Book Review: “Growing Up With Three Languages” by Xiao-lei Wang

I suppose me diving into multilingualism literature was only a matter of time. After all, numerous years in sociological research have left their consequences, one of them being a tendency to extensively read up on topics that interest me. Be that as it may, until now I had only briefly checked out some research evidence about the effects of multilingual upbringing on young children (but that’s a topic for another post). It was time for some more “practical” reading!

As we’re planning to raise Birdy with three languages I decided to pass on the bilingualism literature and head straight to the trilingualism section of multilingualism literature. I bought “Growing Up With Three Languages: Birth to Eleven” by Prof. Dr. Xiao-lei Wang.

title_three languagesThis book appealed to me for two reasons. First, Xiao-lei is a mother of two trilingual boys and she has over a decade of experience of raising children multilingually: she is Chinese, her husband is Swiss, and the family lives in the US.

Second, she is a scientist with background in linguistics and psychology which can be felt throughout the book: it is a small scale, in-depth, longitudinal study of her two son’s first decade of life. She puts her observations and parenting strategies in the context of relevant research literature, meanwhile keeping her style of writing easy to read and highly accessible for any reader.

“Growing Up With Three Languages” is structured in seven chapters:

  • Chapter one describes the complexity of trilingualism and makes it clear that equal competence of all three languages is an unlikely outcome.
  • Chapter two outlines questions that need to be considered when deciding to raise children with multiple languages from choosing names and deciding on citizenship to preparation of home language materials and evaluation of potential support.
  • Chapters three to five chronologically cover different ages of the children’s lives, each chapter focusing on age-specific strategies and challenges.
  • Chapter six deals with the linguistic, cultural, racial, and national identities of the children.
  • Chapter seven outlines the main messages of the book.

Did I like the book? My short answer is yes. If you’re interested in the long answer, continue reading.

Still here? Then let me tell you some of the things that I enjoyed about the book.

The author brings to the forefront many topics that seemed self-explanatory and logical to me once I’d read them but to which I hadn’t paid much thought to. For example, that language mixing should not be seen as a bad thing, quite the opposite – it often demonstrates multilingual competence and can be used for multiple communicative purposes.

She raises many interesting (and important) questions regarding raising a child with a heritage language but outside the cultural context of this language. For example, should you also teach them swearwords? After all, they are vital part of any language! Or, if you’re a mother raising a son, how do you make sure that he doesn’t acquire a “sissy” version of your language? Women and men do tend to use different styles of expression.

The author focuses on identity and personality development of the children and also includes her sons’ own views about their trilingual upbringing. This perspective was not only fascinating to read, it also reminds of the bigger picture:  when raising kids with multiple languages one should not forget that they should also be raised to be happy and well-adjusted individuals.

Although Xiao-lei makes it clear that she and her husband have been successful in raising their sons to be fluent in three languages, including being able to read and write in all of them, she also doesn’t hide the fact that this outcome is the result of a lot of conscious effort and hasn’t come easy. Not giving up requires perseverance, patience, as well as consistency.

Bottom line: if you’re looking for a foolproof guide for raising your kids in three languages this book is NOT for you. Rather, it is suited for what Xiao-lei calls “reflexive parenting”: it brings to the forefront issues that you might want to consider and gives plenty of examples and strategies. It is up to you to decide whether these particular issues and strategies fit to your situation and whether they are something that you want to implement.

“Growing Up With Three Languages”  can help parents who want to raise their children with three languages to reflect about their situation and gives ideas for specific methods and practices that can adapted to their particular situation.

5 Replies to “Book Review: “Growing Up With Three Languages” by Xiao-lei Wang”

  1. The European Mama says: Reply

    The thing about swearwords- and the “sissy” version of the language, is a problem many monolingual parents face as well- exccept for example if they learn swearwords in one language, should you teach them the same words in yours (and also what is your cultural approach to swearwords, they are more accepted in certain cultures than in others). As for the sissy language- I think that yes boys should be also thought the “macho” language and the “sissy” language (whatever you call that), but if the mother speaks one language and the father speaks another, I am sure the children will be able to transfer the concepts of manliness or womanliness into thi slanguage (also, depending on the position of the woman in the society, the way men and women speak can be actually silmiar. But wanted actually to say, “great review!”, will definitely buy this book!

    1. Thanks! And you make a good point, kids should be able to adapt the way they express themselves from one language to another. Then again it reminds me of something she discusses in the identity chapter – how people show different parts of their selves in different languages. It certainly makes sense to me – I’m always saying that I’m not the same person in English than I am in Latvian and a wholly different one in German 🙂

  2. Liuba Borisova says: Reply

    Great review! Will take it on board. We are also facing 3 or possibly even 4-5 languages in our case in the end…. :S Did you come across any more literature on the topic?

    1. Oh wow that sounds like a challenge but exciting as well. I’m currently reading “Be Bilingual” by Annika Bourgogne and like it quite well so far. I can send you some links of nice websites and blogs.

      1. Liuba Borisova says: Reply

        That would be great! I actually have not started thinking about that topic yet, so it would be quite timely! Just got myself a copy of “Growing up with three languages”. :) Let me know what you think of this one!

        And with us the language problem is that we both have different languages (which makes it 2), we communicate in English (+1) and will be living in CZ (+1) and the baby will be czech, and might move in case I get a job elsewhere… So we will start with 3, but will have to add another 1 or possibly 2…

Leave a comment