How my 4-year-old daughter became trilingual

Do you want your child to be trilingual? Get some tips on how my four year old daughter learned to speak three languages.

Around 5 years ago in Boracay Island, I met a young German boy playing with the local kids his age and exchanging straight Aklanon words with them.

I was taken aback by the unusual picture of the blonde Caucasian boy speaking a Philippine dialect, and so I asked him what other languages he spoke.

The boy, who was five years old then, cheerfully replied that he spoke German, English, a little Boracaynon, and a little Tagalog.

His mother then added that her son learned German from them, English from school and from expats living around the touristic island, while the Philippine dialects he learned at school and from his playmates.

At that moment, I had thought that it would be fantastic for my future child to speak several languages as well.

My personal experience raising a trilingual child

Years later, I gave birth to my daughter. I had already planned on guiding my child to be trilingual –Filipino, Italian (from her father’s side) and English- but I did not have a clue on how to start yet.

When my daughter was a few months old, an American, who was living in Boracay, the same as us, came up to me and admired my fair-skinned daughter.

The American, who has a bilingual daughter from his Filipina wife, said that if I wanted my child to be trilingual, then my husband and I should strictly speak one language each only.

Children, as research suggests, easily gathers languages or mannerisms from the people they often see.

Since then, every word that I spoke directly to my daughter was in Tagalog, and every word that my husband spoke to her was in Italian.

At two years old, her dominant language became Tagalog due to our constant and interminable connection, and through the Tagalog books I read and songs I sang to her.

As she spoke more Tagalog words, she also began to speak Italian through her father, and English through conversations she has heard her father and I have spoken with each other and with other people.

I had also read that words easily go to the brain when delivered melodiously.

In fact, every time my husband speaks his sing-songy language to our daughter, I notice that she copies and speaks it with interest.

Through more storytelling, singing and social exposure, my four-year old daughter’s trilingual vocabulary has grown and continue to grow more than ever.

She also translates Tagalog words into English or Italian to her father.

The science behind this child-rearing phenomena has been thoroughly explained in the Expat Since Birth blog by Ute Limacher-Riebold, a mother of three multilingual children, PhD in French medieval literature & linguistics and Master in Bilingualism.

Here are excerpts from Miss Ute’s blog post, “How Many Languages Can A Child Learn?”,

Early exposure to languages is ideal

Laura-Ann Petitto: a developmental cognitive neuroscientist, known for her discoveries involving languages

“The task of acquiring a language later in life, when we’ve already acquired our first language (and learned it at school) is a different, much harder task,” she says on her blog.  Ute quoted Laura-Ann Petitto, a developmental cognitive neuroscientist and Language Professor at the University of Toronto, that “if children are exposed to languages later in life, different parts of the brain are involved because ‘the part of the brain that is responsible for processing language is on a maturational timetable.”

She further quoted Petitto that “early exposure is necessary for good syntactic competence, (and) for really good phonological competence.”

How much exposure?

Many people wonder about the quantity of time someone should talk a language – or more than one – per day. There is no fixed amount of time, it really depends on how fluent you want your child to be. While many people throw around a 20% of time statistic, apparently, the human brain doesn’t work on quantity but on quality. 

She quoted Petitto that “regular systematical exposure is more important than the amount of time of the exposure.” Exposure to “stable users across different contexts which are rich and varied’ will help a child to reach fluency.”

“Exposure at school only is not enough to become utterly fluent. It has to be enriched by ‘cultural material, linguistic material, movies., etc’ also outside the schooldays.” Petitto added.

Do all children have the same ability?

The brain is not biologically set to learn only one language. “While our minds are prepared to make everybody a competent speaker of a language that is in the environment without additional effort, that’s not always the case. Some [will find this fun and exciting and some will find it more effortful”.

Do multilinguals know less vocabulary than monolinguals?

Ute writes, “Don’t worry about the vocabulary a child has in one of the languages he is acquiring. Usually, multilingual children are a bit “behind” their monolingual peers, but this doesn’t mean that they’ll never catch up.”

Give this approach a try and enjoy your journey through your child’s trilingual, even multilingual progress.