How to Raise a Perfectly Trilingual Child

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Mark , April 2016

Mark , April 2016

Oh, wait a second, I’m sorry: I think I forgot the question mark in the title. My bad. Indeed, it should be a question—I don’t have a clue.

Just like most parenting topics, there is plenty of do-this-not-that advice and a huge gap between theory and practice. You can find me right there, in this gap, waving my arms.

Many of you regularly ask me what language we speak at home and what language Mark uses most (hi Bianca!). His (potential) language abilities is what people around us comment on most often when they learn about our multicultural family. But lately, what used to be hopeful and envious statements—“such a lucky child!”—turned into blame—”what do you mean by ‘he doesn’t speak French?'” “You have to start now, it may already be too late!” “I know a friend of the uncle of my buddies whose baby already speaks five language fluently and he is only one!”

Quick recap for those of you who don’t know us. Feng grew up in China and speaks fluent Mandarin. He is also fluent in English and speaks it without any accent whatsoever, he learned it at school in his early teens when he came to Canada. He lost most of his Chinese writing and reading skills but he gets them back fast enough in the right environment, for example in China. I grew up in France and I picked up English about sixteen years ago, when I started traveling. I studied Mandarin from middle school through university (which is why I didn’t study English earlier…). I also picked up Spanish during our many trips in Latin America and if you force me, I can even falar Portunhol.

Unless there is a specific reason for us not to (i.e. Feng’s parents are here), we speak English at home. Why not French? Because Feng doesn’t speak this language, even though he understands the basic French. Why not Chinese? Because we live in Ontario and the language most spoken around here is… English. Makes sense? That said, we do use many foreign words here and there and we understand each other. I can say “Feng, it’s muy frío today” and he can perfectly reply “Oh… je ne sais pas, I didn’t go out.”

Mark has been exposed to these three languages since birth—English with us, French in France, Mandarin with my in-laws. And of course, he was also exposed to Spanish when backpacking.

During the first couple of years, when I was his primary caregiver, I mostly talked to him in French. I was alone with him, sleep-deprived most of the time and still new to the whole motherhood thing, not to mention that I was having long conversations on Skype with my mum during which Mark would invariably fall asleep in my arms only to wake up as soon as I put him in his bed. His first “mama” could have been French, Chinese or English—who knows. But back then, I clearly remember teaching Mark to say “merci” and he loved French nursery rhythms.

Mark wasn’t very verbal until his second birthday. A few words here and there but very little. We figured he was lost in translation and I automatically assumed I had failed as a mother—you know, the usual.

When we went to China just before he turned two, he picked up new words very fast—all in Mandarin. Chinese monosyllables are easy for toddlers and we were with Feng’s chatty family who loved engaging Mark. He was saying “pà” for “scared”, “ná” for “give me”, ” kāi kāi” for “open”, “huái” for broken, etc. I loved it, it was great to finally be able to communicate with him better.

But when we came back to Canada, I freaked out. Mark was starting daycare, a big milestone for a toddler, especially one as clingy as Mark. What if… what if no one could understand him? So instead of encouraging him to speak Chinese at home, I switched back to English. How about French? We, considering how hard it was to find a spot in a daycare and that our first two places declared bankruptcy overnight, language training for toddler wasn’t on top of my list of concerns.

Since going to daycare, Mark’s speaking skills improved a lot. But yes, he speaks English. Shame on us. What a terrible thing. So… common too. I wanted a kid fluent in rare and exotic languages too!

When I speak French to him, Mark gets annoyed. “Don’t do THAT!” he commands me. Yet, he can count in French and still understands most of what I say. If prompted, he repeats without an accent. He needs practice, that’s all. Sure, it’s on my list. Not tonight, I have dinner to make, merci.

He also gets to polish his Chinese skills with my in-laws, although I highly suspect he doesn’t truly speak Chinese, he just understands his grand-parents who use “Chinese baby talk”. I don’t think he would understand Chinese TV, for instance, but again, he has time… he is 3.5.

There are dozens of ways to teach a language. I know some families who speak their mother tongue at home and kids pick up English (or whatever official language) at school. This wouldn’t work so well for us because Feng and I don’t share a mother tongue. Arguably, I could speak French to Mark and Feng could speak Chinese. However, as a couple, these days, it’s already hard enough to communicate in English. I ain’t standing in a kitchen where we all speak a different language.

There is theory and there is practice. Theory? Kids are little sponges who pick up languages easily. Practice? Well, this is what I observed.

Mark is a preschooler who has hundreds of skills to work on, from eating rice properly with a spoon to putting his shoes on. Putting pressure on him to speak two foreign languages sounds a bit unfair. I also strongly believe he needs a language of reference that he truly masters. Mark was frustrated when he couldn’t express himself. Now we can generally talk it out and avoid a fifteen-minute tantrum.

Learning words and sentences in a foreign language isn’t that difficult. But truly mastering a language is another story. Feng and I know it well from first-hand experience. I can’t help laughing when I hear stories of people who “took a two-week trip to the USA and came back fluent in English”. Yeah, right. As if. Learning a language takes time, it’s a long commitment. I don’t need Mark to be a “trained monkey” counting in multiple languages just to brag around and claim his is fluent in several languages.

I know that some theories and studies claim that dual language learning is they key, that you have to enforce your native language at home, that kids will pick up English no matter what. I don’t necessarily disagree but again… theory and practice. It’s not that easy. Mark is starting to understand the concept of different languages, different cultures, different countries but this is a lot to process.

Ultimately, I don’t want him to see foreign languages the same way I saw multiplication tables as a kid—a chore, an abstract memory exercise. I want him to see it as a fun way to communicate with many people around the world. We will get there, I hope.

For now, my informal plan is to use the chameleon technique—don’t look it up, I just coined the term. If everyone around us speak English, so do we. If we are with my parents, we speak French. With Feng’s parents, we speak Chinese. In Latin America, we spoke Spanish. This way, language becomes a fun and useful communication tool.

Meanwhile, I’ll live being a failure as a mother because my kid doesn’t master the imparfait du subjonctif and skip a few numbers when counting in Chinese.

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About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.

20 Comments

  1. He looks so adorable and focused on the picture 🙂
    I;m not sure what we would do. I mean of course I want my (future) kids to speak French but the Scotsman doesn’t speak French. I think I would speak to them in French as much as I can and then put them in French immersion at school?
    I think you are giving him good bases in both French and Chinese. And then as he grows up he can build upon those 🙂

    • I love the way you phrased it (better than I would have done!). It’s exactly that, giving him foundations he can build upon later on!

  2. Yes! It is perfectly fine if someone is interested in what languages we do or don’t speak, but it is annoying and unnecessary if someone tells us what we “should” speak. Only one of my parents speaks Chinese, so when I was a kid we spoke English at home (sometimes my parents also spoke a mixture of Tagalog and English, or Taglish). As a kid I remember being asked by some strangers, “Why don’t you speak Chinese?” What a question! If someone asked me that now, I would be equipped to respond because I’m an adult and used to receiving all kinds of questions, normal or weird, and also throwing the question back at the person, but at the time it was an unfair question for a child because it implied that I should know it.

    • I completely understand where you come from. A few of my Chinese friends in France spoke a dialect of Mandarin but they couldn’t read or write Chinese. And a few didn’t speak their parents’ mother tongue at all, especially if their parents didn’t speak the same language in the first place and/or had a tortuous past, for instance coming to France as refugees. The emphasis was on learning French, not clinging to roots. It was a choice and I completely understand it, even if some people can argue that the more languages the better.

  3. Martin Penwald on

    Il eut été intéressant que Mark et ses futurs frères et sœurs parlassent un Français de qualité.
    Vivant au Canada, il est vrai, d’un point de vue professionnel, que parler Français et Anglais est un avantage, mais vu que Mark ne va probablement pas pointer à l’embauche avant quelques années, il y a le temps de voir venir. D’autant que ce qu’il a déjà acquis va rester.

    • Les futurs quoi? Nan, ici c’est Mark tout seul 😉

      Il y a effecivement le problème de la qualité de la langue. Une fois, une dame à la garderie m’a proposé de parler en français avec Mark. J’ai répondu un peu vite “non non, merci!” en pensant “surtout pas!” C’était gentil hein, mais elle parlait un français… ahem, relativement patois. Et je ne parle pas de l’accent québécois ici, mais du vrai gros joual. Sympa, mais bon…

      • Martin Penwald on

        Pas faux. Le problème n’est pas l’accent, mais torturer la grammaire comme le font certains Québécois devrait être interdit par la loi. Sans compter la quantité de mots anglais inclus dans les phrases, il n’y a pas vraiment d’intérêt à y exposer les jeunes.

        • Oui, c’est ça. Puis à Ottawa il y a quand même beaucoup de gens qui massacrent le français, genre ils ont été en immersion et ils sont bilingues alors qu’en fait pas du tout. Je fais la différence entre le joual, par exemple, et le franglais horrible du coin. Heureusement, y’a quand même plein de franco qui parlent bien leur langue!

      • J’avais la même réaction avec le français que parlaient certaines personnes en Ontario. Ma sage-femme (pour Uriel) était francophone, mais quand elle a insisté à avoir nos conversations en français, je ne comprenais que la moitié… La pauvre. Pendant l’accouchement apparement j’ai crié quelques mots en espagnol (c’était peut-être des insultes, je m’en souviens plus), et là du coup elle était toute confuse elle aussi !!!haha 😉

        • Oui, moi j’ai préféré faire tout le suivi de la grossesse en anglais pour 1) ne pas avoir à traduire pour Feng 2) apprendre dès le départ le vocabulaire qui me manquait, car le contexte étant quand même anglophone, c’était surtout dans cette langue que j’allais baigner. Le français ne m’a pas manqué en tout cas.

  4. Such a great post Juliette. I worry as an anglophone that I am not exposing my son enough to french during this critical time, despite my best effort to ask every francophone I know to please speak to him in french, including at daycare. It is interesting to hear the viewpoint that it is a challenge even for a non-anglophone. I agree that you just do what you can and then breathe a sigh. It is very important that they master one language well.

    • I think we worry way too much and I also don’t subscribe much to the “critical time frame” theory. I *know* kids learn faster and more easily than adults, but when you hear specialists talking about language acquisition, it sounds like past a certain age, you’re pretty much doomed if your parents, shame on them, didn’t enforce a second or third language upon you. I call BS. You can learn a new language anytime, if you are willing to. I’d hate to see parents (or adults!) giving up because “it’s too late”.

  5. Mon père est espagnol et ne m’a jamais parlé espagnol, petite. Je lui en ai toujours beaucoup voulu, pour ça, même si je sais très bien qu’à l’époque il n’était pas du tout envisageable de parler une langue étrangère à ses enfants : c’était l’assimilation à tous prix (eh oui, les douaniers ont même changé son prénom à la frontière, pour le franciser. C’est pour dire…). Mais même avec le contexte historique, je ne peux pas m’empêcher de le regretter, car j’aurais aimé ne pas avoir à me battre pour apprendre l’espagnol. Que ce soit simple, naturel…
    C’est sûr que dans un pays bilingue comme le Canada, surtout en vivant à Ottawa, savoir parler français serait un gros atout, pour Mark ! Pour parler avec ses grands parents, aussi. Mais on fait ce qu’on peut, en tant que parent, j’imagine… 🙂

    • Je te comprends complètement… comme je comprends tes parents et le contexte français de l’époque. C’est clair que beaucoup d’immigrés n’ont pas du tout transmis leurs racines aux générations suivantes. C’est la même chose dans ma famille, même parler du passé relèvent de l’omerta… le mot n’est pas choisi au hasard 😉

      Ceci dit, même si vous aviez parlé espagnol à la maison, tu aurais quand même dû apprendre la grammaire et l’orthographe à un moment, non? C’est le problème par exemple avec le chinois. Plein d’enfants le parlent avec les parents, mais arrive un moment où il faut des cours formels pour apprendre à l’écrire et à le parler. Idem pour le français…

      • Pas forcément, tout dépend de l’usage que tu veux faire de la langue ! 🙂 En l’occurrence, aujourd’hui, je n’écris pas du tout espagnol, je le parle juste. Et c’est sûr que ça m’aurait changé la vie de connaître déjà la langue avant de l’apprendre (tu vois la nuance !)

        • Oui, je vois bien ce que tu veux dire 🙂 Je me faisais l’avocat du diable, bien que je suis sûre que ton papa n’a rien d’un diable! En fait je pense surtout au chinois, où vraiment l’écriture et la lecture sont des éléments séparés de la pratique orale, ce qui est moins vrai pour une autre langue.

  6. I think it should just come naturally. We speak French at home simply because my husband and I spoke French between us before the kids were born, even if that’s my hubby’s second or third language. Now here our kids are learning Portuguese at school and outside the home too, but that would probably change if we ever move back to Canada. We could theoretically speak English or Spanish at home too, languages we both speak, but why would we do that? Have you learned other languages as a toddler? I did and now I’m hexalingual, yet you didn’t and you are quadrilingual… So in the end we are both polyglot with different backgrounds, no need to sweat about it! 🙂

    • That’s a great point! No, I wasn’t exactly exposed to other languages as a kid.

      I find it very cute that you two spoke (and still speak) French as a couple! I am always amazed by your language abilities. Reading your articles I wouldn’t be able to tell which language is your mother tongue. It’s truly impressive. Do you have an accent in any of these languages? How about the boys?

      • I think that “not having any accent” is a myth. We all have accents in ALL languages we speak, even our native language! I speak French with a Southern French accent (not Parisian, but definitely not Québécois either!), English with a Canadian accent, Spanish with an Argentine “porteno” accent, etc… I’m pretty sure there is a bit of a French tilt in all languages I speak, yet when I used to travel in Europe I’ve been mistaken by a native in Germany and Italy. Here I’m sometimes asked if I’m gaucha (from the South of Brazil). It’s gratifying, I guess, but it’s not important! 🙂

        • Very true, we all have an accent! I noticed it when I came to Canada. The flavour of French spoken in Nantes and around, where I grew up, was very consistent so anyone speaking differently was invariably commented on. The New World is much more relaxed about accents, the Americas are such a big melting pot… I was shocked to be asked if I was Brazilian in Brazil (by locals!) because even if physically, I could probably pass as a Brazilian (why not?!) it was pretty obvious that my Portuguese was hazardous at best.

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