Volume VII, Language Contact - Special Issue

"Growing up with three languages. Birth to eleven" – review by Timea Molnár

Timea Molnár is a PhD student at the English Applied Linguistics Program of the University of Szeged. Her fields of interest are multilingualism, third language acquisition, and language contact. Email:

Growing up with three languages. Birth to eleven
Xiao-lei Wang
Multilingual Matters
217 pp.

Multilingualism and multilingual acquisition have recently become a popular topic of research in linguistics and even though there have been breakthroughs in these fields, questions still abound. This volume is especially valuable in the field of multilingual acquisition since it contains the documentation of the process of simultaneous trilingual acquisition in the first eleven years of the author’s children. It gives an account of how children can balance their heritage languages with the community language, and how similar linguistic systems (French and English) and different linguistic systems (Chinese vs. French or English) can result in the varying speed and proficiency of trilingual acquisition. In addition to giving a detailed account of the processes taking place during simultaneous trilingual acquisition, the goal of this book is to encourage parents to raise children with three languages when they themselves constitute the main source of heritage language input.

This book is based on a systematic and longitudinal observation through periodical videotaping of the children’s interactions. In addition, audiotaping and on-the-spot note taking was also used as means of the documentation process. The trilingual acquisition and development is approached from a holistic point of view, thus the author does not only focus on the linguistic aspects but also on the children’s personality and identity development, which are inseparable from their linguistic development. Throughout the seven chapters of the book, we are presented with the complexities of trilingualism, the various aspects of the linguistic development and changes taking place from the early years to the years of the elementary studies, the children’s identity and personality development and with the concluding remarks of the author.

The first chapter gives an overview of trilingualism. The author discusses the issue of the complexity of trilingualism from various aspects. First, trilinguals can be of different types based on the time or order of the acquisition of the languages, and they may achieve different types of competence in the various skills of these languages. Second, the author points out several factors that can influence trilingual acquisition such as age, types of languages, degree of exposure to all three languages, level of education, changes in the language environment, and the different socialization practices and childrearing beliefs.

The author mentions an important factor in heritage language acquisition, which she calls “second-hand language acquisition” (p. 23), which refers to the differences in monolingual versus multilingual acquisition, since in the case of the latter, children acquire their heritage languages mostly through and as a result of this, and they are not likely to have the same linguistic competence and performance in all their languages due to a lack of sufficient context. Therefore, although they may completely acquire the grammatical rules of the heritage language, they will not be able to acquire the language’s pragmatic rules.

Another characteristic of trilinguals the author discusses in this chapter is language mixing. She attributes the following functions to language mixing: indicating that a certain word or phrase is used by someone else in another language, describing things without an equivalent in another language, vocabulary gap filling, achieving communicative effects, and revealing one’s cultural and social identity.

The author concludes the chapter by explaining why trilinguals are different both from monolinguals and bilinguals. She argues that trilingual children use different language learning strategies than monolingual children. Therefore, measuring trilingual children’s linguistic competence and performance against their monolingual peers is not advisable since this way we lose insight into trilingual linguistic developmental characteristics. The author also points out that in spite of the fact that in some cases trilingualism is interpreted as one form of bilingualism, it is important not to consider a trilingual equal to a bilingual even though more research is needed to pinpoint the exact differences.

The second chapter is a practical one, in which the author presents discussions about raising trilingual children. The author emphasises that in order to succeed in transmitting heritage languages to children, one needs to make important decisions, plan the details and prepare well in advance before the children arrive. Some of the decisions the author and her husband made concerned the number of languages to pass on to the children and the starting point of the process, the use of the various languages in the family communication system, the reasons for raising trilingual children, and the names to choose for the children in order to reflect their trilingual and tricultural identity. The author highlights that for a wider linguistic context it is important to weigh the potential support the extended family or the community can provide in raising trilingual children, as well as the possibilities to travel to the heritage countries. As the main linguistic sources are the parents, the author points out the importance of the amount and quality of the parent-child interaction as well as the importance of including other sources through reading. In the last part of the chapter, the author provides practical suggestions for parents planning to raise trilingual children. Besides weighing their own situation and making the already mentioned decisions the author emphasises the importance of being well-informed through reading and through other people’s parenting experience, although she also cautions parents about the latter.

The third chapter provides an account of the children’s trilingual development during the home years, that is, from birth to ages three and four. The goal set for this period was to lay a solid foundation for the acquisition of the heritage languages. In the first part, the author gives an account of the strategies they used in order to establish the early trilingual environment. These included maximizing the home language input, establishing the communication system within the family and with outsiders, and maximizing the contexts of home language use through employing immediate talk and non-immediate talk during reading routines, personal story telling and through listening and singing children’s songs.

The next section presents the challenges of raising trilingual children and ways to manage it. One of the challenges mentioned by the author is achieving adequate heritage language input. In order to do this, parents had to brush up their own use of the heritage language, invent words in the heritage language to fill the gap for expressions in the other languages, and constantly monitor and correct mistakes. The author also discusses the issue of gendered-language input as a result of which the children only acquired one speech style in the heritage languages based on the gender of the parent providing the input. In order to counterbalance this, the children were provided with opposite gender language use through other sources such as other parents, baby sitters and tape recordings.

In the next section of this chapter, the author discusses the early language development of the children in five areas: speech sounds, lexicon, grammar, pragmatics and language awareness. The children’s linguistic development is compared both to what the existing literature suggests and to the development of native speaker children. Some of the linguistic development features discussed by the author include the successful acquisition of Chinese tone, compensations for difficulty in the pronunciation of some words through either simplification and alteration of the sounds or through the use of gestures, difficulties in the acquisition of some grammar features such as French feminine adjectives and Chinese classifiers. The author also mentions that the children acquired native-like speech and that language mixing in this period was minimal. The drawback of trilingual acquisition presented itself in the fact that although children picked up some of the conversation styles in their heritage languages, they were unable to use the language properly in different contexts since they lacked the opportunity and experience necessary to learn this. The author’s observations show that, in line with observations in the literature, the children were aware of the languages they used from an early age. They were able to name the languages they used and to compare them, they were curious about languages and their writing systems, they were sensitive about non-native speakers and often made language based jokes .

In the last section of this chapter, the author makes suggestions to other parents about how to support trilingual children in their early years. Her suggestions include starting early and being consistent with the communication system, monitoring heritage language input, teaching language in context, providing multiple sources of input through reading and playing, and supporting children’s identity development.

The fourth chapter reports on the children’s development during the transition from home to preschool and kindergarten. This period is considered to be crucial in determining whether children will maintain the heritage languages or not. The author points out that in this period the goal is to help children maintain a balance between the home languages and English. Strategies used to achieve this goal included gently insisting on using the home languages, helping children form the habit of asking their parents to provide unknown words, matching school language with home language equivalents, teaching literacy skills in the home languages, and making use of media technology to enhance heritage language learning. Some of the difficulties of this period, as mentioned by the author, were the temptation to speak English when communication in a heritage language got harder due to the influence of English, dealing with others’ ignorance about trilingualism, and finding families and play mates who speak the same heritage languages.

When discussing the children’s linguistic development, the author points out some changes that occurred as a result of more exposure to English, such as difficulty in pronouncing the dipping tone in Chinese in spite of perfectly pronouncing it during the home years. During this period, the children also showed discrepancy between what they knew about their heritage language and how they used it, which also might be attributed to the influence of English. Another effect of English on their linguistic development was demonstrated by more language mixing, specifically the insertion of English words in their communication in the heritage languages. Their proficiency in English is also discussed, which was considered to be remarkably good in spite of an intentional delay in their English interactive input. However, the children failed in using the typical American colloquial style. After discussing the children’s identity development during this transition period, the author provides suggestions for supporting trilingual children at this age. Here the author points out the importance of cooperation with the teachers and childcare professionals, encouraging children to express themselves in the heritage languages, and the importance of reading in the heritage languages.

The fifth chapter gives an account of the children’s development during the elementary school years. For this period the goal, as defined by the author, was to help children build the essential literacy skills in their heritage languages and to continue facilitating their home language development. While the previous chapters focused on the oral development of the heritage languages and briefly touched upon the development of literacy skills through reading and handwriting practices, this chapter focuses on the systematic development of home language literacy skills. After presenting the reasons for developing these, the author lists the various decisions to be made such as acquiring the home language literacy skills in school or at home and the starting point of this process. Next, the author makes suggestions concerning effective teaching of home language reading and writing skills. Such strategies include reading the same book in different languages, matching the readings to the children’s interests, finding creative ways to make children read, finding a purpose for writing, helping children to discover the power of writing, and giving explicit grammar instructions to help writing. Besides teaching reading and writing in the home languages, the author emphasises the importance of teaching the conventional cultural gestures, the cultural customs and idioms in the home languages. The author considers this period to be adequate to cautiously introduce children to foul language in the heritage languages since these form part of the language and children should be able to recognise them when they are first exposed to them. Some of the challenges of this period include matching the home languages to the school language in order to help children with their homework, struggling with Chinese reading and writing, and fighting peer judgement.

The next section of the chapter contains highlights of the children’s language development. In this section, the author gives account of the progresses due to formal instruction, the benefits and drawbacks of the pin yin Chinese alphabetical system, and the interference between the community and the home language. The author suggests that the decreasing amount of word mixing in the third, fourth and fifth years of school may point to a stabilized mixing or to the establishment of the home language communication pattern. During these years, her children have developed outstanding sensitivity to other languages and accents, being able to produce them accurately within a short time. They also manifested great sensitivity about the accuracy and choice of words used in all three languages.

Similarly to previous chapters, this chapter also ends with suggestions for parents on how to support the trilingual development of their children during the elementary school years. Such suggestions include choosing the appropriate path to acquire heritage language literacy, providing cultural background to children to help them comprehend the reading materials related to the heritage cultures, creating opportunities to communicate in the heritage languages, and balancing heritage language learning and other activities.

Chapter 6 gives an account of the identity and personality development revealed in the children’s narratives. First, the author discusses the development of the children’s linguistic identity, cultural and national identity and ethnic-racial identity. The author distinguishes between three stages of the linguistic identity development from simple labelling of their languages to being overly possessive about them, and finally to showing a more sophisticated and balanced perception of their selves in connection to their languages. Similarly, the ethnic-racial identity development showed three stages as well: simple labelling, state of race confusion, and then a deeper understanding of their ethnic-racial category. However, their cultural identity has not yet reached a balanced level at age eleven.

The author continues by discussing the distinct personality characteristics resulting from their unique experience of growing up trilingual, tricultural, biracial and binational. These characteristics include utilizing their linguistic and cultural resources to their advantage, taking into account different possibilities in problem solving and being exceptionally good observers as well as being overly critical about the ways others spoke and having a sense of knowing more than their peers. In addition, the children showed a tendency to enact different selves peculiar to the different languages such the linear and evaluative self in English, the passionate and humorous self in French, and the judgemental self in Chinese.

Finally, the author concludes with suggestions concerning fostering a healthy identity and personality development by emphasising the importance of successful experiences in heritage language learning and the influence of parents and other people such as teachers, pediatricians and peers.

The final chapter begins with a brief review of the current state of studies on trilingual first language acquisition, and the author asserts that there is a need for more research in this field in spite of the progress made in the study of triligualism. Next, the author, based on her findings and the available literature, highlights some of the issues that need further elaboration in order to be able to understand the complexity of trilingual language acquisition and development. Such issues include the nature versus nurture dichotomy, the relationship between parental input and the child’s output, and the similarities and differences between the languages being acquired. The author ends her book by offering ten take-home messages for parents interested in raising multilingual children.

The uniqueness of this book is that it provides an academically valuable insight into the process of simultaneous trilingual acquisition in a reader friendly manner through personal stories and anecdotes. In addition to displaying profound understanding of the linguistic, social cultural and psychological aspects of trilingualism, the author provides support for parents of multilingual children. Through the account of her children’s trilingual development the author demonstrates that multilingualism can work and that it can result in superior cognitive and communicative skills. Since this book is the first part of a series presenting the trilingual language development of the author’s children, we look forward to reading the next book presenting us the children’s development during their adolescent period.