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Growing Up Bilingual or Trilingual

April 08, 2013

growing up bilingual and trilingual - our multilingual kid writing Mandarin in Jordan


Can anyone raise a bilingual, trilingual or multilingual child? Does growing up bilingual or trilingual as a global kid have advantages that are life long? Studies show that there are indeed many, many advantages of bilingualism and with concentrated, long term effort, I think anyone can do this.

We've all learned a lot along the way about world schooling this area and I've written a whole series about how to raise a multilingual child to share the things that have worked for us.

Multilingual kid reading in  3 languages


The lead photo is of our American child working on Chinese writing while visiting the Dead Sea in Jordan on our long term family world trip. We see first hand how language learning has already given her tons of benefits, not just in gifted learning circles, but adding such richness to everyday life and icing on the cake for travel.

We are monolingual parents raising a trilingual and triliterate child in Spanish, Mandarin and English as we travel the world. Science shows that children actually begin to learn language while still in the womb, so that is when we began. Doing it has taught us a LOT as my ideas before pregnancy or even when she was a baby or toddler, changed as she aged and we all went through many different phases.



She just won a trophy at 12 ( setting a 63 year record!) at her huge 1000-kid Chinese High School in Asia for the Chinese Elocution contest and the first Caucasian to ever do this. She was also recently offered a full scholarship to Harvard by some good people in China and being able to bridge worlds, can't help but add to her future no matter what she chooses. We think multilingualism helps world peace as it broadens understanding and compassion.

Our bilingual baby with Spanish tutor in California

Many people ( even native speaking bilingual parents) fail at raising a bilingual child, so we are very proud of how fluent and literate she is at 12 in all of her languages. Interestingly, my advice on raising a reader, also applies to raising a multilingual child: support them in reading and writing in ALL of their languages.

I didn't realize what a long commitment this was when I first thought of this idea or when we attempted it when she was a baby. Most people thought we were crazy and most thought we would fail. I didn't know if we would make it, but thought it was worth a try.

Our little blond trilingual in Chinese outfit - multilingual kid fun!

I didn't know that it is normal to have periods where the child has resistance to speaking the language,( if it is not the dominant one),  starting around age four as they become more verbal. I had no idea how long it takes ( similar to her violin and piano) ....YEARS of daily practice, to get really fluent. I didn't realize the added challenges of doing all of this on the move.

Yes, it IS easier learning as a kid when their brains are wired for learning languages, but it won't happen unless one is consistent for many years. Three languages and two instruments, were MUCH more to take on than I had realized ( especially for non-musical, monoglot parents), and I had my doubts at many a moment,  BUT absolutely worth it.



Even today, at 12, she spends time every day reading, writing and speaking in all three languages and even dreams trilingually.  We are back to homeschooling now, ( taking a break from our Chinese school and doing private tutoring at our home daily) so this gives us more time and freedom...BUT we still keep a strong focus on our homeschool priorities...math, languages, music, science ( not to mention love, fun and healing).




All the studies demonstrate that a young child picks up a foreign language more easily than at any other point in their life, but that doesn't mean it doesn't take a continued effort and due diligence on the parents part. Kids can lose languages as quickly as they pick them up, even their native tongues, so long term consistency is vital.

Science  shows that children need exposure to a different language about one third of their waking hours to become actively bilingual. They may understand some with less time, but will be more receptive and not really speak it. I've seen this repeatedly.



Just because you are a traveler or expat or a parent who is fluent in another language or have grandparents that don't even speak the dominant language is absolutely no guarantee that you can raise a fluently bilingual or multilingual child. I have seen waaaay too many people in those categories who failed. ALL are great advantages for sure, and even a tiny bit of language is better than none,  but sadly, few reap these benefits of growing up fluently bilingual because they don't make a focused, long term effort.



TOP TIPS FOR BILINGUAL BABY SUCCESS

The key is starting young ( preferably at birth or during pregnancy), making it a daily priority like one teaches a child to brush their teeth and looking for every possible opportunity to create immersion (even in the home)  in the minority languge or languages. There truly are amazing opportunities EVERY WHERE, but it is up to the parents to keep the bilingual baby ( or trilingual, multilingual) on track for the long term. Life has a way of getting busy when you have a child, but daily good habits and setting priorities over the long haul creates success.

growing up bilingual or trilingual - our blond girl writing Mandarin

"One free lunch in the world is to learn another language in early childhood." Pinker ( MIT Linguist)

"The cognitive benefits of bilingualism have been well documented, but new research shows that it also has a positive impact on working memory, which aids math and reading comprehension." Pamela Stitt

"The more children learn about a foreign language, the more they understand about their own language." Nancy Rhodes

What do you think about growing up bilingual or trilingual or more? Is it worth it?

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eileen at FamiliesGo!

it is easier today to raise a child fluent in a second language. YouTube has been a great help to us by giving us access to all kinds of videos in French and German that we wouldn't have access to otherwise. we used to make some favorite videos only available in those languages, though that gets harder as they older.

Jeanne @soultravelers3

Yes, Eileen, I agree that it is easier today to raise a bilingual or multilingual child.

There are many ways to create immersion and the tech advantages certainly helps a lot.

Youtube videos are a great addition, but of course one needs to do more than just listening to the language to become fluent.

You have to be conversing in the language daily, ...plus reading and writing once they are old enough.

Surprisingly, if one looks, you usually can find resources with native speakers and playmates in almost every location.

We've found local Spanish speakers in Asia and local Chinese speakers in Spain and both in the USA. ;)

Violeta

Speaking from personal experience, I think being multilingual is a great skill and can open many doors. But, speaking as a parent who hopes to raise multilingual children, it is harder than I thought it would be to be committed and consistent on the journey to multilingualism for my kids. I can see it is a difficult balance and a challenge to keep it fun for the children - especially if it involves 3 or more languages. We ran into unexpected issues with our first child and had to slow down her exposure to multilingualism. For now, bilingualism is enough, but we hope in a couple of years as she becomes more fluent and articulate in both languages to add at least a third one. Because, we (the parents) have acquired several languages (though not all fluently) in our adulthood, we do not see it as mandatory to start on this journey very early on - though we agree that it helps tremendously. We shall see what the future brings - but it is certainly fun to be conversant in other languages and immerse in other cultures on that level.

I would be interested to know how did you, as a parent, stay committed to this multilingualism journey and how you made it fun for Mozart at the same time.

Thanks.

Jeanne @soultravelers3

Yes, Violeta, I sooo understand how what one wants to do pre-child can change once the child or children arrive. It IS harder to add more than two languages and getting two very fluent is chore enough even with bilingual parents and family.

We had to drop the Mandarin for a while as it was just too much and we didn't speak it. I didn't know if we would ever be able to really pick it up again, but it has worked out well. We were in a bit of a raise against time as language learning gets harder after puberty they say and Chinese is a very difficult language. I DO think the fact that she was so fluent at 2 helped greatly, but she lost most of that and had to start again.

Also being fluent in 2 languages from birth DOES make it easier to learn more at any point.

You are also lucky that your primary heritage language is the closest language to Latin, so makes learning many other languages easier.

Because Mozart is so fluent in Spanish, I know that she will very easily be able to add French, Italian, Portuguese etc and perhaps her Mandarin will help her learn other tonal languages if she is interested.

So yes, a very fluent bilingual ( especially in some languages but to an extent with all) will have an easier time adding other languages at any point.

Mozart was already fluent in Spanish when we arrived in Spain, but the 4 winters in school there made a huge difference to make her like a native. I don't know if that would have happened to the same degree had we stayed in America ( and with us not fluent in the minority language).

Staying committed is just like staying committed to reading or brushing teeth. Doesn't mean one never slips, but you keep getting back on track and making time for it.

You make it fun in the same way as reading, healthy food etc...follow their interests and leads, use your creativity based on your kid's personality. Keep other distractions out of their lives as much as possible. Ie-we ONLY let her watch Spanish or Chinese videos as a young child.

Good question as always..I will think more and do a post about it!

Austin

Definately!
While growing up, I always admired kids in other countries that learned two or three languages. While in America we only had one language.

It's sad we raise out kids to be so narrow minded.

Great post.
Thank you!

Jeanne @soultravelers3

Thanks Austin, I so agree that we would help all Americans if we encouraged languages like they do in Scandinavia and Holland.

As I have said before, I think all schools in the USA should be bilingual in Spanish and English from preschool on as that is an important language and once you have two languages it is easier to add others and also makes one better at the primary language and things like math.

Mario

This is amazing! I didn't know your blog. I found it searching today for bilingual kids news on Google, but at first I reached Tips from the T-List. I'm also raising a multilingual kid. He is exposed mainly to two languages, but your blog is making me think I should believe more on the third. I have a blog too, but it's in Portuguese, but I'm here inviting you to nnsparents.com, which is a community started last month for non-native speaking parents. I know how hard is to find motivation and information when you are a non-native speaking parent. This new community exists to help us on this. You said you are monolingual. That is really impressive. There is a place there for you to share your blog posts and then promote your blog. It will be a pleasure. Anyway, I liked this post very much and I'll share there :)

Jeanne @soultravelers3

Thanks so much Mario, so happy you found us! Always happy to hear from parents raising multilingual kids. Thanks for the invitation..I will check it out soon! So appreciate you passing this post onto others who might appreciate it.

Nienke

Hi there, I've just found your blog and find it really inspiring. As a teacher, I've always loved seeing children picking up new languages so easily. I also remember travelling as a child and never having any problems communicating with foreign kids, as you sort of naturally pick up and understand what they we're saying. You're doing a great job with your kid and she looks like a happy, beautiful person. What more can you wish for. I've included your post in my new series of Inspirational lifestyle & travel stories. Love to read more later!

Jeanne @soultravelers3

Thanks so much Nienke! Happy you found us and I appreciate your kind words!

Rob

I think there are so many advantages to growing up bilingual. The big thing in my view is regular exposure to the 'second' language. A friend of mine who is Turkish hasn't really spoken much in his native language to his children and therefore they have not only missed an opportunity but cannot speak with their grand-parents when they visit which is such a shame.

valerie

I was looking for some tips on how to raise a trilingual baby and let me tell you I am not to sure how to proceed.

I am trilingual ( French, English and Japanese), my husband only speaks Japanese and we currently live in Japan.

There is no way we can both only speak one language to the child, because my husband and I won't be able to communicate anymore. I am not worried so much about the Japanese since my in-laws and the environment around us is all in Japanese, but what to do with French and English.

Maybe I will have to speak French to my child most of the time and some English time everyday for one hour.

I also thought that I could repeat everything in the 3 languages all the time but I don't think this would be very productive.

Any thoughts or tips?

Emily

I am so pleased to have discovered your blog! I had never really looked for info online about traveling with kids, but today I did. One link led to another, and here you are!

My husband and I have just started some extended travel with our daughter (now 14 months old). We've been in Panama for a month, next week I am planning to take our daughter up to Costa Rica for several days, and then we will all be heading off to Uruguay.

I have not read much of your blog yet--the genesis page and a couple other pages--but we seem to be on a similar track. My husband and I planned to raise our daughter speaking English, Mandarin, and Spanish; we had a Chinese lady come over to our house for a few hours, a couple times each week, to talk to our daughter and play with her beginning when she was 2 months old. We started swim classes at 3 months. She started talking at 9 months, and we're doing Souns with her, so she knows the sounds for "o", "m", "s", and sometimes "t". She also loves music. We have planned to start piano lessons when she turns three, but she LOVES "playing" the piano with her Grandma or her cousin when they let her.

Now, at 14 months, I think she knows about 50 words, plus a few signs and a bunch of animal sounds. Unfortunately she hasn't had any Chinese for several months now (her Chinese friend went on a long trip to China, and then we left for our trip), but she is somewhat immersed in Spanish here.

Anyway, I was very surprised and excited to see you guys farther along the path we are taking. None of my friends are really into any of this stuff. I look forward to reading more of your blog, and maybe/hopefully finding ideas that will help us as we adapt to this new-to-us travel lifestyle while raising our daughter well.

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