Trilingual nephews – an update on language development

This weekend my mum is visiting the London branch of the family. When we meet, it’s always a mix of languages, which makes it quite interesting to see how my nephews “cope”. The children are trilingual, which has caused us to worry sometimes, since it does delay speech development, but they are smart cookies and it’s beginning to come together for them now. Maybe some others out there are going through similar concerns so here are some of our experiences. This is a somewhat long post, but I hope the headings make it more easy to follow.

First a little success story to raise spirits: This morning I was skyping with them when the oldest proudly wanted to show off his new English book about dinosaurs and read aloud a bit. He stumbled a bit here and there (those dinosaurs have wicked names), but he was doing so well! So here is what I find impressive: English is his second language and he’s just four and a half years old. Buuuut we did not get there overnight. The younger one is just two and a half and therefore hasn’t come as far as his older brother on his learning journey so the part below is based on the older son.

The trilingual child differentiating between languages:
There is just one basic rule for how we interact with them: Danish speakers only speak Danish, Russian speakers only speak Russian, we speak English together across nationalities and obviously when communicating with others who don’t speak any of the two other languages. Note that the rule applies only to the rest of the family, we don’t force the children to speak any particular language although we encourage them to reply in the language that is spoken to them. We’ve been quite strict on enforcing this rule on well-meaning family members speaking English in a context where the child would normally communicate in a different language – otherwise there will be confusion as for which language to speak to whom and minimum one language will be neglected. The exception is English books – those are for everybody to read with them.

The language they both picked up on first was Russian (no wonder they call it mother tongue) so in the beginning it went like this: You spoke to him in Danish, he replied in Russian. No exceptions. I have to be honest and admit that it can become a bit tiring if you don’t speak Russian although you will quickly pick up on some common expressions – at which point you had to remind yourself to keep going in this weird biligual conversation. As long as you can see he understands, that’s all that matters.

In kindergarten he obviously speaks English – unless he’s upset with someone, then he has once resorted to speaking only Russian to them for an entire week…

The trilingual child learning that you don’t share all languages:
Since they grow up with three languages, it seems natural to them that you should also understand all three. They become aware of the differences very early on, but at some point it dawns to them that you don’t share all languages. It will be little things such me not being able to read a Russian book to him during a visit, and therefore suggesing we find a Danish or English one instead or him not being able to relay a message from one person to another requiring him to translate. He once went to my sister-in-law and said “I told dad just like you told me to do, but he didn’t understand at all” to which she just smiled and said “but did you tell him in Russian? dad doesn’t speak Russian, why don’t you go and try again in Danish?”.

At some point, I’m not entirely sure when since I see them only a couple of times per year, but I think he was 3 years old when I first experienced it, he started replying in English when I asked him a question in Danish since he knew that I speak English and he wasn’t quite comfortable replying in Danish. Saying that my understanding of our conversations improved a lot at this point would be a bit of an understatement.

The trilingual child actually using all three languages:
At the age of almost four he would hesitantly begin to reply in Danish more consistently, but my brother reveals that it’s mostly when you’re alone with him. My mother was pleasantly surprised by the increase in Danish usage during this visit since he has used it more spontaneously with her this time compared to last time.

Status quo is that at the age of four he understands all three languages, reads in both Russian and English, but speaks mostly Russian and English. He has told Russian speakers that he is very keen on learning more Danish, though, so let’s see what happens.

The younger one seems a bit more balanced in his use of the languages, but is definitely stronger in Russian as well. He seems to have no inhibitions when it comes to switching languages or speaking in front of others so it will be interesting to see how his languages develop. I guess his development is also bound to be a bit different for the simple reason that he is the second child and therefore has an older brother to follow.

What a trilingual has told me about growing up as trilingual:
I once went to a family party where the friend of a younger cousin had joined too. This girl grew up in a trilingual household and they had similar “rules” for with whom you spoke which language. Her mother only spoke German to her, but also enforced her replying in German by plainly ignoring the daughter if she spoke Danish or English. That’s a bit harsh in my opinion, but it’s not the first time I’ve heard of that approach. However, she also said that it was only when she reached the age of about about five that she began to be able to change effortlessly between the languages. It was like something clicked at that time. That seems to correspond pretty well with what we see with my older nephew. It’s only now that he’s approaching the age of five that he becomes more consistent in his choice of language.

All children are different
Some children just cope better in multilingual environments than others. One of my friends grew up bilingual and had no problems coping with attending a bilingual school (I don’t know about in other countries, but in Denmark there are German and French schools, and in Northern Germany there are Danish schools as well). Her little brother, however, was not thriving due to linguistic confusion and therefore moved to a school where he could focus on just one language plus the academics. The additional language then came later.

Potential concerns:
It can be a very real concern if the “mainstream” language where one lives is lacking, and if deciding to go for a trilingual option, chances are that the mainstream language will be the third language. In our case English seems to be their second language, but the principle still applies: if it impedes a child from entering a school and/or following a school curriculum, something needs to be changed and hopefully measures have been taken before it even becomes a problem. In the UK they have admissions tests at many private schools, and my nephew failed his first test due to a lacking vocabulary. At the time of his second test, he had caught up, but it does highlight how important it is to be aware of how the speed with which each language develops.

My brother and sister-in-law have been very clear that they want the extra languages to be an asset, not a liability. In London it is surprisingly easy to live in your own linguistic bubble, and my nephew can spot another Russian speaking child from across the playground as easily as a dog can figure out that you hid a treat in your pocket. For this reason they have made very conscious efforts to put them in English speaking environments and also prioritise reading English books with both of them. At some point they even joked that the oldest would have taught the entire kindergarten Russian before he became fluent in English. In kindergarten they even have a reading group (for Danish readers this might be a bit shocking) which has really boosted his confidence in using English. When he got a diploma for being a good reader, he was so proud that my brother and sister-in-law had it framed and put it on the wall in his room.

What I can use in my own studies:
With the children, context has been an important factor – some situations and certain people call for the use of a specific language. While it takes more discipline for me since I will have to reinforce it myself that is something I can use too. I cannot “live my entire life” in Korean since that’s simply not an option when I have to study and work as well, but I can try to create little Korean bubbles for myself here and there.

One thing that many learners who are fans of the “natural method” suggest is that children have no problems picking up on their “own” language so obviously adult learners should be able to learn solely by immersion too. As for children it is correct up to the point where you introduce multiple languages at once – then you will see a delay in speech development compared to a monolingual child, but that’s just part of the package. There may of course be some exceptions to the rule out there. I have met a few people who grew up trilingual, but have yet to meet one who followed the exact same curve as a monolingual child. I even met a Swiss guy who grew up with Italian, French, and English in a French speaking part of Switzerland, and he speaks Italian with a French accent inspite of having Italian parents. To me that suggests that even children learn languages a bit differently when they have to deal with multiple languages at once. The brain is an intriguing thing.

So… quite a long post… Did any of you grow up multilingual or do you know someone who did and how their family went about it? Any other thoughts? 🙂

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2 thoughts on “Trilingual nephews – an update on language development

  1. Caniche

    I grew up in a monolingual household, but I have family emigrated in France. My little cousins were born there. At first, their mother tongue was Portuguese, because that’s the language mostly spoken at home. When they went to kindergarten they picked up French. Since their parents already speak and understand French, the division of languages at home stopped being consistent, but as they spend summer holidays in Portugal they keep their speaking abilities. I notice that their vocabulary is not very sophisticated though. I think it’s because their studies are in French and not in Portuguese? So they don’t come across more sophisticated wording and constructions. Sorry, this became long!

    Reply
    1. koreanlearner Post author

      No need to apologise at all!!! I think you’re right that formal studies really help advance one’s vocabulary in a more structured way since it forces you to learn the appropriate vocabulary as the syllabus progresses.
      Daily life is rarely that advanced (“could you please pass me the water”, “don’t push your little brother; apologise to him right now”) so it takes more conscious effort to develop the same skills.

      Reply

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