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Tuesday, January 5, 2016

One Parent Speaking Two Languages. Raising a Trilingual Child.


by Semiha Sözeri

We are a family of three living in the Netherlands.
I am originally from Bulgaria and I belong to the Turkish minority there. I grew up bilingual: speaking Bulgarian and Turkish equally well. When I was born, my parents spoke primarily Turkish to me. I started learning Bulgarian at the kindergarten when I was 2 years old. Both of my parents were teachers in primary schools located in areas with high percentage of Turkish minority population. They were experienced in supporting majority language acquisition without attrition of the minority language. In this respect, they spoke both in Turkish and in Bulgarian with me and my brother in order to maintain both languages simultaneously. Their only rule was never to mix the languages within the same sentence. I think I have adopted a great deal of their approach to me in the linguistic education of my own son, whom I raise trilingually in Turkish, Dutch and English and expose to the fourth language - Bulgarian.

As many expat parents, I was wondering which language teaching approach we should adopt. I have read extensively on the topic and I have benefited from observing other expat families with kids. I have seen that for many families where the father and the mother have different mother tongues, it is rather easier to follow the One Parent – One Language method and to obtain good results.

However, in our case we had more than two languages which we needed to teach our son. My husband is Turkish from Turkey. Significant part of our education was in English: we started learning English in secondary school, then our bachelor and master’s degrees were completely taught in English. Right now, we have many international friends. Thus, even before our son was born we knew that he will be exposed to multiple languages.

We knew it was possible for a child to learn up to four languages simultaneously and the literature on the subject was indicating that as long as the parents are consistent in their approach, the exposure to more languages would only be beneficial.


When my son was born, my husband was working full-time and I was lucky enough to be working part-time from home. The first language I started speaking with him was Turkish, but from the very beginning I exposed him to English and Dutch nursery rhymes, books and videos as well. Our child started going to Dutch daycare two days a week when he was 18 months old. In the meantime, we were attending English speaking playgroups in The Hague. This way we made sure he gets sufficient exposure to Turkish, Dutch and English.

When we read a book, I always ask him in which language he would like to hear it and I translate accordingly. When we learn the name of a new object, we try to name it in all of the languages we use making clear that things have different names in the different languages. Same goes for counting as well.

Now that my son is 2 years and 11 months, he has the same level of proficiency in Turkish and English with Dutch lagging somewhat behind these two. Nevertheless, he speaks in whole sentences in all three of them and I hope that going to a Dutch school will help him a lot. Neither I, nor my husband is a native speaker of Dutch and we started learning the language only after we settled in the Netherlands 5 years ago.

Also, I must admit that although Bulgarian is one of my native languages, I was a bit reluctant to introduce it. There are a number of reasons behind this decision. First of all, during my early childhood the Bulgarian state has banned speaking Turkish in public as a part of the assimilationist policy of the communist state. Because of this I had developed an idea of the Bulgarian state as an oppressor of its minorities and my ethnic identity as Turkish had a major place in my development. Therefore, it did not come natural to me to start speaking Bulgarian to my child after he was born.

Nevertheless, I do want to teach him Bulgarian as well, but I would prefer to wait until the other languages are established. Besides, we have no one else who speaks Bulgarian around us: I would be the only person who speaks Bulgarian to him. So, I opted for my mother tongue Turkish together with Dutch (the majority language) and English (the language of the playgroup) and decided to postpone Bulgarian for a later stage.

Luckily, I see that he shows interest in learning different languages (when we speak Turkish, for example, he is asking me “What do we call this in Dutch (or English)?”). This encouraged me to expose him to Bulgarian nursery rhymes as well. For now, Bulgarian is lagging very much behind the others but I am happy that he recognizes it and I believe that spending time in Bulgaria during the summer holidays, for example, will be beneficial for his learning.


I notice that many parents are worried when they encounter situations which do not allow them to strictly follow One Language – One Parent or Minority Language at Home – Majority in Public methods. So far, in our experience few languages can be successfully absorbed by a child even when the same care-taker is exposing the child to more than one language. I just would like to underline that this should not be interpreted as mixing the languages. We are very careful not to mix words from different languages within the same sentence and we always try to make it clear for the child when we switch from one language to another.


I am glad that the multilingual approach we have adopted has worked well for us so far. I do realize that it will become more challenging to sustain the minority languages once our son starts Dutch school. However, since I went to a majority school myself and managed to sustain my minority mother tongue skills at a native level, I am not very worried about it. I know that language maintenance through time requires the conscious effort of the family and the child himself.


According to me every family can have different linguistic needs based on their cultural heritage and current circumstances. I know of single mothers successfully raising bilingual kids and homeschooling families who are the sole teachers of their children for all languages and subjects taught in a regular school. In this respect, I don’t think that there is one-fit-all formula when it comes to language teaching. Instead, I believe in adapting the existing methods to the unique needs of each family.



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Raising a Bilingual Child : Setting Your Priorities From The Start. 

8 comments:

  1. Thanks for sharing your experience. I am glad to hear from someone who has 4 languages in their family as this is the situation We also have at home. Our son is two and a half and has started to say many words and put some sentences together in the two family minority languages (dad Spanish mom russian), sing songs and say some words in the community day care language (Swedish), and not much on the fourth exposed parent interaction language (English), although this last is ok since we never address him or make an effort to teach him this language. Hopefully in six months we will also be able to see him making clear distinctions at least between the three main languages that he is being taught.

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    1. Hello Camilo. It sound like your son is already doing great by speaking words in the three languages he is exposed to. I am sure he will catch on English very quickly and it is a matter of time that he starts to differentiate between all of the languages. Wishing you good luck with maintaining them in the future.
      Semiha

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  2. Thanks for sharing, we are in the same case but we decided to wait until we teach the fourth language. Our children speak French/Spanish and English. I was raised bilingual Portuguese and French. It will be easier for them to pick up Portuguese later with their knowledge of Spanish. They are enrolled in a school where they will learn German and Japanese. I believe our children will be great world citizens!

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    1. Hi Filipa. Thank you for sharing your case. It is nice to hear from people who are experiencing a similar situation where they have three or more languages on their plate. I totally agree with you, exposure to multiple languages brings along exposure to multiple cultures and this can only enrich their life as world citizens!

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  3. Thank you for this! It is very similar to our story. I looked for ages for examples of one parent speaking two languages instead of the usual OPOL model and could find nothing. I was dissuaded from attempting to do two myself by a lot of people, but since they had no actual examples of it not working (they just imagined it would be impossible) I decided not to listen and went ahead with my own program. I decided to alternate, doing one week in English and one in Estonian from birth, with all songs, stories, videos etc... in that language that week. (We live in Italy so everyone else speaks Italian with my daughter.) I know it seems completely arbitrary and artificial, but it has really worked for us, and was the best way I could come up with to make sure I stayed consistent and that both languages got equal exposure. My daughter is 21-months-old and speaking in sentences in all three now, and can already differentiate between who speaks what and knows how to answer when you ask, "And how does nonna say 'hand'?" for example. I've even found that there has been less frustration and misunderstanding because she has three languages to draw from. If she keeps repeating something we can't decipher, for example, she'll stop, think for a second, and then say it in one of the other languages, and that usually does the trick. It's been a great experience for us.

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    1. Hi Kiiri. Thank you so much for sharing your experience as well! Sticking to a program of your own with rotation of the languages requires parental determination and discipline, and in this respect your success is really inspiring.
      I also find it very useful that our children can explain themselves in any of the other languages they know, in case we don't understand them in the one they are trying first.
      Wishing you good luck with language maintenance in the years to come!

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  4. Great stories!! my little one is 10 moths old, we are a multiligual Family Mexican-Polish living in the UK, I am very happy my son will speak 3 languages! can wait to hear him say Hola! ;)

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  5. This is a very encouraging read for us as we are also a multilingual family, Japanese mum / Polish dad living in London. I believe consistence is the key which is quite challenging but absolutely worth the struggle! At the moment, I alternate between Japanese and English depending on the activity (reading, playing, cooking) I really hope it works.

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