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Raising a trilingual child - Thinking about not using my minority mother tongue with the child but rather English

asked 2015-03-19 14:15:40 -0500

anonymous user



I have read some of your 'Ask a Linguist' about bilingualism but I would like to submit my case. I speak three languages, two of then learnt in childhood and one later (English). As English is more useful and schooling will likely provide the other two language to bilingual-proficiency levels, I wonder if I should aim for speaking English at home and raise my kid to be trilingual.

The details: I'm a French-Spaniard binational, son of Spanish emigrants. I was raised in France when a little kid (until 7), then moved with my family to Spain and kept up studying French at school until I was 18. When in France, my mother spoke to me in Spanish, so I learnt both languages at the same time and it's difficult to me to say which is my ''mother tongue''. I dreamt in French as a little boy, and when we were on holidays in Spain for the summer, I ended up dreaming and thinking in Spanish. And then back in France all my mind got back to French.

Now I'm 38 so I've been 20 years without practicing much French, my language skills are better now in Spanish. And I learnt English at school and later in lafe had more chances to use it in a professional setting.

I'm about to have my first child and I'm researching bilingualism to decide my strategy. It feels less natural to speak to my kid in French but I don't want him to be monolingual, even if my spouse is not bilingual. He will, from the age of 3, attend a French schooling in which he will study French, and English as a second language. It's a French culture and French system school, one of their goals is bilingualism in French-Spanish, and most classes are in French, so I'm assuming his exposure to French will be enough to achieve bilingualism even without my help. On the other hand, English is a 3h/week class beginning at age 10.

Thus I'm thinking about using English at home with him to boost his English and help him get a true bilingual level of that language, as an ''intermediate'' or ''advanced'' level is no longer useful to land any job or get any opportunities abroad, should that be his choice or need. English is also very useful for research on any subject.

I'm worried this could be too artificial for both me and the kid. Besides, my wife thinks there is so much more potential exposure to English even in Spain that it would be better for the child if I spoke to him in French. It's true that English movies, etc. are more widely available than French ones.

My wife knows English, although she doesn't feel too confident speaking, and she is just learning some basic French now.

I wonder: Is trilingualism a realistic goal or should I settle for Spanish+French ... (more)

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answered 2015-03-19 14:19:59 -0500

anonymous gravatar image

To start with one of your last questions, trilingualism is as a realistic a goal as monolingualism or any kind of multilingualism. With one condition: children will learn any languages and any number of languages, provided they make sense to them.

It seemed to me that you are weighing your feelings towards your languages against a rationalisation of language usefulness. If you’re worried about an artificial linguistic situation at home, then don’t create it: you will have increasing difficulty maintaining it as your child grows up, and your child will notice this. Children respond best to what comes naturally to their parents. And the truth is that you cannot know now what will be of use to your child in the future. He will decide in due time.

You also seemed to me persuaded that you must use only one language with your child, and I wonder why. If you are multilingual yourself (by multilingual I mean a user of more than one language) and if you’re planning on raising a multilingual child, as you say, I see no reason for enforcing monolingualism from you, in your own home, for the sake of your child. This would be, I’m sure, as contrived as using with your baby a language to which you didn’t relate as a child.

I presume you and your wife will expose your child to your cultures, foods, festivities, songs, nursery rhymes, books, play routines, so why not your languages too, in the plural, which are there to convey those cultures? Just enjoy the wonderful time you’ll have with your baby, in any language. Children sort themselves out just fine.

A couple of other thoughts: you wrote about “a true bilingual level”, “truly bilingual”, “Not being bilingual in English myself”. I wonder what you mean by “bilingual” and “true/truly”. Multilinguals develop and use their languages differently because they need them for different purposes, with different people, in different situations and, as it happened to you, at different times in life. That’s exactly why we’re multilinguals. Your child will become as multilingual as you are, in this sense.

This post of mine at my blog Being Multilingual, ‘Typical multilinguals’, explains what I mean:

Other posts at the blog might also be relevant to you. Just click on the Tags ‘child’, ‘home’ or ‘learning’, which you’ll find by scrolling down the panel on the right-hand side of the blog pages.

Do feel free to contact me privately, if you so wish. I’ve raised three trilingual children myself.

I hope this helps! Muchos saludos / Bien à vous

Madalena Cruz-Ferreira

I agree with both your wife and Prof. Cruz-Ferreira; kids can tell when something is forced. You can supplement the English at home with things like videos.

Susan D Fischer

I'd also like to agree with what Madalena and Susan have said.

You can't predetermine what will be useful to a child and what ...

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answered 2015-03-20 02:30:48 -0500

NancyF gravatar image

Here's a recent article that may help you appreciate the many ways to be a multilingual family, if my colleagues have not yet.

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The youngest Berlitz child.of the Berlitz Schools of foreign languages. His mother spoke English to him. His father German.The governess spoke French. The aunt, Hungarian. The uncle, Spanish. He suddenly spoke gibberish only. He surmised that each person had his own unique language.It was his turn.

Loro gravatar imageLoro ( 2015-03-22 19:01:05 -0500 )edit
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Asked: 2015-03-19 14:15:40 -0500

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Last updated: Mar 20 '15