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Sep 25, 2009

The roller coaster of raising bilingual/trilingual kids

Last week, I wrote an article about Daniel’s progress in all 3 languages: French, German and English. The picture was quite balanced and I was optimistic that he was able to learn them in parallel. When I take a step back, I still think that he is on track, showing good progress every week. He is really starting to make sentences and tell stories, which is exciting.
On a day-to-day basis, however, I regularly feel doubts about what we are doing to Daniel and whether he is going to overcome the complexity we are exposing him to. Now that Daniel is more interactive, at 20 months, this adventure is becoming a roller-coaster.

A few days ago, Daniel decided to call horses “horses” (in English) with me. He has been using the French word for it (“chevaux”) on a regular basis now, so I know he knows it. I think he was particularly proud to know “horse” too, and wanted to practice. Logically, I thought this was completely understandable, except that, deep inside, I felt once more that he was going backward.
Similarly, Daniel learns new English words at daycare every day. Recently he started using the words “walk” and “kick”, words I have barely used with him in French. It just never came up in our activities. He plays with the ball often enough at daycare to learn “kick”. But at home we spend our weekends going to the “piscine” (pool) or “parc”, not playing with the ball. As a result, there are words he knows better in one language than the other. And this applies to all 3 languages (For instance, Daniel knows the word for ice cream in German only because Guido loves to eat ice cream with him, and I don’t) But, every time I hear him say a new English word, whose equivalent I haven’t taught in French, I feel that I am behind … And this happens all the time these days.
Then I realized with consternation that French is a lot more complicated than the other 2 languages. How do I explain to Daniel that “chevaux” (horses) is really the same as “cheval” except that one is plural and the other is singular? The 2 words don’t sound the same. And how about verbs? Daniel knows the words “run” as well as “court” (present time for “run” in French). But depending on the need of the sentence, this word “court” can become “courir” or “couru”. 3 variations to learn for the same word. In English, he will be able to get by with just “run(s)” and “running”.
But then again, tonight, Daniel showed a water fountain to another kid’s mom, saying “water”, and he showed it to me, saying “eau” (water in French). This was perfect!
It is going to be a long road until Daniel masters all these intricacies, and I expect this roller-coaster to continue for a while. I just hope to keep things in perspective to remember that other kids have done well with 3 languages, and everything Daniel learns now will become useful later, one way or the other. The small bumps are hopefully just that, small bumps.


  1. I wouldn't worry too much. Daniel is trying new words he's learnt recently and that's part of the game of growing up. It doesn't mean he forgets what he has previously learnt. Elliott is slightly older and the same happens on a regular basis. I remember being heart broken when he replaced "merci" with "thank you". I felt the same as you. But with time I realised that he worked out that he says "merci" to me and "thank you" to his preschool teacher. They are very clever, don't worry too much :)
    It is the same with their mobility. You probably noticed that he masters a movement for a while, then learns a new one and it is almost as if he has forgotten the previous one to only practice the latter. Then it all come back into place a bit later. It is the same with their language.

  2. Thanks so much for the encouragement. Yes, I keep telling myself that the back and forth between languages is normal. But it's still disappointing when it happens. I am glad to hear your experience was similar, and that it turned out OK. That's what I am hoping too. Stay tuned!