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.
Some 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.
Now, 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).
As 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:
- Multicultural Kids Blog
- Discovering the World Through my Sons Eyes
- Kids “R” Simple
- Bilingual Monkeys
- Bilingual parenting
- Expat since birth
Psychology today also has a number of interesting scientific based articles on various angles of bilingualism.