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Subject: Trilingual Family: Splitting Language Time
Question: I speak Amharic (L1), English (L2), Mandarin (L3), and a little bit of French. My husband speaks Amharic (L2), English (L1), Mandarin (L3), and a little bit of Spanish. We used to live in the U.S. and we have been living in China for the last 3 years. Both of our kids ( our son 5, our daughter 2.5) are trilingual. We speak Amharic (the minority language) at home, the kids learn Mandarin at school and from their environment, and they learn English from books, DVDs, and from speaking with their English speaking friends. Our son can read and write in English but has not yet started reading/writing in Amharic or Mandarin. Although my husband's first language is English, he was very instrumental in our ability to provide a multilingual environment by deciding to learn Amharic alongside my son. It's almost 3 years now since my husband started speaking/learning Amharic. About a year ago our son started recognizing that Amharic is not dad's first language and he started speaking to dad in English. At that point we talked with our son and explained to him that dad really wants to continue practicing and learning Amharic. So we asked our son if it is ok with him to speak with dad in Amharic and help dad practice and learn Amharic. Our son was very excited about this and switched back to speaking with dad in Amharic. Our son recently started to speak to dad in English again. He is now old enough to recognize that almost everyone in his school (including his teachers) is eager to learn English and as a result he too has become very interested in speaking English. Our son enjoys speaking the three languages and is very interested in other languages. Dad has taught him greetings and counting in Spanish. Grandma taught him greetings and counting in Tigrinya. And he picked up a few Korean words from the local butcher and a few Italian words from his friend. So he seems to understand the value of learning multiple languages. However we are concerned if we change strategies to accommodate English there is a high chance that Amharic can get wiped out. We would like to continue to focus on the minority language (Amharic) at home but we also would like to respect his interest in learning/speaking English. Therefore we are contemplating to switch our current strategy to the one person one language method where dad speaks English, mom speaks Amharic, and Mandarin is taught at school. We really would like our kids to speak Amharic as most of our families speak Amharic and we would like our kids to stay connected to their roots. However we also would like to continue to respect what our kids choose to speak. In addition we think that it might be more natural for dad to speak to the kids in English as English is his first language. We do not mind if there is a short term lag in one language or another but our hope is to maintain all 3 languages in the long-run. We also don't mind if English takes a backseat as we know from experience that English is a universal language with several resources that they can pick it up even later on in their lives. Our concern is mainly out of making sure that we listen to our kids needs and caring for them accordingly as that is our main priority. We also would like to know how this switch will influence our daughter's languages. She currently speaks all 3 languages: Amharic (L1), Mandarin (L2), and English (a very distant L3). Please advice on what direction we should take. Note that one person one language method will still include ways for dad to use Amharic with the kids such as storytelling and reading books in Amharic.
Reply: Your last paragraph answers your question, I believe. You/your husband don’t need to adopt the so-called one person-one language policy at home. Why should you, since you are multilingual and this policy is observed only among monolingual caregivers? Your children will adapt to any language policy that makes sense to them – and to you, parents. Children are quite sensitive to contrived uses of language. Just use your languages as and when you find it appropriate and comfortable to use them, as you’ve done throughout your life. Your children will follow suit, and so learn why their languages are relevant. Madalena
Reply From: Madalena Cruz-Ferreira      click here to access email
Date: 25-Apr-2013
Other Replies:
  1. Re: Trilingual Family: Splitting Language Time    Susan D Fischer     (25-Apr-2013)
  2. Re: Trilingual Family: Splitting Language Time    Anthea Fraser Gupta     (28-Apr-2013)

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