Mother Tongues Stories
How to juggle three languages in the house
We are a mixed culture and mixed race young family with five languages shared collectively. The question is, how can we pass these onto our children without overwhelming them? Which languages should we prioritise? How do we pass them on? What will be their identity and how will their languages shape them?
Before I dig into our conundrum, let me introduce ourselves.
I was born in Hong Kong and later grew up in England from the age of 11. I have also lived in Spain, Colombia, China and Taiwan as an adult, hence I speak English, Cantonese, Spanish, Mandarin and French. I feel incredibly fortunate as these are some of the most spoken languages in the world, so I rarely end up in a place where I am totally lost for words (minus the Middle East and Slavic world).
My languages also help me to express the different dimensions of my identity
English is my practical and intellectual language; Cantonese is my family and childhood language; Spanish is my emotional and philosophical language; Mandarin is my pragmatic and poetic language; and finally, French is my love and (new) family language. I cannot imagine speaking any fewer languages as I would feel like I have lost a part of myself. As for my wife, she’s of French and Belgian origin, although she grew up all her life in the southwest of France, a town called Pau at the foothills of the Pyrenees.
She has always been fascinated by languages but it was not until her late teens and early adulthood that she pursued acquiring foreign languages actively. She speaks the same languages as me except for Cantonese (possibly one of the most difficult languages to learn as a foreigner).
the Many languages in the house
Together, we have two children aged almost 2 and 4. As a family, we converse in English mostly, with some rare occasions when we would switch to French, Spanish or Chinese (if we are immersed in those environments to accommodate others). With my wife, we have lived in China and Taiwan before our marriage. Since then, we have lived in Montpellier (France) for four years before our recent move to Barcelona (Spain) in 2020.
A challenge that keeps us alive
No, we do not make it easy for ourselves, that is for sure! But it is a challenge that my wife and I enjoy. To constantly rediscover and redefine our own identity whilst discovering new cultures and languages is something that keeps us on our toes and makes us feel alive. As adults, we have the ability to navigate and manipulate these circumstances but I would be lying if I did not admit our worry for the identity of our own children. This is why I have been reading a lot about raising multilingual families and what they are essentially identified as – Third Culture Kids (I will add some book suggestions at the bottom of this article regarding these themes).
One Parent One Language approach
So what is our strategy? We decided to adopt the One Parent One Language (OPOL) approach, as research has suggested that this is the most effective way to begin bilingualism (and later multilingualism) in young children. My wife speaks French to the kids and I speak English.
“Why don’t you speak Cantonese to your kids?” – many people have asked, especially my parents for obvious reasons. As I mentioned before, I grew up with English as an adolescent and adult, so it became the language I feel most comfortable with expressing myself. That said, I am not abandoning the idea of passing on Chinese to our children, only to introduce this at a later stage (from 4 years old, at least that is the plan). I have decided to introduce Mandarin rather than Cantonese, as I feel that it has much more practical usage for their future. Mandarin is the most spoken Chinese language, as opposed to Cantonese which is a regional language for Hong Kong and the southern Chinese province of Guangdong. As for Spanish, this is actually one of the reasons we moved to Barcelona, to give them the opportunity to immerse themselves in the Spanish language and culture. Although this also comes with an added bonus of learning Catalan (potentially their fifth language?).
Keeping the languages balanced as been the biggest challenge
So far, things have more or less gone to plan, although keeping the languages balanced (i.e. not letting one language become overly dominant) has been the biggest challenge. Whilst still living in France, it was French being the dominant language by far, thus I had to really make special efforts to read a lot to them in English and listen to English songs as frequently as possible. This effort definitely pays off and the kids were always receptive no matter what language we read to them.
Since our move to Spain though, the table flipped and English became the dominant language (sometimes overly so). French suddenly became the minority language and a new responsibility has fallen on my wife’s shoulders to really ensure she sticks to speaking only French to the children. Reading in French has now become a much more urgent priority and even our family lingua franca has to sometimes be pushed towards French. The key, I believe, is to constantly adapt and frequently evaluate the language balance in the family.
Raising a bilingual family does require lots of effort and planning
Well, that is just a snapshot of where we have been and where we are at now. As you can see, raising a bilingual (or even multilingual) family does require lots of effort and planning. Contrary to common beliefs that kids are sponges and they will “just pick things up”, we as parents and educators really need to set the right environment and give them opportunities to acquire those languages.
I have come across many multicultural families in the past and not all of them have managed to share their most treasured heritage, their language(s), with their children. Every language is a lens we use to see the world from a different shade or angle. Being able to see the world through my multilingual lenses is possibly my most treasured virtue and one that I wish my children could inherit in their future. It is this desire that motivates me every day to make that effort in planning, finding the balance and being their guide to have contact with these languages.”
Growing up with Three Languages by Xiao-lei Wang (2008) Available on multilingual-matters.com. Get it here
Language Strategies for Trilingual Families by Andreas Braun and Tony Cline (2014) Available on multilingual-matters.com. Get it here
Third Culture Kids (Third Edition) by David Pollock, Ruth Van Reken and Michael Pollock (2017). Find out more
Raising Up a Generation of Healthy Third Culture Kids: A Practical Guide to Preventive Care by Lauren Wells (2020) Find out more
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