Today’s Ask an Expert question was sent by James Ratner.

“My wife is Vietnamese and bilingual (Vietnamese and English). I speak only English. We are teaching our son, who is presently 2 1/2 both Vietnamese and English, primarily by having my wife speak to him almost exclusively in Vietnamese and reinforcing his learning of this language through Vietnamese books and videos. This process seems to be going very well, as our son can now speak short sentences in both languages.

It is going so well, in fact, that we are giving some consideration to enrolling our son in a Spanish-language immersion preschool to take advantage of this special time in his life when acquiring language is easier. Our question is this: Do you think that giving our son the opportunity to learn a third language (Spanish) at preschool is a good idea, given that (a) neither my wife nor I speak this language and (b) our son may not interact with many Spanish speakers outside of the preschool? We are excited by the prospect of our son being multilingual, but don’t want to do anything that may degrade his acquisition of English or Vietnamese or set him back in some other way. Your thoughts on these issues would be much appreciated.”

Hi James,

What a gift for your son to have the opportunity to become trilingual! Children at your son’s age are language sponges and will acquire new languages with ease. They will develop a perfect accent and can acquire multiple languages simultaneously. Any language your son learns at this stage in his life will be learned as a first language. That means that he will learn it in the same way he learned his first languages and will be able to develop native fluency. A language learned after adolescence is believed to be stored in a different part of the brain and is learned as a second language. So the short answer is, yes, your son can learn three languages. It is actually common in many parts of the world for children to learn three or more languages. The important thing to remember is that in order to become successful in the languages you need to allow for ample exposure to each one, especially Vietnamese and Spanish.

It really doesn’t matter that you don’t speak the language. As long as he is getting plenty of exposure at school he will be able to pick it up. I know many families who do not speak Spanish and yet their children are fluent after attending a Spanish immersion program. Perhaps some parents viewing this blog can share their experience in that respect. You will, however, need to assure that he has ample Spanish opportunities during times when he is not in school, especially during the long summer months in order for his language acquisition to be successful. This could be as easy as getting some videos in Spanish and listening to songs, but the more personal interaction the better.

It takes many years to achieve the full advantages of becoming trilingual. Just sending your son to a Spanish immersion preschool will not ensure he develops the cognitive and social benefits of becoming a true trilingual. He will need to continue his education through the upper grades. Also, remember that since he is learning three languages at the same time he may make some mistakes or temporarily confuse words or grammatical structures from the different languages. Monolingual children also make mistakes but they are only learning one language. It may take him a bit longer to appear as fluent as his peers but he will soon surpass their abilities.

Some of the benefits of a multilingual education:

1)     Learning three languages will strengthen the neurological pathways responsible for language. The more children strengthen those pathways the easier it becomes to learn language. This will actually benefit his acquisition of Vietnamese and English. This strengthening also lends itself to overall intellectual growth, more flexible thinking and even greater creativity.

2)     He will likely develop a better attitude about speaking Vietnamese with mom. Hearing children who speak multiple languages will reinforce the belief that speaking in different languages is normal. He will likely hear parents speaking to their children in Spanish or English or another language.

3)     Of course the best part of giving him a trilingual education is that it will open many doors and opportunities for him. Of course, speaking another language opens up social opportunities but it also opens up job opportunities as well. The ability to speak Spanish and/or Vietnamese will be a huge asset in many careers. Ability to speak in multiple languages is believed to be a prerequisite for success in the 21st century. You will be giving your son a great advantage in that respect.

So, as far as I can see, there is really no reason not to give your son a trilingual education. I hope you will write back and let us know how things are going. We wish you much luck to you and your son.

For more information on this topic please take a look at the following websites:

Liza Sánchez – A bilingual education specialist who received her MA in Education at UC Berkeley and has spent many years teaching in both public and independent schools. She is the founder and Board Chair of Escuela Bilingüe Internacional (EBI) in Oakland, California. EBI is the first independent school in California to offer a Spanish-English dual language program, extending from pre-K through 8th grade. She lives in the San Francisco Bay area and is fluent in Spanish and English, speaks conversational German and can understand quite a bit of French, Portuguese and Italian. You can read her answers here.

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