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How to Raise a Perfectly Trilingual Child

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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