Q&A: When to start teaching a trilingual child to read in the 2nd and 3rd languages?

by | Jan 7, 2016 | Coaches, Literacy, Q&A The trilingual+ child, Rita R | 5 comments

Question

 

Hello,

first I would like to thank you because your web help us a lot.

Our situation is the following: I am Spanish, my husband is Catalan and we have a daughter of 2.5 years old. We live in China since she was 6 months old. She goes to a Chinese kindergarten since she was 13 months so she speaks more Chinese than anything else.

She speaks the three of them without much problem. I speak Spanish and my husband speaks Catalan to her but I would like to know what is the ideal amount of time that each language needs, and also when it would be the right time to start to teach her the letters and to read.

Should we do Spanish and Catalan at the same time? or first one and then the other? is it better to make some kind of difference so she knows they are different languages?

Thanks a lot,
Soledad

Answer

 

Hello Soledad,

Thank you for your question and for your feedback – I am happy you find our site useful!

You clearly have a trilingual in the making here, congratulations! It is fantastic that she can already use all three languages without much problems at the tender age of 2.5 years. You have done a really good job with her, so you should be proud of what you and your husband have achieved.

As she is attending a Chinese kindergarten, she will definitely be getting enough exposure to Chinese. At home you are using the one parent, one language approach. By the sound of it, whatever you are doing is working well – otherwise she would not yet be using both Spanish and Catalan in the home. My best advice is to try to keep the exposure to both of the language balanced and keep an eye on how her language skills progress. If you notice that either language gets significantly weaker for her (which I do not think it will), then you can increase the amount of exposure she gets to it.

With regards to reading, there is no set time which is right for every child, as all kids are different. The best advice is to start when the child shows interest in knowing the letters. What you can do is to follow the words in a book with your finger when your read, so she gets used to the connection between the letters and the sounds. My daughter learnt to read Finnish through an alphabet puzzle, so I never actually “taught” the letters to her. Finnish is generally easier, though, as it is a very phonetic language, i.e. spoken exactly as it is written.

Your daughter clearly already understands the concept of a mummy’s language (Spanish), a daddy’s language (Catalan) and the language at kindergarten (Chinese). When she shows interest in letters, there is nothing to say that you cannot do both Spanish and Catalan at the same time. Just like she knows there are different words for things in the different languages, she will understand that the same goes for letters. If she asks how to say a certain letter, you can use “mummy says…” and “daddy says…” and if she for example says the Catalan sound when she is with you, then just confirm that “yes, that is how daddy says it, mummy says…” – in the same way you would do with words and phrases.

I hope this helps and please let us know how her language skills develop!

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.

5 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Hello Rita,

    I have been recently thinking how and when to teach my girl letters / reading. I find it a little bit difficult or think that it can be confusing for my girl. My girl is Polish / English bilingual kid.

    For example English word: Octopus. Letter: “O” in English we say like: “A” ([ˈɑːktəˌpʊs]),
    In polish however “O” is just: ([o]). How should I teach her reading letters? In English I can do it, but when her mum would like to teach reading polish books the things are different.

    Will she know that when reading in English that letter is pronounce differently than in Polish language?

    I have no idea how and when to teach her these letters and when to do it with my wife? Maybe you remember English is not my native language. Me and my wife are Polish native speakers.

    Thanks for help in advance!
    Wojtek

    Reply
    • Avatar

      Hi Wojtek

      Good to hear from you and your family again! I understand from what you write that you are going to teach your daughter to read in English and your wife will do the Polish?

      First of all, the time to start teaching reading and writing is when your daughter shows interest in it. I would not recommend starting before that. Once she does, your plan is fine – speak English while you teach her the sounds in English and your wife speaks Polish.

      Just like she keeps the two languages apart, your daughter will also keep the pronounciation apart. There might be some initial transfer, but that is also normal.

      Main thing is that you do it at your daughter’s pace and don’t try to rush it.

      Kind regards
      Rita

      Reply
    • Avatar

      Hi Wojtek

      As this is a question that might also be interesting to others, we picked it up in the Q&A, which you can read here.

      Kind regards
      Rita

      Reply
  2. Avatar

    Thanks so much for your feedback Rita! i started to read your web when i was pregnant so some of the sucess if yours too

    Reply
    • Avatar

      Awww, thank you! Your comment truly made my day! 🙂

      Reply

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