I have a question regarding raising a trilingual child. I was raised bilingual by my German father and English mother. I grew up in Germany but have spent a substantial amount of time living in the UK also. My husband is French and we live in France with our 17-month-old daughter.
I am currently speaking English and my husband speaks French to her. Our family language is English; however, we do switch quite a bit at times. I haven’t really introduced German to her yet apart from reading books, singing songs and speaking to family and friends in German when she is around. I would however like to change that and am wondering which is the best approach.
I am worried that I am too late already and it will only confuse her if I now start to speak German to her. The initial reason for me to speak English to her was that my husband doesn’t speak German and we wanted him to be able to understand her first words.
I read in one of your blog post about the consultant who speaks one language for two weeks and then switches to the other for the next two. I quite like this approach and am thinking of giving it a try. Can you give me any tips on how to start this with my daughter in order to avoid her feeling confused and overwhelmed?
Many thanks in advance for your help!
Thank you for your question. It sounds like you have had a great beginning to your multilingual journey. If I understand correctly, you would like advice about how to implement a two-week language period that would allow you to transmit two separate languages to your child?
First of all, I would like to reassure you that it is not too late, especially if you have already been reading and singing to your daughter. She has also no doubt acquired some German passively when you have spoken German to family and friends. In short, she has already been exposed to German and is still at a tender age where she can quite easily acquire a third language without becoming confused or overwhelmed.
To answer your question, I started using the two-week system to transmit two mother languages to my oldest children when they were 4 and 2 years old. (My children are now 15, 13, 10 and 4 and we are still using the same system.) At the time we began using this family language strategy, we explained to our children in simple words why we wanted them to learn each of their three languages and how we would work as a family to achieve this goal. They were quite excited to try something new! I think you can do the same with your daughter even though she is only 17 months old. Children can understand so much more than we sometimes give them credit for! And for me, this small act was a key ingredient to our success. Involving the children in planning how we would achieve our multilingual goals, made them actors in the process. They consequently felt more implicated in the goal and had a greater desire to participate on a daily basis.
Just for your information, we initially tried an every-other-day system, and found that daily language switching was too mentally strenuous. I had read about a family switching once a month, which we felt would be too long of a time period and so we finally decided on trying to switch languages every two weeks, which has been working quite well for the past 11 years.
We personally use weekends for switching languages because we are usually a bit more relaxed than during the busy work/school week, and also have more time to spend together. Being together means there are more opportunities for language interaction, a key element in actively acquiring a language.
Switching from one language to the other usually takes our family two full days. Friday night I often announce to the kids that we will be switching languages the following morning in order to get everyone mentally prepared. We begin the switch on Saturday morning and then confuse languages on Saturday and Sunday, remind each other often what language period it is when we speak the “wrong” language and by Monday we have more or less made the complete language switch.
There are somethings that you can do to make the language transition easier… Special books in the target language, songs, a special meal from the target language country, etc.
Also, to help us take full advantage of the language period, I try to plan as many interactive activities as possible: cooking and baking, nature walks, board games, books and songs so that we can get as much practice as we can in a variety of different contexts. This helps to increase vocabulary and build oral expression.
Using this system does require a bit of discipline, but it is a wonderful way for one parent to transmit two languages to his or her child(ren). What’s important is for both parents (and the children as much as possible) to discuss the family language plan and to decide together the best way to proceed. When everyone has been involved in the decision-making process and shares the same multilingual goals, the chances for success dramatically increase.
If I could add one more bit of advice to this already long answer… Make it fun! Play and learn as you go. When children learn as they play, their motivation to progress is so much greater. So make language learning natural, simple and fun!
Please let me know if I can clarify anything for you or if you need any additional advice.
Best of luck to you!
P.S. Here are two articles from my blog that you can also refer to:
Raising multilingual children using an adaptation of OPOL
Why we stick to OPOL