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Off topic: Trilingual speech problems
Thread poster: BensMum
Sep 19, 2006


My 3 1/2 yr old son has been exposed to 3 languages - english (me), spanish (my husband) & french (part-time nanny) equally since birth. My husband & I speak English to each other.

He understands all 3 languages but doesn't speak any fluently. In fact he only recently started putting 2words (of any 3 languages) together. But most of the time he speaks in his own language that no one can understand. He also uses noises & gests to explain what he wants.

We were not worried until he started a private local nursery school here in Toulouse,France. The teacher feels he is too slow to understand and obviously no one understand him, so she wants us to start speaking french to him even if it is not our native language though we speak it fluently. She has given him until November before they decide if they can kep him in school!

What do we do. Do we continue as before with the belief that he will be fluent enough in french with time or do we start speaking french to him?

Any advice would be good.

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Local time: 23:19
French to English
+ ...
trilingual speech problems Sep 19, 2006

My children were in a similar situation (English from me, French from my wife, and Cree at the daycare) and managed to sort things out eventually. Our daughter, who is younger, took longer to use English and today, I think she still makes a lot of mistakes. It seems to me that she was three before she started putting words together.

If I remember from language acquisition class, the number of languages spoken to a child may have a delay effect on learning them, but given time the child will manage to do just that. I think we were also taught the importance of each adult speaking just one language to the child.

That said, there may be other issues at play which may need diagnosis.

Based on the information you gave, though, it sounds like he's a normal kid. He's starting to put words together and that may mean that he is figuring things out.

Good luck!


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Local time: 00:19
Spanish to English
+ ...
A lot depends on your priorities and projects... Sep 20, 2006

I guess a lot here will depend on circumstances not mentioned in your question. You are English - but do you speak fluent French? Your husband is Spanish - does he speak fluent French? Are you planning to stay in France for a long time - until Ben finishes his primary education, say?

If the answer to those 3 questions is 'yes', then I suggest you adopt French at home. For everyone. All the time.

I was for some years in a somewhat similar situation. I'm English, my wife is Chilean - and my three step-children were born in Costa Rica and were still living in Latin America when I first knew them as 2, 3 and 4 year-olds, but their father, was a French-speaking Belgian. When we were together we always spoke French, mainly because we lived in Belgium for most of the time the kids were in full-time education. But we also speak French amongst ourselves when visiting my family in the UK (except when conversing directly with them, 'cos they only speak English ... ), or when the now grown-up kids are visiting us here in Chile.

Anyway, despite their somewhat confused linguistic background, one of the three (the youngest) is pretty fluent in Spanish, Portuguese and English. The two eldest can get along quite well in Spanish. Two of them have degrees from French-language Belgian universities.

There's a worthwhile side-effect in using French as a 'house language' in situations like yours and mine. It puts you and your spouse at the same (dis)advantage in any discussion, and helps to avoid the risks of linguistic hegemony that can occur in multicultural families. My wife and I almost never speak to each other in anything other than French - even though we've lived in her native Chile for the past three years. And when she does occasionally switch to Spanish I know at once I've done something she strongly disapproves of 'cos she flies off the handle using the words that come most naturally to her! It doesn't matter that I don't understand her swearwords - the mere fact that it's in Spanish is quite enough to get the message across.

That having been said, and as Andrew hinted, it might be worthwhile checking that obvious things like confusion between the languages he hears are not masking some other problem that might be the real cause of Ben's apparent slowness.


[Edited at 2006-09-20 00:25]

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Anne Patteet  Identity Verified
Local time: 22:19
English to French
+ ...
Quote:"A lot depends on your priorities and projects..." true! Sep 20, 2006

I am a French-speaking Belgian, my husband Ecuadorian.

Him and me started speaking in English because we didn't speak each other's language. Even if my Spanish is now better than my English, we keep speaking in English.

We have lived in Ecuador for 8 years and are now in the USA since 2003.

We now have four kids, and our rules are:
-Mom-Dad: English when the kids aren't around or supposed to get in the conversation...if they do, we switch instinctively to Spanish
-"Everybody-conversation": Spanish
-Dad-Kids: Spanish
-Mom-Kids: French when Dad isn't around

Reason for generalized Spanish when Dad is there: I spend much more time with the children, so they get to hear and speak more French. Also, the children went to the Lycée Français back in Ecuador, and for two years here in the US too. Now they are in the American system.

Let me tell you what I observed in my family (which can be different from other people's):

It is absolutely true that it takes more time to learn and speak more than one language:
-if someone has the capacity to learn 1500 words, if he learns one language he will learn and say 1500 words. You can see what I mean for two simultaneous languges, or three: the amount of words reduces itself to a half or a third of 1500... That doesn't make them look smart in the unilingual groups, does it?
-the same happens with grammar: if you can "learn" (I know I am simplifying a lot here, but the point is not to go into those details) 15 rules, not only will you know 15 rules, learning the same language, but you won't mix them with the other language(s)!

As my kids have always been raised until recently in at least bilingual schools, the teachers were patient (a big part of success, as they knew by experience that kids end up speaking - like they end up walking or going to the bathroom, each one at his own rythm - , and so nobody was stressed out), and the other kids were more or less in the same situation, depending if in their house parents would only speak French, only Spanish, or both, or another language!

And, one day, it's a bit like a revelation: they have until then stored everything in their little heads, I guess analysing, digesting, understanding, and all of a sudden they start saying words (like when it's "tooth-fall": once they are ready, you can't stop it, they all fall one by one. But don't try to pull them out before, won't work or will hurt...) in all the languages, knowing exactly with whom to speak in what.

So what we need is to be like for everything else in education: patience and be relaxed, as THEY (AND WE) ALL END UP WALKING, TALKING, GOING TO THE BATHROOM, EATING WITHOUT HELP etc.

I remember that when we were visiting my husband's family on weekends in Ecuador and the kids were small, I was a little envious of the smaller cousins who could say very well what thay wanted instead of mh, ah, gg and whatever. But my kids could understand everybody then, and they are now perfectly trilingual. And they didn't hear anyone speak to them in a language with a funny accent, so they do sound native in their languages, not like Mom or Dad.

So if they ask you to do some exams, it's better to do them for them to be satisfied and for you to have peace of mind (I was just sent by the school, to check my daughter's eyes: she was prooved to have absolutely nothing, and now we now it, so it was a positive thing). Also, try to know if the person/doctor performing the exam is someone familiarized to the fact we are debating, and if not you may give him/her a crash-course about this formum.

If you can talk with the teachers and they are open-minded, you can tell them about other people's experience, like the ones you will get in this forum (you may translate them ). I'm sure only a minuscule percentage would say it was a total fiasco to teach their child their respective languages. If they can listen to you and be patient together with you, wonderful. If not, you will likely have to either change schools or keep only one language, which are decisions that can be taken, too.

You can also read this book (and pass it on to the teachers...):

L'enfant bilingue
by Elizabeth Deshays
"Réponses" Robert Laffont
(translated from English, for the ones interested)

and I'm sure there are many more now as this one is from 1990.

And, if you decide to go for the trilingual child, you may invite as much as you can his little unilingual friends (without you besides them playing interpreter). He will have more contact with the language, hear more of the words he is "supposed" to use by now, feel more often he has to go for it if he wants to play with them "y cualquier rato le va a salir" as they say... That way you reinforce the Franch without losing your "Mom=English" identity or your husband's "Dad=Spanish".

The main point is: don't worry, follow your heart and do what you think is best (as always... not easy, but the best method).

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Kit Cree  Identity Verified
Local time: 05:19
Member (2003)
French to English
+ ...
all good skills take time... Sep 20, 2006

I would recommend not switching exclusively to French with your son as it is not your native tongue. I think the teacher is being unreasonable to set a 3 year old acheivement deadlines. obviously it would make life easier for the teacher if Ben spoke fluent French but we live in a multi-cultural society and teachers have to be prepared for bilingual and trilingual children in their classes.
We are both native English speakers and so our kids speak English with us athome and go to a normal Spanish state school where they speak Spanish. My 6 year old is in a class of 18 where 6 children are bilingual (in English, Basque, Portuguese, Chinese, Rumanian or German). This was never raised as a problem and the teachers work hard to make the most of this situation. Everyone's 'other' languages are respected and it is accepted that language acquisition and potentially reading skills make come a little slower but everyone gets there in the end.

What I would suggest is that you socialise with Ben in French so that he can get his head round using French with other children and thereby acquire their language. My kids realise that they don't speak 'British Kid's English' and so try and absorb as much as possible when we're in the UK. Kids just want to fit in.
So stick to your guns, you're giving your child an amazing skill.

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Heinrich Pesch  Identity Verified
Local time: 06:19
Member (2003)
Finnish to German
+ ...
Agree with Kit Sep 20, 2006

Don't speak any foreign language to the child. Speech acquisition is an individual process. Albert Einstein is said to have starting to speak at 5. The teacher needs some re-schooling to my mind.

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Catherine Reay  Identity Verified
Local time: 05:19
Member (2004)
Spanish to English
+ ...
Agree with Kit and Heinrich Sep 20, 2006


My daughter is three years old and trilingual (English with me, Spanish with father and other close family, Catalan at playgroup).

She is now starting to come out with two word sentences, although the chosen words can come from any of her 3 languages - it seems to depend on which sounds she prefers.

I would heartily disagree with your child's teacher, it is a very negative opinion. You may find that in 6 months time the situation is very different and your child suddenly starts to use the knowledge he is accumulating at the moment.

It is difficult, as my language is the weaker one for my daughter there have been moments when I have wondered if it is a good idea to continue. Luckily my daughter's teachers are very supportive and have encouraged me to continue and just give her more time.

It will happen -and probably very soon- and in the future your child will thank you.

Good luck, let us know how it goes.
Warm wishes,

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THANK YOU! Sep 20, 2006

Thank you all for your replies & support!
As trilingual families are rare here, mostly are bilingual, your experieces are very valuable to me.

To answer someof the questions:
-We do not know if we are going to stay forever in France, for the next 2 years is as sure as we can be. I've been here 15 years, my husband 6.

-Ben is surrounded by only french speaking kids (even kids who are from bilingual families) & people, and watches french tv

-I made the mistake of speaking only french to my eldest 14yr olds son & now he can hardly speak english nor spanish, and langauges is his worst subject in school! Obviously he cannot communicate very well with my family whom we visit every two years

-I am not English but Singaporean Chinese but grew up speaking English at home as my parents did not understand each others dialect! I learnt mandarin in school.

-We have a 20mth old daughter exposed to the same environment as her brother who is speaking "normally"

After having read many discussions, I seem to get the impression that not speaking fluently one language, even for multilingual children, at almost 4 yrs is unusual. So I have made an appointment with a specialist, just to make sure...

Wll keep you posted.
Thanks again and I look forward to reading more similar experiences.

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xxxTatiana Nero  Identity Verified
Local time: 23:19
+ ...
a consultation with a lawyer can help Sep 20, 2006


I do not know the law in France, but in the US you can ask for English as a second language teacher, if the student is on the brink of being expelled from school not because of his intellectual capacity, but because of his language level while his native language is not the main language in the country,
here in the US it is an equal protection issue.

You might want to ask local social services or consult an attorney if any help in this respect is available in your country, but I do not think you can be required to stop speaking your native language to your child as a condition of his education.

A big resource is a Yahoo group called "multilingualmunchkin", it is an international support group for bi/multilingual families with children, you might ask them, maybe there are people from your country there who are familiar with the problem and can prompt a useful resource for you.

Good luck


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xxxTatiana Nero  Identity Verified
Local time: 23:19
+ ...
addition Sep 20, 2006

My son is 5, he was also slower to start speaking English since he was raised bilingual - Russian-English, and at his daycare they were also hinting at "slow development", and we hinted at discrimination, so that ended it.

He is 5 now and speaks both language just fine, so your child at 3.5 is just fine with how fast he starts speaking - first, he is a boy, and boys sometimes take longer to start speaking, second, he is multilingual, that adds to it. If the teachers have no clue about bilinguism, you might dig up an article about it to show them.

I think an article like that + knowledge from an attorney about your rights might help without any lawsuit - just a hint to the school that you MIGHT sue might end it (if you have such a right, that's why a trip to an attorney might be worth it).

Again, good luck


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Not the same in France Sep 20, 2006

[quote]Tatiana Neroni wrote:

- just a hint to the school that you MIGHT sue might end it

Thanks for the advice Tatiana but

1-School is not compulsary till 6yrs so they have a right to refuse & as the classes are full-30 kids in a class...

2-Sueing is not as common in France as in the States.

So I'll have to be very persuasive with the teacher and hope Ben speed learns in 2mths!


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