like to know if it is too late for me to switch totally to Latvian?
She would have exposure to 3 languages:
Latvian – me and my family
Italian – my husband, his family and community outside the house
English – between me and my husband, movies, books etc
Looking forward to your answer.
Agneta, Andrea & Marlene
Dear Agneta, Andrea and Marlene,
Thank your question about raising Marlene to be trilingual, learning not only Italian and English, but also introducing Latvian, which is the heritage language of her maternal relatives.
Let me answer your last question first: no, you are definitely not too late with switching to Latvian with your daughter. You do also not need to worry about confusing her. Children cope well with being spoken to in several languages. It will not be a quick change, but it can be done.
You are right in your assumption that Marlene will become a fluent Italian-speaker. Italian will become her most dominant language if you continue living in Italy. The reason she is answering in Italian and not English, is that this is what she finds easiest right now. Children are pragmatic and will initially use the language they can communicate best in. This changes once their other language skills improve and they start differentiating who speaks what. Italian is also the language that most people in her life speak to her. She may spend more time with you, but everyone else, including other relatives, friends, and the rest of the society and media are in Italian. She will also be used to you understanding when she speaks Italian, so there is no real need for her to express herself in English at the moment.
Having experienced a language switch with my daughter, I know that Marlene may initially be reluctant to accept that you start speaking Latvian with her. It is best to ease her into Latvian in a way that she finds fun and interesting. The key to a child picking up a language is that there is a need and a want LINK for the child to use it. The task for us parents is to find a way to create an environment where these criteria are fulfilled. As every child is different, there is no one-size-fits-all solution, so I will make some suggestions for you to try out so you can see what works in your family.
You, Agneta, will mostly be the only person speaking Latvian with Marlene – apart from the weekly calls with your daughter. I know how difficult it can be to get small kids to participate in calls, so for some time still, the Latvian exposure will be down to you. For this reason it is good to look up any additional help you can find online – check this article for a list of Latvian resources for you to choose from.
As this is a change to what you have been doing for two and a half years, one of the biggest challenges for yourself will be to remember to speak Latvian and to keep on doing it even if Marlene is initially not interested. Your best bet is to introduce a routine of when to speak Latvian. Based on experience from other families, it is best not to only rely on deciding to use Latvian. It happens so quickly that you switch back to English only, because it is easier and faster to make yourself understood. (Please do not be upset with yourself when this happens, this occurs in every who has done this.)
It is essential that you are both agreed on passing on Latvian to Marlene. One idea is for Andrea to join in when you are introducing new words. For example, you could do this when you are all together at breakfast or dinner. You can hold up a fork, say the word in Latvian and then Andrea repeats it, encouraging Marlene to join in. In this way Andrea would be modelling the learning process for her and showing that it is fun to speak Latvian. Depending on her personality, it could even become a bit of a contest between dad and Marlene, about who remembers more Latvian words. I would give her the enjoyment of “winning” to make this a pleasant experience for her. Children also love to surprise their parents, so showing admiration and awe when she uses a Latvian word is a good way to give positive feedback.
With Marlene being only two, toys are a fun way to introduce a new language. I have written about this in my article about monolingual toys and you can find further ideas there. You could ask your relatives send over something from Latvia, but equally well, you can just assign a new toy that she likes to be a Latvian-only-speaker.
Look for Latvian versions of songs that she is familiar with and sing them for her. If the songs are accompanied by actions, even better, e.g. head-shoulder-knees-and-toes type of songs. Remember to make the toy join in with you! If you allow any screen time for Marlene, watch Latvian cartoons together, explaining them as you watch. Choose simple ones to start with, repeat what is said and use the odd English word to explain where necessary.
One of the most effective – if not THE most effective – way of encouraging a child’s minority language use is to immerse them in the language. This is easiest to achieve through visits to where the language is spoken. So whenever possible, take Marlene to Latvia to allow her to experience Latvia, its language and culture in a fully immersive way. It is important for minority language children to see their language in context, so they do not grow up thinking this is something only mum (or dad) speaks.
As mentioned, this is not going to be a quick process, but is perfectly doable. Be patient with yourself and your daughter and don’t give uo, even when it may feel that you are not making any progress. You are, it just takes some time to show. And you are giving your daughter a gift that will last a lifetime and connect her to her heritage and extended family.
Wishing you a successful trilingual family journey!