Q&A: When to introduce a family language to a child who will attend a trilingual school?

by | Oct 1, 2017 | Babies, Coaches, Language development, Q&A The trilingual+ child, Q&A When a bilingual / multilingual child goes to school, Rita R, School-aged children | 0 comments

When to introduce a family language to a child who will attend a trilingual school?




I live in Hong Kong where almost everyone is trilingual speaking Cantonese, Mandarin and English. The school I will send my baby, who is five months now, is a trilingual school that will begin at the age of two (Cantonese, Mandarin and English).

My husband’s native tongue is Cantonese and he also speaks Mandarin and English fluently. My native tongue is English and Korean and I also speak intermediate Mandarin. I do not speak a single word of Cantonese. We communicate together in English only.

Our baby will no doubt have to learn the three languages (Cantonese, Mandarin and English) to attend the school. However, I want my baby also to learn my native tongue Korean. Our current plan is OPOL where my husband will speak to the baby in Cantonese and I speak to the baby in Korean.

The problem is this only prepares her for one of the three school languages. As it’s fiercely competitive to get into schools in Hong Kong it would be most beneficial for her to also have a basic understanding of Mandarin and already be fluent in English.

This means we would introduce her to four languages. Is that too crazy? Should we hold off on Korean until she is proficient in English, Mandarin and Cantonese first?

Thank you,

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Dear Jean

Thank you for your question – wow, four languages with fluency in one of them is a lot of expectation on the tender shoulders of a 2-year-old! Having raised a daughter who waited until the age of three until she uttered a single word combination, I am struggling a bit with this concept.

I understand your wish for your daughter to gain a place at a good school, but are you actually saying that they test their 2-year-old applicants on their language skills? Have you had a chance to discuss this with the school? Do they expect the children to be more or less trilingual before starting school? I am not familiar with the Hong Kong schools, but I would try to find this out in advance.

Your initial plan to use one parent, one language (OPOL) with you speaking Korean, your husband Cantonese and English as the common language is your best bet to passing on Korean to your daughter. I understand from your message that it is important to you that your daughter knows Korean, so I would not wait until she is proficient in English, Mandarin and Cantonese.

If you do, you might find it hard to introduce a fourth language to her. Both you and your daughter will at that point be used to speaking English with each other. If you will be the only source of Korean exposure for her, be prepared for a challenging task.

With your husband speaking Cantonese with your daughter, she would already have one of the school languages. She would also have a certain level of understanding (receptive knowledge) of English as she will hear you and your husband speak the language at home. If you wish, you can introduce some songs and rhymes in English and Mandarin, but only as a fun part of your day.

I have to keep reminding myself that we are talking about a 2-year-old here. A normal level of language development at that point is about 50-100 words and 2-3-word combinations. Many children develop later and still grow up to speak their languages fluently (like my daughter). Speaking about fluency at this age is complicated. With a child learning more than one language, all words and combinations in all languages should be considered when assessing their progress.

Think about your priorities – how would you feel if you were to skip Korean at this point, only to find it troublesome, maybe overwhelmingly so, to introduce it in a few years’ time? Would you be prepared to forego the chance for her to learn Korean at an early age in exchange for a place in a popular school? Note that I do not think that learning Korean early on and attending a good school are mutually exclusive.

I am also not saying that teaching her Korean later is undoable, but it is certainly not an easy task – especially not if you do not have others to support you with the language exposure. The decision is however yours to make.

Wishing you a successful multilingual family journey!

Kind regards

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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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