Trilingual children: Expat families and languages

Written by on August 15, 2016 in People, Perspectives - Comments Off on Trilingual children: Expat families and languages

There are different kinds of expat families. Some share the same nationality, others do not. Some begin raising their children in their home country, before they become expats. In some cases, members of an expat family have two or more different nationalities, but they live in a third country, which none of them was born or raised in.

The world is small. Nowadays, we live all over the place. Some of us change countries like shirts. Unless you are a Latino moving from Bogotá to Santiago de Chile, a Briton moving from Liverpool to Atlanta, or a French citizen moving from Marseille to Quebec, foreign languages play a big role in what we do. This applies even more, when we have children.

How does one approach the language situation? There are basically four ways:

1. Parents who simply ignore their mother tongue.

Example: A single, Bulgarian mother lives in Spain, with her little daughter. She talks to her in Spanish, exclusively. That way, the little girl will speak Spanish at the kindergarten, at school, with friends, and at home. This might be a conscious decision. Or that parent might just not have thought about the language question much.

Here, the following question arises: Why? This little girl will not have advantages connected to becoming bilingual at an early age. The child will not be able to communicate with baba and dyado, at home in Varna or Pazardzhik.

2. Parents who live in their own country, but choose to speak to their child in a foreign language.

I know a case like this one, in Sofia. The mother, a good friend, has lived in Germany. Her German is perfect. It would take a German linguistics professor 30 minutes or longer to notice she is not German. She speaks German to her two children, exclusively. Her six-year-old daughter speaks German very well, her toddler, a boy, already understands it.

These children will have a big advantage later on in life, and they already do, since bilingual children develop faster, where their logical thinking and other aspects of this kind are concerned. This is a special case.

3. The minority language is being spoken at home.

E.g. a family from Italy moves to England. In order to make sure their kids learn (or do not forget) their mother tongue, both parents speak to them in Italian, exclusively. At school and with their friends, the children speak English. A win-win situation, for everyone.

These children will have those same advantages. In English, they might be even better than their parents, after a while. Children, who move to a country with a new language until the age of seven, will most likely never develop any accent in that new language.

4. The mother speaks to her children in her mother tongue exclusively, the father in his.

This works in third countries too, a state nobody in the family carries a passport of.

This model has advantages only, for everyone. Trilingual children will have even more advantages at school, in university, on the job market, and in life, generally.

To all of us, but especially to children, a new language can be more than just what it seems: A ticket into an additional culture for instance. A way to develop questions and answers: Why does mom use completely different phrases? Why does she place verbs at the end of her sentences, while daddy does not? Why does daddy’s weird language have words for things mom’s language does not? And so forth.

American, British or Australian expat families, from the English-speaking world, might have a big advantage here, as well as a big disadvantage: They are natives in the world language, but they often learn one language less, due to that fact, meaning they do not have to learn the world language as a second or third tongue.

Anyway: For models 2., 3. and 4., one aspect of high importance can not be stressed often enough: Persistence. Dropping the chosen strategy “once in a while”, due to laziness, is definitely a no-go. Our children should be forced to change languages and to listen or speak in a different one every few minutes. As long as we are persistent, our children know that they won’t get an answer from mom or dad, unless they use the right language.




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