Raising a Trilingual Child Is Not Always a Bed of Roses.
by Nathalie Vieweger
I was raised trilingual from birth. My mother was Dutch, my father - German and the community language was (often) English. I am a TCK - Third Culture Kid.
I am now raising a trilingual child myself (English, Dutch and Spanish) as his father is English and we live in Spain.
I used to go to international schools, and I’m a teacher at a bilingual school, so I have seen my fair amount of bilingual children. Read my full story: Trilingual mama - trilingual kid. Why would it be any other way?
As much as I am a supporter of raising a child multilingual, I also see many parents struggle with their decision to raise their child in more than one language. Generally information and articles one can find on trilingualism are predominantly pro raising a child with more than one language. They seem to just surpass the struggles involved in a trilingual upbringing.
I have decided to show both sides of a (in this case) trilingual upbringing.
Bearing in mind that what I am writing is based on my experiences and my opinion I invite you to have a look at my perspective on this matter.
Looking back as an adult
I can not express how grateful I am for having been brought up trilingually.
I have learned the languages effortlessly and have had many opportunities other (monolingual) peers did not have. My being “native” in three languages looks fantastic on my CV and it has opened doors that would otherwise have been shut.
My personal identity is based on my three languages. The languages of my thoughts and dreams vary in different situations. The languages I speak are linked to the culture they belong to, having broadened my view of the world. I have become more open-minded (I believe) than my peers.
My nicest memory of being trilingual must be going to a restaurant in the Netherlands with three of my (multilingual) friends. With four of us at the table mixing French, English, German and Dutch effortlessly, and the conversation making sense to all of us, we noticed being stared at by all the other visitors of the restaurant. I think all four of us realized at that moment, how special our conversation was to others, and we couldn’t help but be filled with pride. Being unique in this way certainly is a beautiful thing.
Also, thanks to my upbringing, I have been able to learn a fourth language with less effort than a monolingual person would have.
Having said that, and again pointing out how grateful I am, must admit that there have been quite a lot of downsides to my trilingual upbringing.
Mainly, the fact that I do not speak any of the three languages completely accent-free or flawlessly. That is to say, I do not have a strong accent, and native speakers of either of the languages say I almost sound like a native… almost… in all three languages !!
Because of that, many times people have asked me where I was from (a difficult question anyway for TCKs, and moreover trilingual ones).
Apparently I am not a native in any language.
Maybe the point of not being completely native has had an effect on the way I see myself as well as the way others see me. At work sometimes I get complimented about the difficult sentence structure I use (any monolingual person would be downright insulted), with friends I often struggle to find the nuances in certain discussions, making me sound tactless or just not very smart.
I struggle to separate the languages fully, so I translate proverbs or sayings literally into the other language, or I use complicated long German sentence structures while writing Dutch. Making it look like I don not grasp the concept of a full stop.
I personally believe something gets lost along the way, the thing native people just grasp. Many of my friends at the European school struggle with the same issues now they are adults.
I would say being a trilingual person has filled me with a sense of pride riddled with a faint feeling of incompetence.
Observing my trilingual son
So now I am on road to raising my own trilingual child.
My son is 2.5 now, and I am proud to say he is in fact becoming pretty trilingual. He is starting to differentiate the languages, speaking to his dad in English, speaking to me in Dutch and to his teachers in Spanish.
Am I proud of it? Very much so!
But the poor kid does struggle at times.
I sometimes wish he would be able to say what he wants to everybody, without having to think what language they understand. He excitedly wants to tell his dad that he has seen something, and then gets a confused look as an answer. He tries to tell his teacher he came to school by bike, she looks at him blankly, asking me to translate. The moment has gone and he goes off to do something else. I feel he is at times missing out on basic social interactions, and with that important connections to the people around him, that monolingual children naturally have. He seems to have to make an extra effort.
Obviously in the future he will be much more capable of separating the languages, but for now it is a bit of a downside.
Something I just recently noticed that is definitely a down-side of raising a trilingual child is the following: Very often my partner and I spend time together with our little boy. Making jokes, playing or reading books. As Daniël was not speaking a lot, we would usually both speak our own language to him. Recently Daniël has started speaking more…and there the conflict within him started. We were talking about pictures in a book when Daniël excitedly wanted to say something. He looked at Rich, then back at me, then back to Rich until he finally decided to talk in Dutch … to me. He most obviously had a bit of an issue deciding what language to speak, in the end leaving his dad out of the conversation. These loyalty-issues will come up more often until he realizes that we both understand English. I felt bad for him for feeling he had to chose between his mama or his dad.
Struggles for us as parents
As my partner doesn’t speak Dutch, we speak English together. When I speak to Daniël I generally speak Dutch. But when we are all together it seems a bit strange to first say something in Dutch to my son, and then translate it into English. Obviously, as he is just 2, we don’t really have any interesting, translation-worthy conversations.
But it won’t be long before either my partner feels left out, I translate a lot of our conversations, or I speak English to both in family situations.
In my opinion following the “trilingual rule-book” is secondary to all members of the family feeling comfortable when we are together.
Something else is speaking to your child in public in a minority language, when it sounds like gobbledygook to everybody. The Dutch language sounds like somebody is having a stroke - and a serious one. We get many looks from people when they hear us speak. Obviously that does not stop me from speaking to Daniël in Dutch. But I would be lying if I said it doesn’t make me feel awkward at times. I worry about Daniëls reaction to this in the future, at some point it will be humiliating for him.
What really gets me crabby however, are people correcting him. His Dutch and English being treated as if he is making a mistake. In a local bar he shows his car to the staff. He enthusiastically claims: “Car!!”. The staff shake their head and say “No Daniel, es un coche!!” as if he made a mistake.
Raising a trilingual child is not the easiest route to take. In the modern world full of mixed couples and expats it is, however, a necessary route for many.
If your main (or even only) goal is to make your child speak more than one language, it is not very complicated. Speak to your child in your language and expose him/her to it as much as possible.
Difficulties arise when
the minority language is not spoken by both parents,
the minority parent is uncomfortable speaking their language in public,
the child finds it difficult to distinguish between the languages, or
the child, as an adult feels incompetent in all languages.
My advice is ask yourself if you are willing to take the challenges of raising a child with more than one language.
Are you willing to be looked at in a strange manner by the community?
Are you willing to speak to your child in a language your spouse doesn’t understand?
I am, but up to a certain point.
The OPOL (one person one language) approach is something I strongly believe in. But I believe that the well being of all of my family members is far more important. I will, therefore, not always speak the minority language with my son.
I find it hard to accept the funny looks, when I speak gobbledygook with my child, but know it is the price I have to pay. I would have preferred to raise my little boy in one language, or two at the most, but our situation is what it is, and it being so, I am very proud of my little trilingual monkey/aap/mono. And I know he will be, as I am myself, very grateful for the gift of languages.
Are you interested to participate in the Life Story series and write about your experience as a bilingual or multilingual child and/or a parent? Would you like to take part in the Multilingual Family Interview series ? You can contact me here.
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Life Story: Trilingual mama - trilingual kid. Why would it be any other way?
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And read my answers to parents questions in Question and Answer series.
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