Still trilingual at ten: Livia’s multilingual journey

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Still trilingual at ten, by Jean-Marc Dewaele

Jean-Marc Dewaele's daughter, Livia, balancing her three languages

By Jean-Marc Dewaele
Originally published in Multilingual Living Magazine

When I wrote my first article on my daughter Livia’s trilingualism in 2000, she was three years old, and she had managed to acquire active knowledge of English, Dutch and French, as well as a passive knowledge of Urdu. I described the relief I felt as a father that the research on early multilingualism was right after all: a child who is continuously exposed to several languages develops competence in all these languages. Moreover, this multilingualism from birth does not result in any retardation in linguistic or cognitive development and several distinct linguistic systems emerge.

Seven years on, I continue to be amazed by Livia’s multilingual repertoire. Although through lack of exposure to Urdu, she has lost it completely, she remains highly fluent and sounds native-like in her other three languages. This does not mean that she is equally strong in her languages or that production in the three languages is equally effortless. The wider environment is much more powerful than anything parents can do at home. She goes to an English school, is surrounded by English-speaking friends, watches English films, reads English books, hence the logical and inevitable dominance of English. It is her social language and also her “inner” language.

She used to speak English to her dolls, now she still mutters in English when displeased about something. The absence of a large enough peer-group of French and Dutch speakers means that, although she is perfectly able to interact with monolingual French and Dutch-speaking Belgian friends at her grandparents’ home in Belgium, her French and Dutch are more stilted.

My wife and I are her main sources of input for Dutch and French, and what 10 year-old wants to sound like her parents?! In other words, she can sound more “sophisticated” in English, she can tell jokes better in that language, and she can express emotions, sarcasm and irony in English better than she can in French or Dutch.

It does not mean that she is unable to understand jokes, emotions, irony or sarcasm in French and Dutch, on the contrary: she reacts appropriately when I read her beautifully sarcastic passages of Alexandre Dumas’ Trois Mousquetaires (which contains a lot of vocabulary and grammatical forms that are unfamiliar to her) and the same applies to my wife’s reading of children’s novels in Dutch. However, she is unlikely to produce that kind of discourse herself in French or Dutch, and she would typically switch to English when talking to us about something emotional or when telling a humorous story or a joke. For example, we went to see the film Crusade in Jeans in Bruges during the Christmas break. The film, based on a Dutch novel, is in English. We saw a version dubbed in Dutch and Livia was thrilled by it. Yet, afterwards she preferred to discuss the emotional issues in English.

This also shows why we’ve relaxed the rule of one person – one language. We still each address Livia in our own language but we allow her to answer back in English if she feels like it. We started allowing English for discussion of school issues that were hard for her to translate, like reporting what had happened to her friends in class, what the teacher had said, and what someone else had answered. We felt it would be unreasonable to insist on her translating everything, especially because my wife and I are both fluent in English. We also wanted to avoid stifling Livia’s wish to express herself freely. By insisting too much on her using our languages, we feared we could create the opposite effect, namely a complete refusal to use the languages at all.

However, allowing Livia to talk about certain topics in English inevitably opened the gate to English. Since most of her other activities happen in English, she reports everything in English, even the things that “happened” in French or Dutch. She dreams mostly in English and calculates in English. I still nudge her to speak French with me, but my wife is less insistent.

I also realize that we often answer back in English, but typically in a code-switching mode. My wife and I typically code-switched a lot between Dutch and French before Livia’s birth, now our code-switching patterns are trilingual and it feels perfectly normal. The other crucial fact is that my wife and I have lived in London for 13 years now, and that English has become “our” language too.

I would even say that I have become dominant in English as far as academic writing is concerned. It does not stop me making the odd embarrassing pronunciation mistake – to Livia’s great glee. The moment I open my mouth in English, I’m identified as an L2 user, which does not bother me at all. Having a trilingual child makes one realize how dynamic languages are. Livia’s proportion of utterances in English spoken at home typically peaks before a holiday.

During the holiday we spend more time together, we might go to Belgium where she can speak French with her paternal grandparents; Dutch with her maternal grandmother, her aunts, uncles, and cousins; and Dutch with the friends in her grandparents’ neighbourhood. These friends are typically monolingual and Livia manages to cut the code-switching and stick to a monolingual language mode.

All this input in Dutch and French pushes her preference for English down a little. However, as soon as she returns to school, the dominance of English establishes itself again. She stopped going to a weekly French class because she was not learning much and because of scheduling problems. My wife and I are teaching her to read in French and Dutch, and she started doing literacy papers in French for younger children.

She loves reading English novels (JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Enid Blyton and Jacqueline Wilson are her favorites) and she greatly enjoys writing. Not surprisingly, she got the highest scores of her class for English in a national test called SATs (out-performing the monolingual English speakers). She is also passionate about theatre. She has been taking drama classes for four years and she has learned to project her voice, to articulate clearly and to overcome stage fright.

Her English sounds relatively posh (she picked it up in a private nursery and has kept it ever since), despite the fact that many children in her school speak a lower sociolect. She also avoids using stigmatized variants. In a funny episode, a Belgian friend wanted to show off his (very limited) knowledge of English, and uttered a really offensive four-letter word with a broad innocent smile. Livia was shocked and told him off. This was a taboo word, she explained, and she had some trouble accepting that the Belgian friend could be unaware of this. I personally thought the episode was really interesting. I have been studying the use of swearwords in foreign languages, and one of the findings is that these words never seem to be that offensive in a foreign language because they lack the strong emotional connotations of the equivalent words in the first language.

Livia is very happy to be trilingual but she does not see it as a particular achievement. Many of her friends come from immigrant families and they speak Polish, Portuguese, Turkish, Somali, Gujarati, Chinese and Lingala. She has a third language, but only adults may give her the odd compliment about it.  She is of course delighted when someone thinks it is really interesting, such as Professor Marya Teutsch-Dwyer from St. Cloud State University, Minnesota, who plans to interview her as a participant in her project on multilingual children, but there are many things she’s more proud about (her red belt in karate, her swimming skills, her patrol leadership in the scouts, and her winning the poetry and the novel-writing competitions at school).

In sum, now that Livia is ten, we realize that becoming trilingual from birth is not that hard, but that the difficulty lies in the maintenance and development of the three languages. It requires a constant investment on the part of the child and the parents to make sure that all languages are actively used and needed. Nothing linguistic is ever completely secured.

Using a language is like paddling, the moment you interrupt your strokes, you will start losing speed, and after a while the current will push you gently against the riverbank, where you’ll remain stranded until you push yourself free and start paddling vigorously again.

To conclude, and referring to the previous metaphor, I believe that monolingualism is like being stranded, entrapped in reeds, while multilingualism is a kind of freedom through exertion!

Acknowledgement: I would like to thanks Dr. Charlotte Kemp for feedback on a previous version of this little paper.

Jean-Marc Dewaele is professor in Applied Linguistics and Multilingualism at Birkbeck, University of London. He publishes on various aspects of second language production and the communication of emotion among multilinguals. He edited – with Li Wei and Alex Housen – in 2002, the book Opportunities and Challenges of Bilingualism (Mouton De Gruyter), the book Bilingualism: Basic Principles and Beyond (Multilingual Matters) in 2003 and is the author of Emotions in Multiple Languages (Palgrave/Macmillan) which was published in 2010.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Antonia March 4, 2012 at 5:07 pm

Thank you, that is very inspiring!


2 Sarah March 4, 2012 at 7:19 pm

Your daughter sounds like a bright child, congratulations! What I found interesting was the bit about the curse words. My first language is Spanish and I live in the US; I have to admit that I have always thought English curse words to be ‘softer’ than the Spanish equivalent and it would make sense that It’s because I have no emotional connection to them. I enjoyed your article a lot, I want my children to be multilingual too. Keep up the good work!


3 Christina Bambina March 4, 2012 at 8:52 pm

I read your article with great interest as we are raising our children in a trilingual home (English, Spanish and Italian). Your daughter sounds so much like my girls, especially my oldest, age 5. Being fluent in 3 languages in something I am so proud of them for, but now I see the English preference being stronger, especially among my two oldest. I often remind them to speak to me in Spanish as we’re having a conversation. But I see your point that when events happen in English, it’s easier for them to retell the story in English. As long as they keep some core foundation of the languages and can speak and understand their respective families in each language, I feel good that we’ve done our job.


4 Christof Demont-Heinrich March 4, 2012 at 9:10 pm

Very interesting, reflective article. Among other things — and I’m not sure this was your intent, your entry brings into clear focus the overarching significance of the educational domain vis-a-vis language use and individual “inner” language(s). I live in the U.S., where we are working to raise our two daughters, 7, and 5, as German-English bilinguals. Despite the fact that German is a second-language for me (English is my first) and the fact that my wife is an English monolingual, our daughters are German-dominant and German is their “inner” language, in fact, they talk to each other exclusively in German. The main reason they are still doing this at their age is that they have been enrolled in a private German-immersion language school for two years. Prior to that, we had a German nanny for 1 1/2 years, and German au pairs for one year, and I’ve spoken nothing but German to them since birth. Of course, I wonder where they’ll be at age 10 — especially if they’re eventually thrust into an English-monolingual school. I wish there were public immersion schools with German where we live, and that there were far more (dual) immersion schools than there are in places such as the U.S., UK, Europe, etc. I find it a crying shame that the “modern” public school, more often than not ends up erasing multilingualism rather than feeding it, usually leaving everything up to the parents, such as yourselves.


5 Kathleen March 6, 2012 at 5:46 pm

Thanks for such an intersting article. Your daughter is so lucky her parents were diligant in giving her such a great gift.


6 virginia a buehler March 11, 2017 at 9:10 am

Thank you for sharing this article. I am an English teacher at a British International Primary School in Mexico. I am trying to find some research on children from other countries who are attempting to learn two new languages simultaneously. Because we are a British International School, I understand the need to learn English (it is the language of our school and parents want their children to learn English). At the same time, the children are now in Mexico and must learn to speak Spanish (which is the main ‘social’ language spoken at recess and among many of the children). Do you know of any research that speaks to either the benefits or disadvantages of learning two new languages simultaneously during primary school? What is your opinion, sir? Do you think we should concentrate first on English (maybe during the first year), then add Spanish? I thank you in advance for your attention to this question.


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