Google+ Raising a Trilingual Child: Planting a language tree. Does passive language learning work?


Monday, January 20, 2014

Planting a language tree.
Does passive language learning work?

Our family, like many other multilingual families, follows a language strategy in which parents speak to each other in a language different from the one they speak to their children. My husband and I communicate with each other in English, I speak Russian to our children, and my husband speaks Italian to them.

In our multilingual family set up children are exposed to English language mostly passively with very little active interaction. I always believed in the power of passive language learning; however, I was still wondering if it can bring any good results. My children are now 4,5 and 2,5 years old, and everyday I see more and more
proof of that children are able to learn the language passively, and that passive language exposure builds good ground for planting a "language tree".

The passive language learning creates the necessary base for active learning later in life.

The exposure to a second language in a childhood helps to learn that language in adulthood.
I remember when I studied German I had a student in my class, who was impressively fast absorbing all new German words and grammar. I was seating close to her and we talked about it. Apparently her  grandmother spoke German to her, when she was a baby. I noticed her ability to break down those incredibly long German words with an ease. In German there are many compound words, words that are stringed together.  For example, the three words word "risk life insurance" in English is a one word "risikolebensversicherung" in German.  It took me some time before my brain learnt to separate the words inside of one word to get its meaning. A fun fact: in 1996 German 79 letter word, "Donaudampfschifffahrtselektrizitätenhauptbetriebswerkbauunterbeamtengesellschaft", even made into the Guinness Book for World Records!  Don't you just love the way German  language challenges you?! But back to the passive learning...

No matter how old you are, listening to the language helps to learn new words.
According to Dr Sulzberger from Victoria University, New Zealand, "listening to the language creates neural tissue and connections in the brain and facilitates learning of new words in that language.It does not have to happen tomorrow, but the moment a person will be required to remember words in the language they are passively exposed to, they will do it with an ease. Dr Sulzberger notes that  "our ability to learn new words is directly related to how often we have been exposed to the particular combinations of the sounds which make up the words. "

And what I noticed in my kids, exposing to a language passively also creates high level of curiosity  that stimulates the language learning.
I remember how my almost 3 year old son was asking me to translate Russian words into English on our 1,5 hour car trip. It was a continuous question and answer inquisition trip. The first 10 minutes I was happy and proud, the next 10 - surprised and then... I was getting tired and bored. But what a mother would not do for her child?! Right! I was patiently translating the words into English for 1,5 hours straight! Besides of that extreme example of curiosity, my children periodically ask how would I call something in English. I guess they would like to grasp my conversations with their father ( what we converse about in English). I also notice that they are able to memorize English words I tell them almost right away.

Up until now I am somewhat slow in the active English teaching, as Russian still stands high on the list of priorities. I am waiting for my younger child to get to a certain level with Russian, before I start investing more time into both children's English.

We read English books on occasions. I do not choose them myself, the kids do and what is important they do not mind that they are in the language they are least familiar with. I also play recordings of English nursery rhythms and songs for the kids. I use pictures, if they are available to help kids to understand meaning of unfamiliar English words. They have so much fun with "Mouse, nose, knees and toes!" song - . they dance, sign along and point to various body parts following my example.

Children feel comfortable to be surrounded by a foreign language to which they were previously exposed.
The children feel comfortable when English is used around them and when someone talks English to them. Last summer we went on vacation with our English speaking friends. It is a bilingual family in English and German that consists of father, mother and two cute girls, both are about our children's age. It was interesting to watch how their relationship develops and how the children were repeating words in each other language. Even though our children did not speak English (just some words), they could communicate well and could understand what they were told getting more confident in the language by the time we had to say "goodby".

If children are exposed to a language passively they do not speak it, but it does not mean they do not understand it. 
An interesting research was done by Sudha Arunachalam, Ph.D., director of the BU Child Language Lab and assistant professor in the Department of Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences at Sargent College, in which monolingual toddlers were able to acquire some word's meanings when were presented with "the novel verbs without visual access to the speakers, child - directed speech, or discourse context". Dr. J. Scofield, a director of The Bama Cognitive Development Lab at University of Alabama,  in the study of "Word learning in the absence of a speaker" concludes that "referential context is not necessary for successful word learning"  This research was done on monolinguals, but I do not see a reason why the results can not be applied to bilinguals or multilinguals. The exposure to new words is constant in the case of parents speaking a different language to each other than to the children, plus parents are observed by children for visual cues that help to match words to the meaning more easily.  And in fact,  we had several times a situation in our family when our son was interrupting our conversation in English because he wanted to contradict to what we were talking about. He clearly understands almost everything we say.

This is what I have observed up to now, while my children are still small. What should I expect when they grow up older?  I believe that whatever children have learnt without a direct interaction can be pushed on the back of their brains as less important stuff. I do not think children would stop understanding the language as they grow up, but it would be rather laying in a dormant stage. The best thing that parents can do in this situation is to use the language foundation they have built to transition their children's intuitive language understanding into the actual active usage. Best time to do it is while languages are a part of the natural childhood learning process and a play. By looking at my children I would say that  about 4 years is the right age for bringing up the dormant language out. This is the period kids enjoy learning new words and master their speaking.

What is your experience with exposing your child to a language passively? I am curious to learn about your children's level of understanding of the "parents language" especially when they become older.

Arunachalam, S. (2013). Two-year-olds can begin to acquire verb meanings in socially impoverished contexts. Cognition, 129, 569-573. 
Scofield, J., Williams, A., & Behrend, D. A. (2007). Word learning in the absence of a speaker . First Language , 27 (3), 297-311.

Are you a multilingual family and looking for a playdate in your language? Click here to find it now!

You might also like reading:

Life story: A Journey to Multilingualism. How can a person become bilingual, trilingual or multilingual?

How to read to a baby?

Can babies distinguish foreign languages?

9 steps of raising bilingual child successfully- how to from Trilingual children

Kids Radio Sations from around the world!
In so many different languages !


  1. Hi, thank you for interesting article. We are in a very similiar situation to yours at the moment. I am Czech and my husband is Italian. We have two boys - 3 years and 9 months and 20 months old - and we have spoken to them in our respective native languages since the day they were born. At the same time, we speak English together. Up until recently, we lived in Italy and already there, our older one started showing interest in our common language, i.e. English. He started asking similar questions like your son - how do you say certaing things in English or he would have fun by making up his own language pretending it was English and actually throwing in correct English words every now and then. Last year in December, we moved over to Ireland and we were truly counting on the familiarity of the language helping him with the transition to a foreign country. And we were right to do so! He keeps talking to us in Czech and Italian but grew increasingly interested in English and is proud to master new words. He says himself that soon enough, he will be able to speak English like we do :-) He also started attending a creche and even if I was slightly worried how he'd react to everyday use of English by native speakers, he's doing really well and the teachers keep reporting to me that he's trying to communicate both with them and the other children and does not seem to be intimidated by English at all. Hence we are living proof of your statement that "Children feel comfortable to be surrounded by a foreign language to which they were previously exposed." You can imagine how happy I am about this fact and I'm also curious to see how the things will turn out when he's older and if his younger brother (who's only starting to speak now) will follow the same pattern :-) Wish you all the best and lots of success with the language learning! :-) Ivana

    1. Hi Ivana! Thank you for your warm words, nice wishes, and for stopping by and sharing your experience! After reading your comment I even more amazed by children's abilities to learn just by being exposed to a language passively. Your son is indeed a living proof of it! :) I am glad he's integrating in well. It would be wonderful to hear more from you. Do your kids show early signs of a language preference? If so, what language? Where in Italy did you live? Good luck with your little trilinguals! Sending you big warm hugs from Italy :)

  2. This is a very interesting topic. I can only confirm that passive exposure to languages does "plant seeds". I was exposed to Swissgerman when I was a kid (from 4 to 7)- only through TV! the only German(ish)-speaking channel we had in Italy for 3 years (then they stoped it) - and I never had any problem with understanding Swissgerman dialects. Never. When I moved to Northern Switzerland at age 18, I was perfectly able to understand everything and it took me very little time to talk fluently - even "imitating" different regional dialects. – I observed the same in my son. During the first 4 years I did talk Italian to him, my husband Swissgerman and my husband and I did talk German to each other. When we had to change our family language to German due to other reasons (would be too long to explain here, but you can read it on my blog), my son did switch practically from one day to the other to talking German. It was amazing! I truly believe that regular exposure to a language, even if you dont' speak it, does help a lot once you're going to need to talk (and write!) it. xxx Ute

    1. Hi Ute! Thank you for your comment. I am astonished to learn that a passive exposure to TV only helped you to master Swiss-German dialects!!! Makes me wonder if this would help to learn something like Japanese or Chinese. It is truly wonderful that your multilingual son was able to switch to speaking German in such a short time! As far as I know, Swiss German and German with all their similarities are two different languages in pronunciation, so it must be quite a challenge for your brain!

  3. Fascinating and very well written. We don't have a passive language, but my husband and I speak English to each other and we have noticed how this reinforces their own English. We live in France and I also speak Spanish with my children. They are fluent in all three, but there is a certain maturity of expression in their English that we can only assume comes from hearing mom and dad talk to each other. We also find that as they grow, they are more and more eager to get involved in our conversations, just like your children who want to interrupt and participate even though they don't speak English! We can never underestimate the power of example and the influence of loving parents in raising multilingual children!

    1. Thank you for sharing your experience! It is great that your children are trilingual in English, French and Spanish that are not only your and your husband's mother tongues, but also widely used languages in the world. What a great gift you are giving to your children! :) What language do your kids learn at school? How old are they?

  4. Janie said, such an educative blog about learning language. I have read out this entire blog very attentively and understood the overall issue for learning language and also the effectiveness of passive language for learning as well. So it's very good one and hope that people will get some sort idea for learning language of their kids. Thanks

  5. Hello,

    My wife is a native Russian speaker from Belarus, and I am a native Turkish speaker. We live in Tennessee with our two boys (soon to be 4 and 2 years old). My question to other parents raising trilingual children is if they've noticed any appreciable delay in certain linguistic milestones (like pronoun agreement or forming complex sentences).

    1. Things happen. Our 3 year old boy has trouble with genders for his Dad only speaks English to him. No proper example of masculine endings resulted in the kid's addressing to himself as a girl (all grannies speak Russian and I do half of the time). I believe it'll change as soon as he gets actively involved into peer-to-peer communication.

    2. I feel amused that I find myself reading this blog when I'm only 17.
      I just want to say that passive language learning works, both for me and my younger brother.
      I was born in Indonesia of Chinese descent. My parents talked to me and my brother in Mandarin Chinese. I got exposed to Indonesian at school and I got enrolled in an English course taught by a native speaker when I was 5. My parents talked to each other and their families exclusively in Hokkian dialect of Chinese (it's different from Mandarin Chinese...)
      I have always understood what my parents were saying, and I thought they knew it too, until one day I interrupted them and it was at that moment that my parents realized that I had understood them all the time!
      I had some difficulties early when I first tried to talk in Hokkian to my Hokkian-speaking friend since I had never spoken the language before, but after a while it became natural. I could express myself in Hokkian now.
      I also have the urge to learn new languages, as I recognize the benefits language learning has. I also want to raise my future child(ren) in at least 3 languages, seeing how it has benefitted me myself.

  6. How would I go about teaching Spanish to my already bilingual Japanese 5 and 6 year olds?

    We live in Japan, and speak mainly English in the home, and are unsure how to integrate their Dominican-American father's native language without disrupting their acquisition of natural-sounding English, and their national language of Japanese.

    1. Hi Jamey,

      Congratulations on your bilingual children ! The fact that they are already bilingual and that the Spanish language speaker is their father will help them in acquiring the third language. It is a little difficult to give any particular guidelines without knowing to what degree children were previously exposed to the father's language and your family language arrangement, but I will try :)

      According to researchers, bilinguals have a better phonological and lexical awareness, which should help them in mastering any further languages. I assume your children speak Japanese at school. For the new language arrangement, I would limit the Japanese input to school only. At home I would suggest you to start speaking English to your husband and to your children (at least periodically, if you do not feel confident). Your husband could start introducing more and more Spanish day after day. He could start from saying words and simple phrases in Spanish, following English translation, and ask the kids to try to repeat them. The good time to practice is at the table or in the car. This works well for my kids as there is less distraction. It would be also good to let kids listen to songs in Spanish and for father to sing Spanish songs as well. You would need to create the Spanish atmosphere in the house with audio and books.

      You should announce to your children about these changes. It would be great, if you could link it to a vacation in Dominican Republic or other Spanish speaking country. So you can tell the kids that they would need to learn to speak some Spanish before hand in order to speak with the relatives .... Whether you are a child or an adult you would need to feel a need to learn the language to progress.

      My best wishes to your family on the road to trilingualism :)

  7. Hi, Galina.

    My name is Victor, I live in Mexico, I speak Spanish, English and French.
    I have a 7 months little baby, and I want her to speak these three languages. She starts to say some words in the three languages since I speak to her mom in Spanish; I sing her and watch movies and tv. in English, and I speak to her some phrases and words in French ( because I love it and I lived there 2 years). Also before she was born I put her lot of classic music, and songs in these three languages too, and I continue doing it.
    I think Spanish is not a problem, she will learn it automatically. Her mom, relatives and community we live now speak only Spanish. But what should I do with English and French?
    I thought speaking to her just French was a good idea, but no one but me speaks it, plus I have no sources like a relative, TV. or school in French in the place I live now (just internet) in the other hand I sing, watch, and listen just English since in Mexico it is easier to find English sources, like tv. Movies, media, songs, in addition all the toys she has were bought in the U.S. so they say phrases and vocabulary in English. Besides we plan to move to the U.S. in 3 years.
    I’m very confused, I don’t know how to proceed and what strategies should I use?
    I want her to speak French but English in my opinion is going to be very important in her life since we plan to move there in three years.
    I really need your help; I hope you can help me.
    Best regards.

  8. Thank you for your blog and this post in particular! It gives me courage to continue my "language project" even when I encounter difficulties or don't see immediate results. My daughter is 3, I speak Latvian with her, she just started preschool in English, and I and husband speak English between ourselves. My husband is fluent in Spanish and I would really want my daughter to also acquire that language, but unfortunately he has not been consistently speaking Spanish to her. I am planning to start Spanish classes/language school for my daughter, but I am concerned that this will take away time from me trying to teach her Latvian...Especially since she already prefers to speak English - and it has been only 2 months since starting preschool!

    1. Hi Sandra,

      Thank you for writing and sharing this with me:) I am so glad to hear that my article was helpful.

      When kids are about your daughter's age, they try to experiment with languages and test parents. If she tries to speak English to you, just let her know what you expect from her (what language she should speak to you) and set the rules. Do not take it personally, if she tries to resist. Be positive and smile. This period will eventually pass.

      About Spanish, even a little input helps with future language learning. I would wait a little with Spanish classes, since , as you say, it takes time from Latvian. It is better to give as much language input as you can in your heritage language now. It will be harder to find support in your language (for instance, language courses) later compare to Spanish. However, if you can not be with your daughter and teach her Latvian because you work during that time or busy with something else, it would be a good idea to use that time for Spanish lessons. Ask your husband to pick a day or two a week and do some Spanish related activities with your daughter. Making this kind of schedule could help him to stay on track. He could also listen to kids’ radio stations in Spanish together with the daughter. 3 years old kids love singing :)

      Good luck!

  9. Hello! This is a very interesting article. My husband and I are currently living in the United States and raising twins. His native tongue is Spanish and mine is Russian. We're both fluent in English and speak it to teach other. Our strategy so far has been that I speak Russian to the babies, while he speaks English, and our nanny, who is with them full-time, speaks Spanish. However, it becomes problematic for us because when we are all together as a family (grandparents, aunts, etc.), everyone is speaking their native language to the babies so they could be hearing (at any given moment) 2-3 languages spoken at once in a single context. I'm afraid that this makes it difficult for the babies to differentiate between what is being said and it makes learning whatever is going on in that context confusing for them. I also struggle with reading to them in Russian. Though I speak it fluently, I cannot read it as well as I read English. Is it a problem if I speak to them in Russian but read to them in English? Any insight would be helpful. Thank you!

  10. Hello,
    I have been reading your posts and the comment sections and I find this topic really interesting, as I am 4-lingual myself and plan on raising my children trilingual.

    I still have a question though, I hope you can help me on this ;)
    From what I understand of your situation, your community language is Italian, you talk to them in Russian, Dad in Italian and between you in English. However, what do you do during i.e. dinner time? Do you address the child in your respective languages, or in English?
    Let's say you're having a conversation with your husband in English and you involve your child in it...I assume this happens in English? Or does each parent stick to their language even when you're all together having the same conversation?

    My situation is as follows: I am native Spanish, my husband is French, we both live in France and talk English at home. I speak fluently French and he is improving his Spanish a lot, though not enough to make it our daily language at home (also, English is our "emotional language").
    So my question is: Do you think that if my husband talks French to the children this language will be too dominant (at school, the family, on the street...) and undermine my efforts in teaching them Spanish?

    I know from my own experience that children are like sponges and take in every language incredibly fast, but I'd like to put some order in it when the time comes! :)

    Thank you very much!

  11. Hi Claudia,

    Wow! You speak four languages yourself! I would love to learn your story.When did you learn them and how?

    While my kids were small I kept speaking Russian to them most of the time and translated what I was saying into English for others.
    What language multilingual family speaks at the table?

    I would advise you to do the same, if you are the only Spanish language input.
    Also it is important actively develop your child's vocabulary and really dedicate your time to your child for the first 3 years.

    Now my kids are 6 and 8 year-old and speak to each other and to me in Russian. This days they read Russian books on their own before going to bed.
    I was the only language input for them, so it is possible to raise a trilingual child in your situation too.
    Read these articles
    Simple way to motivate your bilingual child to speak your language.

    Raising a Bilingual/ Multilingual Child: Setting Your Priorities From The Start

    Let me know if you have more questions. Let me know when baby is out and what language strategy you will follow.
    Good luck!

    1. Hi Galina, thanks a lot for your answer.
      Reading your post about the dinner table I see that it is not an easy question and I guess that we will improvise on time depending on their level. In any case, all the efforts will definitely go into Spanish.

      Whereas to me, I moved to Germany with my family when I was only 7 years old, I was thrown without mercy into a German school and that's how I learned German in a record time. After, I started French at school when I was 9 and English a few years later...many years and some countries later, I'm quite fluent in all of them ;)

      Thanks for all your tips!