Making trilingualism work out

I’m in the middle of the trilingualism journey at the moment. To clear things up, I’ll just start as a quick definition, a trilingual child is a child raised in three languages. The most common case, and the one I will cover, is where each parent contributes with their native language (heritage languages) and the host country adds the third language (host language).

I should probably lie and say that I hired a 10-year-old to illustrate this article

Living in a cosmopolitan city like London, it is fairly common to encounter families where the parents belong to different nationalities and neither of them is a native English speaker.

In my view, a case of successful trilingualism is where the child grows up being able to speak properly in the 3 languages and the boundaries between the languages are kept clear (not mixing languages within a sentence).

In not-so-successful cases, the child is an active speaker of none or only one of the heritage languages. The host language is always the winner so this article will assume that they will acquire it mostly through mainstream education. When I say active speaker I mean that the child is able to communicate in the language. Many children will be passive speakers, meaning that they understand almost everything in the language but are not capable of speaking (i.e. they talk back in English).

I will use my own experience in some examples, so in order to give some context, the host language is English and the heritage languages are Spanish, my own, and Russian, my wife’s. We use a strict One Person One Language (OPOL) approach which is not too difficult as we are both lucky enough to speak each other’s language. We tend to use Spanish with each other and English is never spoken at home, unless we are entertaining guests.

Risks around trilingualism

I’ll start by identifying the some of the risks according to when in time they appear.

Household

If the couple speak the host language at home before the arrival of the little ones, this can be detrimental to the development of the heritage languages. The exposure of the children to the host language will be massive and the heritage languages may be used only when one parent is present. Apologies if I am sounding a bit harsh here.

Not using “One person one language”. OPOL has been identified as the most successful strategy to achieve multilingualism in children. This method consists in each parent speaking to the child exclusively in one (heritage) language. If the family uses the host language when both parents are present, then this not only goes against OPOL, but also reduces drastically the exposure of the children to the heritage languages

Neighbours, friends and playdates

After the household language arrangements, the next ring of “threats” are external. I have identified neighbours and friends as a source of potential risk to the heritage languages.

Well, they don’t look like a threat, do they?

I think it’s absolutely fine for your child to be speak and be spoken to in the host language by your neighbours and friends. However it is a problem when you are expected to abandon your heritage language when in presence of others. Many people don’t like a foreign language to be spoken around them, perhaps due to some insecurities and doubts on whether you are talking about them. They may frown upon you when you turn to your child and start speaking in your language instead of English. Don’t feel intimidated by this.

Finally in this section are your child’s playdates. In this case you may need to use the host language if you are addressing all of the children in the room. Things like “lunch is ready!” or “be nice to each other!” are fine. Your child understand that the other kid won’t understand what you’re saying otherwise.

Childcare and school

So far the previous cases referred to situations where the parents are present. If you are lucky enough to be able to spend most of the first years of your children with them they will not get an early exposure to the host language. However if you need to make use of childcare from an early age, this applies to you.

When your little one is in childcare, they are getting 6, 8 or 10 hours a day of exposure to the host language. They will learn the songs and rhymes in the host language. They will learn vocabulary, expressions in idioms in the host language first. That’s a lot to compensate for.

Once the primary school begins, a new phenomenon appears: peer pressure. The other kids will be old enough you ask your child why their mum does not speak English with them. This often leads to the child’s refusal to speak the heritage language in front of their friends (e.g. during school pickup) and can make you break the OPOL principle.

“Dad, but I know you do speak English” (picture credit unknown)

I’ve spoken with some people with older children and they hinted that this is something that ends after a year or two.

Mitigating the risks — what can I do?

Often just talking to the parents is not enough for the children to achieve fluency. There are some steps you can take to help you stay on track.

Learning your partner’s language

This will avoid the uncomfortable situation of one parent not understanding what the other one is saying to the kids. The learning will be gradual and organic beginning with babytalk and evolving to 3 word sentences and later full sentences. Four years is plenty of time to learn to speak a language like a 4-year-old. This may also be rewarding on other fronts, such as you being able to speak to your in-laws directly for the first time! (or maybe not…)

Stories, songs and cartoons

Ideally always in the heritage language. Try to find Paw Patrol, Thomas the Tank Engine or Postman Pat in your heritage language and buy the DVDs. They will still be able to speak about the characters and stories with their friends but at least they had that exposure to their heritage language.
(Note: don’t overestimate the effect or watching TV in the heritage language. It’s obviously better to watch in heritage language than not, specially to catch some kids’ expressions they won’t hear from you, but the effect is minimal compared to spending the equivalent quality time reading a book or playing wordgames)

Some cartons *not in English*

Language games

Gamification was a buzzword in online business a few years ago. It seems to have faded now, but it’s something that always worked and will always work with kids. If you want them to learn something, wrap it in a game. I started doing this with my eldest from the age of 3 to reinforce grammar. Spanish is a language with lots of verb tenses, subjunctive forms, etc. Monolingual kids take to get it right, but I noticed that mine was just saying everything in the present tense.

We usually play these games when he is laying right before bedtime. For example one game is “When I was 2 years old…”, this forces the following clause to be in imperfect tense, or “When I am 20 I will...” to force learning the future tense.

The idea is to encourage conversations out of the present, which is usually where children dwell and feel confortable at. It can lead to complex converstations such a

Parent: ‘Where would you fly if you owned a plane?’
Child: ‘If I owned a plane I would fly to the moon!’

It doesn’t need to make much sense, but it’s important for them to give a full answer. If they answer just “To the moon!”don’t settle to it. Instead help them build the whole sentence by whispering a cue “If I…”.

Learning about the world

If they learn about something first in the heritage language, that’s always going to reinforce the language. You’ll lose control over that once they start school. It’s impossible to catch up with 5 hours of schooling with just a couple of hours in the evening. Being a 1-to-1 session with your child is a pro, but you being tired after work is a con.

You can teach them anything. The other day I taught my son what something being rusty means, how rust appears on metal, how it relates to the movie Cars and McQueen’s racing team Rusteze, why older cars are rusty, etc. You don’t really need to get into too much detail. The point is to seed the concept in their brain. When he learns about rust in school he will know that it’s the same thing I explained to him as “oxidado” in Spanish.

Nanny and grand-parents

A nanny or au-pair native in the heritage language will make a huge difference. Not just for the amount of time exposed to the language, but just to the fact that there is another person to speak with and to learn from. Vocabulary in particular will be benefited by this.

If you can have your parents over for a few weeks, it can be beneficial as well. However it gives better results to have shorter exposure over a long period of time, rather than sending the kids to your home country for a couple of weeks a year.

Playgroups and Saturday school

Try to find other families with the same heritage language. Arrange playdates from an early age to make sure that the children *meet* in the heritage language. If their English is good enough when they first meet, they may realise quickly and abandon your language on the first date.

A playgroup (photo: Stratton Playgroup)

Language playgroups will help you discover that you are not alone and that there are a bunch of families in similar situations that work as support groups and from which you’ll be able to seek advice, borrow books, find out about activities in the area, etc.

In some cases you may be able to find a more organised setting where actual language lessons take place. Make sure the other kids have at least the same level of fluency as yours, and that English is never used. Depending on the child’s age, make sure they are not too classroom-oriented. Younger kids are meant to play, not sit for 4 hours in front of a blackboard!

This school year our 4-year-old has been attending Russian nursery 3 times a week and and a Spanish school in London on Saturdays.

Further reading

If you want to read more about the topic I can recommend the book “Growing up with three languages” by Xiao-lei Wang. It’s a nice read and interesting to see the different age stages. I’m looking forward to a 2nd edition when the kids are adults!
Here are the links to the book on Amazon US and UK. (these are affiliate links)


TL;DR Just to conclude, achieving trilingualism is possible and very rewarding, but it requires a tremendous amount of effort, discipline and planning. I’ll keep updating as the kids grow up!


I’m a software developer based in London embarked in the project of trilingualism with our two sons. You can visit my site, although there’s not much in it.