Fostering active trilingualism in early childhood

Parents who bring up their children with three languages are often faced with many questions, especially when they hope that their children will be able to use all those languages actively. Although family situations are often similar at first glance, some children exposed to three languages from birth become active trilinguals while others do not. Chevalier’s case studies shed some light on the correlations between contextual factors and levels of active trilingualism. She examined the language development of two children from the ages of two to four, who have been exposed to Swiss German, French and English from infancy. Elliot lives in French-speaking Switzerland and Lina lives in the German-speaking part. The parents in both families speak English to each other and their respective native language to the child. Chevalier interviewed the parents and made recordings of interactions with the children. By the end of the study, Elliot had attained high levels of active trilingualism whereas Lina was not able to use all three languages actively. So the question arises: How can these differences be explained?

In her comparison of the two families Chevalier reveals that Elliot benefitted from his parents’ consistent and exclusive use of the minority languages (English and German) and from his father’s conversational style that included instructions to translate and repeat. The father also rephrased sentences in German when Elliot mixed languages. Although he had the least input in German, Elliot spoke fluent Swiss German with his father. Moreover, his home languages were supported by various people (e.g. relatives).

Lina, on the other hand, had very unbalanced input. German represented the dominant language inside and outside the home. She did not have a variety of contacts in her minority languages apart from those with her English-speaking aunt. Furthermore, her father was the least consistent in speaking his native language and did not insist on her speaking French. Yet one finding deserves particular attention: Lina spoke considerably more, as well as more proficient, English than French despite having fewer interactions in English. Chevalier attributes this to the intensive and instructional conversation style of her English-speaking aunt, comparable to that of Elliot’s father.

In sum, active promotion of minority languages and reducing space for the majority language can foster high levels of active trilingualism in early childhood. However, research in this field is still rather scarce and with an alteration of input factors in later childhood language development might change.

– Sara Romano

Chevalier, S. (2015). Trilingual Language Acquisition. Contextual Factors Influencing Active Trilingualism in Early Childhood. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

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