In this post, I like to share my experience in raising a child in a trilingual environment, i.e. the case when parents speak different languages and live in a country where a third language is spoken. In our case I am an Italian native speaker, my partner is a German native speaker and we live in the UK.
My partner and I decided to speak our native languages to our son because we believe that this is a good thing for him. This strategy where each parent sticks to its native language is usually referred to as “one person one language” or as “one parent one language”.
Raising multilingual children: The benefits
I believe that if you can raise a child in a serene multilingual environment he will benefit from his language abilities. In the last years few scientific studies have even pointed out that multilingual children have some cognitive advantages over monolingual children and are less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease.
Two of my best friends have grown up in a trilingual environment and their language abilities are today a strong asset for them, both in their personal and professional life.
Children can handle it
Children are really language sponge and, if exposed within the first 3 years of life, they can learn any language at a native-like level. Indeed, a lot has been said and written about the linguistic genius of babies and their natural talent to learn languages. My personal experience is that, when naturally exposed to three languages, a child can handle them.
But there is a caveat.
Not all three languages are learnt at the same level or speed.
In our case, our son’s dominant language is clearly German and this is clearly caused by the higher exposure he had to this language. He can understand me when I speak to him in Italian and sometimes he answers in Italian, but very often he answers in German. This works for us because I understand and I can speak German. His English is at the moment his worst language simply because of the limited exposure he had by going one day a week in a nursery where everybody else is speaking English. In sum, the one factor that has a huge impact on how well and quick children learn a language is, similarly to what happens in second language acquisition among adults, the exposure to the language.
The most common problem: the children refuses to speak the minority language
One of the most common problems in raising a multilingual child is that the child may refuse to speak in the language that is less used in the household. I think this happens if the child perceives that he doesn’t need that extra language because everyone can understand him when he speaks his other language/s. In this case, the solution is to create experiences and an environment where the benefit of knowing the minority language become clear, such as visiting the country where the language is spoken as the first language or inviting monolingual relatives or other children who speak the same minority language.
Comparing trilingual child development with monolingual child is like comparing orange with apple
I think it is also good to realize that comparing the vocabulary of a bi- or tri-lingual child with the development of a monolingual is an inadequate comparison. i.e. when people point out that a bilingual child knows fewer words in a language than a monolingual child of the same age, they do not realize that actually if you sum the words that the multilingual child, knows in any of his languages he actually probably knows as much or more words than the average monolingual child.
Moreover, the speed of language development is also highly influenced by how much children grow in a verbally rich environment and how much people interact with them verbally in a meaningful way. In other words, it may turn out that how much parents speak to their child, as opposed to for example living them in front of a TV, it is as much important for the speed of the verbal development, then the fact that the child is growing up in a multilingual environment.
My personal take on growing a multilingual child is that it is worth the extra effort that parents have to do and that children cope well with the task.