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Trilingual in Three Months - Our True Story (of Blood, Sweat & Tears!)

In November 2019, our son was just over three years old. He only spoke English at the time, and we were gradually giving up on our dream of raising a trilingual child.

But then something happened, and fast forward 3 months to February 2020, our son could speak three languages.

In this blog post and the accompanying YouTube video, I want to share with your our story and how this transformation actually took place. If you’re struggling with raising your child to be trilingual, please keep reading – I really hope that this post will give you the motivation and knowledge to keep going and not give up!

Our Story

It was November 2019. Our son had just turned three and was a happy and healthy little boy. We’d been raising him to speak Russian and Chinese at home, but at this stage in his life, he only spoke English—for those of you new to my blog, we’re a family living in the UK, where English is the dominant language. Our son understood everything we said in Russian and Chinese but would only ever reply in English.

My husband and I were slowly resigning ourselves to the fact that this was as good as it would get. And let me be super clear at this point: for a three-year-old to be able to understand three languages and speak one fluently is a big achievement, so I’m definitely not undermining any parent who’s helped their child achieve that!

However, I guess deep down, both my husband and I felt a sense of regret that he would not speak our languages. And I guess the fact that he understood everything but insisted on replying to us in English made the whole thing even more frustrating! Because we knew that he could speak Russian and Chinese if he wanted to. We just wished we knew how to help him achieve that!

Does that situation sound familiar?

One day in November 2019, we were at a kids’ birthday party when a French dad and I got chatting.

I could hear him talking to his two daughters in French and them replying to him in French! So, of course, I had to ask him what his secret was, after explaining our situation to him.

What he told me literally changed our lives and our approach to raising our kids to be trilingual: next time your son says something to you in English, make him repeat that word or sentence in Chinese. And be super consistent. It’s as simple as that!

He went on to explain the rationale behind this approach. What he said was really profound and had a huge impact on my whole mentality, and I must share it with you.

He said, as your child’s parent, you are your child’s world. If the only way they can communicate with you is by speaking Chinese, they will do it.

He also told me this: no one else will do it for you. It’s you and your child against the world!

This encounter impacted me and our lives on two levels: firstly, it totally changed the way I approached this whole trilingual endeavour. It made me realise that the onus was on me, the parent, to create and enforce the need for my child to speak the target language. It really made me realise that this whole journey wasn’t meant to be easy. I just had to accept it for what it was and get on with it.

On a practical level, it gave me an actual technique that I could use in real life to help my child speak our languages.

So, I began implementing this French dad’s advice straight away, on the very same day. I still remember that bus ride home with my son, me speaking to him in Chinese and him replying in English, and me trying to make him repeat everything in Chinese, and so on and so forth. And there were two Chinese students just a few seats away, smiling at our awkward conversation… Cringe!

But this day, this bus ride, marked the beginning of a new chapter in our lives.

There was no going back – from this day onwards, I was determined that we would really try to make this work.

Deep down, I knew that we could make this work. That we couldn’t just give up so easily on something that meant so much to us as a family.

We carried on with this process day after day, not quite knowing when we would see progress. But in reality, we saw progress within a week or two. Our son was somewhat resistant at first, but he soon began using more and more Chinese words, as he began to grasp that he had to speak to mummy in Chinese.

Here I have to mention that I had, of course, told my husband about what happened at the birthday party and got him on board to apply the same technique in Russian!

Day after day, and week after week, we saw our son gradually gain the confidence to speak Russian and Mandarin, making progress slowly at first but then at a faster pace as time went on. It was truly the most rewarding experience. We really felt like we were helping him unlock this potential in him that had always been there.

It made me realise that bringing up a bilingual or even trilingual child is absolutely within every parent’s reach. As long as you apply the right tactics, and apply them consistently, you can do it.

Three Months Later: The Real "Test"

In February 2020, just before the whole world went into lockdown, my cousin, who lives in Germany, came to the UK for a visit. This was the real test – could our son communicate with her in Mandarin?

And yes, he could!

Honestly, we were so proud—our efforts had really paid off. In fact, my cousin had been so impressed with how far our son had come that she decided to do the same with her son, who was two years younger.

Sure, we weren’t “perfect”. We still aren’t perfect.

He didn’t speak like a three-year-old kid who was born and raised in China – no.

But he could communicate and interact in Chinese.

I say this in my book, and I’d like to reiterate it here: perfection is the enemy of the good.

Your child doesn’t need to be “perfect” at a language to benefit from being bilingual or trilingual.

Speaking an additional language is so enriching in its own right – it will make your child see the world with different eyes, and it will literally change the structure of your child’s brain.

It’s a skill that will stay with them forever.

I hope by sharing our experience, I’ve given you hope and motivation to keep going. And that you can also take away some practical tips that will help you help your child achieve the same.

Top Tips

So, bringing together all the lessons we’ve learnt in helping our son become trilingual in three months, here are my top tips:

First: You must enforce the NEED to speak the target language.

In my book, I talk about the “Golden Equation”: Exposure + Need.

The two elements are equally important, and both must be adequately present in order for a child to become an active speaker of a language. In many cases, the exposure part of the equation is adequate, and as a result, the child can understand the language perfectly.

However, if there’s no need to speak the language, the child will default to speaking the language they’re most comfortable with, which is usually the language spoken in the community.

So, the advice that our French dad gave us essentially addresses this second part of the “golden equation.”

As the parent, you have to create and enforce the need for your child to speak the target language.

Of course, if you’re happy that your child can understand the language but not speak it, you don’t need to change anything. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. This is known as “passive bilingualism” – I’ve made a separate video and blog post discussing different types of bilingualism, so check it out if that interests you.

But if you do want to activate their speaking ability, I really recommend that you give this method a try.

Earlier in this post, I already explained the basic principle of how this method works, so I don’t want to repeat myself here. In my book and in a separate video, I got into way more depth in terms of how to implement this method in real life, so check it out if you’re interested.

Secondly: Don’t give in.

There’s a 99% chance that your child will resist your attempt to make them speak the target language.

That’s normal.

We human beings hate change.

We like doing what feels comfortable. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that. But that’s precisely why it’s so important not to give in. If you give in, meaning that you let your child continue replying to you in the community language, and perhaps you yourself also reply back in the community language, then your child’s speaking ability isn’t magically going to improve.

Remember: major changes don’t happen overnight. You just have to persevere and keep reminding yourself what you’re doing it for – it’s not for your own ego (I hope!); it’s for your child’s long-term future.

Someone described this as the “tough love” approach and well, maybe it is, but “tough love” isn’t necessarily bad, is it?

Imagine you were to teach your child to swim. Your child hates the water and simply refuses to get in, crying and screaming all the way. Do you give in at this point, and just take them back to the changing room? Or do you encourage them to get in the water and help them overcome their fear?

When it comes to a life skill like swimming, we all agree that tough love can be necessary.

Helping your child become bilingual is a bit like that. Speaking a language is a skill. A skill that takes time to acquire and to learn.

So, don’t give in. Keep going.

The final lesson: Don’t give UP.

If it weren’t for this birthday party encounter I had back in 2019, there’s every chance that my husband and I would have given up on this whole trilingual thing by now.

Looking at my children now, aged 6 and 7 and a half, I simply cannot imagine them as being anything other than trilingual, as that’s such a huge part of our life as a family and, I guess to an extent, their own identity, too.

And it’s crazy to think that we were so close to giving up…

But we didn’t, and here we are, 4 years later, sharing our experience with all the other parents out there who aspire to bring up multilingual children too.

No matter where you are in the world, I want you to know that as long as you don’t give up, you will get there. It’s not easy – the process of raising a bilingual or trilingual child is simple but not easy – but the rewards are so fulfilling and worthwhile for you and your child that it really is worth giving it your best shot.

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