Q&A: How to introduce a third language to a receptively bilingual child?

by | Jul 30, 2015 | Coaches, Marianna DuBosq, Q&A The trilingual+ child | 1 comment



I have been subscribed to your newsletter and blog for quite some time and it has been very helpful! Thank you so much! It’s great not to feel alone in the journey of raising bilingual kids.

Little background: I have two kids 5 and 3 whose majority language is English. I am a stay-at-home mom with Spanish as my native language. I have spoken in Spanish ONLY to my kids since birth. My husband does not know Spanish so English is the language at home, except for me talking directly to the kids in Spanish. They understands perfectly Spanish but other than mixing a few words they respond to me in English. We have lived always in the USA (except for me raised outside of USA) and in the past couple of months moved to Taiwan for 3-4 years.

None of us speak Mandarin. My kids will go to an American school where English is the language spoken although they will have the opportunity to learn Mandarin as a course (no more than few hours a week). I want them to learn Mandarin and take advantage of the wonderful opportunity of living here. But it’s clear to me than unless I make the effort to expose them to more Mandarin classes or playdates in Mandarin they can be in this “English bubble.”

My concern and hesitation on how much to “push” the Mandarin learning is the fact that they, as it is, do not speak in Spanish back to me. I try to give them as much exposure as I can (book, tv, other kids speaking Spanish and traveling back to my home country) So, I’m almost afraid that focusing on Mandarin (which I am not sure how I can support once we go back to the USA) may cause them to lose even more interested in Spanish. Any advice?

And on the topic of Mandarin, since my husband and I don’t speak a word of it (will start some classes in the fall) Is it best to put my kids in some after school class where no English is spoken, almost forcing them to learn? or wait until they have some basic vocabulary learned at their regular school?

Appreciate any advice. And, thank you for the wonderful tips and information provided in your newsletters and emails.

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Hi Laura,

Thank you for reaching out to the Multilingual Parenting team regarding your language concerns. First of all, congratulations on the move to Taiwan! It sounds like it could be a great opportunity for the whole family.

You certainly raise some valid language concerns in your question. My first suggestion for you would be to set some time aside to do some goal setting for your family’s language journey. They are clearly set on their English language skills especially since you indicated that your move to Taiwan is only temporary. The question then comes down to Spanish and Mandarin. What level of fluency would you like them to achieve in each respective language? Through your goal setting, you may identify that you would like your children to keep up with their Spanish skills and perhaps improve them. If that is the case, the reality is that you will still have to support their development in that language since you are the Spanish speaker in the home. If you want some inspiration on how to add more exposure to Spanish and create a need for them to use it, here and here are some ideas for you!

I personally think it is great that you are interested in taking advantage of this opportunity for your children to pick up a third language! You are right, however, that if you do not expose them to Mandarin they could pick up very little. Since we established that you will still need to place quite a bit of emphasis on Spanish, you will want the exposure to Mandarin to come from other sources. Just like you mentioned, language classes can be an excellent gateway. You do not have to force them to learn it in fact I would advise you against that. Make sure that the language is introduced to them in a fun way so that it is much easier to keep their interest long term. If you want to expand beyond language classes, here are a few more ideas on how you can introduce your children to the community language without having the exposure come from you.

As far as timing goes, I would actually take your child’s personality into consideration. Do you think it would make them more comfortable to have a bit of a foundation? Or, are they usually fine with just going with the flow? Their personal preferences may help you determine which route to go. If you do decide to wait a bit, do not wait too long. You will be surprised how quickly time can get away from you while living overseas.

There is one last thought I would like for you to consider. Even though you are still taking the lead on Spanish you can still create a lot of excitement around Mandarin! Be as supportive as you can of your children’s efforts to learn the language. A supportive environment alone can make a very positive difference!

Best of luck on your new adventure Laura!

You can now also listen to Marianna’s answer in her podcast!

Marianna Du Bosq

Marianna Du Bosq

Marianna Du Bosq was born in Caracas, Venezuela where she spent the majority of her childhood as a monolingual speaking only Spanish. Until one day, right before her thirteen birthday, her family moved to the United States and her adventure and passion for language learning began! Her love for languages started with her own experience and grew into a desire for teaching others leading her to spend several years in the classroom teaching dual language learners. She is now facing the most challenging yet rewarding facet of her life, that of a multilingual parent with a mix of English, Spanish and German! Marianna is the blogger and podcast host at Bilingual Avenue where she interviews multilingual parents sharing their best practices along with experts in the field of multilingualism providing actionable tips and strategy. She has a Master’s in Education with an emphasis in Curriculum and Instruction.

1 Comment

  1. Kim

    My son is 5 and speaks 5 languages… 3 from start( englush Swedish and Thai. I introduced Mandarin through songs and games early think 1 yrs old. When we moved and he got the oportunity to get a second language at school we decided Mandarin… So all by a sudden Mandarin became his second language but none of us speak Mandarin at all. When he was 4 he asked for Spanish lessons ( Dora and Diego ), so all together 5 lan gauges. The more the merrier as early as possible. ..
    Good luck


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