Raising Trilingual Children

In our family trilingual means a dad speaking English, me (and the majority of the society we live in) speaking Finnish and part of the society and my family, friends and daycare speaking Swedish to our children.
As there are tree languages present in our daily lives, we wanted to make an effort and “give three languages for free” to our children. The way we see it: they don’t have to gain three mother tongues, as long as they have at least one strong language they feel confident in and can communicate with all of the extended family, the rest is a bonus.

wpid-20141023_083624.jpgSome say children are like sponges and they just absorb all languages. In my opinion that is true to some extent (eg superb at picking up any word that comes out when you hit your thumb with a hammer) but it doesn’t mean one always feels equally confident with all the languages, speaks them well in all circumstances nor does one necessary sound like a native speaker. One language may also end up having a very limited vocabulary. Also, it is fairly common for bilingual children to at some point refuse to speak one of the languages, I certainly did: Swedish was the first language I spoke but then we lived 4 years in a neighbourhood where nobody else spoke it. So I stopped using it. My mum didn’t give up though, and obviously I heard my parents and my older brother use Swedish on a daily basis but for four years I never used it. At the age of 6 I went to a Swedish speaking preschool, apparently was quiet for two weeks and then spoke the language like any 6 year old.

wpid-20141023_083714.jpgNow, at the age of 3 and 4, the Finnish of our children can be compared to monolingual Finnish speaking children. Their Swedish compares well with the rest of “Swedish speaking” children in this area (about 75% of them are actually bilingual) and their understanding of English is excellent but when they speak they throw in a lot of Finnish or Swedish words. For them English is a language spoken by adults, as most children speaking English here speak Finnish or Swedish too. I believe, however, the older they get, the more English they will hear. I am pretty confident that their English would improve remarkably also if we were to spend a few weeks in an only English speaking environment. They were around 2,5 years when they started to speak in sentences (that make sense to others than me), but I have been told by experts in the speech development area that we can’t say their language development has been delayed as they both have been speaking well at least in one language well before 3.

The key for children to learn three languages is for them to hear and to have a need to use them all regularly and in various situations. We try to support and promote the language learning of our kids but only as far as it is still fun.

In our family this means

  • we take turns in reading the evening story, and use most nights at least 30 minutes reading and cuddling together. My husband obviously reads in English, I usually read one book in Swedish and one in Finnish. Usually the kids get to choose a book each. Our children know how to switch between the languages so that if we discuss a book read in Swedish, they will use Swedish.
  • to encourage English and Swedish, we have subscribed two magazines, Bamse in Swedish and Bob the Builder in English. Bamse is great: all stories are very kind but they also touch a variety of themes in a childlike but adventurous approach (eg put rubbish in a bin, it doesn’t feel nice to be bullied…) The language is pretty colloquial but still with a rich vocabulary. Bob the Builder has a lot of interactive activities, which encourage our children to use English. Our children love getting them!
  • We try to see to it that they watch children’s DVD’s and children’s programmes as well as listen to story and music CD’s in all three languages. When possible, we also swap the language on the same DVD thinking it may expand their understanding for how same things are expressed differently in different languages.
  • As English is the language they hear least and that offers most when it comes to apps and computer games, that’s what they’ll mostly get there (or the dad is just more interested in introducing them than me…)
  • We occasionally go to theatre and concerts both in Swedish and Finnish. Unfortunately English is a bit tricky to find here.
  • We’ve had hobbies in different languages; we’ve sang nursery rhymes in English and Swedish, Jungle Junction Gym Circuit is in English, my daughter used to dance in Swedish, now she has her classes in Finnish. Most events are in Finnish.
  • We may decide that “now we’ll play the animal memory/do this craft in Swedish/…” but then we swap back to our “normal” language after the game. The kids initiate this too.
  • We translate and repeat a lot, and we comment on which language we are using: “the theatre will be in granny’s/mum’s/dad’s language”. Our kids have become good at asking “what does xxx mean”, “how do I say it in xxx”, and they are (surprisingly) good at  translating too (eg if I say something to them in Finnish at daycare, they’ll repeat it in Swedish to the careers without realising that of course they understand Finnish too).

wpid-20141023_163810.jpgAs for the cost of raising our children trilingual and supporting it the way we do: so far most of this has been very low-cost. I love buying books so I’d invest in them in one language too. But we also use libraries and swap books with friends. We also have a number of free or low-cost child plays and hobbies for children, we just try to pick them in different languages when possible.

Sometimes it get’s tricky too:

  • Our daughter has learned the alphabet in Swedish at daycare, which is almost the same as the Finnish one  that she also knows well due to a nursery rhyme I’ve sang from a very young age and games we’ve played. Now she struggles to understand the English system of letters and sounds, which is much more complicated and irregular. It is hard to explain why a letter sounds different in different words, when I don’t get it either!
  • Dad has a hard time remembering that he is not supposed to understand when they use other than English words, which would be important for our children to learn that eg granny won’t understand if they mix the languages. Not so easy when you are surrounded by other languages 99% of the time…

But dad does super well in delivering the English equivalent in the answer rather than correcting, and I try to remember that too. We try to be encouraging rather than pointing out mistakes, after all, it’s more important to try to communicate than how correct it turns out. There is loads of time to practice.

Sometime using three languages gets funny: my daughter told me “Mum, princess Fiona and Shrek don’t understand Finnish, you have to speak English to us”  when they were pretending to be the characters (we only have the movie in English). Or when our son was having one of his worst terrible two fits and first yelled to me “nooooo” in Finnish, continued yelling “and this would be nej in grannies language” and after breathing in added to his *obviously slow mother* “and dad would say nooooooooooooooo” (makes me look forward to trilingual teenagers…). It also took us a while to figure out why he explained at daycare that frogs like rabbits: he thought frogs say “rabbit” instead of “ribbit, ribbit” in English. But there is no connection in Swedish: a frog says “kvak” and a rabbit is a “kanin”. (If you want to have a laugh at other funny things my children have said, take a look here)

There are a few great blogs on the subject that you may want to look into. Some of the parents seem to work very hard on the languages of their children also sharing a multitude of tips and ideas ( lazy me is in awe!), some touch the subject sometimes but have other interesting posts too:

 Psychology today also has a number of interesting scientific based articles on various angles of bilingualism.

 

37 comments

  1. […] the jewels. A funny side effect has been that they have also learned some African geography: when Bamse had a story about Egypt and the old pyramids, they knew exactly where that […]

  2. […] up speaking three languages, which means that they need to hear enough of them all to learn them. This is how we used to support them. This may not be a typical “free but fun” theme but this […]

  3. Great post (sounds like hard work when you put it all together like that!). There is something about having the need to speak the language for me – can understand it’s the same for kids.

    So funny your kids can even throw a trilingual tantrum…!

    1. I don’t feel it’s hard work, I think it just has become a natural mindset to see to it that we use all languages. But there are funny moments because of the languages, eg the tantrum….

      1. A lot of things don’t feel like hard work until you write them all together like that, I’ve noticed. Forming the habit is sometimes the hardest part (now that I do have to work on…).

        1. Once again I feel you are spot on!

          1. So you agree I could use some work on that front, too! 🙂

            1. Sure, that’s exactly what I was referring to 😀 this internet communication can get things a bit too easily mixed up…

  4. Imponerande! 🙂

  5. Great list of ways you are incorporating the different languages into everyday life. We have just started reading one German and one English book every night, and we’re trying to revive our German speaking dinner every night. Just keep at it – three languages is a huge gift you are giving your kids!!

    1. German speaking dinner is a good idea! I’ll have to remember that in case we live some where else when our children are older and the society doesn’t support our three languages that well! I sure hope our children will appreciate the opportunity of gaining three languages, but if they decide to “let one drop”, then at least they have the choice to do so!

  6. Such cool ideas to make it a family task practicing the three languages. I truly hope that the next place we end up for a long period of time will prompt my little family to be bilingual (at least!)z 🙂

    1. I think the biggest thing is to be aware and try to see to it that things are done in all languages, the things we do, we’d do even if we’d only use one language!

  7. This is a good and thoughtful post. I like your way of dealing with trilingualism. I think it is not easy to learn 3 languages at the same time. However, if the environment is always with 3 languages, it will be easy. Over here, we learn English and Chinese in formal schools, but when we were young, we speak dialects with our parents and grannies and even Malay with neighbours. We have official 2 languages to write and speak, but we could speak about 6 languages effortlessly. Not for me though, I can only speak 2 dialects and understand a third one (can’t speak but could understand), but my parents could speak 4 dialects fluently and 3 major languages. Sounds amazing, but they grew up with neighbours who speak their own languages and pick up effortlessly as children. I must say, these days, our children no longer speak dialects. So, they only know English and Chinese. When they are older, most pursue Japanese or Korean for interest on their own.

    Your family is very lucky to be speaking 3 official languages and exposing the kids to them. I am sure as long as you continue exposing them to books, theatres, TV, songs, and all, they will be grateful to you and your husband for these language abilities 🙂 For me, I wish I had more exposure to one native dialect and speak it well. Even though this language was spoken daily among my brothers and father, I never dare to speak it simply because they switch to another dialect when they talk to me. If you never speak it frequent enough, the chances are you will understand but you will speak back in a different and more comfortable language. And I find that is a pity.

    1. I agree with you, Christy, it is a pity many dialects seem to be less used. But I also think that even if you don’t speak this one dialect you mention, it is still a bonus that you at least understand it!

      I think it would be a lot harder to have our children learn these three languages if we’d live in New Zealand. But I am hoping that by the time we move (if we move 😉 ) they’d have such a solid language knowledge that I can keep both of the languages active for them!

      1. Maybe they will keep the language if you speak frequent enough at home. I am sure they will remember for life. It’s the speaking naturally that needs to be encouraged 🙂

        1. Thank you for the encouraging words!

  8. Interesting post, and something I’ve been thinking about a fair bit. I’m bilingual (Swedish/Finnish) and the dad of our future daughter speaks English (and learning Swedish) and we live in the UK. I’ll speak Swedish to the child, but would really like her to speak Finnish too…A friend suggested I read to her in Finnish, but I obviously want to read in Swedish as well – hence I was glad to see that you read in two languages and it works! Do you have any other tips for how I can incorporate Finnish more into our daily lives without losing out on Swedish or making the child confused (taking into consideration that we’re living in a totally English environment)? 🙂

    1. Well, one thing you can count on is that your partner will learn more Swedish when you talk it to the baby! 🙂

      The one thing I have made is that I have from the very first start been “labelling” which language I use as in Dad’s/Mammas/Mommos language. It became such an ingrained habit that only lately have we started to use English/Finnish/Swedish. But the labelling has made it possible for me to also read and talk in both languages (which they hear me use every day anyway) for certain things like go for a forest walk in Swedish (how else would they develop a vocabulary for that? Well, at school, but I don’t want them to be disadvantage by knowing what things are but not knowing how to say it. I know, sounds silly, kids absorb anyway…).

      Also, when the kids are in the phase were they want the same book read over and over again, at least I get some variation when I read it first in the language it’s written in and then I “read” it translating it to the other language ;).

      I don’t actually know if this labelling has the effect I want, but at least my children seem to do ok for now 🙂

      The other thing is, when your daughter grows up, is to see to it that the child watches/listens to TV/CD’s/DVD’s mainly in Swedish and Finnish, as most likely there will be such strong English influence anyway. If it is a programme they love, they will want to watch/listen to it even in a language that may feel trickier.

      I have read about other systems too, like talking one language on the weekends and the other during the weeks, or swapping fortnightly, or… I think the main thing might be setting your goal, what do you want your child to learn and does it matter if she doesn’t speak all the languages but maybe she e.g. just understands Finnish without speaking it? With the passive knowledge she’d be able to develop her language skill quickly given that she’d one day move to Finland/ decide to improve the language. As I said in my post, I think the most important thing is that everyone has at least one language they feel comfortable in, everything else is a bonus!

      1. Thank you so much for your reply! That labelling thing seems interesting – especially if it allows you to use more than one language with your children. My number one fear when it comes to teaching my kid(s) more than two languages is that they will get confused and in the end not speak any of the languages well. I’ve always been told that you should only speak your true mother tongue with your children and remember to be consistent, hence I’ve been pondering whether it’s too much of a “risk” for me to speak two languages. Don’t think the talking one language during weekends and another during the week is for me either as I don’t think I’ll ever be able to stick to that 🙂 The DVD/CD/TV tip is also very useful, and easy as it doesn’t require too much effort from me haha. I’ll make sure we’ll have all the Moomin DVDs in our house! 🙂

        1. I am sure they (uups, see what I did there? I assumed the future 😉 ) will speak at least English well, as the society speaks it!

          It might be more challenging to get your child/ren to speak both Finnish and Swedish, but maybe if you frequent Finland, they’ll get more confident and also see the point in using the languages?

          I thought exactly like you though, I think it is the ruling advice among Swedish speaking Finns that one parent always needs to speak one language and to be consistent. Actually the reason for me to speak Finnish to our children is that we were about to move to NZ when our daughter was born, and I thought that I will not be able to teach her both languages. Between two countries so far apart I figured Finnish would give them a better opportunity to move and work in Finland if we were to stay in NZ and they wanted to get to know Finland… Haha, not too sure I think like that any more 🙂 but I stick to the language we chose then.

          But then I’ve been reading those other blogs I linked to, and their have quite interesting systems from people all over the world that you might want to look into. At least get good ideas on how to bring in more minority language to your days.

          Nowadays I am quite open to the idea I may change the language system some day, if their is a need. Eg Thriftytravelmama’s idea of having dinner in German (they are Americans who lived for a few years in Germany) is not a bad way to keep a language alive.

          Btw, do you know of Etäkoulu Kulkuri (https://peda.net/kulkuri)? One option is also to homeschool your children later on in Finnish, they’ll support you.

          One more thing, you get interesting questions: min dotter frågade häromdan på svenska för vi var ännu på deras dagis: “mamma, är jag också finlandssvensk?” Bra fråga, hur definierar man det i vår situation?

          …och så märker du säkert av svarets längd att jag nog funderat på detta 🙂 Min insikt till att det nog till slut blir bra har förresten bara ökat med barnen, så oberoende hur ni gör, så tror jag nog det blir bra för er också!

          1. Haha, I do that all the time – just can’t see myself having only one child coming from a big family 🙂

            I definitely plan on spending as much time as possible in Finland, and as my dad and his side of the family only speak Finnish our children should get a fair dose that way.

            I would also want to give my children to opportunity to choose to live and work in Finland one day if they wish, which is why I think it’s so important that they at least understand the language (because it’s not easy to learn later on in life…), but I couldn’t imagine speaking Finnish to them instead of Swedish either. What I btw find so annoying here in the UK sometimes is how people just can’t comprehend that I’m Finnish although I also speak Swedish and that Sweden isn’t, doesn’t feel like and never will be my home country. Aargh. 🙂

            Will definitely take a look at the other blogs, all ideas and experiences are welcome! Didn’t know about Etakoulu Kulkuri and that they support you – doesn’t seem like an option for us but who knows how things will change?!

            Ja, jag har sjalv funderat i samma banor som din dotter nar jag har fatt fragan hur jag kan kalla mig finlandssvensk om jag ar halvt finsk och tvasprakig…finlandsvenskheten ar ju nog starkt forknippad med spraket, sa om man talar finlandsvenska kan man val kalla sig sjalv finlandsvensk enligt min logik 🙂

            Jag tror jag borjar inse att man kanske inte behover stressa saa mycket over dessa saker och att man inte alltid kan vara 100% konsekvent – och att barnen nog anda snappar upp ett och annat 🙂

            1. I know: “oh, so is it your father or your mother who is from Sweden?” “Neither, both are bilingual Finns” “so how come you are speaking Swedish then?” “Arghhhh”:)))

              Utöver språket, som ju nog är centralt, tycker jag finlandssvanskheten är en identitet, nåt som även kommer med en viss tillhörighet. Det var nog förlusten av det jag sörjde mest när jag började prata finska med våra barn. Men som det nu verkar så kanske de kan få allt med lite råge? 😉 det får man ju hoppas på. Och det hjälper ju att vi har kompisar I samma situation.

              1. Javisst ar finlandssvenskheten en identitet, och om dina barn vaxer upp i Finland och pratar svenska har dom sakert en mycket god chans att ocksa ta del av den finlandssvenska identiteten eller samhorigheten 🙂 Man kan ju ha manga identiteter!

  9. You may want to add this blog to your list – she writes tons on the subject:

    http://expatsincebirth.com/

    1. Thanks, I will. Her blog seems interesting!

  10. Holy cow! That’s insane to keep straight, but how awesome for them to grow up trilingual – it has to be expanding their brains!

    I speak English. and Texan, although technically that’s not a language, it does have different words. I tried to learn Spanish (which is very helpful where I’m at), but man, my brain just couldn’t do it and my tongue couldn’t move properly for some of the words. It really was frustrating! As such, I’m really proud of your kids! Even when they throw a fit and scream “NO” in 3 languages! LOL

    PS, I love Bob the Builder! Mr. T loved him when he was younger! 🙂

    1. How lovely wouldn’t it be if it would make us brainier?!? Lol

      More seriously, I think the one advantage growing up knowing two or more cultures and thinking patterns, Would be that it might be easier to adjust to even further perspectives?

      1. Oh, I completely agree! I grew up in two totally different areas, and I can tell what part of where I lived relates to some of my behaviors. I think that the more we are exposed to, the better humans we are!

    2. Oh, and Bob the builder rules!

      1. Can we build it? Yes We Can!!

  11. Wow, I just love the structure and focus you are giving to helping nurture your kids trilingualism! My kids, of course, learned English as their first language, growing up in Canada. However, because they primarily watched by my Portuguese-speaking mother-in-law (whose English is broken, at best), they learned Portuguese through her years of care. They also picked up on a lot of Macedonian (from my mother, who also sometimes watched them as youngsters). We didn’t really do anything to support them learning or retaining the other two languages, so they’ve lost 99% of the Macedonian they knew, and about 50% of the Portuguese, but still seem to understand both grannies quite well! 🙂

    1. Interesting to hear about your children growing up with three languages as well! But that it the thing with languages: if you don’t use they slowly disappear. We’ll see what our children choose later on but at least they’ll have their opportunities!

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