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Saturday, December 30, 2017

Raising a Trilingual Child: How NOT to do it.

OK, I have to warn you from the beginning. This is a “true story”. Not only true, but also a pride, prejudice, pain, gain, failure, and finally getting the grips kind of story. Got your attention? Cool. Listen up. I will give you a secret on how “not to raise” your trilingual child, so that you can probably skip the “failure part” from your own story.

Yes, finally after a long battle over “theory and practice”; I can say that I am a proud mother of a trilingual. Over the 4 years, this got me on the edge of mental failure – especially trying to find a “method” that fits our family, trying to keep that method within the family, and trying to “ignore” the super parents around who kept blab blab blab’ing on “how natural it is in their family”, “how fast the kids absorb 3,4,5,6,7 languages (no *hitting, I met an African mama who kept all 7 languages at home!) etc.

Raising a trilingual child: how not to do it

Ok, now a flashback on who I am. I am a psychologist.Not only a random one (unfortunately), I am a “shrink” and a “neuropsychologist”. Yeah baby. I thought I read it all, I could just use my knowledge and get through this business of raising a trilingual. Easy-peasy. Not really. That is the first piece of information I will give now: “Do not read too much, especially after the child is born”. Why? Because you will get lost in theory and surprised how different it is in reality. Skip that part. Google “OPOL technique” and see how you lost from the beginning: “One Parent, One language, Never mix” simply does not work with more than 2 languages and only 1 parent. Gosh its sooo easy to raise a bilingual, right? (Sorry guys, you do a great job, just pure jealousy here).

The problem with theory is; you tend to forget the basic cliche: “every child is different”. Yes, there are supposed to be some super talented kids around who absorb languages like “you stuff yourself with chocolate in bathroom when your 2-year old is having a meltdown in her room”, but most children are not talented that way.

My child was an exception of theory. She was raised 3-lingual until age 1,5. Me speaking Turkish, daddy speaking German with her and we speak English when we all were together. The first year was easy since there were no expectations of her talking back. The second year, I realized she was far beyond her developmental stage. First time mothering plus being a neuropsychologist hit me hard, ladies and gents, and I started comparing and contrasting my kid. Second advice: Do not do it. Why? It only makes you miserable. I got panicked. She was not gonna talk, EVER.

So what did I do? I went to her pediatrician who was obviously an “expert” in speech development (Nooooot!) who told me “yeah, it’s delaying, not normal” (some doctors really fail in human psychology, right?). So I thought, “Oh no, all the old and wise ladies who stopped me on bus-stops were right! (We call them Oma-Police here, they are those grannies who are always worried about your child being outside without a hat). The brain on development is having hard time, lets make things a bit easier for poor child” and whoooop I dropped the 3rd language. I did! Yes.

And she talked.

Of course.

She talked, but not because I dropped the 3rd language, because it was her personal developmental point of starting to talk. Gosh, she talked and talked... and talked. But she talked nonsense! It was impossible to understand her “3-languages in same sentence” talk unless you can speak all those languages. The books said “it’s a phase, keep on answering her in your own language, she will know soon whom to talk with which language”. But when? I was devastated.. What was I doing wrong that she was just not getting this trilingualism?!

Let me tell you. I was believing theory and other mothers too much! They all told me “yes, sure, ours is trilingual and it’s just so natural and easy” and I believed. I thought I was the only mother who sucked at this trilingualism business and my child was the only one who didn’t get it. But in reality, people just tell you what they believe, not the “brutal” reality. They usually say “sure, she is trilingual” when the child understands all those languages, yet can not speak them properly. Or when she mixes, jams, plays around. Or even when her nanny speaks a language, they assume the child is automatically trilingual! I even met a mother who believed she was raising a trilingual because she was watching TV in language X for 1 hour every day!!! And me, I only accept a child is trilingual when that child speaks ALL three languages without mixing, forming grammatically correct sentences with rich vocabulary. In this sense, are there any trilingual children (at least before Age 3-4) at all???? My answer: No. Never seen one.

So relax! Don’t be a dick head psychologist who questions everything until perfectionism.. Relax..

Until age 3, she lived all these VERY NORMAL phases of more than one mother language acquisition: she mixed, she developed her own rules, she tried using grammar of one with vocabulary of other, she formed logically correct yet linguistically super wrong sentences (this phase was really so much fun). Not so much fun but still normal phases such as stuttering, avoiding one or both or any languages for a long period of time (selective mutism) and being socially rejected due to lack of community language skills etc. Also, been there, done that. Of course when you are living it, it’s not fun. But they all pass eventually, just like all those growth spurts of babyhood or terrible twos pass. And somewhere between age 3 to 4, you realize that you have a child who can speak the community language as good as her peers PLUS at least one language better than them - to be honest, you may end up with a child who can speak at least one language better than you or your husband, too. ☺ Welcome to our boat, fellow parents of multicultural children.

Now let’s turn back to our “poor old 3rd language”, which I radically decided to drop for a while, at age 1,5, panicking my toddler will not speak any language at all. You know what, it showed up by itself at age 3,5! Without any effort, without any intention, to my surprise one day, she started speaking it with her grannies.. Just like that! I was shocked, speechless.. She was there, all by herself, cracking the codes of her looooong forgotten 3rd language! In only 1 month, where we had a long summer holiday with her grannies, she started showing interest in speaking Turkish. After a full month, she was speaking it! – Well, not perfect, but good enough to be able to play with children speaking only Turkish. Now, finally, at age four, she is “trilingual”. Isn’t it a success story? Hell, yeah!

But, to be honest, it was damn hard for us. We failed, got up, tried again, failed again, got up, tried again, failed again. Learned a lot on process. And its another story or multiple stories, I would love to share with you.. Common mistakes, common misunderstandings, common failures, common “I can not do it anymore on the loooong road of “creating a trilingual child”. If I dare to say “trilingual” at all.. I see our family as “on the road of trilingualism” still, because for me a true trilingual is someone who can speak all three languages fluently, in right context, without any (or minimal) mistakes. And well.. we have a looooong way reaching there. But, come on people, be honest! Who does not?! So, why not sharing our experiences, why not saving each other doing same mistakes, why not giving a hand to each other on this common road? Good idea? Then come up, join up!

To be continued.. ☺

Caren Schubert - MA developmental psychology and clinical nauropsychology

Ceren Schubert  - Contributing writer from Munich, Germany. She holds double Masters degrees in Developmental Psychology and Clinical Neuropsychology, who choose to give a break on her PhD career to be SAHM of two trilingual (to be) children. When she is not full time parenting; she is also an enthusiastic traveller off the beaten tracks, a passionate blogger, and enjoys being around open minded, colorful and multi cultural people.

She loves dogs a bit more than cats, malaga a bit more than vanilla ice cream, coffee a bit more than sleeping, and summer a lot more than winter. She also loves walking very long distances when she needs to think and sometimes (often) gets lost doing that.. Her latest “project” is learning Qigong, which she started just recently and loved a great deal!

Oh and, she dreams of writing a book one day.

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 of one?  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

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

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

how to raisie a trilingual child? family with one trilingual parent and monolungual spouse
Q&A: Trilingual parent and monolingual spouse.


  1. Love your advice! I have a 10-month old girl I speak with only in Russian, and our communal language with my husband is English. My husband speaks with her in German when they are together (rare because he's working a lot) but she will begin Montessori once she is a year old, and there she will speak in German (we live in Austria now). Your experience makes me a bit more calm, I think a take-things-as-they-come approach is the best, and continuing to speak with her and letting her mix and match until it all clicks together one day.

  2. I admit: I didn't read all your post :-)
    Just to say it has wuite easy for us: my wife in English, me in Italian, French at the nursery/school.
    3 kids, it all come pretty natural.
    Only one think: yes, they take longer to "express themselves" (I believe not at understanding) and this means that when they reach the age of the first "wishes" without being able to express them, they could become pretty repressed... and you hear about it!
    ut passed that stage, it has been a breeze for us,maybe we have just been lucky..

  3. Hello Ceren, reading your story calmed me down. I have a 25 month old with whom I speak in a Naga dialect (Nagas are various ethnic groups native to North East India :) in case you were wondering),and English and my husband speakd with him only in French. My husband and I speak in English. We live in France. I try to stay calm and take each day as it comes and each success of my little man like a champion but I do get into a panicky frenzy some times and start reading and scouring the internet on raising a trilingual, which led me to your article. Your advice is excellent and I am going to keep calm and keep on swimming.
    In fact, it is very common in India to be trilingual or multiligual. I am multilingual myself, speaking 4 languages and on my way to my 5th (French) but well I was brought up in India not in France where people speak only French. I take courage from your story.

  4. Thanks Ceren for sharing your experience. I was desperately looking for a light at the end of the tunnel and you gave me hope that's possible. We have a 3.5 year old son and mixing Russian, Turkish and English. He doesn't talk much at all but generally understands all 3. We a 2 year old daughter as well. It will be interesting to see which language they will use in between.

  5. I am so happy found this blog. I speak an Indian language, my gf speaks a European language and we use English between us. The kid is 15 months old and is already able to switch between our two languages (when we give instructions at the same time, she completes both the tasks)
    Things should get interesting when the kid goes to Kindergarten and sees everyone speaking German 😂😂😂
    I remember complaining to my mom when I was in 1st grade that everyone at school speaks only 2 languages 😅