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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: I agree with Madalena and Susan. Just continue being multilingual.

It sounds from me as though you are quite resourceful. Also, your son is making his own decisions, which is great. The older he gets, the more independent life he will have outside the home, so don't think of the home as being the only place for fostering many languages. The crucial thing is to keep them wanting to learn languages, being excited by them and being proud of their skills. I am also a great believer in doing what comes naturally.

But you are right to think that Amharic is going to be the hardest one to maintain and it's certainly good to do what you can to increase the amount of Amharic being used. Are there other Amharic speakers around, especially playmates? Relatives with Skype?

Finally, don't be afraid to code switch! In a family where everyone speaks the same 3 languages you can use them simultaneously!

Reply From: Anthea Fraser Gupta      click here to access email
Date: 28-Apr-2013
Other Replies:
  1. Re: Trilingual Family: Splitting Language Time    Susan D Fischer     (25-Apr-2013)
  2. Re: Trilingual Family: Splitting Language Time    Madalena Cruz-Ferreira     (25-Apr-2013)

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