Our Trilingual Upbringing Today

Our kids grow 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 seems to interest a lot of people, so I thought I might share an update on how things change in this regard when children grow. My children are 5 and next week 4 now.

At the moment they have a good command of Finnish, which is hardly surprising as it is the language of the majority in this society with a lot of opportunities to hear it. Their hobbies, ice skating and gymnastics (inspired by Gymnaestrada), are also in Finnish. Also, I’ve been speaking it to them since their births.

Our children also have a strong Swedish, the language of their daycare, my family (partly) and the second official language of Finland but spoken by a minority and less heard on the streets. But there are cultural events, books and even TV programmes available in Swedish too. Also, the characters in literature, often portrayed in theatre too, are known by their peers (Bamse, Alfons Åberg, Pelle Svanslös, Madicken…), which inspires our children to want to read these (check out the Mamma Mu’s Christmas play at Luckan).

Their third language, English, they understand well and can communicate in but clearly their active vocabulary in it is smaller than in the other two languages. Also, sometimes you can hear that even though they may use English words, their thinking doesn’t happen in it (syntax and phrases ). This is pretty natural as they have a lot less opportunities to hear or use use it: their father, the main source of their English, is at least every second week away due to his work. Also, there are hardly any children’s programmes or events in English around. Most other families that use English are also bi- or trilingual, which typically results in our children using Swedish or Finnish between them.

So, what has changed? Myself and many close to me growing up bilingual and having had a certain interest to it, I was aware that many multilingual kids have phases were they refuse to use a language. But last spring I wasn’t expecting my then 4 year old daughter to tell me that it would help her if I’d use more Swedish with her. Help her to tell at daycare for example what we have been doing on the weekends. Both our kids are pretty good at asking what something means, they are surprisingly good at translating and they have been asking me every now and then “how do you say this in…”. Which obviously is great. But my daughter every now and then bringing up that she’d find it helpful if I’d use more Swedish made me think she might not feel comfortable with her Swedish at daycare. This even though she speaks it very well, which I even know for a fact, as all 4 year old children at Swedish daycares are tested for their need for support in their mother tongue (Swedish) and my daughter was found to have a vast vocabulary for her age. If I had known we’d stay in Finland when my daughter was born, I may have chosen to use Swedish, the language of the minority, with my children. But then, as the bilinguals here are a pretty big minority, there is also strong support for one parent always using one language and that parents should not swap languages. So I continued like always, reading in both languages but speaking Finnish. But I also started to read more blogs about what kind of language policies trilingual families have.

Then in May we did a trip with friends to Jyväskylä and I paid more attention to what we did, and how to tell about it. And I started to realise that even though a kindergarten can teach children a lot of a language, there is a wide range of things we do outside of that they may not develop a vocabulary to. Will they feel inferior eg at school due to weaker language skills (as they, as long as we live here, will go to a Swedish school)? Next time she brought it up I asked her what she wishes. She asked me if I could do one day Finnish and the next Swedish. We tried it when we went to France in June. Our children were pretty good at swapping the language but it was so hard to remember which language we were suppose to use!!! Afterwards my daughter really liked it, and wanted me to continue. But my son said it was confusing to swap all the time, I can hardly blame him for feeling that… And there was the minor problem of my husband understanding Finnish pretty well but not so much Swedish, so if I speak Swedish I need to translate everything I say and as I usually forget, there was a lot of mixed messages coming from us parents to the children.

Our children came up with a suggestion: can we speak Swedish one the weeks dad is away and Finnish when he is with us? I thought it was a genius suggestion as that way we have a clear cue when to change the language. My daughter was more keen than my son but then he also needed more support to his Swedish. We decided to try it. We also agreed on what was pretty much happening anyway, that if we have Swedish speaking friends with us, we use the same language, if Finnish speaking friends we use that, no matter of the week. Now we’ve been doing it for 2-3 months and it comes pretty naturally. It may also be the age but there has also been a quick positive development in my sons use of Swedish. I recently asked what they think, and my daughter says she finds it easier and my son didn’t really even get what I was asking, I think he was so used to it anyway. So yes, we have introduced a language policy which is completely unorthodox and so not recommended but that seems to work. At least for now.

What about their English? It needs to be supported, and the older one gets, the more English is available in Helsinki, so in one way I’m sure our kids will get there. But we want them to be able to communicate freely with their family. Me and my husband also started to notice that when he comes home from his week on duty, kids first speak to me. Of course, I am there all the time, but also due to them after a week needing to get use to speaking English again!

Compared to eg those with family in UK we have a clear disadvantage: we can’t fly every year to New Zealand for our children to immerse in their native English, it’s too expensive and too far away. But kiwis in Helsinki have gotten more active and initiating common playdates etc. We are hoping to find support there in keeping the NZ heritage more alive.

Also, as I’ve mentioned before, we try to read every night before bed. We’ve subscribed Bamse, a cute kids comic in Swedish, for a while. It comes once a month and when it comes our children want to sit down and read immediately. It has great educative but entertaining stories. So I wanted to find something similar in English. Especially since all the peers know the same “cool characters” we have in Finnish and Swedish stories, which makes our children prefer them over many of the English children’s books (which I often find way more fun). But it was hard to find a magazine that would come once a month, be entertaining and have a focus on a rich use of language. There were the ones like Octonauts, interactive magazines that always come with stickers and some cheap plastic cr*p that kids love but that will hardly increase their language skill (yes, interaction is fine but not in such basic level in the long run). Finally I found Story box. It is great! Always has a theme, a longer story and some shorter ones, often also encouraging to interact around the stories. Our children can’t wait to read and reread the magazine!

Also, I have started to pay more attention to watching DVD’s in English or listening to English story CD’s while my husband is away. I have, even though it feels odd, started to read a story in English too in the evenings. A new trial is also to have a native English speaking baby sitter to come in once a week for a couple of hours when my husband is away. She comes in the mornings of a day when I have a long day at work to also shorten the length of the day at the daycare for my children. This is pretty new but she seems awesome and this arrangement it seems to work all right. With time she will try to introduce different areas of vocabulary eg via games.

In short, I think our children are doing well with their three languages. Initially my idea was that as long as they have one strong mother tongue they feel comfortable in and they are able to communicate with all their relatives, any language knowledge on top of that will be beneficial. We’ve chosen to do things our own way, and for now it seems to work for us. Most of the things we do to support the language acquisition of our children is only costing us time, but we like spending it with our children anyway. However, the one thing I am not now nor will I be counting euros in, is in supporting their English. It is a key to part of their family and heritage and therefore worth investing in in my opinion.

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14 comments

  1. Wonderful. Your kids are lucky when learning so many languages. Be happy for them. My children learnt French in French Finnish School in Helsinki, which means that they are “nearly” bilingual.

    1. French is a good language to know too. Good on you on giving your children the chance to learn it!

      1. They both are adults now. I am happy for them, because new languages teach also at same time culture, habits etc.

  2. I like this post. You have explained in details on learning 3 languages! Amazing!
    I must applaud your children’s curiosity and yearn for learning different languages. Over here, many times, some children refused to speak that language even though they may understand it spoken. I think you manage very very well on teaching them. Language has to be constantly used to improve. While they are still young, it is good to expose the languages frequently to them. One downside of multilingualism is the tendency to mix 2 or 3 language structures together. But as long as you, as a parent and role model, speak a proper language in proper sentences without mixture, they will do the same too.

    1. I appreciate your comment Christy, as you know what you are talking about!
      As a comment to mixing the languages: I think all multilingual kids do it at some point also as a part of developing their skills, but just last week I realised that my younger one has improved his structures in Swedish a lot (he used to use Swedish words but eg Finnish word order). Maybe due to growing overall but maybe me using it, and like you advise, I try to stick to proper language, more also has been beneficial?

  3. It’s amazing that your kids have such a wonderful opportunity to grow up speaking so many languages – we don’t really get that opportunity in the states. It’s weird – my grandparents wouldn’t speak Italian/Portuguese with their parents – they refused to teach them. Something about leaving the old world behind and coming here to the new world. And so generations have lost out on being bi- or trilingual. Your kids are really lucky 🙂

    1. Thanks. I hope they appreciate it too!

  4. This was a fascinating read for me. I think you have chosen well what works for your own family, especially involving the kids in the decision-making process. It doesn’t seem unnatural at all that you would speak Swedish while your husband is gone and Finnish while he is there, nor does it seem strange to speak the dominant language (Sw/Fi) with your friends. The idea of an English babysitter is a good one at this age. They will learn by playing and having fun with her. I really wish we had a German babysitter here! You are giving your children such a useful gift. Keep up the good work! 🙂

  5. It is great that your kids contributed to the creation of a model where you make three languages live at the same time! Would there be ways for a culture + language combination, like talking, reading, hearing more about NZ in English stirring their interest in English?

    My son is now at the stage of figuring out that there are different languages (associating them with people), and it seems the next stage is where and when to use them. Great tips, please keep on sharing your experiences in trilingualism! 🙂

    1. I think we need to be more aware of talking about NZ more. I think it is a bit distant for the children but they are very much looking forward to visiting granny and popa soon, so it might be easier to talk about it later. Our relatives have also sent us great books that will become even better when they see were they are from. I also think meeting other kiwis in the city was good, we had a good time.

  6. Fabulous – to be trilingual is an amazing thing!

    1. Hope they’ll appreciate it later as well!

      1. They definitely will.

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