Editor’s note: This week we’re doing something a little bit different. Another one of our knowledgeable experts, Simona Montanari, has written a book and since  Suzanne, one of our regular contributors, is raising a trilingual child, we asked her to review it for all of us. And she did a wonderful job!


Simona Montanari’s book, Language Differentiation in Early Trilingual Development, offers an example of how a toddler developed the use of three languages: Tagalog, Spanish, and English. It presented a researcher’s quantitative perspective about how one child’s use of syntax, phonology, vocabulary, and language choice evolved among three languages. Montanari explored how, with consistent exposure, children can become trilingual speakers as opposed to the assumption that children exposed to multiple languages develop a unitary language system.

As a result of her three-year-long case study, Montanari provides a picture of how children who hear more than one language can potentially discriminate details, such as the phonology and grammar, belonging to each language. As a parent, who has made the intentional decision to expose my daughter to three languages, there are several strategies and considerations I learned by reading Montanari’s book. In addition, the book offered a glimpse as to the kinds of results parents might see their children express by surrounding them with multiple languages.

As a doctoral student with an interest in language acquisition, I appreciated the opportunity to read a case study in the form of a book. It was very much a quantitative analysis; therefore I hope my review of the book can serve as a useful guide to assist parents about how they would like to raise children with three languages. The following is a list of important factors and possible outcomes to consider, extracted and adapted from Montanari’s book, in order to help shape your decision about the kind of language education to provide to your children.

Balanced Proficiency

One of the first things to consider when deciding on a language plan are the resources (e.g., foreign language schools) your community offers to support the languages you plan on teaching your child. You may also want to consider a time line as to when you would like to introduce the third language (which may also be dependent on your home and community linguistic demographics) and how it can determine whether or not your child develops with a balanced proficiency in two or three languages. In other words, a balanced proficiency is not limited to vocabulary development, but also includes a competent use of phonology (sounds, pronunciation), syntax (grammar), and pragmatics (language use) in three languages!

Language Input

Just as adults adjust their use of language depending on whom they are speaking to, children do as well. This also refers to different languages or dialects individuals speak. How parents and the local community use language will also influence the way your child will communicate. The toddler in the book learned to mostly speak Tagalog with mom, English with the author, and that she could code-switch with dad and grandma. Montanari reminds us that the use of language is very contextualized. Children learn to whom and when they can speak in monolingual terms and to whom they can mix languages. In other words, the adults modeled what was expected and established the grounds for the way communication would take place in a conversation and in a particular setting.

Parental Speaking Strategies

What makes Montanari’s case study unique from various others about trilingual acquisition and young children is that her observations occurred in the child’s natural language environment. Several times the young child would be conversing with her grandmother, mother, father, and the author in the same context. In other words, other researchers observed children in controlled environments where the person they were speaking to would speak one language, whereas in this case study there were times when a similar scenario occurred, in addition to instances where the child would switch languages depending on who was present.

Montanari also adds that language mixing served not only to fill in vocabulary gaps, but for pragmatic reasons as well. For instance, she describes how, even at a very young age, children can begin to decipher with whom they can mix languages with and with whom they should only speak one language. Based on similar observations researchers, like Elizabeth Lanza, have described strategies used by adults when conversing with children. Some of the strategies, like the first three listed below yield more use of the minority language, hence better proficiency.

Minimal Grasp Strategy: Ask for clarification in the form of a question or a statement or pretend not to understand a child’s utterance and then ask for clarification.

Instruction Strategy: Explicitly inform the child what the expectations are when it comes to language choice and use.

Repetition Strategy: Involves the adults’ repetition of the content of the child’s mixed utterance, then use the other language in a non-question form.

Move On Strategy: Consists of a continuing utterance in which the adult indicates comprehension of the child’s mix, which also reveals a bilingual identity.

The Benefits of Bilinguals Learning a Third Language

At the time this study was conducted the research around trilingual acquisition was at its infancy. Much of the data available about language acquisition came from the way bilingual children learn two languages.  Montanari asserts that bilinguals learn a third language with greater ease than monolinguals especially if the third language is similar to one of the other two (e.g., Spanish and Tagalog). In addition, learning a third label for an object takes less time than learning a second. Lastly, her study concluded that hearing three languages does not necessarily delay the development of separate linguistic codes.

Montanari ends the book stating the need for more studies to examine what the lower limit of language exposure is in order to yield a more balanced proficiency in multiple languages. She asks the following questions: What is the minimum input needed in order to develop as a productive trilingual? Is it sufficient exposure to each language? Is it linguistic relatedness among languages? Is it psychological or personality-related factors? Is it a social context that strongly supports trilingualism?

Suzanne Garcia Mateus is a first-time mother and a first-year doctoral student in bilingual and bicultural education at the University of Texas at Austin. She continues to explore her research interests and the various ways to nurture a trilingual home via her blog titled: Interpretations of a Bilingual Life.


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