Raising Trilingual Children


One of the questions parents ask me most is, if my child speaks more than one language at home, will this be a problem on the test?  Teaching your child multiple languages has all kinds of life advantages, however, helping the child perform better on early tests isn’t one of them.  If there is a language portion to the test (as there is in NYC with the OLSAT, in other cities with the CogAT, or on any IQ test), a child might be disadvantaged if they are speaking more than one language at home.  The reason is that kids who speak just one language develop a deeper, richer understanding of the vocabulary of that language than kids who are master 2, 3 or more languages at the same time.  If your child is speaking multiple languages at home and you have the option to test her in more than one language (as they offer in NYC), choose to have her tested in whatever language she is strongest in.  You might want to consult with your child’s pre-school teacher when making this decision.  When you do practice questions with your child, you will have to translate them into the language your child will be tested in.

Often, you will only be offered the option to have your child tested in English.  For example, if you live in NYC, they will only administer the test for Hunter College Elementary in English, which puts bilingual or trilingual kids at a disadvantage.  This is true in many other school districts around the country – tests are often only administered in English.  If your multi-lingual child must be tested in English, I would recommend that in the 6 months before the test, you step up your use of English at home in place of other languages you have been using at home.  As soon as the test is over, go back to what you were doing before.  This is not an ideal solution, but if you want your child to have the best chance to perform optimally on the test, this is your best strategy.  In NYC, kids fare worse on the OLSAT (the verbal test) than the NNAT (the non-verbal test).  I’m convinced that is partly because so many kids in NYC come from multi-language homes and many kids just don’t have as deep a mastery of testing vocabulary because of this.

If you are a www.TestingMom.com member, be sure to look at our OLSAT or NYC GIFTED TESTING sections, where we give you a report called “Parent Guide – Essential Vocabulary and Concepts Your Child Must Know for OLSAT Verbal Questions” –  Even if your child isn’t taking the OLSAT, but is taking another verbal test, print this out and use the words listed here when you speak with your child.  These are words like “between,” “next to,” “first,” “last,” “above,” “below,” and more – words that are used in all tests given to young children.

Here is an article that was in today’s Wall Street Journal.  It talks about the many benefits of raising children to speak more than one language.

Raising a Trilingual Child

When Mom speaks one language and Dad another, and the family lives in a city with a third, what language to use for playing, scolding and keeping secrets?

Raising a bilingual child is a goal for many parents. For others, it is just the first step.

Stefano Striuli, an IT executive in Atlanta, speaks to his daughters, Letizia, 10, and Maite (Mah-ee-tay), 7, in his native Italian. The girls speak to their mother, Pilar Guzman, in her native Spanish. The girls switch into English when speaking to each other at home, and they are learning French at school. When the whole family is together, they speak mostly Italian, or English when in public.

There are many reasons for encouraging children to learn a third or fourth language. Parents from two different countries often want to create a home for their children where both native languages are spoken. A bilingual family temporarily living overseas might want to encourage children to become fluent in the local language.

To work, a trilingual household needs rules, and rules must be enforced. Mr. Striuli says if his daughters get confused and use English at home, he ignores them—“but not in a rude way”—until he hears Italian.

“They know that Daddy equals Italian and Mommy equals Spanish,” he says.

The right time to commit to introducing a second or third language to a child is at birth. Parents need to create an environment where children are comfortable speaking, says Annick De Houwer, professor of language acquisition and multilingualism at the Universitat Erfurt in Erfurt, Germany.

“Children do not just pick up a language,” she says. “They must be in a continuous language bath, where they also get a chance to talk.”

Before elementary school age, children usually can learn a second, third or even fourth language without much formal instruction, says Xiao-lei Wang, acting dean at the School of Education, at Pace University, in New York City, and author of a book, “Growing Up With Three Languages.” In many trilingual households, the unwritten rule is each parent speaks only one language to the children and encourages the children to reply only in that language, she says.

Parents can start with baby talk, Dr. De Houwer says. Language-based play groups or frequent video chats with grandparents all help children understand the value of learning another language and culture. “It’s a lot of work,” she adds.

There are more than 1,000 language-immersion programs in U.S. public schools, says Nancy Rhodes, a foreign language education consultant at the Center of Applied Linguistics, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that works to promote language learning and cultural understanding.

Being bilingual or trilingual can put young children somewhat behind their peers in English vocabulary development or grammar, but most catch up by seventh grade, says Camille Du Aime, head of the primary school at the Atlanta International School, a private school with immersion programs in Spanish, French and German. “We see some delay in the mechanics of spelling or punctuation,” she says.

But eventually, when efforts pay off, the result is the envy of any adult struggling to learn a foreign language—a child who can converse with ease in three languages. Mr. Striuli’s daughter Letizia says she is the go-to translator between English and Spanish in her fifth-grade class. It’s a bother sometimes, she says, but ultimately “really cool.” She is still searching for the perfect translation for one of her favorite English adjectives: “I haven’t found the substitute for ‘awesome’ yet,” she says.

The downside? When one parent and a child share a language, the other spouse can feel left out. “There’s concern about family cohesion” in trilingual families, Dr. Wang says.

Patrick Pélata, father of 14-year-old twins Chloe Ami and Zoe Ai, says he often stays out of the conversation when his daughters converse in Japanese with their mother, Ayami Nakao.When the discussion turns to soccer, though, he says he asks them to switch to French. “It’s very pragmatic,” says Mr. Pélata, 61, a San Francisco-based management consultant. “If I see I’m not very important, I will just let them go on.”

“They’ve learned already that if they watch it in Polish or Romanian then I’ll let them watch it longer,” Dr. Sikora says.

As children get older and spend more time at school and friends’ homes, it can get harder to maintain second and third language skills.

Caroline Scriven, a 37-year-old stay-at-home mother in Princeton, N.J., put time into studying and refreshing her Spanish skills, and spoke the language with her sons when they were very young. Her husband, Thomas Scriven, speaks to the boys in his native Swiss German.

Lately, though, 6-year-old Oliver and 4-year-old Henry often use English to reply to one of her questions in Spanish. And she has reverted to English when explaining concepts to them such as death, or the Hail Mary pass.

As they get older, she says, “we can’t pretend we don’t speak English.”

Vanessa Liu speaks her native Cantonese at home in New York City with her children, 8-year-old Nara and 6-year-old Vik. Her husband, Harold Brunink, uses English when disciplining the children, she says, so they have a positive association with his native language, Dutch.

When they are all together, they converse in one of the three languages, using Dutch most often outside the home, so they can discuss private matters in public, Ms. Liu says. “We refer to Dutch as our ‘secret language.’ ”

Write to Alina Dizik at alina.dizik@wsj.com

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