Friday 3 May 2013

Bringing up trilingual children

"So, what language are you speaking to Ava?"


"Oh, I see, so Dave speaks English to her?"

"No, he speaks Norwegian"

Look of bewilderment.

It's a conversation I've had a hundred times... if not more! When we made the decision to bring our children up trilingual, we were prepared for a lot of odd looks, curious questions and doubting responses. It's an alien concept in the UK, and we knew that some people would think it was brilliant, others would think it was weird, and others would think it was "wrong" (why would you ever speak a language that is not your mother tongue to your own children??)

So I thought I'd write it down, for the wide world to understand... why are we doing it? How are we doing it? Is it working?? And hopefully, break down some of the misconceptions people have about the whole thing. It is a TOTALLY alien concept to the majority of our friends, and we have had some pretty funny questions (from very clever, educated, normal people) that just show how out-of-this-world the concept seems to be...
* So how often do you teach Ava German? (teach Ava German? She's 1 and a half... she is not having "German lessons"... she's just picking it up as we go along!)
* So, does Heidi understand you? (err... Heidi understands no-one at the moment. She is 8 weeks old. She understands facial expressions and tones of voice. She understands German as well as she understands English as well as she understands Mandarin Chinese)
* Will you speak German to Heidi as well? (nope, I'm going to give her sister this amazing head-start in life, and just speak English to Heidi... of COURSE I'll speak German to her too! It would be far too confusing for me not to!)

Ava having a "German lesson" (not!)
Anyway, there's an example of three of the misconceptions I've been approached with recently, and I'm not judging... it just goes to show how clueless we British are about language acquisition. Take a trip to India, Switzerland or even Wales and you'll see tiny children coping with multiple languages. They are like sponges... they soak anything and everything up!

So here's where the story began... back in 2005 in a little mountain village in Austria. I was a languages student at University on my year abroad, and I had the wonderful opportunity to get to hang out with these kids...

Me with T and K back in 2006
This is T and K... when this picture was taken, they were 8 and 3. They are fluent in English and in German. Both of their parents are Austrian, but their Mum had spent her growing up years in Africa, where she had learnt English, and then spent two years as a Nanny in the States in her late teens. She was the first person who ever put the thought in my head that it was possible to speak a language not your mother tongue to your children. Of course, you have to be confident, pretty fluent and determined to make it work. She was. And I was inspired. I decided then I would bring any children I ever had up in German...

Fast forward 3 years and I married a fellow languages student who was half-norwegian (and fluent in English, Norwegian, French and German - sickening, hey?!) Because he understood German, I knew my "bilingual plan" would be supported. Either I would speak German, and Dave English, or he would speak Norwegian, and I would speak English. When I fell pregnant with Ava, I got the go ahead from Dave who decided it would feel most natural for him if he spoke English.

"Speak to your Bump in German" T and K's Mum told me, "and buy in resources... you'll need them"

So I went to town buying "The very hungry caterpillar" and "The Gruffalo" and all my favourite children's books in German and was all geared up, chattering away to my ever growing bump in German, until, when I was 8 months pregnant, Dave dropped the bombshell...

"I've changed my mind. I want to speak Norwegian to the baby"

By this point, there was no going back for me. The Baby's room was full of German storybooks; I'd even started writing in the "Baby Book" in German...

And so we entered the unknown. The world of trilingual children.

Our baby would be spoken to in German by it's Mama, Norwegian by it's Papa and Bestamor (Granny) and English by my family and everyone else.

I'm a fairly confident person. There's not a lot that phases or embarrasses me. But I have to admit, I found the first couple of months of speaking purely German to Ava tough (that is the secret if you really want it to work. You must be ABSOLUTELY consistent with what language you speak... it helps the child distinguish between the languages and prevents confusion). I was very aware of what other people thought. We had prepped our family and close friends. But it was the acquaintances who gave odd looks that threw me. I felt I needed to justify and "explain" myself.

We have made this decision as a family, because we think having the ability to communicate to others in their own language is such a great gift... we want our girls to be world-vision children... not thinking that the world revolves around Great Britain, but seeing the bigger picture. We have done this because we know that learning a language is dead simple when you're one, and ridiculously hard as an adult. We have done it because, after a lot of prayer and questioning our motives, we actually felt it could be a gift that, God-willing, he might use in our girls lives in the future.

Me having to work hard at learning Norwegian - the girls get it so easy!
We have been absolutely consistent with what we speak to the girls. With three languages flying around, confusion could have been easy, so it was vital that Ava knew who spoke what and associated the language with the people. I only speak German to them, all the time. Dave only speaks Norwegian to them, all the time. Everyone else speaks English. By a year old, Ava was saying "Heiss", "heit" and "hot".

Celebrating her Norwegian heritage at the London Olympics!
It has been so exciting, these past 6 months, to watch the penny drop as Ava has acquired more and more words, and has now, these past couple of months, been starting to form sentences. This month we have seen a huge development in her speaking the right language to the right person. It still blows my mind, that whenever my Mum walks through the door, Ava switches straight to English.

With Heidi, the trilingualism been a lot easier... Ava is talking in all three languages now, so people have seen that it has worked and therefore they are less questioning. They all know we don't speak English at home, so they haven't been surprised by my German with Heidi.

Ava 'reading' "Der Lolli" to Heidi
Its an exciting journey!

We love our languages, but we are holding them loosely. If, at any point, we feel that the language is impinging on our relationship with the girls, or feel it is affecting our ability to communicate with them, discipline them, or have those deep-and-meaningfuls with them, its out the window. The languages are not the be all and end all, but what a gift to give them if we can.

Please fire your questions at us!


  1. The big question is this: what language will Ava speak to Heidi when it's just the two of them in conversation?
    If you are in on the conversation, I guess you, with Dave, Norwegian, your Mum English etc.
    I guess it will be English when they're on their own.

    1. It will be interesting to see what happens there... At the moment Ava speaks German to Heidi, but I suppose school could change that in a few years!

    2. Just reading back through the comments, and thought I'd answer again 3 years later! Ava is now almost 5 and just finished Reception, Heidi is three and about to start Nursery. They speak German to each other all the time, without fail, apart from sometimes in role play. Often their role play is in English... Whoever they are in conversation with, they always speak German! And with Jonas they only ever speak German. Fascinated to see how it continues to unfold!

    3. Just reading back through the comments, and thought I'd answer again 3 years later! Ava is now almost 5 and just finished Reception, Heidi is three and about to start Nursery. They speak German to each other all the time, without fail, apart from sometimes in role play. Often their role play is in English... Whoever they are in conversation with, they always speak German! And with Jonas they only ever speak German. Fascinated to see how it continues to unfold!

  2. I think it dosen't matter what they speak with each other(Ava&Heidi)...
    My mom always talked "swissgerman" to me, but as I grew up in Austria I speak fluently "austrian german" as well... and that is what I generally speak to my brothers...
    but as i spent 10 months in southamerica and the following year my sister went there for 9 months we sometimes appreciate to speak spanish to each other...
    the kids can use every language they want whilst playing with each other... and they will play with the languages i guess =)
    greets Priscilla

    1. Thanks for your comments Priscilla. Such a gift to have multiple languages!

  3. It's a wonderful gift! People can be so judgmental about parenting choices - we've had similar issues with our decision to breastfeed into toddlerhood. But it's good to be resolved and contented with whatever you feel is the right thing for your family. Xxx

    1. With you 100% Emily! Hope you are all well!xx

  4. Bleib dran!! It's hard work, but I'm encouraged to hear that it's going so well for Ava. I had 4 languages from when I was a baby onwards, and still speak 3 fluently, so it can definitely work in the long-term My mom and I speak German with Ria, Alistair speaks English, and my dad speaks Mandarin. It can be more of an effort sometimes, but a great gift for our kids x

  5. It will be absolutely worth it. Hard in the early months when you don't see the results, but oh so worth it! As I write this, Ava is in bed singing a Norwegian song at the top of her lungs! Hope you are all well!x

  6. This is wonderful. You are giving your girls a great gift which, as you said, could be greatly used by God in the future. Praying God blesses this and that they learn well. You're girls are beautiful, by the way, and I love reading your blog. I voted for you xXx

    1. Thanks so much for your encouragement and your vote!

  7. Wow, this explains why people are SO relieved when we say that we talk (for now) English to our son (as we are both foreigners here, but from different countries). I had not realized before that people in the UK are THAT used to a single language. I guess it might have something to do with English being so much used around the world.

  8. Thanks for this interesting blog. I take it you and Dave communicate with each other in English?

    1. We've had big discussions on this. We used to, but we noticed that English was becoming over-dominant... Now Dave speaks Norwegian all the time, even to me, and I speak German to him... Sounds a bit mad but it works for us! As soon as the girls are in bed, we switch to English, and obviously when we have visitors we speak English to each other (but not to the girls)

  9. Very encouraging to read this. I have to say I find it really hard to be consistent speakign dutch to the kids, as I need to speak English to my friends, my husband, my mother in law and our lodger within their hearing. Also, I often felt like I needed to speak English to my son to help and "model" his interaction with other, English speaking children. Or when I am doing conspicuous parenting - in a soft play place, if your child has pushed another child the most important thing is not just to discipline him but for the other parent to see that you are disciplining him...

  10. I was interested to read your blog as a lot of stuff on the internet just seems to focus on the negatives (incl. that children bought up bi/trilingual may be slower at picking up speech generally). I am 5 months pregnant, German m/tongue and fluent in 3 other languages living in Britain and now married to an Italian. Until yesterday I had foolishly assumed I would speak to our son in German given I will be on mat leave for a year and hubby will converse in English as we had conversations before that adding Italian would be too much, but he has now changed his mind. What worries me is that we do not have any family around us nor an extensive or close circle of friends who could act as a third party, the English one. Maybe I am worrying about nothing as you will make new friends once the little one arrives. Any other tips you can give in particular any literature you can recommend worthwhile reading? Having emigrated 18 years ago I also haven't got a clue of any good German kids / toddlers books so would be grateful for any tips. Veronika

    1. Hi Veronika,

      Thanks so much for your comment... Would love to talk more! Perhaps you could email me your email address through my "contact me" page above? Then we could chat more!

      Claire x

  11. Fascinating stuff. I am very envious. I've tried to use my very limited Welsh with our boy (who is now 3.5); he has a few words (numbers and colours, especially) and knows there is a language Welsh that he sometimes asks me about. My brother's children, however, have English and Japanese at home and the eldest has Welsh in school. The code-switching is great to watch.

  12. Well done Claire. I think this is amazing. I wish I knew another language and if I did I would certainly make sure I taught it to my boys. Sadly I remember very little of my high school German as I never used it.
    People who can speak more than one language have so many more opportunities in life. I can't understand why people would think that you wouldn't share all your knowledge with your children. I think it's fab. Well done to you and Dave for keeping it up.
    I work for Kingston university nursery and we have lots of overseas students. Their children are mostly bilingual but sometimes trilingual. It's true, they are total sponges and once it's in its in. It's great to see children switching from one language to the next with such ease. Some of our bilingual children have to translate for grandparents and it's amazing to see.
    Does it really matter what language we speak to our children in? As long as we are speaking with them and spending time with them. Your relationship with your children will not be harmed because you are speaking to them in a language that is not your mother tongue. I find it odd that you've had so many people not understand your choice.
    I'll send my two round for German lessons! 😄 xx


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