Can a child learn three languages at once? [Transcript]

January 18, 2022

Sharon Unsworth: Welcome to Kletsheads, the podcast about bilingual children. My name is Sharon Unsworth, linguist at Radboud University in Nijmegen in the Netherlands, and mother of two bilingual children. In this episode of Kletsheads, we talk about trilingualism, so children who are growing up with three languages. What can you realistically expect as a parent and what can you do to help your child’s multilingual development. In Let’s Klets! we hear from parent Sara about how the lockdown has had a positive impact on her daughter’s bilingualism. And we have not one but two Kletsheads of the Week: trilingual brothers Gabriel and Elliot teach me some Czech and tell me about why they think it’s important to know more than one language. Keep listening to find out more.

Sharon Unsworth: There are many children in the world who don’t grow up with one or two languages, but with three and sometimes more. Now, there are different ways in which children can become trilingual. They might live in a country where trilingualism is the norm, so everyone grows up with three languages. Think, for example, of India, countries in Africa, Switzerland, Luxembourg. They might also become trilingual because they learn two new languages at school, for example, in the northern province of Friesland here in the Netherlands, children might speak Frisian at home and then learn Dutch and English at school. Or they become trilingual because their parents each speak a different language to them and they learn a third language outside the home. Think, for example, of a Swedish-speaking father and a French-speaking mother growing up in the UK. This is the type of trilingualism we’re going to be focusing on in this episode of Kletsheads. Probably the most frequently heard worry from parents of trilingual children, especially as they’re setting out on their parenting journey, is that three languages might be too many and that the child won’t end up learning any of them very well. Is this worry justified, to what extent are children able to keep the three languages apart? And will it take trilingual children longer to learn the languages compared with children growing up with just one or two? What do we know from research with trilingual children? We’re going to answer these questions and more with the help of Simona Montanari, a researcher at California State University in Los Angeles in America. Simona is one of the few people who’s done research on trilingual children, and she’s also raising her own children, now teenagers, trilingually. She’ll tell us more about that in a minute. But I started by asking about the concern that I just mentioned, that many parents have, that offering three or more languages might be too much for a child, that they might get confused by it, or that it might be difficult to keep them apart. Simona explained how these worries have really not necessary

Simona Montanari: Babies who are growing up with three different languages, are building separate language systems for each of their languages. So this issue of confusion is really more just a myth and I think it’s very much related to the myth of bilingualism as well. When we look at also, like, language development milestones, such as babbling at around six months or first word production at around one year, or combining first words at around 18 months, we know also that just as bilingual children, trilingual children are not delayed, meaning that they’re not going to start speaking later because they’re hearing three languages. Of course, they may start speaking in just one of the three. For instance, like for my daughter, my youngest one, she started speaking at around 10 to 12 months in Italian, but really, like, her English production didn’t happen much until, like, over two years of age. And so this again goes back, as in the case of bilingual development, with amount of input. So we know that when the child’s input, or the amount of language that the child hears, is divided into three, well, the child is hearing less of each language, and therefore, if a child will be more developed in the language that he or she hears more, and that’s just kind of, I think, expected, but that doesn’t mean that children will then start speaking later or will meet certain language development milestones later. We cannot expect the child at 12 months to just produce English, Italian and Spanish. We should not expect that the child at 18 months is combining words in the three languages. This is synchronous development, basically development that happens first in one language and then later in another language. This is just part of, again, trilingualism because of the input being divided in such a way.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. So you mentioned your own situation. Maybe you can tell us a bit about the situation in your house.

Simona Montanari: Yes. So I’m a native Italian speaker, and so my daughters grew up hearing Italian from me, English from dad; my husband is American. And we had a nanny that we hired for up to 40 hours a week in Spanish from when they were born. We actually planned their first four, five years of life around Italian and Spanish because we thought this is, and I will talk about this, but it’s very important to really put a lot of input in these minority languages early on because we knew that the children would learn English living in the US anyway. So basically, my daughters heard a lot of Spanish and a lot of Italian. Dad was working all day, so he was only there in the evening and on weekends. And so I always, you know, early on we always said English was our daughter’s third language, the least developed. I still have videos of my oldest at age five and while she has really complex sentences in Italian, and in Spanish in the middle and English, like very basic, like, “I have a fever,” “I want to go there,” kind of like that. And so by doing this, the children developed, I mean, they have like native Italian accent, near-native Spanish. And then English was very accented, very somewhat, if you want to call it, I don’t want to say delayed, but it wasn’t like the English monolingual-speaking children at age five. They entered the school system as as English learners, which is a label in the US given to students who come from homes where another language is spoken. Some of the parents were kind of laughing and say, “Well, I can’t believe that these are the daughters of Robert,” my husband because he’s American. But the children really spoke, “I don’t-e want-e this,” you know, with the real Italian accent in their English. Sure enough, by 15 and 16, like their English is completely native and they’re doing really well academically in English. So obviously, it’s just a process that takes time, but what we learn is that the children can learn the societal language because they live here and all their experiences are in English. But if we hadn’t put the emphasis on Italian and Spanish early on, most likely, especially given the American context, they might not have even been speaking Italian or Spanish.

Sharon Unsworth: Right. That’s amazing, right. If you think about that, that their accents were so strong in English, then that presumably has now completely disappeared. If parents are listening and have got young children and they’re thinking “Hm, I’m not sure that the kids are quite where they need to be right now,” then they should keep hope. Another question that parents often ask, and that’s what about when there’s more than three languages, right? Because there are families where there are four languages in the mix. When is it too much? That’s a question that I got a lot of. What would you advise about that?

Simona Montanari: Yeah, it’s a really tricky question. Again, there is no research on children growing up with four or five, six languages. I think, in general, because we know that input is so important, and we want to make sure that the child has at least a certain level of language development to support cognitive development. If the child was hearing five or six languages and had only a few words in each, he might not have enough to really be able to, I guess, be. I mean, you want the child to be, at least in one language, at a level where other children would be, even if monolingual or bilingual, et cetera. So I would kind of discourage from exposing the child to speakers of five or six languages from birth because I would feel that then the child would not build a foundation in any of these languages. And so I would say, I mean, try to focus maybe on three at most, and then you can later on, when the child is somewhat proficient in one language at least, introduce other languages later on. There is not much research on that. This is just kind of my thinking. But what we know is that we want at least one language in which the child feels enough able to communicate. Because what happens if you have a child who knows words in six different languages but isn’t able to put them together to communicate? I don’t think we want to create that scenario either. And so maybe if there are four languages in the family in the situation, you can still do something where you can make sure that least one language the child is hearing a little bit more of one language to make sure that you give the foundation at least in that one.

Sharon Unsworth: Yes. So it’s not impossible, but it requires some thought to think about what the languages are going to look like for the child or which language are they going to be able to function in at an appropriate level.

Sharon Unsworth: So children are perfectly capable of learning three or more languages and keeping them separate from each other. How quickly they learn the languages depends in part on how much contact they have with them. Language input is certainly important, but it’s also good to realize that it’s not all about how much input you get. A recent study by Karolina Mieszkowska and her colleagues is relevant to you. These researchers looked at Polish-speaking children growing up in England. The children were five years old and some of them spoke Polish at home and English at school, so they were bilingual, and other children spoke another language alongside Polish at home, so they were trilingual. Now, despite the fact that the trilingual children had less Polish at home than the bilingual children, their scores on the vocabulary tests that the researchers used were similar. The bilingual children also recognized as many words as monolingual children, so children in Poland who were growing up with Polish only. But their active vocabulary, so how many words they could say themselves, was lower. The trilingual children had lower scores than the monolingual children on both counts. Now, when it came to the school language, so English, the picture was quite different, as there were no differences at all between groups in English. So both trilingual and bilingual scored as high as monolinguals. So these results actually underscore what Simona was just saying, namely that it’s a good idea in the early years to concentrate on the language or languages that are not spoken at school. Although it might not always go smoothly at the start, as Simona told us in the case of her children, in most cases children will learn the school language without too many problems. More than three languages is possible, but it is a good idea to make sure that there’s at least one language that children hear a bit more of so that they will definitely learn to express themselves in one of their three languages and so that they can use it to learn other things, so to help the general development. All in all, then, raising a child in three or four languages takes some time and effort. And it’s a good idea to regularly have a think about what’s needed to support your child’s multilingualism. This is called family language planning. If you want to hear more about this, listen to the first episode of Kletsheads where we talk about this in more detail. Up until now, Simona has mostly talked about younger children. I asked her what parents can do when the trilingual children get older.

Simona Montanari: Just basically be patient and just know that trilingualism, just like bilingualism, but even more so, is really just a long term project. And it’s also like a continuous long-term project is not just say, “Okay, I’m done now. The kids, they can speak three languages, I’m done.” It is really like a lifelong commitment. I did continue to hire the babysitter until two years ago and my daughters are now 15 and 16. They didn’t need a babysitter, but I kept doing it because they could only study Spanish in high school. And so that was the only way for me to keep the Spanish input and some practice. Even with language that was fairly established early on, the child might lose abilities in that language if they stopped using it altogether. So there’s a major difference, at least in the US, from like, say, up to age five, when the child is still really under parental control or influence, and when the child begins education, that’s when sometimes the challenges begin because the child then will really be drawn to the societal language.

Sharon Unsworth: I think many parents will recognize this, regardless of whether your child is being brought up into three or four languages. When your child goes to school, you often see that there’s more emphasis on the school language and then it can be difficult to keep up the other language or languages. This means that parents of multilingual children often find themselves having a very bilingual and sometimes even trilingual conversation. You might speak your own language to your child, but he or she consistently answers back in a different one, usually the main language of wherever it is that you live, which is most often the same language children learn at school. This was certainly the case for our next guest, at least until the lockdown.


Let’s Klets!

Sara: Hello, I’m Sara. I live in London and I speak Italian with my daughter.

Sharon Unsworth: And how old is your daughter?

Sara: She’s five years old.

Sharon Unsworth: So you speak Italian with her, and do you have a partner and what language do they speak?

Sara: Yeah, my husband is American, so speaks English with my daughter.

Sharon Unsworth: And she goes to school, I guess.

Sara: Yeah. In England, she starts reception here, the first formal school. So yeah, it’s the first year.

Sharon Unsworth: And that’s all in English, right?

Sara: That’s all in English. Yeah.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. So why did you decide to raise your daughter bilingually?

Sara: Well that was quite natural. I mean very intentional, but it wasn’t really a choice. My parents don’t speak English, my family doesn’t speak English. So I really wanted my daughter to be able to engage with them. But also I’ve been a preschool teacher and I realized that I miss a lot of the baby talk in English. So it was just easier for me to engage in Italian.

Sharon Unsworth: And how’s it going with her bilingualism?

Sara: She has always been well in the sense that she was 100 per cent a passive Italian speaker, in the sense that she was understanding everything. She’s never really engaged with me very much in Italian, or until lockdown. And then everything changed with the pandemic, and she’s become practically fluent in both languages.

Sharon Unsworth: Right, so that sounds like quite an exciting story. So before the pandemic, you spoke Italian and she spoke English back, which I think many listeners will recognize as a situation. It happens a lot. Tell us what happened during the lockdown that made her change?

Sara: We knew that she had the words, we knew she had them all and sometimes she would throw in some Italian words, the most relevant, like gnocchi or things like that. But I think with the first lockdown in England, she was four, she was home from nursery for ten weeks. And it became very clear since the beginning that daddy can’t play family so mummy thought, “I could go in there and play.” In hindsight, of course, it was a nice thing because I think through pretend play, as she kept hearing me speak Italian, she gained more confidence, but she was still answering in English. With the second lockdown, I think that was key, my mum was here and got stuck in England for six weeks and she doesn’t speak English at all. My daughter knows that I can speak English, so why should I use Italian? But with my mom, it was clear that she had to speak Italian, so she stopped the answering back. And since then it’s been an explosion. And when my mom left all of a sudden she turned around and spoke to me in Italian. Both me and my husband, who has always been very supportive, we were in tears. We got to the point where it was quite hard to discipline her if she was answering back in Italian because we were so excited about that, we couldn’t get upset. So it was quite a weird dynamic. But yeah, it is just so sweet. All the work paid off, but not just all the work. Just like I was so worried she could never have a real connection with my parents and with me.

Sharon Unsworth: So that’s such a lovely story to come out of the pandemic, right? Have you got any tips for other parents about how they could try and make the most of what you’ve experienced and not lockdown situation?

Sara: Yeah, so for me, it came down to two things. One, really engaging in what she loves. I really engaged in pretend play, which is massively important for her. So I think really choosing the type of play and a topic that really interested her. But I think also my reaction again, I think I was very uptight. Everytime that she was answering in English, naturally, my reaction was like frustrated or sad. And I think she felt that. And I said there’s pride and encouragement. And if she answers in English, I don’t put her off anymore.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. So positivity and really finding the thing that they liked. So let’s talk a bit about school then. So how does your child’s teacher view her bilingualism? Have you ever had conversations about it? Do they do anything with it at school?

Sara: We’re lucky we’re in London, so lots of children in her classroom speak at least another language. So it’s quite common here. I don’t think they do anything specific, but they were amazingly supportive. The last couple of weeks of lockdown, for example, my daughter did a sort of like advent calendars with the window to do the countdown to going back to school, she wrote it all in Italian perfectly by herself. I was amazed and we took a picture and send it to the teachers. And their reaction was like, “Oh, that’s amazing. And now I know how to say February and March in Italian.” So all these little positive messages and, you know, we were talking with them about like, “Yeah, she doesn’t really want to read very much in English,” and they said, like, “Nah, don’t worry. You know, she’s learning Italian and then she’ll come back, she’ll be fine.” So just this very simple gestures that I think one, as a parent, is very inclusive and two, in general, is just natural in the schools.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. So even tiny little things then you’re saying can make the world of difference. So what’s the biggest challenge then for you as a parent of a bilingual child?

Sara: It’s a constant journey. I won the battle. And I was like, what about reading and writing? And I need to worry about that now. So I tried to take a deep breath and not take it again as a battle. And I worry about that next year. I found the right strategy. And then she’s in an age where that strategy won’t work anymore. So it’s a constant adjustment.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, it takes effort. But as far as, you know, the constant adjustment thing, I recognize that from other parts of parenting, too, right. Especially when the kids were little. You thought you just figured out how to get them to stay at the table and eat their dinner and then all of a sudden something happens and they won’t do it anymore.

Sara: And I think the other bit is my husband has always been like 100 per cent supportive and he understands a little bit. So when she was little, he could easily read the book in English or understand our basic conversations. As conversations are getting more complex and books get more complex, it is a little harder as a family to engage. And so I often have to either translate or he’s left out or we’re trying to like say something to her and she doesn’t know that I’ve already told her. So I think the dynamic there is getting a little trickier. I was like so obsessed with not speaking English to her and now I loosened up a little bit for the sake of communication.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, yeah. I hear that from other parents as well. That there comes a point where you realize communication is also really important no matter what language it is in.

Sara: It’s really tiring to constantly translate.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, I can imagine. So what are you most proud of then?

Sara: I think I am most proud of my reaction. So my daughter was born in California and we spent the first year there and the reaction to me speaking Italian to her was very different. I’ve even been explicitly told, “Oh, but why Italian, it’s such a useless language,” in my face? I think I’m proud of not letting those comments turn me off. So they kind of like, made me go even more convinced about it.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. Good for you. And what does the future look like then for your child and her bilingualism?

Sara: I think the key for me at this point is that it’s not just about Italian. She has just opened up the world about like, “Oh, there are so many languages and I’m curious about them all.” She asked me if she’s going to studying Spanish and then, of course, in a very nice way, she mocks daddy for his accent. So she’s picking up on those nuances. It’s just like the general journey, about like multilingualism, in general, it’s not about Italian anymore. It’s fun and exciting. So I think she’s going to be interested and just explore more and then go on holiday and be able to speak the language and engage with people.

Sharon Unsworth: So, yeah, super. So that’s finished with. What would be your piece of advice for other parents? What’s your golden tip?

Sara: Well, don’t get discouraged and don’t underestimate the power of passive knowledge. Don’t beat yourself up because your child only understands it. It’s there and eventually comes out.

Sharon Unsworth: What a wonderfully positive story to come out of what has been for many people, a very challenging period. It was great to talk to Sara about her experiences. And whilst no one is wishing for another lockdown ever again, I hope her story will be reassuring to parents listening and feeling frustrated at the child’s refusal to actively use one of their languages. There is always hope. We turn now from one Italian-speaking guest back to the other. Back then to my conversation with Simona. Now, I often hear from parents that their trilingual children don’t speak the three languages equally well. More often than not, one of the three is weaker than the other two. I asked Simona if this was inevitable.

Simona Montanari: So I think the issue of dominance is pretty inevitable. I doubt that there is a child that can be equally balanced in three languages. I mean, maybe early on, if parents are good at crafting an environment where the child is really hearing like the same amount of each language, but once there’s education, unless, again, there is a type of education where the child is hearing three languages, but I doubt in general, I think that the unbalance or being stronger in one language and weaker another in others, I think that’s inevitable. But it’s also typical. I think that realistically it is okay that my daughter’s Spanish is not like the Spanish of a Mexican speaker. But even when we look at situations where there is societal trilingualism, we look at Luxembourg, we look at that many places in India, Asia, I don’t think those speakers are expected to do everything equally in the three languages because these languages are used in different contexts. So there’s one language for education, one language for business, one language for like the home or so that is totally, totally appropriate.

Sharon Unsworth: So we know for bilinguals and we’ve spoken about that on the podcast before, that bilingual children, because they learn the languages in two different often in different contexts, or they use them for different things, talk different people than they know different words. Presumably, that is going to be the same for trilinguals, of course. But I know that you’ve done work on when children figure out when they do have what we call translational equivalents, so they know the word in both two languages or three languages. Can you maybe tell us a bit more about that?

Simona Montanari: Yes. So this was part of my dissertation and we actually tracked all the words that this child was hearing, Tagalog from mom, Spanish from dad and grandma, and English from her sister, who was nine years older. We tracked from the very first words she produced, every day we tracked all her new words until she had about three hundred words. So she was learning these translation equivalents, so words that have the same meaning in different languages. But she had very few words that she knew in the three languages. And this is just looking at her by two years of age, so she’s still very young. So they do learn words, especially if you’re exposing them. Let’s say we’re at home. And even in my context, you know, I would say, “Go on the divano,” which is couch. And Dad would say, “Go on the couch.” And then the babysitter would say that, too. So the children knew the word in the three languages because they have that exposure. But of course, there are also situations where children do not have exposure to all those three words, I mean, to all those three words. And so they will know some words in one language, they will know some words in another language. They might mix languages as they talk to you because sometimes they don’t know one word in one language and they will borrow from the other. This is all typical. The research that I did early on from my dissertation is on a young child. I was looking at the emergence of a separate word order patterns, separate vocabularies, and that happens for sure. When it comes to interaction, I haven’t studied it consistently with trilingual children, but I did find my daughter at five would say, “I like flowers purple.” So she was basically applying the word order of Italian to English. My youngest had some of these funny constructions like, “I like to go to the birthday of Nico,” right. When we know in English it’s Nico’s birthday. She had these at least until six, seven years of age.

Sharon Unsworth: in a minute will come to ways in which trilingualism might be different from bilingualism. Right. Because we’ve talked a lot about the ways in which actually the same factors are at play in trilingualism or as in bilingualism. But first, we’re going to hear from our Kletshead of the week.


Kletshead of the Week

Sharon Unsworth: In every episode of Kletsheads, we hear from a child growing up with more than one language. In this episode, we have two Kletsheads of the Week: brothers Gabriel and Elliot.

Elliot: My name is Elliot, I’m eight years old and I live in France and I speak Czech, English, French.

Sharon Unsworth: Czech, English and French, three languages living in your head. What’s that like?

Elliot: It’s good, you can speak more than one language, you can talk more in other countries.

Sharon Unsworth: And what languages do you speak at home?

Elliot: French and a little bit English.

Sharon Unsworth: French and a little bit of English. And how come you know Czech?

Elliot: I’m born there, but then we lived here.

Sharon Unsworth: So your mom’s Czech, right?

Elliot: Yes.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. So does she speak to you in Czech?

Elliot: Not really. She does do speak English and Czech with her. But Czech we, like, almost never talk of or.

Sharon Unsworth: Okay, but you still know it, though.

Elliot: Yes.

Sharon Unsworth: OK, which language do you prefer to speak?

Elliot: English.

Sharon Unsworth: English? Aha. And why do you prefer English?

Elliot: I really like talking it. I like how they talk the language, like the accent. So I just like that of English.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. So at school. What languages do you speak at school?

Elliot: French. But English with some of my friends.

Sharon Unsworth: Aha. So is that okay at school? Are you allowed to speak English?

Elliot: Yes. You can speak French, English and I do not know how to say it, allemand?

Sharon Unsworth: Allemand, German. Wow. Is that nice to be able to speak more than one language at school.

Elliot: Yes. I can speak my friends’ other languages.

Sharon Unsworth: And do you dream at night when you’re asleep?

Elliot: Yes.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. What language do you dream in?

Elliot: French.

Sharon Unsworth: How do you know?

Elliot: Because I’m in that dream. I hear when they talk.

Sharon Unsworth: You can remember when you wake up.

Elliot: Yes.

Sharon Unsworth: Wow. Can you teach me something to say in Czech? Because I really don’t know any Czech.

Elliot: One hundred in Czech is as sto, s-t-o. Sto.

Sharon Unsworth: Sto.

Elliot: Yes, sto. One hundred.

Sharon Unsworth: OK, we’re going to finish by, we say thank you and goodbye in a different language. So which language should we do, French or Czech?

Elliot: French.

Sharon Unsworth: French, then I think I know how to say that. So, merci, Eliot, au revoir.

Elliot: Au revoir.

Gabriel: Hello, my name is Gabriel and 12 years old and I live in France. I can speak French, English and Czech.

Sharon Unsworth: French, English and Czech. What’s it like having three languages in your head?

Gabriel: It’s interesting because knowing that if you say a word in French in another country, no one will understand anything. So it’s sort of strange.

Sharon Unsworth: Do you do that sometimes, speaking French in a different country so that no one can understand you?

Gabriel: No.

Sharon Unsworth: No. Oh, that’s very well behaved. And which language do you speak to your brother in?

Gabriel: Most French.

Sharon Unsworth: Mostly in French. Were you born in France?

Gabriel: In London.

Sharon Unsworth: Oh, in London. So you lived in England?

Gabriel: Yeah, for a little bit.

Sharon Unsworth: Which language do you prefer to speak?

Gabriel: Maybe French, because I’m speaking French and I’m more used or I speak better French than the other languages.

Sharon Unsworth: Is the easier to speak in French then?

Gabriel: Yeah.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, yeah. I can imagine if you speak it all day at school then it’s probably easier right, to speak it. How important is it to you that you can speak different languages?

Gabriel: Important, because I want to be able to speak with my family, my friends.

Sharon Unsworth: Aha. So that you can communicate with everybody.

Gabriel: Yes.

Sharon Unsworth: Aha. And some people say that bilingual children are smarter than children who only know one language. What do you think?

Gabriel: No, I don’t think so. It doesn’t change. My friend has better grades than me and he only speaks French.

Sharon Unsworth: Oh, well, there we go then. You know, animals sometimes make different noises in different languages. A cockerel in English says, “Cock a doodle doo.” What about in French?

Gabriel: Cocorico.

Sharon Unsworth: Cocorico. Oh, that’s quite different, isn’t it? And what about in Czech? Can you remember?

Gabriel: No…

Sharon Unsworth: No, it’s quite hard, right, to remember those kinds of things. Now, I don’t know any Czech at all. I know French, but I don’t know Czech. So maybe you can teach me some Czech?

Gabriel: Dobrý den, it’s “hello.”

Sharon Unsworth: Dobrý den?

Gabriel: Yes.

Sharon Unsworth: And how do you count to three?

Gabriel: Jedna, dva, tri.

Sharon Unsworth: Denna, is that number one?

Gabriel: Jed-na.

Sharon Unsworth: Jedna.

Gabriel: Yes. Dva is two, and tři is three.

Sharon Unsworth: Jedna, dva, chi.

Gabriel: Tři.

Sharon Unsworth: Can think of a really difficult word to teach me?

Gabriel: Rohlík.

Sharon Unsworth: What does that mean?

Gabriel: It’s a sort of bread in Czech.

Sharon Unsworth: Aha, right. Rohlig?

Gabriel: Rohlík.

Sharon Unsworth: Rohlík.

Gabriel: Yes, it’s the sort of the bread for hot dogs. It’s what we eat when we go there.

Sharon Unsworth: Aha. So it’s good food in Czech, is it?

Gabriel: Yes.

Sharon Unsworth: What’s the best thing about being bilingual?

Gabriel: Being able to speak to my family and friends.

Sharon Unsworth: And are there any less good things?

Gabriel: It’s hard when you speak no time of a language like and when I go to Czech, sometimes I forget the words I used to know.

Sharon Unsworth: That’s frustrating, right. When that happens.

Gabriel: Yes.

Sharon Unsworth: Do you eventually remember them after you’ve been there for a little while?

Gabriel: Yes.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, I have that, too. So I am English, but I live in the Netherlands, so I speak a lot of Dutch. And so sometimes I forget English words too. But when I go back to England, I remember them. It’s good that, isn’t it? You can dig things up out of your brain that you thought you’d lost and they reappear again.

Gabriel: Yes.

Sharon Unsworth: OK, so we always end by saying thank you and goodbye, so maybe you can teach me how to say that in Czech. So how do I say thank you?

Gabriel: Děkuji.

Sharon Unsworth: Děkuji? Okay, and goodbye?

Gabriel: Ahoj.

Sharon Unsworth: Ahoj?

Gabriel: Yes.

Sharon Unsworth: Děkuji, Gabriel and ahoj.

Gabriel: Děkuji.

Sharon Unsworth: So far, we’ve been talking about the ways in which trilinguals are similar to bilinguals. We see that the same factors play a role in both contexts, so how much contact a child has with the language can matter, one language can sometimes influence the other, and children don’t always know the same words in all of their languages. I was curious to know whether there are any differences between trilinguals and bilinguals. Now, of course, they’re different because trilingual children know a third language, but does that extra language help in any other way? There is research with bilingual children which shows that they’re better able to talk about language, so they have better metalinguistic awareness, as it’s called. There is also research that shows that bilingual children are better than monolingual children when it comes to, for example, ignoring information that’s not relevant or switching between tasks. This is called executive functions. And bilingual children have been claimed to have an advantage over monolingual children when it comes to these skills, precisely because they know two rather than one language. Now, if this is the case, I was wondering whether the benefits for trilingual children might even be greater.

Simona Montanari: So I’m not super familiar with this research, but in general, we know that, for instance, multilingualism promotes this metalinguistic awareness. So my assumption is that if bilingualism promotes this metalinguistic awareness, then trilingualism should promote it even more so, because now, instead of comparing two systems, you’re comparing three systems. I feel that, like, knowing three systems, three language systems definitely makes you even more so paying attention or noticing these differences. There’s also possibly, like, if parents are talking about these issues, then children might be more aware, too. I mean, we had games where, when my kids were two, two and a half, I mean, we were like, “Okay, how does the babysitter say for this?” Or she would say this, “How does Daddy say for this?” And this was actually a game to increase this translation equivalence. And then “How does mommy say for this?” So even just by doing this game, you know, you’re not saying what you say in Spanish, Italian or English, you’re telling the child, “Remember, there’s three ways of saying this.” And it was depending on the person, but it is already kind of like awakening their metalinguistic awareness, you know, the existence of these three languages.

Sharon Unsworth: You don’t know of any, like, research explicitly examining this?

Simona Montanari: I don’t know now about, like, any research on looking at metalinguistic awareness in trilinguals. I mean, research shows that adults who know more languages are also better at learning another language as opposed to one who only knows two. So I’m assuming it’s similar, like, it’s a similar situation there, right. Studying trilingual children is extremely complicated because you have to collect data in three languages. It’s so time-consuming. And so there’s really, unfortunately, there’s very little on what we know about trilingual children.

Sharon Unsworth: So what other advantages are there then, to being trilingual?

Simona Montanari: Besides looking at these cognitive advantages, I think I mean, just the practical, social, emotional benefits. I mean, I’m a strong believer that when children know the parents’ language, especially in cases where parents might speak different languages, it’s very important for the child to know those languages, to really connect with the parent, to build a stronger bond with the parent. I mean, even if the parent speaks the society language and the child speaks the societal language. But for the child to know the parent’s minority language is really connecting with that parent’s heritage and understanding all about where that parent comes from. And so I think socio-emotionally, it’s very important that children develop these three languages. And then there’s the practical benefits that will open opportunities, employment opportunities. Learning different languages also really opens, I think, perspectives and promotes understanding, like seeing the world in different ways. I grew up monolingual and in a small town, actually, I’m from San Marino. So even really, like, small country, we really kind of all thought the same and thought that anything that was a little different was weird, et cetera. I see my children growing up with all of these different languages, different people, different ideas, different ways of doing things. And they’re very, very open. They’re very tolerant to different things, just really the benefits of being able to talk more to different people and being able to have all these different perspectives.

Sharon Unsworth: And one of the questions that I often get asked by parents who are raising children trilingually is what do they do when they speak different languages from each other and they maybe don’t speak each other’s language? Right. So they got to know each other in English often, so in a different language. And then the child comes along and they wonder, you know, “What do we do? Should we carry on speaking English to each other?” There you really see your ‘glass half full’ people versus your ‘glass half empty’ people, because the ‘glass half full’ people say, “Oh, my kid’s trilingual because we speak English to each other and they’re going to learn English,” and the ‘glass half empty’ people are worried that them speaking English is going to cause problems for the children. Now, I don’t really know of any research looking at this. What do you advice to parents in this situation?

Simona Montanari: So I think the research and there’s some research looking at even the types of trilingual families that are most successful. Typically the families that are most successful in raising trilingual children or families who speak the two minority languages at home and the child learns the societal language outside. Because if English is also the societal language and if the parents are speaking English, well, the child is then exposed to that English also at home, I mean, he knows his parents are using English and he might be less determined to also learn these two minority languages, right? But sometimes if that’s the situation, there’s nothing you can do, I mean. So I would say if parents are comfortable enough to speak each other’s language, then they should try to do that so that they can increase the amount of minority languages that the child is hearing. I think they can continue speaking English. They can try to speak as much as possible in their own language to the child, but they shouldn’t have expectations, especially if English is not the societal language –

Sharon Unsworth: like here in the Netherlands, it’s not right.

Simona Montanari: Exactly. In the Netherlands, they shouldn’t expect that the child is learning English by overhearing. There will be some learning, but research shows that the child need to needs to be addressed in that specific language to learn it. And so they shouldn’t think that just overhearing parents is going to make the child already like fluent in English. Be realistic.

Sharon Unsworth: That’s good. That’s the advice I give. So that’s where we’re on the same page.

Sharon Unsworth: So if, for example, you speak German and your partner Arabic and you communicate in English, it’s unlikely that your child will become fluent in English on their own if listening in on your conversations is the only source of English language input. There’s another challenge for families in this kind of situation. If you each speak a different language with your children, how do you make sure that communication runs smoothly when you’re having a conversation as a family? This is a really tricky question. Ideally, you would want to adopt a strategy of what’s called receptive multilingualism. This means that both parents continue to speak their native language, but they know enough of the other language to follow what the other one is saying. So you continue to speak German and your partner might not understand everything, but at least enough to follow the conversation. And then the other way round then for Arabic. Using this approach means that your child gets as much language exposure as possible in both home languages. Of course, this is only possible if you actually understand each other’s languages or are willing and able to go through the trouble of learning them to some extent. If this isn’t the case and you don’t understand each other’s languages at all, then choices need to be made. Which language is most important? What other resources are available to provide input in those languages and which languages does your child actually? Here, too, a family language plan can help.

Simona Montanari: Well, the speaker can make a specific effort in talking as much as possible. If you have limited time, you have three hours as opposed to like eight during the day in the language context, then shower the kid with like tons of language. And I remember many times thinking, “Oh, I’m so tired. I don’t feel like talking,” but I thought, “Well, we want to talk. So the kid is still like hearing Italian in this little time.” Exposed children to, like, to media. Now you can have so many materials and on the Internet, sometimes even just like passive music with the tons, tons of music and audiobooks. In Los Angeles we drive a lot. So we would drive and there were all these like stories in Italian and they were being played. So just try to use all this to really, like I say, I like shower because it really gives a sense of, like, so much like going on the child. Right, in terms of language. And I think that’s how to do it.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. Even if a child hears a language for less time than, say, bilingual or monolingual classmate or agemate. It’s what you do with the time that you have. Right. You can really make an effort as a parent to make that as rich an exposure as you can.

Simona Montanari: It’s not impossible. It’s just that in typical situations where parents work, that they have other things to do. I mean, and it just requires all this effort and planning that not all parents might be able to do. And that’s all. And so the most realistic scenario is that one language will be more dominant, et cetera, and that probably that’s the case in all cases. But productive trilingualism can happen if, again, like parents are putting in a concerted effort. I would say what helps also is really to show to your child that you really value trilingualism.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, yeah.

Simona Montanari: Basically, I’ve praised and praised my kids for being able to speak three languages so that they felt that maybe the extra effort was worth it. So for the parents to show how important it is and and make them confident about it, I mean, my daughter also points that, “I’m smarter than Velma from Scooby-Doo because I speak three languages, and she doesn’t.” She just saw this as an advantage, even if when she went to school, like her English was clearly not like the English of the monolingual children. But you can turn things around making them feel like this is actually really a good thing and not something like of a deficit. I wanted to add something. I think the issue of language similarity also plays a role. I feel that my kids benefited from knowing Italian for their Spanish. I did do some studies which I haven’t published yet, but I looked at how much of their Spanish, even in terms of word order, grammar or like even the words that they use. The words that my daughters used in Spanish were Italian cognates, meaning they knew the Italian words and it could apply in Spanish as well. They didn’t really relearn all these words. In fact, probably they didn’t have time to learn all these new words. But the Spanish that they used was really based on their Italian knowledge. And so I feel that the closer the languages, probably the more successful children would be, right. So you could have a child in Barcelona that speaks Spanish and Catalan and you can easily add Italian and probably because the three languages are so similar. And it doesn’t mean that sometimes that one makes little errors, but there’s so much similarity there that that similarity creates this positive transfer so that child can use knowledge in one language to really, like, also use the other language. And I think this is really a big issue that happens less if you are speaking three languages that are completely different.

Sharon Unsworth: Does that mean that if the languages are too different, then it’s going to be harder?

Simona Montanari: I mean, I don’t know for sure, but I have a feeling that it is, again, because if you are learning two languages, three languages that are completely different, then there’s less of that positive transfer, right. There’s less on that kind of leaning on whatever you know to produce in the other. As I said, my daughters often use Italian, I mean, words that were similar between Italian and Spanish because they knew them from the Italian or even they were improvising, trying to say something in Spanish based on their Italian knowledge, which was still okay and understandable. Now, if you’re dealing between, let’s say, Mandarin and Italian, it’s going to be hard to use your Italian knowledge to produce in Mandarin. So I think the language similarity there will promote in a way like active, what I mean, active trilingualism. Of course, the child can still become productive in three languages that are very different, but that would require even more, I feel, even more of that input, even more effort.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, okay. So again, language similarity, a very interesting topic. I think we’ll have to save that for another episode. Thank you, Simona, for sharing your experiences and what you’ve learned from the research with us.

Simona Montanari: Thank you for having me.

Sharon Unsworth: What have we learned in this episode about trilingualism? It’s perfectly possible to learn three languages as a child. It’s not confusing, and children are more than capable of differentiating between languages. How quickly your child picks up the three languages in question depends in part on how much contact they have with them and how many opportunities they have to use them, which in fact is just the same as bilingual children. Because your child’s language pie is divided into several pieces, it’s more likely that it will be at least one language with less exposure, where there are fewer opportunities to use the language and perhaps less need to do so. This language will require extra effort. Whether you are willing and able to make this effort is, of course, entirely up to you and will depend on your specific situation. It’s also worth remembering that raising a child with more than one language, whether that’s two, three, four or more, is also a dynamic process. As we heard in Let’s Klets! children may go through stages where they don’t actively use one of the languages, even though they understand it perfectly well. But this can change over time. Much depends, I think, on which language or languages are spoken at school and whether the same language or languages are also given lots of space at home. Various studies have shown that the more the minority languages, or the home languages or heritage languages, as they’re sometimes called, the more that those languages are spoken at home and the more consistently, the greater the chances are the children will actually become trilingual. Actually, research into the language development of trilingual children is still in its infancy. As Simona just told us, doing research with trilingual children can be quite challenging. Many studies are about single children, case studies, because it’s often difficult to find enough children with the same three languages and who are about the same age in the same location, and then also put together a team of researchers who are proficient in all three languages. I hope that in the future we will manage to pay more attention to this group of children because I’m sure there’s still a lot more to discover. If you want to know more about Kletsheads, go to Kletsheads podcast dot org. That’s where you’ll also find more information about this episode. And if you want to make sure you don’t miss an episode, subscribe to Kletsheads using your favourite podcast app. Make sure you select the English edition. And if you’ve enjoyed the show, why not share it with a friend? Thanks for listening. And as we say in Dutch: tot het volgende keer.

This transcript was generated using and was checked by Marieke van den Akker.

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