Raising trilingual children: 15 tips

A few weeks ago a couple of posts that I have written were published in the blog ‘Raising a trilingual child’.

I am myself the mother of two trilingual toddlers. I speak French, my husband Spanish and our children learn English from daycare which they attend twice a week.There is no English at home and we never switch to English at anytime. It is our wish to put more focus on the minority languages now before our children start their schooling in Perth, Australia.

My first post was more about my own journey from being raised bilingual Portuguese-French. You can read it here.

The second post is about some strategies that I use everyday to develop and reinforce their language skills in French and Spanish.

Here is the full post:

As you already know from my previous post, I am a mother of two beautiful trilingual children French/Spanish/English. We live in Perth, Western Australia. My son Tiago has just turned 3 and my daughter Elisa is 23 months old. They are amazing little learners. As you will notice when your children reach that age, their little minds absorb much more than you expect. It is great fun and a privilege to witness their progress on a daily basis.

Trilingual children in a boat

Tiago speaks French and Spanish as well as any same age little Aussie speaks English. He understands everything in English but for now it is his minority language, so he is not as fluent. I am not worried about my children’s English since they are going to be schooled in Australia. I’d rather focus on the French and Spanish while they are little.

I feel that the more efforts I put into these languages now the harder it will be for them to give up later. It requires a lot of discipline from us but it is well worth it. Elisa is starting to associate the languages with the people. Where before she used to ask me for “agua” (water in Spanish) now she says “eau” and “agua” is just for dad.It is very amusing to hear my son correcting her when she speaks Spanish to me instead of French “Non, en français ma poupée” (No, in French my doll).

At home we use the OPOL method. I only speak French to the children and dad only Spanish. I am fluent in Spanish and my husband can also speak French, therefore none of us is excluded. I never switch to English when talking to my children even if I am with people who cannot understand French. I simply translate in English for their benefit. I do not want my children to think that English is better than French or Spanish. I personally believe that switching to English would confuse them and would undermine my efforts in getting them fully proficient in the other languages. We want them to be able to communicate with their grandparents and cousins who live overseas. We cannot travel every year to France or the USA where my father-in-law lives. It is expensive. The journey is too long and we like to explore other places too.

We use several tools to ensure that they are learning French and Spanish without feeling excluded. Let me share a few with you:

1. Consistency

We never switch to English (our community language). When they learn new English words at daycare, unless they are singing a song, I will translate everything back to them in the form of a question. “Oh! You have played with the farm animals at daycare. What did they eat? (my son knows the difference between herbivores, carnivores and omnivores) Who else was with you?”

2. Video calling

We skype with my family in France once or twice a week. My children practise by speaking with their grandparents and their cousins. We also skype once a week with my father in law in New York and again they practise their Spanish.

3. Playdates

We are lucky to have South American friends who have same age children. We try to organize playdates at least once a month.

4. Reading Books

I own an online bookstore specialized in international children’s books and we are lucky to have access to hundreds of books in French and in Spanish. My children love books and they are my fiercest critics. So far they loved all the books I showed them.

Letoboggan books

5. Language Workshop for kids

I also run Spanish and French workshops for little ones. I take my son along with me so he can get more practice with other children but it also motivates the other children who do not have a Spanish or French speaking background. When I ask them to repeat new words, some of them are shy and Tiago says the words straight away, then the children give it a go.

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6. Activity Book

I am crazy about activity books, I love them since I was a kid and used to complete them the first couple of days of the holidays. Every time I go back to France or the USA I come back with at least 10kgs of books, same when I have friends who come over. I could never resist a book; I would cut down on my coffees or something else but not on books. However, it can be quite expensive but with the magic of internet you can now find many free activity books that you can download and print. For example, I use for the Spanish http://www.edufichas.com and for French http://www.teteamodeler.com/cahier-de-vacances/cahier-vacances.asp . There are many more just Google “free activity books for a 2 or 3 year olds” and you will see many options offered. I still buy some activity books with stickers as both my kids love them.

7. Music

My children love dancing and singing. I have CDs with French and Spanish rhymes.The other day I got really confused when my son asked me to sing the rhyme with the elephant. I told him I did not know any French rhymes with elephants. He then added, “Yes you know! The elephant that rocks on a spider web.” It is a Spanish rhyme but since he made his request in French I assumed he wanted a French rhyme! When we sing together, I let them finish the sentence. They would sing the last word, and then little by little they are singing the whole sentences and songs.

8. Making mistakes

When I read a story or I sing a song, I will change it to say something silly. They will correct me right away.

9. Play games

For my last Spanish workshop I took a small Christmas tree with coloured balls and stars to decorate it. In order to hang a decoration on the tree the children had to tell me the colour and the shape of what they were picking up. Anything to make them speak.

10. Flashcards & Memory cards

I like to use flashcards. I make my own for my workshops. The ones you can buy tend to be on a single topic at the time. I have made about 45 that cover several themes, such as the house, clothing, food, farm animals, wild animals….. I also like to play memory cards with them. Again I make my own using different themes such as Halloween, Christmas, birthdays…..

11. Comment on everything

I make comments when we are at the library for storytime or at the theatre. Obviously it is all in English, so I say something like “did you hear that? The cat jumped on the bed then went out of the window and he wasn’t even afraid”. I want to make sure they understand all the English words they are listening to but also I want them to tell me in our home languages what they remember of the story once it is over.

12. Encourage conversations

Even if they are little and do not speak clearly, it is always great to get them included in the conversation. Promote open end questions? Avoid “yes” or ‘no’ questions. For example, today it is windy I pointed the tree branches moving and asked my children to look at the branches and hear what noise the leaves were making. Then I asked them if the wind was blowing softly or strongly. They could feel the wind on their faces, was it cold, warm? Ask them to describe what they see and feel when they are older.

13. Do not correct kids speaking

I do not correct them every time they make a mistake. It might make them want to stop talking.

14. Exposure

I take them to museums, art galleries, fairs, cultural events and exhibitions to develop their vocabulary.

15. Learning before travelling

When we are travelling, I organize little activities with them on the country we are going to visit. It is fun to see them recognizing some monuments and greet people in the local language.

If your partner speaks English only

I get to speak to many mothers who are trying to raise their children in a language other than English and it seems that they find it more difficult when one of the parents speaks English only. What I tend to tell them is to avoid switching to English when their partner is home, keep speaking German, Polish whatever language you are teaching your child (remember consistency) and say it again in English for the partner’s benefit. This way the partner can also pick up a few words in the foreign language.

Raising children in other languages than the one spoken in the country we live in is not easy.

I always tell myself it all comes down to 3 words:  CONSISTENCY,  DISCIPLINE and PERSEVERANCE.

When you speak different languages, you are able to think differently and be more tolerant and open to other cultures. We all really need it these days.

Now it is your turn! Let us know what you do to keep your children speaking their mother tongue.

My husband Albis and I live in Perth, Western Australia. Everyday brings more fun when we hear our children Tiago and Elisa speaking in French, Spanish and English. I love listening to my son literally translating jokes from one language to another. I cannot wait until Elisa is a bit older to hear them sharing a secret code/language in French or Spanish.

For great resources on how to raise multilingual children, such as radio for kids in different languages go to www.trilingualchildren.com

Comment below or share your story!

 

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