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Aug 23, 2010

Trilingualism update at 2.5 years

We just came back from a great vacation visiting family in France and Germany. We all had a fabulous time. It was great to catch up with family and the kids -especially Daniel- enjoyed new experiences such as swimming in the sea, taking a ferry, seeing fireworks for the first time, etc...

During our stay, I was particularly interested in observing Daniel's progress in French and German, since he was going to be immersed in these languages for several days, and interacting with people who don't speak English.

Progress at the beginning was slow. I remember rehearsing with Daniel how to ask his cousins to play with him in German, if he needed to. While the sentence was quite simple and while he knew all the German words separately, he just couldn't repeat the sentence correctly. He tried several times with good efforts, but each time he got the words mixed up or ended up finishing the sentence in English (OK, granted, he had come from a 10-hour flight and his brain might not have been in prime shape). It just seemed as though he wasn't able to process anything else than English to make sentences. This was in line with what we had observed before.

However, over time, German and then French started to sink in better.
Daniel started repeating sentences that were said in front of him, in the correct language (as opposed to translating them in English as he had been doing for several months).
His progress was mostly limited to repeating recent sentences, though. When "flying solo", Daniel still resorted to English as his primary language.

For instance, once we were in a train and his German-speaking grandmother talked to another mom to explain that the tunnel she had mentioned to her daughter was still far away ("der Tunnel ist noch weit weg"). Daniel heard this, and as often, wanted to contribute to the conversation. He repeated the sentence he heard from his grandmother -in German-, but added his own interpretation, to demonstrate he understood -in English. The final sentence ended up being: "der Tunnel ist noch weit weg. The tunnel is far, far away. We can't see it yet. We have to wait." Good logic... Wrong language!

In France, we had a similar experience, where Daniel started repeating sentences he heard in French more and more often. At the end of the 10 days, he was even able to "improvise" and use sentences he had heard in French several hours/days before. He was really good at reminding his cousin of things he wasn't supposed to do even when no adult was saying it (e.g. don't throw your spoon -> Ne jete pas la cuillere). He must have heard the sentence often enough at the beginning of the stay to remember it. And it was great to see that Daniel could use negatives in French. Until now, he might have used the right French verb when talking to me, but he added an English "no" to communicate the negative. Now, he was able to say a full negative sentence in French, although the use was limited to a specific set of instances. Also, we noticed that Daniel was including a lot more French words in his sentences, even though he never used them with me in the US. It was very encouraging to see that he had the vocabulary, he just needed to have an incentive to use it.

Now, we are back in the US and Daniel is again surrounded by English-speakers most of the day. I am not sure how long the German and French immersion will last, probably not long. But it's encouraging that, within a few days in each country, Daniel was able to make some progress. It seemed as if the German and French vocabulary and grammar were dormant in his brain, and they were able to come to the surface within a few days. As we settle back in the US, we are noticing that the French and German vocabulary are still coming up from time to time. Daniel still primarily speaks to us in English, but when he notices that we don't understand (in a loud environment for instance), he will look for the corresponding word in French or German to make himself understood better. It's great to see that he is aware of the different options, and he is trying to adapt to his audience if they don't understand him the first time.

Another example Daniel's new awareness of trilingualism was when we were listening to announcements in a tourist tour we did (that came in English, French and German). Once the French announcement came, Daniel recognized that the lady spoke "like mama". This was a very encouraging comment for me. Once Daniel is more aware of the 3 languages he knows, he should be able to focus on the right one depending on the audience he talks to.

We look forward to the next reunion with family to see what progress Daniel will make by then.

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