[lg policy] Linguist List Issue: Language Strategies for Trilingual Families

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Message1: Language Strategies for Trilingual Families
From:Liubov Baladzhaeva baladjaeva at gmail.com
LINGUIST List issue http://linguistlist.org/issues/26/26-34.html


Announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/25/25-623.html 

Review's Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


While there are now many books about raising bilingual families and raising bilingual children, tri- and multilingualism in families has been much less explored. Because of globalization and professional migration it is more and more frequent that several languages are spoken in one family. 

The book's goal is twofold. On one hand, the authors try to encompass a spectrum of trilingual families. On the other hand, they try to present parents who wish to raise their children trilingual with successful strategies for doing it. Often the parents who are faced with a task of raising trilingual children have themselves grown up in a monolingual environment. Thus, they do not have the necessary experience and parenting models for raising trilingual children. Also, the task of maintaining three languages and teaching them to a child may be too daunting and exhausting for parents.

It is important to note that the book is first and foremost concerned with trilingual families. In such families not all the languages are necessarily used with the children, who might be raised bilingual or even monolingual.

The book is based mostly on a study of 70 trilingual families in Germany and the United Kingdom conducted by the authors. Other sources of information about trilingual families were Internet forums about trilingualism and many personal accounts of parents expressed in the emails they sent to the authors. 

A list of resources on trilingualism is provided at the end of the book.

Chapter 1. Trilingualism and Multilingualism: an Overview.

This chapter provides an introduction to the book. In it the goals of the book are explained and some background about trilingualism is provided. The authors emphasize that their book is not just focused on trilingual children, it is first and foremost a book about trilingual families and it is mostly addressed to parents in such families. The authors name the central issues they are going to explore in the book: parents' strategies and choices and what influences them, beliefs about and attitudes towards trilingualism, identities of children and parents in trilingual families. This chapter also introduces the study on which the book is based. Among the 70 families in the study more than 40 languages were spoken. The families were divided into three groups, by means of a "language background" tool developed by the authors. The first group consisted of monolingual parents who each speak a different native language. They currently live in a community where a third language is !
 spoken. The authors define bilingual as someone who speaks two languages from childhood. Thus, when they talk about "monolingual" parents they mean people that were raised monolingual, but currently may be functional in two or more languages. In the second group we find families in which at least one parent is bilingual from childhood. In this group a community language may be native to one of the parents, but two additional languages are also spoken in the family natively. The third group consists of families in which at least one parents is trilingual from childhood.

Each group is later described in a separate chapter. In each of these chapters the authors cover the use of language between parents and children, in school, in extended family and in culture and community. The chapter concludes with information on attitudes towards multilingualism in society, mainly in Germany. While the country population has become very diverse, it did not change the generally positive attitude towards monolingualism and full assimilation of the minorities. However, the authors say that the main challenge the trilingual families face is not the hostility of the community, but practical difficulties of maintaining several languages in daily life. Thus, the book is mostly concerned with dealing with and overcoming such difficulties.

Chapter 2. Comparing Bilingual and Trilingual Families.

This chapter presents existing research on bilingualism and trilingualism. They state that trilingualism is not simply an extension of bilingualism, even though there are some similarities between the two, but trilingualism is its own phenomenon which should be studied separately. However, currently there is not enough research on multilingualism to reach solid conclusions about many of its aspects. One of the arguments they make is that while there are only three possible orders for bilingual acquisition, there are 13 possible orders of acquisition in trilingualism. The question of confusion between languages is addressed. The authors present the theory that multilingual systems do not equal to the sum of the languages and discuss the possible cognitive advantages of bi- and multilingualism. The authors claim that being trilingual means not just speaking three languages but also having a very complex linguistic and cultural awareness. They describe bi- and trilingualism as !
 dynamic processes the development of which is constantly being affected by environmental factors.

Chapter 3. Monolingual Parents Living Abroad (Group 1).

In this chapter the first group of the trilingual families is described. In this group both parents were raised monolingual, with different native languages, and now raise their children in a community where the third language is spoken. Parents in this group are very motivated to raise their children trilingual and usually employ the "One Parent One Language" (OPOL) policy at home, while the community language is acquired at school. The parents in this group feel strongly about passing their only native language to their children. Out of the three groups this group had the most success raising their children trilingual. Families in Germany often raised their children with four languages, because they preferred to send them to International schools, even when neither parent spoke English natively. Extended family is used as a support system for maintaining parents' languages, since very often the children's grandparents and other relatives live in foreign countries and do no!
 t speak the language of the community where the child lives. Communication with grandparents is also motivating parents to pass their native languages to the children. Many parents in this group also wish to pass their cultural traditions, in which languages play an important part.

Chapter 4. One or Both Parents are Bilingual (Group 2).

In this group of families at least one of the parents grew up bilingual. One of the parents often speaks natively the language of the community where the family lives. In some cases both parents are bilingual and have the same language background, while they live in a community where the third language is spoken. Many parents in this group struggled with maintaining all three languages. If they wanted to use the OPOL strategy, they often had to drop one of their languages. Also their languages, even though spoken from childhood, were not necessarily in balance, and bilinguals preferred to speak only their strongest language to the children. Having bilingual relatives added to the challenge of maintaining the weakest language, since the children already had a common language with their relatives and did not have to learn another language to communicate with them. Bilingual parents often saw themselves as belonging to several or mixed cultural traditions. Unlike the first grou!
 p, they did not always feel that maintaining a language is essential for maintaining a culture, so the language was dropped, while they continued with the cultural traditions.

Chapter 5. One or Both Parents are Trilingual (Group 3).

In this group of families the language landscape is the most complicated. At least one parent speaks three or more languages from childhood. The other parent may also speak three or more languages, or be bilingual or in few cases monolingual. Often these families see English as a global language and choose to bring up their children speaking only English. Families living in England were more likely to raise their children monolingual, and usually their extended family spoke English well enough to communicate with the children. Families in Germany often preferred to send their children to international schools, where English and German were acquired, and sometimes one additional language was acquired at home to some extent, mostly to speak with the relatives who did not know either English or German. As in the second group, the parents wanted to pass their cultural traditions to the children, but in their eyes the traditions were not strongly connected to their home languages!
  and did not affect their language choices much.

Chapter 6. Trilingual Proficiency in a Multilingual Society.

This chapter focuses on multilingual communities such as Israel, Mauritius and Luxembourg. In monolingual communities multilinguals are often met with prejudices and negative attitudes. They might be seen as having low social status, since often multilinguals are immigrants, sometimes unskilled and uneducated. However, in multilingual communities speaking several languages is the norm. Such communities often offer educational support for raising children multilingually. However, even in multilingual communities people may speak only some of the languages of the community or be monolingual. Sometimes only elite groups have access to all the available languages of the community. Both monolingual and multilingual communities currently are affected by the status of English as a global language. In monolingual communities English is often added to the linguistic repertoire, while in multilingual ones it may replace another language.

Chapter 7. Concluding Words.

This chapter summarizes the issue of trilingual families and raising trilingual children. It praises the parents who decided to raise their children trilingual and offers encouragement. The authors acknowledge that bringing up children with several languages is a very hard job for the parents, but it is worth it. The offer some examples of famous multilingual people that may serve as role models. 


This book shows how complex is the phenomenon of trilingualism and how different trilingual families can be. It offers an overview of diverse challenges that different kinds of trilingual families may encounter. 

The book is published in the series "Parents' and Teachers' Guides" and it is mostly a practical guide for parents, not an academic book. It offers some theoretical background on the issue, however, in a simplified and shortened form. It is an invaluable manual for trilingual parents; it could help them to choose strategies and methods for maintaining trilingualism in their children. The tips that are offered to the parents are practical and helpful.

However, there is an issue of terminology and the view of bilingualism that is presented in a book. The term "bilingual" refers only to childhood bilinguals. When parents are described as mono-, bi- or trilinguals the term only refers to how many languages they learned before puberty. Therefore, often parents are called "monolinguals" while in fact they may speak several languages fluently in their daily life. While this understanding of bi- and multilingualism is common among non-linguists, it is very limited. It does not take into account that for parents their childhood languages are not necessarily the dominant ones in their adult lives. In fact, a parent may choose to speak the language that was only acquired in adulthood to the children, and the book does not describe such a situation, except for using English as lingua franca in the family, nor offer any tips for parents like that. Many multilingual readers who did not acquire their additional languages in childhood m!
 ay be offended by being called "monolinguals" in terms of this book. 

Liubov Baladzhaeva is a PhD student at the University of Haifa. She is interested in multilingualism, language acquisition and attrition. 

Also you can take a look at it by visiting 

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