Scarlett was born on 22nd January 2008. Little does she know she is supposed to be trilingual in a few years’ time.

I set up this blog in order to share my trilingual experiences with whoever is interested. I suppose in future many children will be brought up bilingually, trilingually or multilingually. At the moment however bringing up a child trilingually seems rather exotic. Generally we receive much support for our choice, sometimes however we get worried looks and the well-meant advice that we ought to start with less languages as the poor kid might not be able to take it.

While doing some research on the net I found several encouraging first hand reports on successful multilingual upbringing. I hope my own blog will also help to encourage parents.

To begin with, I’d like to give you a quick introduction to my little world.

General situation

I am German mother tongue, my partner is half Italian half English. She grew up in Italy, so Italian is her stronger language. When she was 19 she went to England and lived there for more than six years before she returned to Italy in 2000.

We got together when I studied in England for a year in 1996/1997. We had a nine-year-distance relationship before I moved to Milan, Italy, in 2006. We always spoke English to each other and still do. I have studied Italian for many years and after two years in Italy my level is quite good. My partner studied some German on and off, but got rusty again and thus struggles speaking German. I now work as an English teacher in a German school, my partner is a HR-Manager in an Italian company.

Both my German parents and the Italian grandfather live far away from us, the English grandmother moved to Milan in summer and is now a great help in bringing up Scarlett.

The language strategy

As soon as my partner got pregnant, the language discussion started. Different alternatives were discussed

1)  I speak German to Scarly, my partner speaks English to Scarly, the two of us speak English to each other and the kid learns Italian because we live in Italy (children apparently always pick up the out of home language without problems).

This solution was discarded for two reasons. 1. If we move abroad from Italy the girl won’t learn Italian. 2. My partner feels more like talking Italian to the kid. It comes more natural to her, her emotions are more linked to Italian. Of course she could have spoken in English, but learning a language should not become a reason for itself. More important is that you feel as close as possible to your kid and that you act most naturally.

2) English at home, Italian outside

Many people believe this is a good strategy, but then German would have got lost + the problems mentioned in 1)

So we decided for

3) I speak German to Scarlett, my partner speaks Italian, we speak English to each other. The English grandmother living close by will speak English.

Like this we feel comfortable because we both speak our strongest language to the kid and we speak English to each other which after more than ten years of being together and speaking in English is also the most natural thing to do.

First Months

When the baby is small I suppose it is not important to be very strict about separating languages. I read somewhere that children start distinguishing different grammatical patterns only after six month, but then I suppose exposure to different sounds is important earlier. There is a theory that children can first pronounce and distinguish all possible sounds (Chomsky’s universal grammar) and only later they keep the sounds they actually hear and drop the others.

Anyway, we wanted to get used to applying our language scheme straight away. The first weeks were tough however. After Scarlett was born we had the Italian grandfather around, so both me, my partner and the English grandma spoke mainly Italian (She lived in Italy for 35 years). Then we had the German grandparents around who spoke German to the child and me and English and Italian to my partner. Having this beautiful little creature in our life, sticking to our language plan was the last thing we worried about, so we happily mixed languages. I sometimes spoke Italian or English to my daughter without noticing it.

With time the separation of languages became easier. After all the birth tourists had left, our lives slowly turned back to normal. I had time on my own with Scarlett when I spoke German, my partner spoke Italian when the two of them were alone or when she directly addressed her. The English Grandmother was not yet around as she still lived in England.

The following months passed with all the beautiful moments young families experience and it has been the most wonderful time of my life but from a linguistic point of view there is not much to say. Scarlett was a pleasant and calm baby who was very attentive and seemed to be very interested in other people already from an early age onwards. She also started making many different sounds very early and could scream with a clear and piercing voice.

Five month

We realised a first change in her linguistic behaviour from month five onwards. First of all screaming seemed to turn into a more sophisticated means of communication. On top of hunger, need of body contact or pain, we seemed to recognise new meanings.

Also the quality and variety of her utterances increased greatly. She started chuckling, chortling and gurgling. She started making long, clear sounds, it sometimes seemed as if she was singing. She became vocally very active and started experimenting a lot with her voice. Amazing were her fits of laughter. When we went to my parents in Germany in July my mom made a few grimaces and Scarly started laughing her head off.

Nine Month

From nine months onwards we noticed another big leap in Scarlett’s utterances. Her spectrum of sounds increased, she was permanently experimenting with her voice. Additionally to her gurgling she started pronouncing sequences of sounds like “dadada”, “nanana”. With a bit of phantasy we could all hear her address us. Grandma heard “nonna” (which is Italian for grandma), Mom heard a clear “mama” and daddy could distinguish “dada” which without doubt stands for “daddy” (even though in German it is “Papa” and I speak German to her). Once, end of November, she really said clearly “Papa”, but afterwards she returned to “gaga”, “kaka” and “baba”.

Her favourite sound however was “tickitockitickitocki” or as a variation “tickitickitack”. The common joke was that she had slept to close to a clock.

One year

“tickitockitickitocki” lost its fascination. Instead she said “lackalackalacka”. Shortly before her first birthday Scarly started to go to the crèche. There she will spend five hours a day. All the teachers and the children are Italian. The teachers noticed that Scarly is very vocal and shows great interest for everything happening around her. We noticed that she became much louder after the first days, then however she reduced her speaking a lot and started pointing at objects with her little finger, forming her mouth as if she wanted to say something but without actually uttering a sound.