How Bilingual Parents Can Raise a Trilingual Child

A few months ago I let my Facebook friends know that Sabrina used three languages in one day for the first time! This, of course, was a milestone because we have been speaking entirely in Spanish to her, though she hears English daily, and is exposed to French in very contrived settings, like through read alouds and French children’s videos.

Before our daughter was born, almost two years ago, we decided to attempt to raise her with three languages. Most people we have met that are trilingual, in addition to the research I have done, either lived in different countries where they had the opportunity to learn three languages or each of their parents spoke a different language. Our situation is unique in that my husband and I are bilingual, yet we do not live in a country where a third language spoken is an official language. In other words, we decided to add a third language into the mix because, while there are social and cognitive benefits, we thought if monolinguals can successfully raise bilingual children, then why can’t bilinguals raise a trilingual child?

I have a clear plan in mind, although I have to admit I ran into some roadblocks. For instance, part of my initial plan was to enroll Sabrina in French immersion summer camps, although the only French immersion school I could find in our city requires full-time enrollment, which I am not ready to do yet. We continue to stay on their waiting list, though we realize Sabrina may not get full French immersion until she is at least three years old.

The following list are strategies we have incorporated to expose Sabrina to her third language:

1) Children’s Books in French! My husband reads them to her before bedtime. *He lived in Switzerland for 4 years and speaks some French.

2) Little Pim. We watch the videos in French and review the vocabulary flash cards.

3) Petralingua: We use their songs to learn vocabulary.

Though the list is short, she is picking up the vocabulary and using the words she knows in the appropriate contexts. For instance, we were in the produce section of the grocery store and she said “une fruit” while pointing to apples. She is also using the French word for teddy bear “nonours” and “poupée” for doll when referring to her toys. The next strategy we are going to implement includes attending French read alouds of children’s books. I learned that The French Legation Museum in Austin occasionally has a read aloud session in French for children!

There is a part of me that wonders how trilingual she will become and how many other limitations we will face since it is not a language we both know well, nor is it a language that is predominately spoken in our city, like Spanish. What I have come to realize is that becoming bilingual or trilingual is a privilege and that many children do not have that option. Worse yet, children who grow up speaking two languages and are not from middle or upper class backgrounds don’t seem to get the recognition for being able to speak, say Spanish and English, like those that do! I believe that part of my work as a mother and as an educator includes making sure all children have the option of learning another language in addition to making sure that those who grow up as heritage language learners are also valued for the language skills they bring to the classroom.

{Image by Patricia Oliveira

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