Thoughts on Learning 3 Languages at Home by Catherine Walter

19 Nov

Catherine: I’m a mom of twins living in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. I grew up in NYC and spent most of my formative years there although I was born in Warsaw, Poland. My husband is German. And my identical twin girls, Zoe and Luna, were born in Bangkok, Thailand, live in Vietnam and hold dual citizenship (US & German). Growing up I thought I had it tough being torn between two different worlds, but look at them!

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Growing up as a global citizen may come with its particular set of challenges, such as not knowing a sense of belonging or losing touch with your heritage. But it’s the way of the future. Our economy is more globalized and interdependent than ever before. Just look at how the West is relying on Asia to be the engine of growth during the recession. The West doesn’t polarize the world as in the past. Rising stars in the East such as China, are contributing more than ever to the global economy and our lives. And thanks to technological advances and accessibility, we are linked as never before in human history – through online media. The world is getting smaller. In view of these developments, I believe that our children’s future success will depend on how well they relate to those different from them.

As a parent, I feel that one of the best advantages I can give my girls in life is the ability to communicate fluently in several languages. In our home, we each speak our native language to the girls. My husband speaks German to them in the early mornings, after work and on weekends or holidays. Our Vietnamese nanny and maid speak to them in Vietnamese each day except for Sunday; and I speak to them in my American English, which is the language they are most exposed to.

English is not technically my native language, but it’s the one I speak most fluently and have spoken for most of my life. However, this presents me with a dilemma as I essentially do speak Polish: Shouldn’t I pass that language on to my girls as well? But as I moved to NYC when I was 4 years old, I speak Polish with an American accent at the level of a fifth grader. I don’t speak it like a native anymore.

I keep finding in the research that you should choose one language to speak to your child and stick with it. But I have taken creative license with that, and I read the girls Polish poetry at bedtime. They probably won’t learn to speak it this way, but at least they’ll be exposed to rolling r’s, and the diversity of -sh, -zh and -ch sounds, which are so plentiful in Polish. I guess we’ll have to wait and see if the experiment will work.

So now that my girls are 15 months old, are we seeing results yet? Nope. I just got back from the pediatrician. Language was a bit weak on the Denver II test behavior chart. It’s used to track their social, fine motor, language, and gross motor skills development in relation to their age. Compared to the rest of the indicators, they seem to be about 3 months behind on language. They are only really using 3 words consistently so far (2 in English and 1 in German). But I’m not worried.

According to our pediatrician, children brought up in several languages do not learn to speak any later then their peers. I also found this in my research. There is apparently no solid, scientific evidence to suggest a delay in speech. However, I did come across anecdotal evidence among parents who sense that multilingual children begin talking a few months later than monolingual children. In the end, I don’t mind if it takes them a bit longer to begin asking “why?” a million times a day.

And I’m not too bothered about them actually speaking all 3 languages all the time. German is the minority language you could say, as they only hear it from Dad (although research shows that a child needs to be exposed to a language 30% of their waking hours to actively speak it, so it just might be enough!). But as long as they have the capacity to understand German, it will be that much easier to learn later in life.

Even if they don’t end up speaking Vietnamese once we’ve moved to another country, at least they have the capacity for tonal languages. It’s the connectivity of the neurons in the brain that will be stimulated and developed. That is what I’m primarily concerned with; overall brain development. Who knows, it may make them better thinkers and communicators than they would have been otherwise.

I leave you with some food for thought: by some accounts, 80% of communication is non-verbal, what are the implications to multilingual/multicultural children?

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