Raising trilingual children {Family Fridays – an update}

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(Photo via Carissa Rogers, Flickr CC)

¡Feliz viernes, amig@s! We’re back with another edition of Family Fridays here on the blog, a series in which I highlight a different multilingual family from around the globe.

I’m so happy to have back again my dear friend J.K., whose family was the first to be interviewed for this series over a year ago. Originally from Korea, she and her American husband are raising their two (soon to be three!) children in three languages while living as expats in China. You can catch her first interview here.

Today, she gives us an update on her family’s language policy, shares challenges she and her husband have experienced in their six years raising trilingual children, and provides encouragement for families in a similar situation.

Be encouraged, friends!

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What is your family’s current language policy (both speaking/listening and reading/writing: who takes responsibility for which proficiencies in which languages)?

Korean: My two children (H is 6 and Y is 3.5 years of age) attend a Korean language pre-school four hours each morning. For the most part, I speak exclusively in Korean to them. My son (age 6) is learning how to read and write in Korean at pre-school and we work on it (about 10-15 mins/day) at home, as well.

This past year has been particularly conducive for my children’s Korean proficiency because we visited Korea six times over the past 12 months (due to our current China visa we need to exit the country every 60 days). This has meant frequent face-to-face interaction with grandparents and other people on the streets in Korean.

H is probably equally strong in both Korean and English and Y’s Korean ability far surpasses her English language skills (yet this even changed over the past month – read answer to next question).

English: My kids speak exclusively with my husband in English. With my six-year old we have been working through a Kindergarten level homeschooling curriculum (Sonlight) in the afternoons when Y is taking her afternoon nap for about 45 mins/day. For this past year, we’ve worked on blending his words and basic handwriting, as well as reading a lot of fun books. We’ve both really enjoyed this time.

Chinese: Unfortunately, and perhaps ironically, my children’s Chinese language ability is the weakest among the three languages. At pre-school, the kids receive 30 minutes of Chinese instruction/day, which is clearly not enough to become proficient in a language. They are comfortable with exchanging niceties with people in our community; however, they would much rather converse in Korean or English. H attended Chinese preschool for over a year, so he is a lot more comfortable speaking Chinese, where as Y never received that exposure and went straight into Korean preschool. So her level is much more basic. They are currently on a four-week Chinese New Year holiday break, so we’ve invited a woman to come around and play with them in Chinese for two hours/day. It’s been a few days now since we’ve started this, and I’m already amazed at how much they are able to say.

With Chinese, I have a feeling that my children know a lot more than they lead me to believe. They hear it around them all the time, but they don’t have the confidence to speak it at times. I’m still trying to figure out how to provide them natural avenues to make use of their Chinese on a daily basis. You would think that play dates would be easy to set up, but the local kids are in school literally all day from the age of three, so it’s been trickier now that my kids are not in that toddler stage.

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Since you were first interviewed last year, what changes or adjustments have you and your husband made to your language use at home with your children (if any)?

Overall, nothing significant has changed. I still speak Korean to the children, while my husband speaks in English. When we are with company, we will often switch to that particular language (whether it’s Korean, English or Chinese).

We just returned from spending one month in the United States with family, and I’ve been amazed at the impact it has had on my children’s language development. The first few weeks after we returned, H started to speak to me predominantly in English, something he has never done before! At first, I just replied in Korean, but then thought we were getting into a bad habit, so we had a talk – I explained why as a family we’ve decided to speak the languages we speak and explained that in general, I would not respond unless he spoke to me in Korean. After some gentle encouragement (and frustrating moments for me), we’re back to our norm again.

As for my daughter, Y, her English vocabulary and confidence in speaking English blossomed since returning from the US. Before, she used to mix in a lot of Korean when she spoke to my husband, plus a lot of “umms” as she searched for the English word and then would often ask big brother to translate. Now, she is a lot more confident and chit-chatty with daddy in English, which has been a lot of fun to see. Yesterday, we had dinner with some American friends and they immediately pointed out that Y was conversing a lot more with them in English than before.

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Looking back over the past 5 years or so since you first became a mom, what have been the easiest and hardest parts to raising your children trilingually?

Overall, I’m thankful that it’s relatively ‘normal’ for us to switch between three languages. I have a great Korean language kindergarten five minutes walking from us, we are surrounded by the Chinese language when we step out of our home, and we speak enough English as a family for it to be a natural part of our children’ lexicon.

Here are some challenges I am currently facing, however:

  • Schooling: In what language should my children complete their schooling? We can choose between an English, Korean or Chinese school, each with its pros and cons. My son just turned six, so we need to make a decision somewhat soon!
  • Children switching languages: What do I do when my child switches languages and speaks strictly in English with me? There have been times when H says something in English; when I ask him to repeat it in Korean, he gets nervous and refuses to speak.
  • My own linguistic limitations: I know that I will hit a ceiling with my Korean at some level and would much rather converse about many topics in English instead of in Korean. For example, a typical dinner conversation currently revolves around H excitedly explaining why the fossa is a more dangerous predator than the cheetah (after watching an episode of The Wild Kratts). He watches this in English, so he naturally wants to talk about this in English. But honestly, I would be more comfortable talking about this in English, too!
  • Siblings’ differing language abilities: Why is Y’s English/Chinese level not as good as H’s? H is my out-going, non-stop-talking child, whereas Y is happy to let big brother dominate conversations. As a result, my husband and I often say to each other, slightly worried, “Wasn’t H so much more verbal in all three languages than Y at her age?”. I realize that some of it is because H is our firstborn, so he had our undivided attention and therefore more intentional language input. On the other hand, I realize I don’t read to Y nearly as much as I did to H. I find comfort in the fact that Y gets a lot more peer language input, but I do find myself trying to figure out how I can spend more intentional time with Y (to read or just play).

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You’re pregnant with your third child. Congratulations! In terms of language use with this new addition to your family, do you plan to do anything differently? Why or why not?

Good question. For now, I do not foresee any significant changes to our language strategy, especially as our language environment will not change. If things change, I will for sure let you know!

Many multilingual families find themselves confused or even worried when it comes to reading and writing in more than two languages. Could you please describe your family’s approach to multilingual literacy? What has worked/not worked?

So far, I am only a year into seeing my son’s development in reading and writing in our three languages.

This has been my current strategy: Be intentional about teaching him how to read and write in Korean and English because these are the two languages we have decided to focus on for now. Once he gets a strong foundation for these two languages, we will introduce him to Chinese reading and writing. Plus, English and Korean use a phonetic alphabet, so they should be easier to pick up than Chinese characters.

My son is receiving Korean literacy instruction at school, so I just supplement at home, helping him with his homework (five minutes/day). As for English, the burden is all on me, so I researched different resources to start teaching him at home (see answer to my question below). As for Chinese, I’ve decided that the exposure he gets at pre-school is enough for now.

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What advice would you give to multilingual families whose children are beginning to read and write?

Don’t despair!

  1. There are plenty of resources out there. Also, ask for advice from parents with older children and from early childhood teachers. Getting recommendations from friends has definitely been the most invaluable resource.
  1. Test out some of the resources for a trial period before you purchase anything. For a time, I had H try out various phonic websites, and I downloaded free material before we settled down with the Sonlight curriculum (which we LOVE).
  1. Set aside a specific time of day to work on reading and writing. For us, after lunch during Y’s naptime has worked really well. It’s turned into a special bonding time. Now that Y’s nap is fading away, we’re in a new stage of doing ‘school’ together. It’s been a bit hairy, so I’m in the midst of trial and error to figure out how we can make this work. Change appears to be the only constant with kids!
  1. Have fun. Most times, H has been excited about learning to read and write (and that’s largely because we have used fun material) but there are some rare times when sitting down to read or write a letter of the alphabet is the last thing he wants to do. Sometimes, I will encourage him to persevere to finish what we have started, but there are times, when we will open a fun book instead and get back to that particular assignment another time. It’s important for me at this age to to engage my child in that learning process and to make it fun and enjoyable.

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What misunderstandings or myths (ie, “more than one or two languages will only confuse children or slow down their language development”) surrounding multilingualism have you encountered, and how have you responded?

It is a huge blessing that we live in a linguistically supportive community. This is mainly because learning a second or third language is more the norm here than not. Our Chinese friends start learning English as early as pre-school and our Korean friends all place a lot of importance on learning Chinese and English. In fact, a lot of my children’s classmates are half Chinese and half Korean and all speak beautiful Chinese and Korean. Given this environment, being multilingual is ‘normal’ and being monolingual is not! This sort of “peer pressure” definitely helps!

What resources have been helpful to you in raising trilingual children?

  • Being around other families raising children in multiple languages and learning from them.
  • The internet! With a click of a button, I can turn on TV programs/fun language games in any of the three languages we use. Plus, we do a lot of Skyping/Face-timing with friends and family in the US and Korea.

Anything else to share with multilingual families?

Thanks for having me again on your blog Audrey! It’s always a lot of fun to reflect on my own children’s language development and to learn from you and others on this site!

Gomabseubnida, J.K. for sharing your family’s journey in multilingual parenting with us! Are you raising your children in more than one language and think you’d like to share your story here on the blog? Please don’t hesitate to contact me!

4 thoughts on “Raising trilingual children {Family Fridays – an update}

  1. Reading about this was very interesting. I have been wondering whether we should put an effort into reading and writing with our oldest or just wait for the school to do it. But regarding English they wouldn’t get to reading and writing it until they are 11… would be great to have them read themselves in English before that.

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    • Hi again! Glad you enjoyed the interview. There is actually a lot of research in reading acquisition that supports delayed teaching (i.e., until 6, 7, 8 years old) reading (many children aren’t ready until then, some are, but not all). It’s also true that once a child has learned literacy skills in one language those skills will transfer to a second and third language. Hopefully, those two points encourage you to not feel too pressured to “have to” teach reading at home. Whatever you’re doing at home, keep it fun! Best!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks, something to think about. School here starts when they are 7 so there is already that “delay” in our lives, which feels quite good to me. if I’d be home I think I’d make the effort but with daycare days, the effort would have to be on weekends, and maybe we all need time off then? The school will support our three languages in writing and reading skills at the latest at 7, 9 and English at 11.

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  3. Pingback: Mixed Race Family Must-Reads (Part 2)- February 2016 - Mixed.Up.Mama

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