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How can I help my 3 year old child manage 4 languages?
Thread poster: mbph
mbph
Local time: 08:43
English to Spanish
Sep 7, 2004

Hello everyone!

I am desperate for advice on what to do with our 3 year old son.

Basically, since birth, I have spoken to him in Spanish, my husband in high German, and he's always gotten English b/c my husband and I speak to each other in English, on top of this we've made the mistake of speaking to him often times in English, and his friends (we lived in the U.S.) obviously spoke english and he was learning english at his old pre-school.

We moved to Zurich 3 months ago and enrolled him in a Swissgerman play group with the hope that he would begin to learn Swissgerman since we are planning on staying here indefinitely (my husband is Swiss). The norm is for children to begin Kindergarten at age 5.

As of today (10 days before his 3rd birthday), Nicholas has not mastered any of the languages (the 3 primary ones that he's always been exposed to).

Sometimes he babbles. He speaks and can form sentences and is definitely making improvements everyday but we cannot have a simple conversation with him which I believe 3 year olds are capable of doing.

His Swiss pediatrician suggested we drop one of the languages but that we must keep the Swiss German b/c it is essential that he speak Swiss in order to be able to integrate into the Swiss society.

Other people have suggested we pull him out of the Swiss German group and focus on english, spanish, and high German b/c he'll learn the Swiss German once he begins Kindergarten.

My husband and I don't know who to turn to for help. We want to make sure we are making the right decision for Nicholas. We just want him to be able to speak and express himself like other kids his age are doing.

I guess what I'm wondering is: Could he be a little delayed in his speech b/c he's learning 3-4 languages? I have heard that children learning more than 2 languages start speaking later....is this true? Or does he need to be evaluated by a speech pathologist b/c this is not normal?

Any advice you can offer would be greatly appreciated.

Thank you very much for your time and attention.

Sincerely,
Maria Hanan


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Berni Armstrong  Identity Verified
Local time: 08:43
Member
English
+ ...
Don't panic! Sep 7, 2004

Hi Maria,

don't panic just yet. I was on the bilingual families mailing list for years and such cases as yours came up regularly. Three seems to be a critical year with languages; multi-language input is still being processed and output may seem limited - but there are FOUR languages brewing in that little head! While multi-lingual children may appear behind in individual languages they are usually NOT behind in language development as a whole. i.e - if a monolingual child has a vocabulary of 100 words and the multi-lingual child knows 25 in 4 languages - then development can be said to be on a par.

I wouldn't panic just yet. A family on the list had an Arab Dad, a Dutch mum, they spoke to each other in English and they lived in Japan. At three they were worried too. At five the kid was wowing all who heard him!

The pediatrician who advised you to stop inputting one language may well recognise the difference between flu and pneumonia in a child, but when it comes to languages he is probably talking out of the wrong end of his stethoscope His knee jerk reaction is common among non-specialists - such as granny and grandad - but unless your child shows signs that he is having real difficulty understanding any language (which could point to all sorts of problems including an undiagnosed hearing defect) I would give hime time to sort out these wonderful gifts you are giving him.

All the best,

Berni

PS If you'd like to get even more reasurance from a huge number of families in your position check out the bilingual families mailing list. See my resources page for more details: http://www.proz.com/topic/22085


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Cecilia Paris  Identity Verified
Argentina
Local time: 03:43
English to Spanish
+ ...
be consistent Sep 7, 2004

I write based on common sense, I am not an expert in the subject. I come from a bilingual family, English,Spanish. The languages were clear-cut: English at home and school, Spanish from the surrounding environment. Then, my husband only spoke Spanish and rudimentary English; when the children were born we decided to give them English so with a great effort my husband and I communicated in English to each other when the children were present: the result was he learned excellent English (with an accent, never mind) and the children got a very good English background from us; school, grandparents and friends were all in Spanish.

From a friend married to a diplomat: from the father the child learned Swedish, from the mother, Spanish and from the maid, Russian; then they moved to Sweden and now she speaks Swedish, Spanish and some English, her Russian I think is lost.

Obviously you must have a common language as a family and the language of your environment will come to your child without effort, children are sponges. There you have two base languages. A third language you can keep up with special "lessons" such as regular reading and playing games, plenty of pictures.

You should also note what you expect of your child. Do you expect him to read in three-four languages at the age of 6? Well, that would be demanding for anybody. Concentrate on the oral knowledge, we all learn to speak before reading and writing, and don't worry about a few gramatical mistakes here and there, that is polished over time.

In short, be consistent with which language comes from who: mother reads bedtime stories in Spanish, father in GErman, at the dinner table in English, school and supermarket in Swiss German... or whatever, but don't chop and change or your babe won't be able to keep up with the changes. And if he takes a little longer to figure it out, so what? Let your common sense prevail over the speech therapist's opinion.

Hope some of this helps towards your peace of mind.

Regards
Cecilia


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Don't panic II Sep 7, 2004

Dear Maria Hanan,

Only going on personal experience of raising a trilingual child in Switzerland, I can also agree with the previous answer of don't panic. When my son (who is now 17 and in gymnasium in Bern) was born my husband contacted an expert for multi-lingualism, who had also been my German teacher many years ago. I quickly searched Google and saw that he has had many publications and projects, his name is Claudio Nordari, and I believe he is in Zürich.

Basically Claudio said that everybody should speak their native language to the child, i.e. Mom, English and Dad, Swiss-German. My husband and I speak High German to each other. And to this day at dinner, we all speak our native languages, with the boy moving between Swiss dialect and English. It works, we all understand each other (well as good as it gets with a 17 year old) and his schooling didn't suffer, although until he got more competent in Swiss-German, he wasn't accepted in our predominately native Swiss village. He did speak late, and made many mistakes and mixed the languages. Now he has them sorted, has had about 6 years of French, 1 year of Latin (obligatory in his gym.) and 1 year of Spanish as an extra. He isn't really interested in languages except as a way of communication (overkill?)

If you have any questions, you can send me an email.

Best regards

Linda


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LuciaC
United Kingdom
Local time: 07:43
English to Italian
+ ...
Poor kids! Sep 7, 2004

is what I think of my children when they struggle with languages. My son was late with talking but by the age of 4 he had sorted out his three languages. My daughter (3 and a half) is now about a year late in developing language compared to other children of the same age. She is making slow progress but at last the gap is closing.

My husband is a linguist and some of his colleagues are 'responsible' for those theories and manuals that create so much anxiety. After being anxious myself, I have decided to leave her alone. She is getting there at her own pace.

Talk to your son, read books with him and buy games with objects that you can name and talk about. Forget the doctors and try not making comparisons with other children (I know, we can't help).

Last, I find that one long holiday a year in the country where the other languages are spoken, possibly staying with friends or family, is essential in making the children see the point of talking those languages and improving their fluency.

Good luck
Lucia


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TranslationAsia
English to Malay
+ ...
No worries Sep 7, 2004

Hi Maria,

I have no kids but telling you from my own experience as myself growing as a kid.

At home, I speak English. With my grandmother, we speak a mother tongue called Teochew. In the town where we live, we have to communicate in a sub-dialect - Hokkien. While in school, we are supposed to learn the national language Malay / Bahasa Melayu which is similar to Bahasa Indonesia. My brother went to special Chinese/Mandarin school, but I did not. SO I learnt Mandarin language by myself from listening to music, movies/TV and free reading and listening and trying to speak.

And all the above where done from age 0-12.

So don't worry. Your child should be able to suss out what is which language as he speaks and learns to imitate speech, and from friends. End of the day, language is a communication tool and the child will know what tool to use to communicate at differing circumstances and objects (the other person's ability to communicate).

Regards,
Dennis


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Derek Gill Franßen  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 08:43
German to English
+ ...
Be natural... Sep 7, 2004

...even if it means not being consistent.

My stepdaughter is 15 and my daughter is 5. I arrived in my stepdaughter's life as she turned 5. I'm American and my wife is German; together we speak almost exclusively in German, though sometimes we kid around in Plattdeutsch. When my wife is with my family, she speaks excellent English (or so I'm told - I seldom hear it).

I've never given all of those (weird) theories much more than a passing thought.

I've always tried to speak English with (to/at) the kids, but sometimes I slip into German - I wish I were as consistent as I (apparently) ought to be. My wife only speaks German with them; at least one of us is consistent.

Living in Germany and having German spoken at home, German is (or is becoming) my younger daughter's mother tongue. My stepdaughter already spoke German natively when I met her.

I think it depends a lot on the individual child. I can't imagine that this crazy world would allow the uniformity suggested in some of those dissertations.

My stepdaughter has no problems with English. She was in the States for six weeks with my father and came back talkin' like a cowgirl - or least like I decent American. Her grades in English at the Gymnasium are top-notch! She is completely able to get along independently in an English-speaking environment. What more do you want?

The little one hasn't really started speaking English too much (except good night and meal rituals). I read to her as much as I can, but like I said: I'm not consistent, but I'm also not worried about it... she'll get there. And 'yours' will to.


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mbph
Local time: 08:43
English to Spanish
TOPIC STARTER
Thank you all!!!! Sep 7, 2004

I wanted to thank all of you for your advice. I FEEL SO MUCH BETTER!!!!!

Okay, I'll let Nick do his own thing and take his own time. I guess we just panicked and of course oma, opa, abuelito, and abuelita are very nervous about the fact that their grandson's communication skills aren't at the level of other children his age and their solution is for us to limit his languages right now to english and high German which I think is crazy considering he already understands and speaks Spanish!

Thank you so much. You guys worked better than valium (hee hee). I'll make sure I come to you guys again next time I panic

Thanks a ton!!!!

Maria


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Vera Wilson  Identity Verified
France
Local time: 08:43
Member (2006)
English to German
+ ...
too confused about the languages...??? give it some time Sep 8, 2004

Dear Maria,
I mainly agree with most of the previous comments. But I also think, that maybe you yourself might be a bit confused with all of the languages. How many different people were only speaking in English to him..I lost count there...How is it possible, that your husband is originally swiss german but speaks hochdeutsch?????
My 3 children are trilingual but they could speak quite complex phrases even before they could walk...I know a little boy of 5 with 4 languages, Spanisch, Swedish, German and English. His parents just stay in their mother tongue at a time at mealtimes. He speaks French at school and to his cat.
His brother, now an adult, only started responding in Swedish at the age of 12, and speaks it fluently now. So his father was speaking Swedish to him for 12 years before there was a result.
Just calm down. Sort yourselves out...and be patient about it...little games in the car...will help...grünes auto...blauer Laster...get some friends in to play...and get him a hamster!!!
good luck!
vera



mbph wrote:

I wanted to thank all of you for your advice. I FEEL SO MUCH BETTER!!!!!

Okay, I\'ll let Nick do his own thing and take his own time. I guess we just panicked and of course oma, opa, abuelito, and abuelita are very nervous about the fact that their grandson\'s communication skills aren\'t at the level of other children his age and their solution is for us to limit his languages right now to english and high German which I think is crazy considering he already understands and speaks Spanish!

Thank you so much. You guys worked better than valium (hee hee). I\'ll make sure I come to you guys again next time I panic

Thanks a ton!!!!

Maria


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Parrot  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 08:43
Member (2002)
Spanish to English
+ ...
Don't panic III but expect more problems Sep 8, 2004

My take: trilingual family (En, Tgl, Sp) that moved to Germany when I was 10. Mum -- a respected educator -- wrote a thesis on the problem (10 years old is the normal age to separate languages in a bilingual family). Solution: mother goes to school before enrolment and explains. In her case (the thesis became rather famous and was used by the Department of Education) she didn't have to exert too much effort. But a bit of research on the topic will definitely help the child's educators in coping with him.

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mbph
Local time: 08:43
English to Spanish
TOPIC STARTER
Answer to Vera's question..... Sep 8, 2004

Hi Vera. In answer to your questions:

"How many different people were only speaking in English to him..I lost count there..."

Even though I've been speaking to him in Spanish, I also switch to english sometimes (habit....I grew up with both English and Spanish), my husband and the grandparents have done the same even though "Oma" and "daddy" have become much more disciplined about doing this and I will definitely have a talk with my parents (who are in the U.S.) so that they try not to do it as well (their mother tongue is Spanish). And of course, he got the english from his little friends in the house complex where we lived in Chicago and his pre-school.

"How is it possible, that your husband is originally swiss german but speaks hochdeutsch?????"

My husband was born and raised in Zurich. However, my mother-in-law is originally from Berlin so they (my husband, his brother, and father) were only allowed to speak High German in the house when they were growing up. My father-in-law is American and he started speaking English to them after they turned 5. The Swiss German they learned from their nanny and kindergarten.

"My 3 children are trilingual but they could speak quite complex phrases even before they could walk..."

That's great! But it's information like that which got me worried about whether or not we were doing the right thing with Nicholas since he's not at that level yet and he's almost 3 (in 8 days to be exact). Of course....if this would have been the case then Nick would have gone down in the books considering he started walking at 10 1/2 months

"Sort yourselves out...and be patient about it...little games in the car...will help...grünes auto...blauer Laster...get some friends in to play...and get him a hamster!!!"

Will try to do more of those things. I think I'll wait on the hamster though!

Thanks for your help.

Maria


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Ruxi
German to Romanian
+ ...
A solution... Sep 9, 2004

Dear Maria,

It is an interesting and serious situation and even though I don't have children, I will tell you my opinion (the way I would do it).
First of all your doctor is right.You have to drop one language and that is English. It will be a time for it too, but later.
Then, it is correct each of you speaks to the child in his language. He will have Spanish and High-German as mother-languages.
Now about Swiss-German:I lived a short period of time in Switzerland and with my High-German I had no problems.It is true I didn't understand a discussion between two persons, but they always answered me clearly. I don't know exactly where the difference is, if in the vocabulary too, or only in the pronunciation.
I could see German people handling very well in Switzerland and vice-versa. I don't understand where the problem would be in the kindergarten.
Personally I would teach the child High-German. In school he will use it (at least in the written form).I see Swiss-German as a dialect of German and we have to learn the basic language first.
The child will learn the dialect too, living there and talking to children and people.
Later, at school he might study English or/and French.
So don't panic and don't haste with the languages. He is only a 3 years old child and not a computer and he may have some other talents and not for languages (consider that too). He may learn easier and more rapidly mathematics, or computers or music or sport.
Besides if you want him learn immediatly 4 languages, why don't you learn just one, that is the language of your husband or vice-versa ( I think you must learn German if you live in Switzerland, Spanish for him is not a need yet)?
I don't want to offend you, I am sorry. Try to teach you child songs and poems, so he will practice the languages better. Read stories to him. Then in the kindergarten, with other children he will start to talk, he has no choice.

Good luck,
Ruxi


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Andrea Clarke  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 07:43
German to English
Clearly define who is using which language Jan 18, 2005

Hi Maria,

I was raised trilingual (E,DE,NL) and my husband (British) and I are now raising our 2 year old daughter to be multilingual. I speak only Dutch with her, my husband speaks only English, my parents stick to German and she is now in a full-time Greek nursery. I had my own worries whether we were expecting too much of her, but I have to say she is now starting to separate the languages on her own. She knows who speaks which language and we have a ton of childrens books and DVD's in German, English and Dutch. Compared to my nephew, who is monolingual, her speech development seems slower. However, she will say a word and repeat it in all of her languages.

Don't let anyone, who is not an expert on language development, tell you your child is slow or you are putting too much pressure on him. Each child develops at a different pace. The most important thing is to try and keep it natural. Don't make a fuss when he answers in the "wrong" language, just correct him and carry on teaching him the right words in the respective language.


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