Trilingual kids who will never be tongue-tied


You’d think speaking three languages would be confusing for kids, but don’t underestimate their ability to absorb

MY FIRST experience of trilingual children was living in Sri Lanka in 2005, where many of the kids I met spoke Tamil, Sinhala and English. I was astounded when I realised that they could also read and write in these languages, a feat requiring knowledge of three completely different scripts – the Roman alphabet, Tamil script with more than 200 letters, and Sinhalese which has more than 50 characters.

Indeed, to some of these children it appeared a language wasn’t real unless it had its own autonomous script. One young boy remained sceptical, despite my assurances, that French, Irish and English really were different languages.

Back then it never crossed my mind that one day I might have children growing up with three languages. Six years later I am blessed with two boys, Cóilín and Tarla, aged five and two, and thanks to their dad’s commitment to speak Irish to them, and the chance move to Brussels, our sons are growing up trilingually.

We’ve taken on board the standard advice for multilingual families to have a consistent communication system and to stick to one parent, one language. I converse in English with the boys and their dad, who in turn speaks English with me and Irish with the boys.

He made the decision to speak Irish when Cóilín was about nine months old, but the advice is to start from birth. Cóilín speaks English with us both, apart from a few words as Gaeilge that get inserted into an English sentence, eg “Come on, Dad, it’s time for iomrascáil [wrestling]!”

The number of Irish words he uses increases significantly when I am not around and he spends a lot of time with his dad.

Cóilín picked up French at his local playschool. Six months after he started at the age of two years nine months, we had some wobbly moments wondering whether it was all too much for him. But then, miraculously, he started speaking French and now he wonders why I am going to French classes: “What words do you want to know, Mum? I can tell you.”

For the first year or so Cóilín mixed words from all three languages, a phenomenon which is well documented among multilingual children. Gradually this stopped as he became aware of what he then called “Mummy’s language”, “Daddy’s language” and his teacher “Madame Mireille’s language”. The youngest, Tarla (2), is currently speaking a mixture of words. His vocabulary includes: man, péire (as in a pair of socks/gloves/shoes), pomme (apple) and au revoir.

Having grown up in a largely monolingual society I am amazed by my kids’ ability to absorb the languages they hear around them. But available data shows that, globally, monolinguals are in the minority. In this multicultural city many children are being raised with at least two if not three, four or five languages.

One time I was introduced to a Belgian teenager who greeted me with a choice of languages: “Français? English? Nederlands?” And I’ve met a Spanish/Lithuanian couple who converse with each other in English but speak their so-called heritage languages to their daughter, who goes to a French-speaking creche.

The advantages of being multilingual go beyond the obvious ones of being able to communicate and access different cultures. There are non-linguistic benefits too.

Sam Wang, a neuroscientist at Princeton University, says these include the ability to cope better with conflict cues; increasing so-called theory of mind, which refers to being able to understand what is going on in another person’s mind, a skill that relates to empathy; and delaying dementia.

It’s one thing growing up multilingually in Brussels but what about growing up with three languages in Ireland? Aonghus Ó hAlmhain and his German wife Ute, who live in Co Wicklow, speak Irish and German at home with their sons, Tiernán (16) and Fionn (15), and daughter Freddie (5). Aonghus grew up speaking Irish in Dublin and has been speaking as Gaeilge to his children “from before birth”.

“It would be a shocking waste not to pass on the languages we have available to us,” says Aonghus, for whom speaking different languages means “you are not stuck with one way of looking at the world”.

While he acknowledges that things have improved since he was a child, he says: “I think Anglophone Ireland has a long way to go to understand bilingualism, not to mention multilingualism. It’s very hard to find medical personnel who understand that a child can be bilingual or multilingual.

“If you suspect a speech difficulty you will at best meet a lack of understanding and at worst hostility. I know of people who have been told that really it’s their fault for not speaking English.”

In general, says Aonghus, people are curious when they realise that their kids are trilingual. “Sometimes [I get] questions about whether their English will suffer or whether I’m concerned that they will be confused.” His answer is an emphatic “no”.

Their boys, who were born in Berlin, “picked up English on the street” about a year after they moved to Ireland aged four and five. “There was no conscious input from us,” says Aonghus.

As is common, the children initially mixed languages and one of their favourite English/German/Irish anecdotes is of Freddie’s game that she loved to play by a stream aged three. “I want to schmiess [throw] clocha [stones].”

The language the children communicate in goes through phases, says Aonghus. “The kids spoke German all the time to me [except when they wanted something!] until we spent some time on Inis Oírr and they heard other children speaking Irish.”

Tiernán (16) says he is proud of his trilingualism. Apart from the obvious advantage of being able to communicate with Irish, English and German speakers in their native tongue, he says his trilingualism helps with his French and Spanish study.

Barbara Garrido from Spain and Olajide Ogidan from Nigeria, who met in Ireland, are also bringing up their children, Cynthia (8), Samuel (6) and Victor (5), with three languages. Their family languages are Spanish, English and Yoruba. Barbara speaks Spanish with the kids and says her eldest is fluent and that the youngest understands everything. When their dad, Olajide, is around, the family communicate in English, the language that they speak together as a couple.

Olajide spoke Yoruba (which he grew up with along with English) to Cynthia when she was born, but “somewhere along the line he stopped,” explains Barbara. He’s now back speaking Yoruba to the children every evening in an effort to keep their Nigerian roots alive.

Barbara says the reaction to her kids’ multilingualism has been positive and remembers someone, most likely her GP, telling her to “make sure to speak Spanish to them”.

Rory McDaid, education lecturer in Marino Institute of Education, echoes this advice: “The bottom line is encourage the use of all languages. Parents, don’t stop speaking to your kids in your own languages.”

He has come across a case where one family were told “to take out the Romanian TV. This has huge impacts in terms of family relationships and lots of international studies show the negative social consequences of prioritising English over other languages.”

He is particularly concerned that teachers and speech therapists should understand and encourage multilingualism.

For English speakers in particular, it’s easy to be lazy when it comes to learning other languages, and, as any mature student knows, it is hard work, so if your children have the opportunity to imbibe other languages when they are young my advice is take advantage of their good fortune. After all: Tús maith leath na hoibre. It will broaden their minds, expand their horizons and provide a lifetime of pleasure.


Growing up with Three Languages by Xiao-lei Wang, 2008, published by Multilingual Matters.

Comhluadar, the association for Irish-speaking families.