Google+ Raising a Trilingual Child: Trilingual Parents: How Do You Choose Which Language To Speak To Your Child?


Monday, July 31, 2017

Trilingual Parents: How Do You Choose Which Language To Speak To Your Child?

How Do You Choose Which Language To Speak To Your Child When Both Parents Are Trilingual (In The Same 3 Languages)?  
My Personal Story About Raising Trilingual Children

by Suzan Alakas

No, no, no! Ei! Yok! YOK!

Younger Daughter stamps her feet, crosses her arms and pushes out lower lip in a pouty defiance. She refuses to get in the car and sit in her car seat. Sigh. Here she goes again. It’s not enough for my 2 year old to be stubborn and object in one language... she has to go on a rant in 3 languages. But even though it’s completely frustrating in the moment (we are going to be LATE if she doesn’t get in and sit down), inside I’m proud of her language ability at such a young age.

Allow me to translate: Yok (Tatar) = No (English) = Ei (Finnish)

Did you guess that she is saying: No, no, no! No! No! NO!

How my husband and I became trilingual in the same 3 languages:

Hello! I’m Suzan Alakas. My first language was Tatar, an old Turkic language, spoken to me by both parents. We spoke Tatar at home, with my grandparents, and extended family/community.

I was born in Japan, and learned a little Japanese, but attended American pre-school and learned English at a young age. We moved to the US when I was 7 (unfortunately, most of my Japanese was forgotten). English quickly became the dominant language in my life, and still is to this day.

About 20 years ago I met my future husband, at a wedding, in California. He was visiting from Finland. He was also raised speaking Tatar at home, and learned Finnish growing up in Finland. Plus, like most Finns, he had a pretty high competency in English since he started studying it in 3rd grade.

After that wedding, we went our separate ways, but kept in touch, long distance. We primarily communicated in English, because we felt limited by our Tatar vocabulary. I also started learning Finnish with songs, reading the dictionary (yes, I’m a language nerd!!) and eventually studying Finnish in college. He would send a portion of his emails to me in Finnish, and I would sit and translate them, asking him questions about the words and expressions I couldn’t find in the dictionary. (This was before Google Translate existed.) As our relationship grew stronger, and we visited each others’ home countries more often; my Finnish improved, as did his English.

By the time we got married, settled in California, and had our Older Daughter, we were both highly proficient in Tatar, English and Finnish.

Suzan Alakas with her two daughters 

In what language environment will we raise our child? Our thought process.

We talked about this A LOT. We planned, discussed different scenarios, and reached a mutual agreement.

Our main options were the same as what you may have read about here:

  • One Parent, One Language (OPOL) – seemed like a good approach from the beginning.

  • Both speaking the same language (Minority Language at Home, ML@H) – Leaned towards Tatar, considered Finnish.

  • Speaking a language based on the day of the week (Time and Place strategy, T&P) – We quickly ruled out because it didn’t feel natural. We had tried this with just the two of us and it never caught on.

Living in the US, we felt our daughter would pick up English from her environment. So neither of us would be speaking that to her. That left Finnish and Tatar.

  • Was Finnish necessary since only 5 million people in the world speak it, and pretty much only in Finland?

  • Was Tatar necessary since it’s only spoken in Tatarstan, and quickly being replaced by Russian? Would we even be good enough to speak it to her, to teach it to her?

We decided that any language we can teach our child would be a benefit, and there were many reasons why we decided to include all 3 in her upbringing.

  • Tatar: speaking to grandparents and small Tatar community, retaining link to culture, food, songs in that language.
  • Finnish: keeping opportunities open for travel/business in Finland, possible move in Finland in the future. 

  • Benefit of knowing more than 1 language in general: becoming more culturally sensitive, increasing exposure to sounds/tones/grammar of other languages, making it easier to learn a foreign language later.

Lots of encouraging research on this, like:

“Most researchers agree that multilinguals have special characteristics which are different from those of monolinguals or even bilinguals. Multilingual speakers use languages as a resource in communication and they use the various languages in different ways according to their communicative needs and their interlocutors. Monolingual speakers use one language for every situation and have fewer resources available.” (Ruiz de Zarobe, 2015)

After we decided all 3 languages would be present in our child’s life, the decision became quite simple. We adopted the OPOL (One Parent, One Language) approach. Since I am not a native speaker of Finnish, I would speak Tatar and my husband would speak Finnish.
Learning to make traditional Tatar food

In theory and in practice

I was already talking and singing to my tummy in Tatar before my Older Daughter was born, so when she arrived it felt natural. It wasn’t easy though – I hadn’t spoken Tatar day in and day out since I was 3 years old. I could only hold a middle school level conversation, mostly limited by my vocabulary. My grammar was rusty too. I could read Tatar written in Latin letters, but not in the widely used Cyrillic alphabet. I had 3 dictionaries nearby and started to read the Tatar children’s picture dictionary daily with my daughter, just as much for my own sake as for hers. It felt wonderful learning more of my mother tongue and passing it on to my daughter.

During the first few weeks, my husband spoke to my daughter in Tatar. When I gently reminded him that he was the Finnish speaker, he agreed that he would switch, but kept forgetting because it felt more natural to speak to her in Tatar. Then something clicked, and he did switch to Finnish.

By about 1 year, my daughter understood Tatar and Finnish very well, and was speaking lots of Tatar. She also knew some English phrases and words from playing with other children, listening to mom and dad, and listening to lots of songs in English. She was an early speaker and said her first string of 4 words, “happy birthday to you” at 12 months.

Then at about 18 months in, we seriously started talking about moving to Finland. At this point, my husband switched back to speaking Tatar. Because my husband knew we would eventually be moving to Finland and our daughter would learn Finnish there, he decided to switch back to Tatar full time.

We supplemented Finnish by playing more Finnish songs and showing some Finnish TV programs via internet.

At first I was disappointed that we were abandoning OPOL, but I didn’t push it because I knew my husband felt isolated speaking to Older Daughter in Finnish when no one else in our Tatar or Finnish circles could understand them. I felt that the most important thing was that he build a strong, loving relationship with her, and if he felt that Tatar was the language to do that in, then that was his choice. We didn’t notice any confusion from our daughter as Finnish decreased and we switched to the ML@H (minority language at home) model. Fortunately for us, she was still quite young, her father’s transition was to her dominant language and she spent most of the time with me at home speaking Tatar anyway.

And then we moved! Äk! Now what?

While pregnant with my 2nd daughter, we decided to move to Finland.

Now what to do with the languages? Should one of us start speaking to her in English?

I didn’t want to switch out of the mother tongue. I was the primary caretaker and didn’t want to abruptly change from Tatar to English. Our daughter would have probably been ok with it, since my husband and Tatar community speak Tatar, but we decided to both keep speaking to her in Tatar, and add more English to her life - since that was going to be the new minority language.

How we increased exposure to the non-mother tongue, minority language (English) 

  • The biggest factor was increasing her exposure to children’s shows in English. We were VERY selective with how often and what she could watch. At first, we only found one show we were comfortable with: Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. Slowly, we added more.
  • We played lots of music – from the Beatles to School House Rock, plus children’s songs that I wrote myself in English.
  • We visited the US every year, and grandparents visited us often. While they spoke mostly in Tatar, they did use lots of English too.
  •  My husband and I continued to speak English to each other at home.
Increasing language exposure with songs

How Older Daughter Adjusted

When we moved to Finland, Older Daughter was about 3 years old – she was a solid speaker of Tatar, very good English speaker, and knew just a few Finnish words. We quickly enrolled her in a Finnish music group and dance classes, took her to story time every week at the library, and made sure she was out and about hearing Finnish at the park or grocery store during the week. Simultaneously, the increased exposure to English was working.

One day she says to me, in English: I need to elevate my leg. It hurts.

Me, in Tatar: What happened? And did you say, “elevate”? Where did you learn that word?

She replies, in Tatar: Daniel Tiger hurt his leg and went to see the doctor, and she said to “elevate” it.


So since Older Daughter had such a strong English ability by age 4, we decided to shift her focus to Finnish, and enrolled her in a Finnish pre-school for 5 hours per week. Within weeks she was using Finnish words, and just a few months in, she was understanding and replying with basic sentences. We also added more Finnish children’s programming, and my husband started to read books to her in Finnish.

Yes, she would learn Finnish in school, but since we had a few years before she started school, we wanted to give her a chance to be proficient before she got there. Our hope is that by the time she starts school, she knows Finnish well enough to focus on the content and school experience, rather than on learning the language.

My Younger Daughter’s language journey

We lived in the US until Younger Daughter was about 1 year old. My husband, Older Daughter and I all spoke to her in Tatar, and she had very little exposure to English and Finnish.

After moving to Finland and upping Older Daughter’s English shows and songs, my Younger Daughter got much more exposure to English at a younger age than her sister. While she was much slower to speak compared to her sister, now at 2 years old, her English ability is already almost at the same level as her Tatar.

How did this happen? When I looked a little closer, I realized that her Tatar and English exposure are about 50/50:

  • Less Tatar 
  • She has less 1 on 1 time with me, as there are 2 children now vying for attention
  • Less focused Tatar dictionary reading/studying because I already learned lots of new words with Older Daughter o 

  • More English
  • Interestingly, the girls speak English to each other. Big sister spends the most 1 on 1 time with little sister and English is older sister’s language of choice
  • Their favorite shows are in English
  • Mom and dad have more time together at home in Finland vs US, so she hears us speaking more, in English
  • I write children’s songs in English, sing these songs at home, perform these songs at local concerts
  • I teach English to other children and hold story time in English at the local library. My girls often attend.

I have no worries about Younger Daughter’s ability to speak Tatar and English, so now that she is 2, she will be starting a Finnish music playgroup in the fall. We intend to start her in the Finnish pre-school when she turns 3.

A colorful blending of languages - Instances of Code Switching inside and outside the home

What is code switching (CS)? It’s when you mix languages during a conversation.

While I try to consistently speak Tatar to my girls, I am ok with some code-switching going on. To me, it’s more natural to choose a word in another language that we mutually understand, than to stop the conversation, try to explain it or look it up. I grew up in code-switching environment, and so did my husband, and I am happy with how our language abilities turned out. Some people look down upon code switching, though the research is mostly favorable.

“Parents in particular are concerned that CS may confuse children as they develop their knowledge and skills in different languages. However, recent research in bilingual and multilingual education has provided evidence that CS can not only be used as an effective pedagogical strategy for teaching and learning (Canagarajah 2011) but also should be seen as a sign of linguistic creativity and criticality (Li 2011).” (Dewaele/Wei, 2013)

“CS has both educational benefits and drawbacks. Positively, it increases learner participation and lesson comprehension. Negatively, it does not contribute to developing the learners’ proficiency and confidence in speaking…” (Mokgwathi/Webb, 2013)

“Code-switching induced by a particular emotional state and by a lack of specific vocabulary in a target language appeared to relate to increase in innovative capacity.” (Kharkhurin/Wei, 2014)

So when do we use code-switching?
  • Outside the home: Usually when my girls speak to me in English at home, I repeat their question or statement in Tatar and then respond in Tatar.But sometimes when we are outside the home and they speak to me in English, I respond in English. English is definitely more prestigious than Tatar, and I teach English here in the community, so it feels natural to incorporate some English when we are around a larger group of people.
  • Gaps in vocabulary: When I don’t know a word in Tatar, I try to explain it the best I can in Tatar, and then say it in English. I honestly explain to the girls that I don’t know the Tatar word, and that the word I’m using is the English name of the word. Then we attempt to find the Tatar word in one of our dictionaries, or by asking an older member of the community.
    Sometimes I make up Tatar words that are logical translations. For example, when I didn’t know the Tatar word for vein, I explained it in Tatar as “blood roads”. When the actual translation turned out to be the English equivalent of “roots”, we all learned a new word, and made the switch. 

    However, sometimes I do not follow through with finding out the Tatar word, or there is no Tatar word equivalent, so the English word gets incorporated into our everyday vocabulary. 
  • Emotions/complex subjects: It is still hard for me to express deep emotions and have complex discussions in Tatar. Now that Older Daughter is 4, our conversations are less superficial and much more technical (Why do the leaves fall from the trees in the fall, etc?). I do my best to explain in Tatar, and then supplement in English when needed.
  • Written language: Another challenge is reading and writing: I am teaching my girls the English alphabet because I don’t know Cyrillic, and they will learn the Finnish alphabet in school.

What I have learned creating our language environment, in a nutshell

  • It was important to take the time to talk about and work through scenarios of what language to speak to our children.
  • While very common, OPOL is not the only option or best option for everyone.
  • It’s ok to be flexible. Our initial choice doesn’t feel right in practice, and we needed to make a switch. Obviously, the earlier, the better.
  • I’m grateful that I have options of which language to speak to my children. Most people don’t.
  • I will continue to incorporate all the languages I know, at whatever level, to my children - via books or shows, play groups, or songs. You never know which language might be valuable to your child in the future, and at the very least it will help them be more culturally aware, expose them to other languages, and help them learn other languages in the future.

How did you decide on your family’s language arrangement? Please leave a comment below. I’d love to hear how you made the decision.

Suzan Alakas is a Mom, Linguist, Singer/Songwriter, and Founder of . She created a system to help children learn English via songs, and stop struggling to learn English; to make it fun, and faster than other methods; to focus on the key words and phrases that native speakers use all the time; to better remember what was learned; and to help reduce heavy/unclear accents.

NOTE: All photos are provided by Suzan Alakas.

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.

Recommended Books for Parents Raising Trilingual Children

Language Strategies for Trilingual Families: Parents' Perspectives (Parents' and Teachers' Guides) by Andreas Braun  - Kindle  - Paperback

Growing up with Three Languages: Birth to Eleven (Parents' and Teachers' Guides) by Xiao-lei Wang  - Kindle - Paperback

Trilingual by Six: The sane way to raise intelligent, talented children by Lennis Dippel MD - Kindle - Paperback

You might also like:

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Click to read how you can motivate your multilingual child to speak YOUR language!

Q&A: Trilingual parent: how to add one more language to a bilingual child.

Q&A: Trilingual parent and monolingual spouse.

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