My husband (German) and I (Singaporean) have two children, aged 5 and 7. He speaks German to them, I speak Chinese (even though English is my L1 and Chinese my second language). Between us, my husband and I speak English. I am fluent in German. Our children were born in Germany and we made a conscious decision for our children to be trilingual. Our children speak all 3 languages with each other.
We are concerned about our 4 year old son, Noah. He’s just been assessed to have ADHD and sensory integration disorders. The doctor recommended that we concentrate on one or two languages so as to reduce frustration. The mainstream language in school is German. It has been observed by both the doctor and the class teacher that Noah has problems with vocabulary and ordering his ideas.
When we moved to Singapore 3 years ago, Noah was 1.5 years old. He spoke Chinese, picked up English very quickly in Singapore and just before approaching 3, he started speaking German. He could sing nursery songs before that and say some German words, but he could not talk to someone in German about everyday things (e.g. I have an apple). German is his weakest language.
We are perplexed, should we leave Chinese out? The doctor said we can integrate it again at a later stage. Can we, really? It’s quite a bit of adapting for the boy.
Since German is the academic L1 and my husband is often travelling, it seems to make sense that I speak German with Noah. I have near-native proficiency, but German isn’t my mother tongue, it’s just not natural. English is my L1.
Noah will learn English when he moves on to primary school. He will be streamed into either levels: EFL, E-Intermediate or ENN (Near-Native), with German as L1.
Can you please advise. Any suggestions at all, we are at a loss of what to do.
What you say about your boy’s linguistic development describes a perfectly typical developmental path. The advice you received to reduce the number of languages in your household is commonly reported by multilingual families. This advice is also quite baseless, in that there is no support for the view that number of languages in any way affects a child’s development and/or disorders.
You say that German is his weakest language and I was tempted to ask: weakest for what? The languages of a multilingual are typically used for different purposes, and so naturally develop in different ways. Your boy will not use all of his languages in the same way because if he could do so he wouldn’t need several languages: one all-purpose language would be enough. “One all-purpose language” describes a monolingual, not a multilingual.
Observed or suspected problems with vocabulary and ordering of ideas in the school language mean that your son needs exposure to German vocabulary and ordering of ideas for schooling purposes, which he obviously cannot have had so far, given his age. His German will develop, with daily practice in school, for the purposes that this language is now required to fulfill. His German will not develop by removing from him other languages that serve other purposes.
Dropping Chinese will only create, or increase, the frustration that you fear. Your son is used to a specific linguistic landscape around him. Forcing him to deal with changes in what he has so far taken for granted, besides at a time of predicted changes and hassles because of his diagnosis, cannot be a sensible choice. He will need all the support that he has had from his parents so far, and he will expect this support in the languages that he has been nurtured in so far.
Having said this, there is no reason to prevent you from using German with your son, if and when the need arises to assist him in this language with, for example, homework. As said, different languages are naturally used for different purposes. This is true both for him and for you.
You may want to have a look at the Multilingual Living Language Disorders series, where I address similar matters that could be of interest to you. Here: www.multilingualliving.com/category/multilingualism-disorders/
Do feel free to contact me privately, if you wish to discuss these matters in greater detail.