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 S.’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, S. started a little rebellion. She wanted to see the film in Italian, saying she would understand it much better. To my surprise Q. came to my aid and said: “Capisco lo stesso” (Italian for: I understand it the same).

I would have expected Q. to back up S. as I assumed his English understanding is worse than S.’s. Q. is already struggling with his second language, German, so I took it for granted that the third language, English, is too much for him. I shouldn’t have as I underestimated Q. before, when one year ago I thought he wouldn’t understand an English audio book, but he actually did.

Reflecting on the topic, I have to admit that already my use of the words second and third language is misleading. Q. is definitely more exposed to German, but there is no such thing as second and third language as Q. has been exposed to English all his life. Penny and I speak English to each other and Q. 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.

Q.’s understanding of English is really good says the expert, Q.’s English grandmother. She speaks English to him and according to her he understands everything she says. Q. always answers in Italian, but there are many explanations for that. Maybe he just needs time before he comes out with English. Maybe he does not feel the need to speak English as his grandmother understands Italian perfectly well and Penny and I don’t even address him directly in English, he simply overhears us talking. Only with our housekeeper there is as need to use English, but Q. gets by with the odd English word. After all they are playing together not talking about philosophy. And he spends little time with her.

Not speaking doesn’t mean not understanding. I of all people should know this, as also Q’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?)

There are, however, glimpses of hope. When we went to the German grandparents for Christmas it was full immersion and at once Q. 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). On top of that his German grandparents also say he understands everything. As we will have times of full immersion ahead, in summer for example, I feel confident that patience and persistence will pay off soon.

In English things are slightly different. There won’t be so much full immersion in the near future. We could try and organise something but I even believe that it is not the right moment to push English as it would take away much needed time from German. Especially as German has been sidelined by Italian in these past months. Q. 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 the long-run we will however have to find a solution how to turn his passive understanding into active speaking. Especially as Q. will most probably go to an Italian school where the level of English teaching is generally rather low.