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Raising Trilingual Children - What Worked and What DIDN't Work (For Us)

In this blog post, I'd like to share with you the key lessons I've learned along the way since we began raising our kids to be trilingual in 2016. I'll share with you some of the things that worked and some that didn't so you can perhaps learn from our experience and have an easier journey!

The Background

While expecting our first child, we already knew that we wanted to raise him to be trilingual. We didn’t really know what it would actually entail… I guess we just had this vague notion that if we spoke to our child in our languages, he would just pick them up and, well, be trilingual, right?

Because children just pick up languages like sponges, don’t they?

Turns out raising trilingual kids was much harder than we anticipated!

To cut a long story short, by age 3, our son was as fluent in English as his peers, and he could understand Mandarin and Russian very well. But…

He would only speak English!

My husband and I kept talking to him in our languages, but our son kept replying to us in English. He could say a few words in Mandarin and Russian, sure, but beyond that, he only spoke English.

And other people around us noticed that, too. To be fair, no one was judging us – for the most part people were impressed that we spoke to him in our languages and that he understood everything we said; but it was, I guess, funny to see a parent and a child having a conversation, each of them speaking a different language!

Anyhow, around this time, around the time our son was three, this was our “status quo”, and we were coming to terms with the fact that he would just be a “passive trilingual”. Essentially, we kind of gave up on the idea that he could actually speak Mandarin and Russian…

But fast forward 3 months, everything changed, and he was speaking all three languages! I’ve made a separate video detailing our journey, so I won’t repeat the story here.

Instead, I want to share with you what’s worked and what hasn’t worked, so you can avoid the mistakes we made and maximise your chance of success from day 1.

So, let’s start with what DIDN’T work.

What Didn't Work For Us

Where we live in the UK, around the Watford area, there are lots of families who recently migrated from other parts of the world. I spend lots of time observing these families, and one thing that jumps out at me is this: there’s one particular factor that divides those families where the children are bilingual and those where the kids only speak English.

Can you guess what it is?

Broadly speaking, these migrant families can be divided into three categories.

In the first category, the parents simply talk to their kids in English, even if their own English isn’t necessarily the best. As a result, their child only speaks English. Fair enough, that’s to be expected.

In the second category, the parents would talk to their children only in their native language – or at least they seem to be whenever I’m nosily observing them – and these children are highly likely to be bilingual.

There’s a third category: parents who talk to their child in a mix of their native language and English, literally alternating between the two languages from one sentence to the next.

And what’s the outcome for these families?

Generally, from what I see, children from the third category end up speaking English only. They might understand their mum or dad’s language, but they don’t speak it, they won’t speak it.

And this, to an extent, was where we went wrong.

We broadly adopted the One Parent One Language (OPOL) Method, meaning that my husband speaks to the children in Russian, and I speak to them in Chinese. English comes from the wider world.

I’ve made a separate blog post and video about the three main language strategies – check it out if you’re new to this field!

The thing is, the strategy itself was never the problem.

Looking back, I can see that we had an execution problem.

Despite what I thought I was doing, I was not consistently speaking to my son in Mandarin!

Up until a major turning point in our journey in 2019, I was unintentionally using lots of English when speaking to our son. It would be a few words or sentences here and there, and when he spoke to me in English, often my instinctive reaction was to reply in English as well…

This brings me to another encounter I’d had previously.

Around the time our son was 2, I met a trilingual family at our local children’s centre. The mum was Chinese, and the dad was Dutch. They were successfully raising their kids to be trilingual in Mandarin, Dutch and English. So, of course, I had to ask the mum what her secret was. She said quite simply: you must speak to your child in your language and nothing else, and your husband has to do the same. That’s it!

The principle is very simple, but the execution is not easy.

So, if you’re struggling to raise your child to be trilingual, or bilingual, try to pay attention to how consistently you’re using the target language.

Are you, in reality, using a mix of the target language and the community language?

In our case, this simply didn’t work.

From what I can tell, this approach doesn’t work well for the vast majority of families who try to raise bilingual or trilingual kids in a monolingual country.

This last point is relevant because in many multilingual countries, language mixing is the norm. My husband told me that in Moldova, for example, he was amazed to see how the locals switched seamlessly between Russian, Moldovan and a local dialect in the same conversation, from sentence to sentence or even within one sentence, and no one was in the least bit confused!

When this is the norm in a society, sure, your child can still become multilingual. But if you’re like us, trying to raise bilingual or trilingual kids in a monolingual country where such norms do not exist – take it from me: try being more consistent in using the target language!

So, in short, I’d say this was the main stumbling block for us.

What else didn’t work for us?

This is perhaps a surprising insight... Language schools didn't quite work for us. Especially online language schools.

I’ve made a separate video about our experience with language schools so check it out for a more detailed analysis. In this video, I’ll briefly sum up why it didn’t work for us.

Around age 3, our son went to a Chinese school every Saturday for several months before it shut down due to Covid. We wanted to give it a go because, well, that’s what everyone does, right?

At the time, we lived in a very cosmopolitan and affluent part of London; it was almost expected that people in our situation must send their child to a weekend language school.

What I didn’t know at the time was that not all language schools are made equal!

The school our son went to was mostly targeted at people from non-Chinese backgrounds; some of the parents were of Chinese heritage but didn’t speak Chinese. Very, very few of the parents actually spoke Chinese at home.

As a result, our son spoke more Chinese than most of the other kids in his class, so we didn’t feel like he was learning much.

Which is fine, I’m still glad we gave it a try.

And honestly, I think parents should absolutely give language schools a try – it can definitely bring lots of benefits. The danger, in my opinion, is that it can give parents a false sense of “security”, thinking that, OK, I’m spending X amount of money on weekend classes for my child, that’s my job done!

Obviously, not every parent thinks like that. But some certainly do.

So, that’s our experience with a face-to-face Chinese language school.

About two years ago, we also tried an online Chinese language school. Was that any better?

For us, online language lessons just weren’t very effective.

Our children were so distracted by all the buttons on the screen – all they wanted to do was press this or that button to make a sound go off or something to pop up!

Again, it wasn’t completely negative – they did get exposure to a native Mandarin teacher and they did learn new things, but the pace was very slow, and I really didn’t like the digital stimulation aspect of the whole experience.

So, in summary, online language schools didn’t work that well for us.

So, what actually worked? Let’s find out!

What Worked

I mentioned very briefly that we had a major turning point back in 2019.

For the full story, watch my last video, where I go into a lot more detail and explain exactly what happened and what we did.

But essentially, what worked for us boils down to this: sticking to One Parent One Language, and being super consistent.

One big caveat: One Parent One Language does not work for everyone! I’ve seen a video where an American mum talks about her experience raising her kids to be bilingual in English and Croatian.

She talks about how One Parent One Language didn’t work for them, and they switched to something called the “Four Walls Method”. I think it’s basically the same thing as the “minority language at home” strategy. This mum and her husband live in Croatia. Instead of using One Parent One Language, they switched to using English exclusively at home, and boom, their kids became actively bilingual! They found something that worked for them, and it’s amazing!

But for our family, we have to juggle three languages, so that wouldn’t necessarily work for us. So for us and for lots of trilingual families, One Parent One Language is still maybe the best option.

Like I said earlier, we simply optimised our execution of the strategy.

In practical terms, this meant I stopped incorporating English into my sentences when speaking to my son. It was Chinese only, at all times!

Another crucial element was that we enforced the need for him to speak our languages. If he replied in English, we made him repeat the sentence in Russian or Chinese.

I don’t want to repeat myself too much here, as I’ve discussed this technique a lot in my other videos, but essentially, levelling up our consistency and actually creating the need for our son to communicate with us in our languages was what worked for us.

I mentioned earlier that language schools did not really work for us.

Does it mean we’ve given up on teaching our kids to read and write Chinese?

No, far from it! We just do it ourselves!

We’ve been maintaining a reading and writing routine for years. I promise I’ll make a separate video explaining every detail of our routine, but in a nutshell, each of our kids practises reading and writing in Chinese for half an hour a day and in Russian for half an hour a day, and we do this on most days.

I’ve tried many different books but finally settled on a series of graded readers featuring Disney stories. We’ve worked our way up to Level 5, which, according to the publisher, is equivalent to pre-school level in China, but, I’m still super proud of the kids!

Yep, that’s quite a lot of work on a daily basis, I know.

Again, I’m absolutely not saying that all parents should do this – reading and writing may not even matter that much to some parents who just want to focus on listening and speaking, and that’s totally fine!

But my husband and I really think that juggling three writing systems is incredible for our kids’ brains and a genuinely useful skill, especially given our language combination.

And for us, we find that consistency is once again the key.

When we go on holiday and skip our reading and writing routine for, let’s say, a week, we really feel that it takes a while to get back into it. Which is fine, of course! We all need a break.

But we always jump right back into it to keep the momentum going.

So, when it comes to reading and writing, what works for us is basically practising with age-appropriate story books and having a solid daily routine.

I really hope you got some value from the lessons we’ve learnt along the way, and that these insights will make your bilingual or multilingual journey a bit easier.



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