Some days ago I came across an article on multilingual upbringing that pointed out the  importance of planning ahead. There are children, it said, who become bilingual without a specific plan, but often the language project fails because not enough planning is done. To make sure your child reaches a certain level of fluency, you need to know where you are heading, you have to provide enough exposure time and you have to react if milestones are not reached.

When Scarlett was born we decided on our long term goals. We wanted Scarlett to become a native speaker in Italian and German and ideally also in English, even though the priority was on the first two. We then decided on a general approach and have stuck to it since. At the start we weren’t too concerned about exposure time. Both Penny, I and the English grandmother spent a lot of time with Scarlett, so she got enough exposure time in all three languages.

The years passed, we got into our routines and there never seem to be a need for updating our plans. Scarlett´s progress in Italian and German was always satisfying and she reached all milestones. I was quite attentive what concerned Scarlett’s language development (as you can tell from this blog), and tried to react whenever I thought Scarlett was straying off course. At least in German.

In English however it would have helped to update our plan at some point. Scarlett has reached a decent level, but she is far from the originally intended native speaker level. This is not surprising as Scarlett’s exposure time in English has been too low. In order to become trilingual, the speaker should ideally be exposed to each language a third of the time. This is obviously not easy, but Scarlett should have been exposed to English at least two to three times a week for a significant time. The first years we achieved this goal, in recent years we haven’t.

What happened was that other areas in Scarlett’s life (e.g. sport, school, music, friends) became more important and time spent on English became less. Scarlett would still see her grandmother but not as often as before. When she was smaller she played a lot with the English-speaking housekeeper, once she started school these times became fewer. It was obvious that Scarlett didn’t get the necessary exposure time but we didn’t react. Having a clear plan written down in black and white would have helped us to take actions before.

It is not too late however, so I will try to update our goals and outline possible strategies to improve Scarlett’s language skills:

Italian : Scarlett is a native speaker, her Italian is good, but could be more elaborate. Compared to other, monolingual children, Scarlett has less input in Italian, as I and the grandparents talk to her in other languages. We hope that in future this could be compensated by reading. So far most reading input has been in German, but once Scarlett starts reading on her own her Italian might benefit greatly from good books.

Another way to improve Scarlett’s Italian would be to to stimulate her story telling and describing skill. We have to push her more to summarise things she heard, read, did or experienced and help her to express it better. Keeping a diary is the perfect tool, so we were happy when Scarlett had to do exactly that for school. Unfortunately Scarlett’s diary writing hasn’t really taken off yet, she does it rather quickly and superficially.

German: I would classify Scarlett as an (upper) advanced speaker which means she would be able to go to a German school without big problems. In some areas she is mother-tongue, in others she needs to improve. Our long term goal is that she becomes fully mother tongue.

What would help Scarlett a lot is to spend more time with German children of her age. In Milan I do not really see it feasible as all the German children we know prefer to speak in Italian. We could however think of making Scarlett stay more with friends she has in Germany.

Scarlett would also need more specific input in German. I could try to expose her more to German specialised books and discuss specific topics with her (such as history, geography etc.). It would also be important to stimulate her to talk about these topics herself.

English: In English there is clearly the greatest gap between present and desired language skills. I would classify her intermediate level which means she is able to communicate with peers and adults in English, but she would struggle to attend school. It would be nice if she became advanced one day but in order to achieve this we will need to do something.

We will certainly have to increase Scarlett’s exposure time to reach this goal. A simple solution would be to involve the English grandmother more, for example by making the kids stay over at her place more often. We could also engage our housekeeper more often or we could think of increasing our own English input, by for example speaking English at dinner when the whole family is around the table. Watching more English films and listen to audio books might help but wouldn’t solve the problem of stimulating interaction. If this all does not work out we would also have to think of getting an external teacher, take private lessons or find an English playgroup.