Is My Own Trilingualism Becoming An Obstacle To Nina’s?

200910-04I speak all three languages (Mandarin, English, French) in which we are raising Nina, although we adopt OPOL (one parent one language) method at home – I speak Mandarin with Nina, and Nicolas speaks French with her. Being a native speaker of Mandarin I am certainly the biggest source of regular Mandarin input for Nina. And I am proud of that.

However recently I have been thinking if my own capability of speaking three languages actually has, ironically, become an obstacle in Nina’s capability of learning them, especially Mandarin.

At about 2 months shy from turning three, she understands Mandarin perfectly, but she doesn’t speak as many Mandarin as French (French currently is her strongest language especially when it comes to verbal production). If she spends long enough hours in a day just with me, or if I prompt her to speak in Mandarin for certain things, she would produce more Mandarin. Lately I have also learnt some techniques in having her speak more Mandarin (or in any language really). However left alone, she seems to use French sentence structure as her base of constructing verbal language generally.

That got me thinking: what if I didn’t speak/understand French at all or just at very basic level?

Would then she learn, over time, that ‘mm mama doesn’t understand me, so I have to find a way to let her know that I want to eat that ice-cream’, so that would leave her no choice but to communicate with me only in Mandarin?

Would I then stick to reading just Mandarin books, as I am not capable of reading books in the other two languages? Currently I would pretty much read whichever book that she asks me to or that comes in handy. And I have dilemma on which language to read the books in, which is an ongoing dilemma.

Would it then also change the language dynamics in the whole family, esp that Nicolas and I would speak more Mandarin than anything else, so Nina would get a lot more Mandarin input overall at home? Currently we speak French between two of us.

These are of course just theoretical questions that I will have no way to find out the answer – and I am not even attempted to try by pretending that I don’t speak the other two languages well enough. I enjoy many advantages of being trilingual – including seeing the confused faces of strangers trying to figure out my accent 🙂 But perhaps like almost everything in life, it also comes with a price.


  • marinakappa

    January 7, 2015 at 8:09 am Reply

    Dear Yin, I have the same issue. I am bilingual Greek/Italian, my son is growing up trilingual Greek/Italian/French and I speak also french fairly well. I feel Italian is losing ground as I am the only one talking to him in this beautiful language. He of course understands everything (tv, radio, friends in Italy) but his production although present is low in lexicon and is borrowing hugely by the so close structure of French. I guess he will ameliorate in the future with an Erasmus course or an italian girlfriend 😉

  • Branka

    February 24, 2015 at 12:51 am Reply

    We have a similar situation in our house. Twins of 3 (almost 4) – I speak Serbo-Croatian, my husband Spanish, we live in Italy and speak with each other in English. Kids have a dominant Italian language (at a level of a two/three year old monolingual child), speak my language only if I ask “how does mummy say” or if I pretend not to understand, Spanish on a basic level, and English some words and some songs.
    They rarely mix… I wonder whether we are exaggerating…

    • Yin @ trilingual family

      February 27, 2015 at 11:07 am Reply

      Hi Branka, it turns out that I was just thinking too much 🙂 1 month after I wrote this, my daughter started to make a clear distinction between the two languages, and now speaks Mandarin only with me, and French only with her dad, and no longer mixing! As your children show, they probably have different levels of proficiency in different languages (due to different levels of input) they rarely mix. At some age (and researches suggest around 3) they start to de-mix.

  • Serina

    May 24, 2015 at 11:16 pm Reply

    Hi Yin, just discovered your site, am loving it!
    Our family setup is similar to yours; I have Chinese origins who grew up with English and Mandarin, and hubby is French. We have 2 children now aged 16 and 9. In terms of dominance in their languages, it would be English followed by French, then Mandarin.
    We have moved around a lot (lived and worked in 9 cities across 4 continents and visited many more these last 20 years) and staying put in one country for the long term seems alien to us. Making sure that the kids develop Native (or near Native) Level proficiency in their 3 languages, without closing ourselves from the different Community Languages in order to open ourselves to local residents and making each experience count, have been priorities on our journey. I worried that being trilingual would impede the kids’ progress. But I can assure you that at least in our case, no. I have had to help them in their homework given in the 3 languages, I have called parents using French with them following the conversations and interjecting. They have seen me work in French. We have lived in places where French and Mandarin were minority languages, we have also lived in places where English and Mandarin were the minority ones, and even where all 3 were. So even if Mandarin is their weakest language, I am putting it down to the mechanics of it and the fact that until 3 years ago they didn’t have Chinese speaking friends :-)). And the friends they have made!!!
    So here’s to the most exciting phase of your trilingual adventure with little Nina !
    Best, Serina xoxo

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