Bilingual is Better


This week’s question was sent in by Lily Herbik. You too can get an answer by sending your question to our experts right here.

“My situation is very specific:)) Me and my husband are both Polish living in Thailand now. We would like our son (a 7 month baby:)) to become trilingual (English, Thai & Polish). Polish and Thai (with the right accent) seem to be plausible. We will speak Polish at home and obviously he will have ample exposure to Thai.

How about English then? This is my main concern. I could teach him the language, but I don’t want our baby to acquire my eastern accent. There are many international kingergartens in here (native speakers), so it seems to be a good solution, but his Thai will be neglected… A vicious circle, isn’t it? I have an idea of playing with him in English using songs, cartoons etc but it won’t be enough for the correct accent, I guess… what do you suggest?

Thanks a lot!!!

PS. Many international nurseries here accept babies from the age of 10 months. What do you think about it? My husband says it’s much too early… In my opinion it’s NEVER too early!”,

Lily”

Dear Lily,

What a lovely problem to have—too many languages to choose from.  How can you decide which languages to emphasize and when? The great thing is that there are many good solutions. It just depends on what you want. Your son should be able to learn all three languages, but I think you will want to promote them in the order of their importance to you and your husband, and eventually to your son.

Should I assume that Polish is the most important?  You and your husband speak it together.  Your son has Polish heritage on both sides.  Are you planning to return to Poland?  Will you receive visits or communicate (for example on Skype) with people in Poland?  It would seem that you have lots of avenues to help your boy learn it, but not so many that you can take It for granted.

What about Thai?  Will your child go to school in Thailand?  Will his playmates be Thai speakers?  In that case, Thai will be very important for him in both his social and intellectual development.  You do not say in your letter what strategy you are counting on for him to learn it.  Household help?  Schools?  The playground?  Just hearing the language around him, but not addressed to him, will not be enough.  On the one hand, if he won’t be having preschool friends who speak Thai, you may want to wait till closer to the time when he starts to school to emphasize it.  On the other hand, though, learning Thai early has other advantages. This is not my expertise speaking here, but I have heard in anecdotes that it is harder to learn a first tonal language like Thai when you’re older. Learning Thai will develop your child’s ear for tones, and he will be used to the idea that different tones make different meanings. That is, (according to Wikipedia), na with a falling tone is ‘face’ and na with a rising tone is ‘thick,’ while in English you need a whole different sound to change the meaning, like “me” and “my” or “pa” and “ha.”) Thai can also be a step toward other more global tonal languages—like Chinese.

Finally, that leaves English.  You don’t mention that your husband speaks English, so l’ll assume he doesn’t.  You may be thinking from a global perspective that English will eventually be more useful to your child than Thai, but it doesn’t sound like it will be early on.  So you have more time before you need to emphasize it for him.  I like your idea of songs and games and maybe a part-time nursery or playgroup for English, or finding yourself some English-speaking friends with children, to get it started.  But you probably don’t want it to take away from your Polish interactions within the family.  Later, after Thai is well established, you may want to investigate schools or nurseries, or find a social circle to help your son add English.

As you say, it’s never too early to start learning a language, but if your husband feels it’s too early to send your boy to a nursery without a pressing reason to do so (like work, for example), you can always turn to one of your other options, at least at the beginning.

Best of luck in sorting it all out.

Barbara

Barbara Zurer Pearson, Ph. D. – A bilingualism expert with over twenty years of research experience in the fields of bilingualism, linguistics, and communication disorders, Pearson is the author of the informative and extremely useful book Raising a Bilingual Child. She is currently a Research Associate at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her pioneering work on bilingual learning by infants and children and on language assessment has been published in scholarly journals and in the book Language and Literacy in Bilingual Children. You can see her answers by going here and follow her work through her blog.

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