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Sunday, January 31, 2016

Raising a Trilingual Child. Going with the Trilingual Flow.

by Kerry

"Mummy, go down!" my 17 month old said to me as I tried to persuade him to eat a meal that he didn’t really want (it was his favourite yesterday!)

"No, you haven’t finished eating yet" I tried to say in a lovely, calm, patient Mummy voice. I watched his little face, full of confusion, suddenly spring to life.

"Mummy, go down pleeeeeeeeeeeeeese!" he said as he began victoriously trying to climb out of his high chair. The little rascal thought he’d got it there.

"No, Ollie, you haven’t finished yet."

He slumped down again and thought for a moment. I wondered what was going on in his little brain. Then he shouted:

"Turun Mummy!" Turun is the Indonesian word for "go down". He translated for me because he thought I hadn’t understood him.

While laughing, I explained again that he had to eat some more first. He still sat there as if he was trying to work out a little puzzle and the answer was just on the tip of his tongue, just out of reach.

Then he yelled "Mudun Mummy!" with a little exasperated look on his face. This is the Javanese word for go down.

I plopped one last spoonful in his mouth and let him down. If the smarty pants can ask me in three languages then I can't help but let him down!

This was my first experience that made me feel absolutely certain that I was doing the right thing by exposing him to three languages from birth.

Let me give you a little background about our situation. I am Scottish and my husband is from Indonesia. We live in Indonesia together. We married here and in July 2013 I gave birth to my son, Oliver. The local language spoken in Surabaya is Javanese and the formal language is Indonesian. These 2 languages, although similar, are far from being the same. They follow the same grammatical structure but the words are on the whole, different.

When Oliver was first born I was confused. Should we speak only English to him and let him learn Indonesian later? This wasn’t really an option as none of my husband’s family can speak English. I wanted him to have a close relationship with everyone. Should we just speak to him in Indonesian and I can teach him English later? Well, that wasn’t going to work either. I speak Indonesian well but the idea of speaking to my baby in a foreign language all the time just felt too strange and my family can’t understand Indonesian either. And then there's Javanese, which is mostly just a spoken language. It is actually the first language of most people in this area and is what my husband’s family mainly uses at home. So acquiring three languages was unavoidable. Some people told me he was going to get confused or have some sort of speech delay. Others thought it was a great idea.

After thinking it through I realised that being bilingual or trilingual is not a strange thing at all in Indonesia. All children grow up speaking at least 2 languages: Indonesian and their local language. Many whom I have spoken to can speak at least one other local language. As well, all the Muslim children learn how to read and write in Arabic and I have seen people study it throughout their lives. The people of Chinese decent that live in Indonesia often learn Mandarin and many whom I have encountered use it as their first language.

So, I had to decide how was I was going to introduce three languages to my new son? I see a lot of information about the "one person one language rule" and while I respect that it works for many people I could see from early on that it wasn’t really going to work with my family. We pretty much decided to go with the flow and what felt most natural. I do that with most things in my life and it works. When I over think things then I am filled with uncertainty.

The outcome? Well, I definitely speak to my son mostly in English but when we are with his cousins or other family, none of whom speak English, I generally speak to him in Indonesian with some Javanese thrown in there. My husband flows between all three languages constantly and I’ve seen my son copy him. He can do it so easily and seems to enjoy it, treating it like a game. I know he can differentiate between the languages because when he meets someone who can only speak one of the languages he only uses one but when he is with people he knows understand more, then he seems to like to mix things up. Sometimes I play games with him. I say a sentence in one language and he answers in the same language. Then I reply using a different language, which he follows and then we go back and forth between them. It’s fun and he doesn’t seem to get confused. He giggles and seems to understand that it is funny.

So now, little Ollie is two and half years old. He speaks in full sentences in all three languages. He has recently started translating for other people that he knows don’t understand one of the said languages. The other day my English friend arrived at my house as my Indonesian sister-in-law was leaving. She said in Indonesian how she had to go to pick up her daughter at school. I was about to translate but the words were taken out of my mouth by my little 2 year old and he explained the situation before I had the chance to talk.

Reading a book with Mummy
I think the key to developing any child's vocabulary and language skill is to read stories to them. I have lots of books for my son and he loves sitting on my knee or snuggling under the covers to listen to stories and point out absolutely everything in the pictures. For example, Bob the Builder, page 1, I ask him "Where is the cat?" every time and he points it out with the same overjoyed enthusiasm every time. The other day we were in the car on a long drive and I had some of my nephews sitting beside my son. My son had brought some books for the journey. My nephew can’t really speak any English so I thought that the two of them reading the books together wouldn’t go well. So, while driving I was going to start asking him to point out different things in the picture. I have all the books memorised (I’ve read them so many times!). I glanced around to see what book he had chosen. I saw Bob the Builder (as usual!) so of course I opened my mouth to ask him "Where is the cat?" when he stepped in and said to his cousin "Bima, di mana kucingnya?" (Bima, where is the cat?). I just laughed and felt proud as my little two and a half year old began to lead his older cousin through the book in a different language. I only hope that he can continue this easy flow as he grows older.
Ollie with his cousins including Bima (the boy with the hat)

Later when he goes to school he will learn to read, write and speak in Mandarin also. Sometimes I worry it will be too much but I see all my students managing it every day (I am a teacher in the school he will go to) and I hope that my son can do that too. My husband’s family are all Muslim and so later, outside school, he will probably also learn to read and write in Arabic.

If you hope to raise your child as bilingual or trilingual but worry he or she will be confused, know that learning multiple languages in childhood in Indonesia is common (and I’m sure in many, many other countries but I have no first-hand experience).  

Do whatever suits your family. 

Do what feels right. 

Follow your instincts. 

Trust in your child's little growing brain that he or she will be able to sort through the languages.

Ollie being a cheeky monkey in the sand

I feel so proud that my little boy can cope with it all but really, when I step aside from my mummy role and see him as just another kid then I believe that he is just normal. Most children in the right environment would be able to do what he does without a problem; they just have to be given the chance.

Kerry is from Scotland and has lived in Indonesia for 5 years. She is married to her Indonesian husband, Mulianto, and has a little cheeky son called Oliver. Kerry is a playgroup and kindergarten English teacher in a trilingual International school in Surabaya. In her spare time she enjoys going on camping road trips with her huge extended family and exploring Indonesia.

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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Non-native Speaker Raising Bilingual Children. Interview with Christine Jernigan, the author of "Family Language Learning"

What language should I speak to my child in public? - Multilingual parent dilemma.

Can babies distinguish foreign languages?


  1. This is a great testimony! Mother of bilingual children (with extra passive learning of English) I can relate, adults don't believe enough in the children. They can learn, they can learn well and fast when they are given 1-the tools and 2-the opportunities. I hope you write again in 10 years to give us an update on mandarin and arabic learning in addition to the rest ;)

  2. We are grateful for your dedication about this helpful post.thanks for explain this post with taking your important time.