When Trilingual is Not Necessarily Better than Bilingual

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Dear Dr. Gupta:
My partner and I are expecting and we are trying to determine a language plan now. I am a native English speaker, my partner is a native Italian speaker who also speaks Spanish and English fluently; he speaks Spanish better than English. We live in an English-speaking country but in an area where Spanish is widely spoken. There are limited opportunities to speak Italian, but he does have some friends who speak Italian, we Skype often with his family and we will visit Italy often. We’d like our child to speak all three languages, but aren’t sure the best way to go about it. My partner will be the primary caregiver, and we were thinking that he could spend half the day speaking Italian only, and the other half of the day speaking Spanish only. I would then speak to the child in English in the early mornings, evenings and on weekends. We figured that the limited exposure to English early in life would be okay since it’s the predominant language in our area and almost all my family and friends speak English only. Does this plan seem like it would work? Italian is very important to him culturally, so we definitely want the child to share that with him. However Spanish is very useful where we live so we’d like to give our child the opportunity to speak it as well.
Thank you,
Michele

Dear Michele,
I’m not really a big fan of the deliberate planning of the linguistic day like this, but if you can do it, and it works for you, then go ahead. To me it seems a bit artificial, and I don’t understand why you want to bring Spanish in.
When you socialise a child you are doing more than just teaching languages. It seems to me that speaking Italian will come naturally to your partner. and speaking English will come naturally to you.  I agree that there is no need to be anxious about English, but the basic parental division into Italian/English should give a strong basis for acquiring both languages together. You will need to make sure there is a strong foundation in Italian. This is because, as your child gets older, there will not be much support for Italian, as you realise.
What do you speak when you are together? Is it a mixture of Italian and English? Or English? Do you ever naturally bring Spanish into the mix?  Unless there is a natural place in your home for Spanish already, then I would suggest just going with the two languages. I am not sure why you want to have a third, and introducing it could threaten the continued development of Italian.
If Spanish is used in your community, and if it is useful, then you should have plenty of opportunities to introduce Spanish later, maybe when it comes to daycare or pre-school.  Many children learn additional languages outside the home.  I think this would be better, and more natural, than the split day idea.
Good luck!
Dr. Gupta

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Anthea Fraser Gupta is a sociolinguist with an interest in how children learn to talk. She was born into a monolingual environment in Middlesbrough, England, but enjoyed learning about languages from an early age. She gained a B.A. in English Linguistic Studies and Archaeology at the University of Newcastle, then went on to do an M.A. in Linguistics. She left Newcastle in 1975 to work in Singapore, where she encountered a society in which multilingualism is usual and expected. In Singapore nearly all children come to nursery school already able to speak 2 or 3 languages. While lecturing in the linguistics of English at the National University of Singapore, she did a doctoral degree at the University of York, looking at the language acquisition over two years of four Singaporean children who were growing up with four languages. In Singapore, she also married a man from a multilingual family from India. She returned to England in 1996 to the School of English at the University of Leeds, where she taught courses on both English language and bilingualism until her retirement in 2010. Anthea has had experience in a range of multilingual and multicultural societies and families. She has published books and articles on English, especially the language use of children in Singapore, and has also produced a novel for children set in Singapore. She is deeply interested in child development and believes that the most important thing in raising a child is to provide love and stimulation, regardless of what language or languages are learned.

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