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Raising a Baby in a Multilingual Family

Last year when I was still pregnant with Claire I wrote a post about how J and I are aiming to teach our kids all the languages we collectively know: Cantonese Chinese, Mandarin Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and English.

Well our goal has not swayed. And I like to think that we’re well on our way. How so, you ask?

Right before I gave birth to Claire we met a little girl who — being one month shy of turning two years old — knew three languages.

We asked her parents how they managed to teach her three languages simultaneously, and they told us exactly how…

The mother, who only knew American English, only spoke to her daughter in English from day one.

The father was born in France and was fluent in both French and English. He only spoke to his daughter in French.

Additionally, their full-time nanny is of Chinese descent and speaks Mandarin Chinese. She only speaks to the little girl in Mandarin.

The purpose of having the three main caregivers speak different languages to the baby is so that the baby will learn to differentiate between the three languages.

But how will the baby know that three different words actually mean the same thing?

By having a fourth language tie all three together: sign language.

The parents of this bright little girl told us that starting at the age of six months, all three caregivers started signing words as they said them. And while the girl did start speaking a few months later than average (this is typical of babies who grow up in multilingual households), soon, she was conversing — and signing — to her mother, father, and nanny in three different languages.

J and I took this lesson to heart and have been following their instructions since the day Claire was born. The only difference is that we do not have a nanny. As such, I only speak to her in Korean, J only speaks to her in Cantonese (Mandarin is easier to learn if you know Cantonese first, than vice versa), and we speak to each other in English.

And since Claire will be turning six months old very soon, I picked up the Baby Signs Starter Kit earlier this week.

As she grows older, we will add Mandarin Chinese (which will not be too difficult since she will know Cantonese Chinese) and Japanese (which is very similar to Korean in grammar and structure) to the mix.

The only minor setback we’ve noticed so far is that since only non-family members (who do not see her often) call her by her English name, she has yet to associate the word “Claire” with herself. Meanwhile, I’m pretty certain that she knows — as most babies do at this age — her Korean and Chinese names.

And as mentioned above, we’re also aware that she will most likely begin speaking at a much later age than other kids. Additionally, there is bound to be some language confusion later on. I know a little boy who — very cleverly, I might add — used to refer to apples as “ah-gwah” (the Korean word for apple is “sa-gwah,” so he just managed to merge “apple” and “sa-gwah” together in his mind).

I’m also pretty sure that she and her father will start to talk about me in Chinese, as I will probably talk to her about J in Korean.  ;-)

However, we believe these drawbacks to be very, very minor compared to the advantages she will have in both school and in the workforce as someone who is fluent in at least three — and hopefully five — different languages.

There’s also the fact that she would be able to freely converse with her grandparents in their native languages, which makes it all worthwhile in our eyes.