Bi/Trilingual Kids - Best Practices!

For a start I hate the term 'best practice', but it could be interesting to share our experiences to help each other out, as it's a bit of a minefield.

I've looked through the previous discussions and don't think this is a repeat, so my question is:

As parents of potentially multi-lingual kids, what are your experiences of the first few years and what was your policy of talking to them - what language(s) did you use and in what circumstances?

I ask this as I am British, my partner is Spanish, and we have a one-year-old who will be brought up in France, albeit with regular contact with his British and Spanish families.

Any hints and especially anecdotes of how it's gone for you?

Cheers, gracias, and, last but not least... merci!

Hello Sab,

I see this post dates a little but thought I would share my views on the subject with you.

First of all there is, as you say no ‘best practice’ with one exception I think. The parent should always speak to their child in their ‘heart’ language. For me this is English and for their father it is French. From day one I have spoken English to my three daughters and My ex-husband always speaks French. I cringe when I hear people speaking (bad) French to their children when they are obviously not French.

My eldest, born in London, spent 2 years in an Italian day nursery in Luxemburg where the staff spoke Italian , many of the children spoke French or German and her best playmate was Norwegian!
At 2 years old she could communicate with all of them. She was 6 when we came to live here and is now at Uni in Montpelier.

The middle one, born in Luxemburg started in petite section of maternelle and is passing her ‘Bac’ this year.

The youngest was born here and although I spoke to her always in English, she answered me in French for years. However whenever we were with English speaking friends or family she would start chatting away in perfect English!

They tended to play in English and ‘work’ in French but now they do a little of each!

As for reading, I have always read to my children when they were little and their bed-time stories were normally in French from their Father. They had a selection of books and videos/dvd in both languages but I do try to ensure that they watch things in VO, whatever that may be.

All three speak both English and French with no accent, so you see, children can work it out for themselves, they are all different and it is just up to us to be consistent in all things, not just language and guide them along the path.

Enjoy your family!


Great topic!

We used the OPOL method and it was very effective for speaking and understanding.

That said, their level in French is higher than their level in English. They live in France, have always gone to French schools (even in Tokyo!) and 99% of their friends are French. That’s the situation now (the girls are 15 and 17) but it doesn’t mean that this will be true in the future.

I think it’s important to remember that:

  1. Bi or tri (or more)- lingualism is really hard to measure. What do we really mean when we say someone is bi-lingual? It’s probably better to think of it as a continuum that ranges from “can order a meal in a restaurant” to “can give a presentation to an Executive Committee at the annual meeting” or “write your thesis” in the target language. Where you place the cursor depends on exposure to the language, how much formal training is available and probably some in-born talent.

  2. We never stop learning a language. I’m 45-years old and I’m still learning my native language - I learn new words every week. When I started writing I had to look up grammar and punctuation rules. So our kids are really at the very beginning of the journey and they have a lifetime ahead of them to refine their knowledge of all the languages they speak.

  3. Language loss is real. It is quite possible to forgot a language or regress to a lower level because you don’t use it. I said above that for my daughters the French is dominant right now. However, it’s perfectly possible that they will choose to live in an English-speaking country as adults and I would predict that in a few years their English would surpass their French. Or maybe they will choose a third place and both their French and English will degrade. :slight_smile:

    Just a few things I’ve been thinking about recently. I highly recommend Ellen Bialystok’s work on this topic.

Sab - this is a very good question!

In our household we will eventually have up to four languages floating around:
My native language is Danish, my boyfriends native language is Dutch, we speak together in English - and live here in France, where our newborn off course eventually will learn French.

I have googled a bit about it, and it seems that the OPOL (one parent one language) as Tracy also mentions is the most used way to go about it. It also seems by all accounts, that for it to work out the parents have to really be strict and stick to their own language. Meaning I would always and only speak Danish to our son, the dad only Dutch.

BUT one thing that I so far haven’t read a solution to, is how to go about the OPOL in a social context at home?
I.e. when we are all sharing our dinner and one of us (mom, dad or kid) would like to tell a story. Should the language then not be English (or French), since that is the language all of us understand?
In other words, in what situation do one swap from mothertongue to the common household language?

How do you do it in a trilingual family?

When ever I hear mine switching between the 2 languages, I'm still really excited and think 'wow, that is so clever, I wish I could do that';

Thanks Catherine :slight_smile:

Suzanne - Max went through a stage where I couldn't understand him and my French mummy friends could!

He "melanged the deux" for years - I honestly wouldn't worry - as you say she's excited about speaking which is most important!

my daughter is already mixing french and english words in her sentences…not sure I can or want to stop her at this age as she’s so excited about speaking and being understood. Did/do anyone elses young ones do this? @Catherine did you have the same experience with Max? Good idea about the audio tapes, they tend to be read out in perfect english too so the pronounciation will be better than my southernised northern accent. (Hear Bath or Baarth anyone?)

That's interesting stuff Susan. My 14-month old isn't really at the reading stage yet - more the putting-it-in-the-mouth or tearing it stage, but it'll come. No, actually, he likes turning the pages, just a bit too roughly and in the wrong direction :-D

I remember when I was teaching at the British Council here in France, and we had really young ones who couldn't even write in French and I was thinking 'What am I doing here?' It's so important for them to hear first without the pressure or stress of the written language, isn't it?

I would agree with everything Tracy says with the following caveat - mine all learnt to read in different languages by themselves and at different speeds but I’m no expert on the subject and maybe I was just lucky.

I’ve posted about this before but here are some bullet points as I’m meant to be cleaning the hovel and not on SFN…

Daisy - learnt to read in Eng by herself aged 2.5 in the UK. By school starting time had reading age of 9 plus. Moved to France aged 7 and was reading French almost immediately - the correct pronunciation took a lot longer!

Tilly - was not reading at all by age 5 in UK (much to the teachers delight as I’d rowed with her about not addressing Daisy’s educational needs - she was v pleased that I had a non reader) Moved to France and there was no pressure on Tils to be reading as it isn’t expected until they are six. This worked and she began reading in french. By age 8, she was hesitantly reading in both languages, then suddenly caught up and now aged 12, has an adult reading age in both languages.

Max - learnt to read in both languages early (pre age 4) - again - taught French at school but read to endlessly in English at home. Now aged 8 and reads anything from the cereal packets to Private Eye. Which does give him a warped perspective on world politics but hey ho. Can’t be perfect parents all the time…

I would say that their spelling is very slightly weaker than it would be if they were born and bred in the UK but then I can’t imagine that they would be reading and writing French to the same level in that case. I’ve just started doing a bit of written English with Max as he is the only one who never had any experience of being in the UK but tbh, they read so much in English it seems to have addressed the issue in the main.

What I do think are brilliant are story tapes before bedtime - Max used to listen to Beatrix Potter endlessly and I think that helped hugely with his command of English.

Right, back to the cleaning! x

Our kids were both born here and are completely bi-lingual, my husband and I are British but do speak fairly good French, fortunately as it’s very helpful to be able to point out to the 6 yr old, it’s not terribly polite to call her younger brother ‘une crotte de chien’ even if it is in the middle of an English sentence and nana doesn’t understand! Even though it was very funny!
We have been advised to speak English at home and not allow the children to muddle languages - no French words in English sentences or vice versa. With mixed language parents its strictly, one parent, one language.
It’s a tricky situation and so much depends on the child, I stayed at home with my daughter until she was 15months when she went to a child minder and completely understood everything. I was amazed as I didn’t think she had been exposed to much French. On the other hand I put the youngest in the Halte Garderie, 2 mornings a week to ensure he was exposed to the language from 9mths old - and he finds it much more difficult - but I think it is down to their characters.
One thing we are doing is ensuring that the 6 year old is learning to read in English at the same time as learning in French - I don’t think kids learn by osmosis, they have to be taught correctly, which is challenging but will be worth it in the long run.

Sab - what a great idea!

Fraid I cant contibute much as my hubby and I are both English and only moved our kids (6yrs, 3yrs and 1 yr) over to France just over a year ago so dont have much experience with this… very interested to read about other peoples experiences though!