Cultivating Our Trilingual Journey

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Photo courtesy of JAG Photography

Since I have made the deliberate decision to raise a trilingual baby so many realizations have blossomed especially as I near the end of my pregnancy. So, as a result, what did I do? I did what aspiring doctoral students do best: research about trilingualism and parenting. In fact, I found a way to combine this interest with one of my graduate courses and am in the process of creating an annotated bibliography about trilingualism, which I am more than happy to share. I want to know as much as I can about raising a trilingual baby before I invest my life, time, and energy in harvesting a fun and multilingual home.

There are two influential factors that I was not aware of prior to making this ambitious commitment. They include: community demographics and the effect of the role each parent plays in raising bilingual or trilingual children. That being said, my plan has been slightly modified. The goal is still trilingualism, but the route there will be…hmm… many things. I plan to include adventure, creativeness, and interesting practices. I am also sure I will be conducting more research as my baby grows into a little person with unique personality traits that will call for alternative methods.

According to Suzanne Barron-Hauwaert’s article, Issues Surrounding Trilingual Families: Children with simultaneous exposure to three languages, children acquire three languages in three stages. They go through a monolingual, to a bilingual, and to finally a trilingual stage. Usually children learn the primary caregivers language from 0-2 years of age (being monolinguals), then during their pre-school years they “catch-up” to the second parents’ language, which is considered the bilingual stage, and finally at the school age children acquire the third language. This description applies to a child who has been exposed to three languages simultaneously, which will not be our case as initially planned.

I also learned that most individuals are not FULLY trilingual!!! In other words, one language is usually considered the weaker of the three due to community demographics and the fact that children pick up on which language is the minority or the majority language, which usually also includes one of them being the more “prestigious” language. You can probably guess which one of these takes precedence for the child naturally.

As I have been reading the book, Growing up with Three Languages: Birth to Eleven by Xiao-lei Wang, I have also learned that a community’s demographics can play a pivotal role in helping parents determine which trilingual path is best for their family. We live in a nearly bilingual community in central Texas. Wang mentions that most trilinguals usually aren’t equally proficient in speaking, reading, and writing in all three languages unless they have parents who are both native speakers of different languages and they are living in a country where an additional language is spoken. Additionally, the parents’ level of education also plays a factor in terms of achieving a “fully” trilingual environment.

To say the least, there are several scenarios where trilinguals emerge from, but most of the ones I have found have been in Europe where being multilingual is almost a necessity. We are certainly up for a challenge by attempting to raise a trilingual child in a country where being bilingual alone is uncommon, but that of course is changing. To add to the complexity of our goal we are two parents who are bilingual in the same languages. Although, in my opinion, if monolingual parents can raise bilingual children, why can’t bilingual parents raise trilingual children, right? If there is a will, there is way! ¡Si se puede! Impossible n’est pas français.

That being said, my husband, Marcus, and I decided to alter our trilingual plan in order to accommodate what would best be supported by our local community. We still plan on speaking to our bebita in Spanish at home, but instead of enrolling her in a French immersion school as initially planned we will have her attend a bilingual Spanish-English school. We opted for introducing French through isolated activities such as with books and music. We think it is important for her to learn, love, and appreciate the Spanish we our passing on to her. In other words, since one of the three languages will likely take on a weaker role in terms of proficiency, we would much rather have it be French. She may very well become what they call a “late trilingual.” Another suggestion that has been made to us by a friend who considers herself quadrilingual is to immerse our baby girl in French schools during the summer in a French-speaking country, if possible, while exposing her to it the best we can the rest of the year.

So, as I near the end of my pregnancy, my mind is still stirring as to how we will attempt to raise a trilingual baby. I consider it part of the nesting phase, mine just happens to include a non-tangible component: trilingualism!

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