Bilingual is Better

My wife Deni and I are trying to raise our daughter to speak three languages. My wife only speaks in Turkish. I speak in Spanish, and eventually her environment will teach her English. Right now, we have her in daycare on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. Obviously, she gets little exposure to Turkish or Spanish on those days. My wife and I have been debating if it makes more sense to have her in day care three days in a row, or if for the purpose of trying to immerse her in our languages, it makes more sense to break it up. Right now, she’s exposed to Turkish and Spanish: Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, and mostly English on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Would it make more sense to have her in day care every other day, like Monday, Wednesday, and Friday? My sense is this doesn’t make a big difference. What do you think? Any other advice for trilingual families? Take care, Mario

Dear Mario and Deni,

This is an interesting question—that we could easily debate all day. If you have a choice, should you try to avoid a 3-day gap when your daughter will hear less of your home languages and will hear mostly English?

I don’t think principles of language learning will decide it for us. As I tried to make clear in my book, there are many, many different ways to arrange your family’s language landscape to help your child learn your languages—and they all can work, provided they’re relatively consistent and give the child strong motivation to use the different languages when she is exposed to them.

For me, the important question is “what is your daughter’s temperament?”  How does she react to changes?  I remember my son as a toddler.  It was hard to get him to stop what he was doing to go somewhere.  Then once I got him there, it was just as hard to get him to leave!  If your daughter is like he was, she’ll take precious time away from today’s language by making a slow transition from yesterday’s language.  If so, she may do better with larger blocks of time before changing, as you currently have it.

Most likely, though, your daughter will accept whatever system makes the most sense for you and your work schedules.  We have lots of examples telling us we can associate each language with a person or place, not a time.  If you stay with your current system, I’d be careful during her daycare days to make sure I stayed in my language and didn’t also follow her to English. After all, you don’t mean for them to be “English days,” just a day when she hears more English in the mix.

The key is to watch your daughter’s reactions–as I’m sure you are doing anyway.  Does she show any distress when people change languages?  Is she slow to follow?  You don’t say how old she is, so we don’t know if she can tell you what she is feeling, but I think this aspect of temperament is evident in behavior from very early on.

Remember, too, that what you decide today can be modified later if you feel the need.  In my experience, language changes take about two months to take hold, so I don’t recommend flip-flopping.  But most children, like most adults, are amazingly flexible.

This is a good question to open up to other people who have been in your situation.  What do other Spanglishbaby readers have to say about Mario’s question?

Best wishes,

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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