Our Trilingual Family: the Building Blocks

In our little multicultural and trilingual family we use three languages on a daily basis – German, Latvian, and English. Here’s how we manage this language mix in our day-to-day lives.

To begin with, we are applying the method known as OPOL – one parent, one language: Birdy and Bamm-Bamm hear Latvian from me and German from their dad. And then we parents make things a little more complicated and speak English with each other. Oh, and during our weekly family dinners their granddad talks to them in Cantonese.

This hodgepodge of languages not only attracts curious looks when we are out and about, it has also lead to questions: aren’t we confusing the kids? Should we stop speaking English and switch to completely German?

Exposure and need

If I have learned one thing by following several awesome multilingual parent bloggers over the last few years is that, if you want your child to grow up speaking several languages, two things are necessary: exposure and need.

First, the child needs to have enough language input through conversations, music and songs, boks and games etc. to understand a language and to acquire the vocabulary. Second, the child will only speak a language if he or she feels the need to use it. Children are rational: if they know, for example, that the minority language parent is fluent in the majority language and frequently uses it around them, they have little incentive to use the minority language themselves.

Therefore, we have little reason to worry about the future German skills of our kids – they hear it every day from their dad, the German side of the family live nearby, and they are exposed to it at the daycare from the age of one. Latvian – our minority language – might be a little more difficult and, sooner or later, will likely require conscious effort on my part.

Reinforcing the minority language

So, for the sake of our children learning proper Latvian, my goal for the next couple of years is to avoid speaking too much German in front of them. Of course, it cannot be avoided that they will hear me speaking some German, especially with my in-laws or at the daycare. But I want to make sure that Latvian is firmly established as the one and only language of communication between us and, in order to achieve that, the less majority language they hear from me the better.

Quite conveniently, this consideration also means that it probably would not be a good idea to start using German between hubby and me – something that has been suggested by some family members who are afraid that we will confuse the “poor children” with too many languages. I say “conveniently” because switching from English to German would require a lot of effort. Trust me, it is not easy to break a communication pattern that has been in place for so many years! From the day we met, the two of us have spoken English with each other and speaking German feels completely unnatural. We can never manage more than a couple of sentences in German, one of us automatically switches to English and the other one follows suit.

Active and passive languages

The current plan of our trilingual family is to continue with German and Latvian as the languages that we use in active communication with the kids. As we can already observe, they will gain a decent passive knowledge of English which could prove to be quite useful latest by the time they go to school.

Are you raising your kid(s) with several languages? We would love to hear some experiences and tips in the comments!

Trilingual family - the building blocks
PIN to read later! | Photo credit: Artful Magpie

Trilingual family: our experience so far

Check out these posts to learn more about our linguistic journey, the kids’ language development and the challenges along the way:

Raising multilingual kids

Want to know more about raising multilingual kids? These articles will get you started:

  1. adrianakroeller

    What a great system you guys have in place! The gifts of culture and language are undeniably one of the best things we can pass along to our children, our family had a similar system in place with English, Spanish and German and like you we hear “poor thing” here and there but I don’t think enough people give children the credit they deserve, they are really smart and can absorb much more then people think, great job you guys!

    • Thank you Adriana! And back at you, I am very impressed how you speak not one but two languages with your little one. I completely agree, we sometimes don’t give kids enough credit. I suppose it’s because most people think of learning a language they remember how much effort it took them, e.g., at school, but picking up a language from babyhood is something completely different.

  2. This is fascinating. Sounds like by speaking English with your husband, you’re actually fostering your daughter’s ability to speak Latvian with you! You guys are awesome. 🙂

    • Thanks Mandi 🙂 So far it’s only theory, let’s see how it works in practice.

  3. Thanks for sharing. It is great to see another similar family and to know we are doing alright. We live in germany. My husband speaks German to my son, and I speak Cantonese to him while when we are together we speak English to one another and ultimately spill some of it to the little one too. Some around us says we should remove English completely as it would “confuse” the child, but like you say, it’s not easy. English is “our” language. Hence I’ll just say we are raising our son trilingual 🙂 I hope it will work out! He’s 16 months now, so his random mix words are no indication yet…

    • Oh don’t even get me started on the “you will confuse the child” comments 😀 Some say it’s too much, others that it might be helpful. At the end of the day, your relationship with your spouse is really important as well. And I’m certain that I don’t like my husband as much if we were to speak German with each other. I may use the language for work but it’s not a relationship language for me.

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