Sunday, October 04, 2009

Almost-quadrilingual family check up!

This year I haven't mananged to blog much, real life with its inevitable intense course just took over, yet so much happened linguistically in our family.

The main developement is that at age 3, Zeno is an official 'speaker:' he makes full sentences in Italian, French or Dutch, depending upon the need; he does not mix anymore, nor screams! He finally feels he can express himself, and he feels listened to and understood.

Milo and Zeno's development of their 3 main languages has been constant and solid. Incidentally, their personality shifts a little with each language too, which is something very peculiar to witness. They tend to be softer in Italian, and a little rougher in French, the language of play and school mates. Milo also has a new trilingual Dutch- speaking class mate (Dutch dad, American mum), and we are excited at this new opportunity of interaction, to further strenghten his Dutch vocabulary.

Milo has increasingly been paying attention to the English exchanges of us, parents, and has been delighting himself in detecting the meaning of words and expressions, sometimes by asking directly ("Mamma, cosa vuol dire "It's ready!" ?), some times just by using his own deducing skills and by replying to me in English at the oddest moments "Thank you, mamma!"). American friends visiting us have increased his curiosity and need to grasp the language in order to express himself. I still feel reluctant to introduce a formal training in English; I have been thinking about play groups , or watching DVDs together more consistently. But, honestly, I have my time filled just by handling the Italian, the French and the Dutch and making sure the kids learn the same vocabulary in all three languages harmoniously...for the moment their English learning activities it's just their daily passive exposure to my conversations with the Belgianite, an occasional conversation, a book read first in Italian then in English, etc.

Another language has been tickling the fancy of my two mini-polyglots: Spanish. Ever since we took a trip to Valencia last year to visit some friends, they have been very curious. We have DVDs, CDs with songs, books and we know a few Spanish speakers: one of Milo's classmates Mum, one of our baby-sitters, a neighbour, etc. Milo often asks me how do we say this and that in Spanish and loooooves singing some songs (the current favourite is dancing hit 'Cada vez que te veo"!)

Zeno is still very much in emulation of his brother and benefits of much of his curiosity. His French last year has developed flawlessly; he occasionally makes up words with the Italian or Dutch roots when he does not know the equivalent in French, but in general his mixing habit have progressively melted away. And frequent trips to Italy and Belgium have helped tons. He has definitely a musical ear: when he hears music, even at a distance, he's captured and feels an irresistible need to dance and move. This, I am convinced, is another ingredient for success in multilingualism; he differs from Milo in this who has built his personal multilingualism on priviledged individual attention. Zeno lacked at least 50% of the time we spent reading and talking alone to Milo, but his musical hear supplied for that.

He started kindergarden this year, he's in the same school as Milo and I am often moved when I pick them up in the evening and they tell me : "We have seen each other at the cafeteria today and we said CIAO CIAO to each other!" Surprisingly, their main language of interaction is still Italian, although I assume this year French will rapidly take over, and Dutch is also used when playing with Dad .

As for my Dutch learning, I am slowly getting there, a word at a time! Despite my doubts in a previous post and the impressive results of the poll on the right hand side bar, where 84% of you advised I should learn Dutch formally, I never took a course (so far!). "I just don't have the time," seems to be the most plausible excuse! But...I am listenting. Just as my kids are listening to English every day, I am listening to Dutch, and I am understanding more and more each day!
Sometimes, when I am alone with the boys, I try out on them a little sentence in first Milo would look at me bewildered and would ask me shortly to just speak Italian! Now they are growing more tolerant of us crossing boundaries (The Belgianite speaking Italian, me speaking French or Dutch) and they just limit themelves to correct my (pitiful) pronunciation. The last time I was even congratulated: "Not bad mum!" (I was talking about balletjes, some meatballs they love to eat in Belgium).

I always thought that our little crazy family one day would settle naturally on one lingua franca...maybe Italian, on really good days...maybe French, on more realistic ones...or English, if I felt particularly daring! I am now witnessing a gradual softening of the OPOL practice and am starting to feel that, perhaps, our 4 languages are such an essence of our nucleus, that they will all be used by all members at some point, and I must admit: I like this scenario. It's who we are, it's how we are. That we might be able to express a certain feeling or opinion in a certain language because we think it captures its essence, and we might be understood bt the other members of the family, is a huge luxury and freedom.


Yom said...


You’re not blogging enough, but it’s still better than nothing. Keep blogging, you have readers!

We staid 5 months in the US last year. Our older son (who was 4, now 5) went to the local public school which happened to be bilingual (English and... Spanish). So we could have become a quinqualingual (?) family!
We actually made no effort for Spanish when back in Switzerland, it would have been too complicated. But we did our best to keep all the English he learnt there by having regular conversations in English with him.
The yougest one (3 year old) never learnt English there and still knows very little, but hearing the rest of the family speaking it he wants to do like us and more and more speaks to us very seriously in (sort of) English, which is very funny.


Adriana said...

I just wanted to let you know that I just found your blog and I am going to follow you. We are a bilingual Spanish/English family and considering adding Chinese. Your family is fascinating! What a wonderful gift you are giving your children!

Clo said...

Thank you Guillaume, great to 'read' you again! Your US experience sounds like a fantastic opportunity for your children. don't underestimate the power of full immersion and daily exposure: they catch up much faster than we think! Would love to hear more about them...

Adriana, lovely to connect, welcome to MTK and kudos to yuo for the effort you are also undertaking!

Virginie said...

Hello Clo, great to find your blog. We have two sons aged 4 and 2. Mom speaks French (native), Dad German (native) and boys speak English too (we live in London). We're not sure about future for schooling though. Half-hour French lessons with a Brit sound horrible from the way DS1 repeats the little rhymes she teaches them... Any advice welcome. Good luck to you (and your Dutch!).

Martina said...

Dear Clo, we are a one-language family (as you know) (Italian) but we would like our 1 y.o. son to learn english asap. What do you suggest? letting him settle his italian first (he already says around 20 words and I believe he understands a lot) and then start him in an english kindergarden at 3 y.o or start sooner? (with him in school, which pediatricians here tend to discourage starting before 3 years old for viruses, etc or with an english babysitter) Some have told us to start not too soon to avoid him getting confused ...although to me it seems strange seen how you all here have multilingual kids with no problems.
Any advise will be welcome, thank you!! Martina

Clo said...

Bonjour Virginie, merci de ton commentaire et de suivre MTK!
La scolarisation est en effet un aspect important de la vie multilingue. on est en train de réfléchir aussi a ça, j'essaierai d'écrire un post sur le sujet. J'aimerai savoir plus sur tes enfants trilingues!

Martina cara, ti ho risposto in un post, spero ti sia di incoraggiamento!

Ozgur said...

Hi Clo,

What a great blog! I will definitely follow you. We are a quadrilingual family as well living in France. I have a new baby and I am wrecking my brains to figure out how to approach the language teaching issue. I wanted to ask you your opinion about something I read on the net. As far as I understand, you are doing one parent one language and the kids are acquiring the others from school/environment. This is the most effective way of teaching a language to a kid apparently. The other way is to attach a language to a situation. For example, when the kid is with mum and dad she speaks English and when each parent is alone with her, they speak their own languages and she learns French at school. What do you think about this scenario? Do you know anybody who has done it successfully or any books, articles on this subject exclusively -- i.e. attaching the language to the situation. Thanks.

Clo said...

Hello Ozgur! Congratulatons on becoming a dad! Concerning your question, there is no perfect recepee, the key is finding a method you and your wife feel comfortable with and be consistent (and with 4 languages, it won't always be simple). there are a lot of element to consider: will you have a child-care help at some point, and so should you "invest" in a nanny who speaks one of your languages to corroborate the exposure? where in France are you living? Paris is very cosmopolitan but the rest of it tends to be more omogeneous linguistically and in terms of availability of play groups etc. Finally, will you be able to travel frequently to your country/ies of origin? This element for us has been a key success factor.
Feel free to email me at and I'll be glad to share more...also, the Multilingual Helpdesk can provide you with lots of other resources. Good luck!

Heather said...

I just wanted to say that my friend here in Italy has two boys guessed it...Milo and Zeno! I couldn't help but giggle. :)