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Jul 24, 2009

What's the word for "bus"? A trilingual baby's challenge

Over the last few months, Daniel's vocabulary has grown tremendously. He can now pronounce most sounds, which allows him to say any word he wants. Daniel likes to repeat everything he hears from us, and he doesn't need much time to make these words part of his active vocabulary. Every day, the list grows. Daniel is now at the point, where he is able to call several objects, animals, body parts, etc.. in 3 languages (we are raising him with English, French, German).
Examples would be flower/Blume/fleur, foot/Fuss/pied, bread/Brot/pain or more/mehr/encore. In most cases, he clearly picks a language when talking to us and he sounds quite self-confident when communicating. He doesn't always use the right word for the right person (he might speak to me in German for instance), but he definitely clearly expresses what he wants.

Interestingly enough, the one word he seems to be struggling with right now is the word for bus. The names in German and French are Bus and bus, respectively. Yes, same words in all 3 languages, just with a slightly different pronunciation.
When Daniel points to a bus, he often says the word 3 times, with the 3 different sounds, as if trying to test which one is the right one. He knows that my husband and I can understand all 3 words, but that we have preferences (the way we have preferences for the other words in our native languages). While Daniel usually focuses on one word for everything else he talks about, when talking about a bus, Daniel gives several options for us to choose from. This is an interesting exception.

I am wondering if Daniel is getting confused because the sounds are so close to each other. So, instead of learning them as 3 distinct words like he does for flower/Blume/fleur, he learns "bus" as one word and he doesn't quite know how to pronounce it. So he tries everything.

When I hear him propose the different options, I wonder what to respond. I could just repeat the word in French, ignoring all other sounds, to reinforce what is the right word in my language. This is usually the tactic for all other words in uses in the wrong language. In this particular example, though, this might make him feel that he made a mistake pronouncing differently and lead him to believe that this is only one right option for "bus". I could also try to explain along the lines of: "yes, this is a bus (in French). Papa also calls it Bus (in German) and friends at daycare call is bus (in English)". I am not sure how much Daniel would understand for now. But he might notice that I use the different sounds different contexts, so these are not just the same words. The confusion might come from hearing me use all 3 options, not helping to tie back one sound with one language.

In the end, I think Daniel will be able to sort it out, the same way he already understands the distinction between the other words in his vocabulary. That said, I anticipate that this confusion might happen a few more times for very similar words (think bed vs. Bett; chair vs. chaise). Hopefully at some point, he will "get it" and the issue will disappear for all the tricky situations all together. It might take a while. In the meantime, patience, encouragement and repetition will be key.

Has anyone experience a similar situation?


  1. wondering if you have used any of the Baby's First Words by Living Language CDs? We were thinking about getting them.

  2. No, we haven't but they have great reviews. Would love to know your thoughts if you end up buying them.