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Introducing a Third Language to Bilingual Children

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Introducing a Third language that we don’t speak

About a year ago, my husband and I decided to introduce a third language to our bilingual children. My husband and I speak Italian and English with our kids. Neither of us speak a third language fluently, but we didn’t see any reason to restrict any further learning. Languages in general open up so many doors in life and we would  like my children to have as many opportunities as possible.

Our boys were only one and three at the time we started so we didn’t want “lessons” as such. When children are so young they can’t be expected to sit and concentrate for long so it would have been useless. In my experience having worked as an English Teacher and Governess in the past, I found the best way to teach a child a new language is by not teaching, but by having someone around on a regular basis speaking to them in that language.

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From birth our children have been exposed to English and Italian.

I have worked with many children in various countries such as Switzerland, Italy, Germany, and Russia. The children spoke little or no English when I arrived, and by the time I left they were quite fluent. Some had even picked up my accent. I experienced first-hand how just by spending time with children playing, talking and doing activities with them, they naturally learned English.

We follow the OPOL approach with our children. From birth I have been speaking to my boys in English and my husband has been speaking to them in Italian. It has been a natural process for them and we wanted to introduce a third language in the same way.

Choosing a Third Language to Introduce

We wanted our children to speak a widely spoken language. Our preference was to have our children either learn Mandarin or Spanish. Knowing any extra language is an advantage. However we thought that if we could introduce a more widely spoken language would give them better opportunities.

At first I started calling up language schools and answering advertisements. However, many of whom I spoke with were teachers who hadn’t worked with children so young. They were more concerned about the results I would have after so many sessions and right away, I knew I didn’t want that. Also I realised that where we lived there wasn’t so many resources in Mandarin, and Spanish seemed to be more feasible.

Our decision was made when I randomly met a young Argentinian girl who eventually agreed to come spend time with our children, and “play” rather than “teach”. We were very excited about the idea of our children learning Spanish.

Our language plan

To start with “Ana” (nickname) was coming a couple of days per week to spend time with my eldest son who was three years old at the time, but once he got used to her she started coming a few days per week for 2hrs at a time. I pick him up from the asilo (pre-school) after lunch and they hang out together playing games, doing activities, or going to the park. My younger son started joining in about six months ago.

learn a new language

Learning a new language in a natural fun environment

Ana speaks to our children ONLY in Spanish, which is her native language and she has done so from the very first day.

Although she understands and speaks Italian she has never spoken to my children in Italian. It helps because she understands what my son is trying to say. But instead of responding in Italian she repeats what he has said in Spanish and responds to him in Spanish. This way there is no confusion.

Ana has been with us around a year and the boys love her. She has become part of our family. She often invites our boys to her house for lunch on weekends where they are fully immersed in the Spanish language as her parents only speak Spanish. This has been a fantastic bonus and we feel very lucky to have her around.

“J” is speaking conversations with her now and although he will throw a few Italian words in there every now and again when he doesn’t know the Spanish word, he is improving every day. “K” understands a lot of what she says and will repeat and say the colours and numbers etc. but he is still young and mixes Italian and English quite a lot as well. Also he doesn’t spend nearly as much time with her as his older brother at the moment.

We do try and give them extra exposure when Ana isn’t around, for example letting them use language apps, and watch Spanish cartoons.

Our progress

We knew introducing a third language wouldn’t be easy, but it wasn’t as difficult as we first thought. I love seeing their progress and I am confident that as time passes they have the potential to become fluent Spanish speakers, or even better, trilingual. Maybe someday in the future, if they are interested we may then introduce Mandarin.

“The limits of my languages are the limits of my world” –  Ludwig Wittgenstein

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7 Comments

  1. What a great way to introduce a third language! We´re speaking 3 languages at home as well since our son was born (English, Dutch & Spanish), at first i was a bit afraid that 3 would be too much but happy to read that we´re not the only crazy ones ;)!

  2. Your child is very lucky! I wish we could have been in the same situation but we have found another way so it’s all good. We just have to make sure we continue which I am sure we will. At least it gives us an excuse to travel to South America 😉

  3. “Knowing any extra language is an advantage, however we thought that a more widely spoken language would give them better opportunities.” YES!
    I am a language specialist, and I love your positive attitude towards bilingual learning. It always surprises me how many people in the U.S. see growing up with two languages as a deficit. Keep up the good work.

  4. What a clever idea!! I suppose it is similar how to many children in South Africa learn the language their nanny speaks!! Those are three really great languages to have!!! Well done!

  5. I agree with the comments that this is a great way to introduce a language. I’m glad to read this post because a few months ago I was discouraged by a post saying we shouldn’t teach a language unless we can speak it natively. Thank you for this! 🙂

  6. Noemi

    Well done! I am thinking about doing the same. We are both Italian living in Germany. My sun (22months) is going to a german kita and he is exposed to the german language for 6/7 hours per day. I was thinking to attend an english playground once a week. Is that to early? What do you think?

    • Hi Noemi,
      I don’t think it is too early. In fact, the earlier the less resistance. Younger children learn much easier I have found, as it is a natural process for them.
      Once a week is a great start, though you may want to increase exposure later on. Good luck!

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