Trilingual Miracle: Interview with Belgian Linguist Jean-Marc Dewaele

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trilingual child

Prof. Jean-Marc Dewaele and his daughter Livia

By Clo
Originally published in Multilingual Living Magazine

In my constant quest of knowledge to better understand the different and complex facets of multilingualism, I stumbled across a very informational paper by Dr. Jean-Marc Dewaele, a Belgian Professor in Applied Linguistics and Multilingualism at Birkbeck College in London,UK.

A bilingual from birth himself (French and Dutch) and father of a trilingual girl, he wrote “Trilingual first Language Acquisition: Explosion of a Linguistic Miracle,” with a very personal focus on his trilingual daughter, raised in Dutch and French in an English-speaking environment, with a passive exposure to Urdu in her first years of life. 

At the time the paper was published, his daughter Livia was aged five. By recounting her progressively complex daily phrases and verbal remarks, Dr. Dewaele explains in concrete terms fascinating concepts such as metalinguistic awareness, code switching, transfer errors, emotional attachment to the language, and the view on multilingualism by the multilingual kids themselves. But, above all, he reassures multilingual parents on the normal cognitive development of trilingual kids from birth.

In the following interview, conducted in 2006, his daughter was nine and I was curious to see how things had evolved linguistically for her. He gladly shared with us her cemented trilingualism.



Clo: How old is Livia today and what does she speak primarily?
Jean-Marc Dewaele: Livia is nine.  She’s still trilingual, but English is clearly her dominant language and also her preferred language for private speech.  We still use our languages (French and Dutch) with her, but we are more flexible in (accepting) the language she decides to speak with us.  For instance, she prefers English when she talks about things that happened at school and we don’t force her to switch to one of the family languages. It isn’t always easy to draw a line. My wife is slightly more tolerant than me in her use of English.
She’s perfectly able to communicate with French and Dutch-speaking children. She can read French quite well, as she has been taking French classes (1 hour a week) with English children.  It helps her understanding that linguistic knowledge is an asset.

Clo: Did she develop an accent in any of the languages she masters?
Jean-Marc Dewaele: Her French and Dutch are still native-sounding to my ears, and she does not have an accent in English either.  I was told that her English sounds relatively high-class (she picked it up in private nursery), despite the fact that many children in her school speak a lower sociolect. Funnily enough, she’s exceptionally good in imitating the Irish and the American accents!

Clo: When she began attending primary school, did she experience a dramatic improvement in the schooling/environmental language vs. the languages spoken at home?
Jean-Marc Dewaele: Her English was acceptable before primary school, as she went to an English nursery, but yes, it improved considerably.  Today she’s particularly keen on using “difficult” words to impress her friends and teacher.  Recent acquisitions have been “test a hypothesis”, and “pragmatics”!

Clo: How did you manage to nurture the harmonious development of the other two languages?
Jean-Marc Dewaele: By applying regularly the OPOL (One parent, one language) method, via regular input through books, videos, and visits to Belgium. We still read her stories in Dutch or French to this day. We also play trilingual scrabble!

Clo: Has Dutch remained the dominant family language or do you keep on switching depending upon the interlocutor?
Jean-Marc Dewaele: Dutch is dominant, however I guess we’ve become a real trilingual code-switching family!  In this respect, not much has changed since she was five. Code-switching occurs freely with other multilinguals sharing her languages.  However, in conversation with monolinguals, she keeps to a monolingual mode.
She would still make occasional transfer errors, but they are quite rare.  I would say it’s more the case for linguistic creativity in wordplay, literal translation of idiomatic expressions.

Clo: Did Livia retained any passive knowledge of Urdu?
Jean-Marc Dewaele: No, she lost that completely, with the exception of 2 or 3 words.

Clo: Did you maintain the OPOL method along the way? If you changed, why and what did you try?
Jean-Marc Dewaele: We did relax the rules a little, depending on the circumstances (topic, presence of an English-speaking friend etc.)

Clo :
Have you had other kids and, if so, which language do the siblings speak among one another?
Jean-Marc Dewaele: We haven’t, she’s remained an only child.

Has she taken on any additional languages yet?

Jean-Marc Dewaele: She hasn’t studied any additional language systematically.  She has learned a few words of Spanish while vacationing in Spain, but she claims she’s in no hurry to learn additional languages with the three she already masters (hard to argue at this point!).

Clo: How does she feel about her trilingualism?
Jean-Marc Dewaele: She’s happy with it, but doesn’t see it as something exceptional.  Most other kids in her class are (more or less) bilingual immigrants.  She has a third language, but nobody has ever made her feel extraordinary about it.  She gets the odd compliment about it, but there are many things she’s more proud about (like her blue belt in karate, or the article she wrote last week about how karate changes your life).

This is the first in a series of articles which were originally published in Multilingual Living Magazine about Prof. Jean-Marc Dewaele and his daughter, Livia. Stay tuned for more!
Don’t miss our Multilingual Lives interview with Prof. Dewaele.

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