In our trilingual home there is a simple rule: we watch films in original language. And thanks to Disney, Pixar and Dreamworks English has become our default language. Everybody was fine with this rule until one day Scarlett’s friends came for a sleep-over and watched a film in Italian. Some days later, when I wanted to set the language to English for our family cinema evening, Scarlett started a little rebellion. She wanted to see the film in Italian, saying she would understand it much better. To my surprise Quentin came to my aid and said: “Capisco lo stesso” (Italian for: I understand it the same).

It seemed strange to me that Quentin, who hasn’t spoken a word in English for years, said he doesn’t mind watching films in English. I always think he doesn’t understand much English, because I never see him interacting in an English. And even though his English grandmother keeps saying that he understands everything she says. Looking back I have to admit that I have underestimated Quentin before.

Why shouldn’t Quentin be able to understand English? He has had a considerable English input for years: Penny and I speak English to each other and Quentin overhears our conversations. His English grandmother speaks English to him, our housekeeper speaks English. And then we watch the odd film in English or sometimes listen to English audiobooks.

Not speaking doesn’t mean not understanding. I of all people should know this, as also Quentin’s active German has almost disappeared completely. The only German word he says at the moment on a regular basis is “Warum?” (German for: Why) and sometimes he varies it to phrases like “Warum ci sono kleine Dinge?” (German-Italian for: Why are there small things?”. Once in a blue moon he says a short phrase like: “Komm spielen” or “Du kommst?” (German for: come and play; you come?. But Quentin’s German understanding is without any doubt very good.

In German there are also glimpses of hope what concerns active speaking. When we went to the German grandparents for Christmas it was full immersion and at once Quentin made a real effort to speak, even if he usually didn’t go beyond single words: “Io gioco hier” (German-Italian for: I play here) or “Non hai gelesen Geschichte. Hai gelesen poco.” (German-Italian for: You haven’t read the story. You read very little). So for German I keep repeating the multilingual mantra that you have to be patient and give time to your child.

In English things are slightly different. We have, admittedly, not paid much attention to English lately. With Quentin already struggling in his second language we simply concentrated on Italian and German and have lost sight of English to a certain degree. Contact time in English is much lower than in the other languages and I have the feeling that pushing English now wouldn’t do Quentin any good as it would take away valuable and much needed time from German.

Especially as also German has been sidelined by Italian in these past months. Quentin has started talking much more to both peers and adults and his Italian speaking skills have improved greatly. His kindergarten teachers told us that he has opened up a lot and apparently he has even become a kind of leader in his kindergarten group. And while he thrived and prospered in Italian, there was no time and energy left for the other languages. Children can’t develop in all areas at the same time; sometimes they make giant steps in one field, but seem to tread water in others.

In English, I am afraid, it might be treading water for quite some more time. In Quentin’s case it seems reasonable to us to focus on Italian and German first, English as the third language will have to wait a bit more. In the long-run we will however have to find a solution to the English problem. Especially as Quentin will most probably go to an Italian school where the level of English teaching is generally rather low.