Challenges in a multilingual family

We are a family with 3 home languages. I speak Finnish, Robert’s native language is Estonian and we communicate with each other in English. We had started talking to one another in either birth language to practice before pregnancy but switched back to English when we learned we are expecting. 

Kids start picking up on spoken words already in the womb. After careful research, we decided to mix all 3 languages. The most important rule has been communicating with the baby in our birth language. This keeps it clear for the child that the languages are different and avoids teaching broken grammar or pronunciation.

Challenges in a multilingual family
There is no need for languages in a play with friends

Meribel has lived in many countries during her life-time. In Tallinn, she is surrounded by Estonian language but having more exposure to Finnish as that’s the language of most of her friends and playtime partners. With visits to countries with different languages and meeting babysitters during longer stops, language exposure is versatile and sounds complicated but we are excited to see how things develop rather than worried about her speaking.

It is recommended to read books to your kids from an early age. It is a habit that is especially important for multi-language and traveling families. We travel as light as possible but pack 10 books when we depart to a foreign country for more than a few weeks. Reading is part of our bed-time routine so she gets a story read to her at least once a day.

For language development, it is great to have other native speakers of your kids’ languages around. When you are living in a foreign country, make friends with expatriate compatriots and have frequent video calls with grandparents and friends. Our stay in the Philippines saw us attracting Estonian neighbors in previous accommodation and a corona stranded Finnish girl, Laura to live with us at our lockdown villa now.

At the current age of 19 months, Meribel clearly understands and sometimes listens to both mother and father speaking in simple terms and sentences in different languages. She can also grasp basic English to a level we are not certain as we are not testing her by sticking to our rule of 1 language per parent. Her spoken vocabulary is quite rich with more than 50 words with Finnish having a slight advantage after discounting the 25 words that are the same in both languages. Her most frequent words are spoken in Estonian however and unsurprisingly those are mom (emme) and dad (issi),

In English, she can say hello, bye-bye, baby, and smile whenever she gets her hands on a camera device and count to 3 for hide-and-seek. She has also said 2 words in Bisaya during recent days calling for her nanny (yaya) or referring to all the grown-ups (ate). This is due to her local caretaker communicating with local adults around us and occasional meetings with neighborhood children.

Challenges in a multilingual family

Multi-language kids start speaking later than others and there may be a period of mixing up words and possibly even difficulties communicating between ages 2 and 3. In the long run, the exposure to many languages should be beneficial for brain development and help to pick up new skills in the future even if any of the languages learned during traveling are forgotten. As of now we fully recommend parents in a similar situation to go with both languages and not be worried if 3rd or even more languages are in the mix as long as the parents stick to the one they know best. 

We will keep you updated on any challenges on our way and adjustments we have had to make in future posts. Do you have tips for a multilingual family? What obstacles have you faced?

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