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Thursday, July 12, 2012

On raising a multilingual child...

FYI - now that I wrote all of this down, I have to warn you that this is a looong post!

Und leider habe ich nun gar keine Zeit, das alles nochmals auf deutsch zu schreiben, aber hoffentlich komme ich noch irgendwann dazu.

You probably have figured out by now that we have an almost 3 year old son Julian, he will be 3 in August. What I haven't talked about much is our efforts to raise him in a trilingual environment - or mostly my efforts. My hubby is very supportive and understanding, however he is the monolingual parent (English), so his world hasn't changed too much. Except for not understanding what his son and wife talk about at times... including what we talk about him. I promise it's nice. Most of the time. Really :)

As the trilingual parent living in the US, I am charged with teaching our son both of my non-English languages - Thai and German. Before we even had children, we both knew that we wanted to take advantage of my ability to speak both Thai and German fluently and pass these languages on to our children one day. Growing up bilingually myself, it has always been clear to me that I wanted my children to grow up the same way. Of course growing up in a Thai household in Germany, I never would have imagined that English would even enter the picture until later on in school, where I knew my child would learn English, just the way that I did. I always expected to find a husband who would most likely speak German and I would speak Thai to my child.

But then I decided to move the US after High School and here we are now. I happened to fall in love with an English only speaking husband (and trust me, I love him no less) and when I was pregnant with our first child, I really had to seriously think about how the heck I would manage to teach our child both Thai AND German? For a long time I thought about maybe only focusing on one language, either Thai OR German. But the more I pondered, the more I was set on teaching our child both languages.


Because both languages are important to me, in different ways. And because, well why not?? I figured it wouldn't hurt to try, and if I failed in teaching two languages, well I would settle for just one.

Thai is important to me because that's my so called mother tongue. Despite growing up in Germany we would take lengthy Thailand vacations every other year and those belong to my best childhood memories. I have a large extended family. My dad has 3 siblings, all have kids, and my mom has 6 siblings, all have kids. At home in Germany it may have only been mostly me and my sister, but whenever we were in Thailand, it was a completely different story - we had a ton of cousins we were extremely close to. And we still are extremely close to this day. We always consider ourselves more like siblings than cousins because of our closeness. My cousins were always allowed to skip school when we came for our every other year Thailand vacation and all their friends knew they wouldn't hear much from them for 5 weeks because it was family time :) We would always take big huge large extended family trips together. Lots of family get togethers, family meals, family everything. We were each other's best friends and we just love it. Sounds creepy? :) I know not every family is like that, and I can honestly tell you that the same type of bond doesn't exist on my dad's side of the family. Almost all of this is really my mom's side of the family.

On our wedding day in Thailand in 2006... with my sister and just a few of our cousins

With my two youngest cousins in Kiel, Germany 2006
I know I am rambling, so I'll get to my point. I don't think we would have been able to form these close and lasting bonds without being able to speak Thai. For any of you who do speak another language fluently, you know that each language has it's own nuances, feelings and emotions. There are certain things that you just can't always translate well, or the meaning or sentiment gets slightly lost in translation. My sister and I always felt at home during our Thailand trips because well... we never felt left out. We were part of this big crazy family, we were part of the love, the jokes, the conversations, the gossip, the laughs, everything. And that wouldn't have happened if we had not been able to share the same language. I simply can't imagine not opening up this world to our son. It's the language I grew up with, the language I hear when I hear my mom's voice in my head reminding me not to bite my nails, my dad's voice when I think of him giving me advice on money matters and which car to buy. It's the language I heard when I was sick as a child, when I was sad, when I was crying, or happy and excited and also the language I still use today when I call my parents at least once a week to tell them about what's happening in our lives and catch up on family gossip in Thailand. And well, being Thai is part of my son. It will always be. And it's important to me that he understands his background, his roots, his family, and Thai customs and values.

German is important to me in different ways. It's not my official mother tongue, but it could be, sometimes more so than Thai. I was so little when we moved from Thailand and settled into our life in Germany. I almost learned German and Thai at the same time being only 2 when we moved to Hamburg! It's the language of my childhood, my friends, my schooling, my first attempts at reading and writing, nursery rhymes and childhood songs, cartoons, most of my other various first experiences, my first crushes, first hourlong conversations with my girlfriends and so much more. There is a comfort with German that is hard to describe. And you don't know how comforting it is to share the same childhood experiences with your friends. Whenever my US friends start reminiscing about the old days, cartoons they watched, movies they watched, drinks they had as kids, commercials, food and candy they used to love growing up, I always feel a little bit left out. A lot of times I have no clue what they are referencing. And I hated the "easy" $100 questions on "Who wants to be a millionaire" because to me, I just didn't know the answer to a lot of those questions that anyone growing up in the US typically knows. To this day I prefer to count in German if I have to do it fast, even though English is my most comfortable language right now, strange right? My sister and I still primarily speak German with each other to this day, always have for some reason. Speaking Thai with each other feels very awkward and strange to us, so we have stuck with German all these years. We will speak Thai with each other if we have to, or if we want to talk about others and don't want them to understand us, but oh gosh it's weird for us! When I write to my parents and vice versa, it's not in Thai or English, it's in German! Some of the closest and longest friendships I have are with my friends from Germany. They are my second family, we can count on each other and are there for each other, we still keep in close touch even after 18 yrs in the US, visit each other, attend each other's weddings, etc.

Hubby and I on our Honeymoon in Thailand, 2006 with 5 of my closest German friends that I grew up with.
So again I was faced with the reality that I didn't want to withhold this world from my son either. When we will travel back to Germany to visit friends, or when my friends come to visit us in Florida, I want Julian to be part of that, to be able to understand what we talk about, and dang it, I want him to be able to sing my German childhood songs with me, and read all the German books with me that I read as a child! While Thai is near and dear to my heart because of the reasons I listed above, I am only orally fluent. I can read the basics and write minimally (thank God for Google Translate), but I knew there would be no way for me to read Thai books to Julian and sing Thai nursery rhymes to him. Whenever I would even hear nursery rhymes in my head, they'd be in German. And those were the only ones I could sing and came naturally to me. Same with books... I wanted to be able to read to my child, well non English books.

So when I was pregnant, I googled and searched and googled some more, but it was hard to find sources online that talked about one parent teaching a child two different languages, in an environment with a third language. Most resources were about bilingual environments, and there were a great number of resources that talked about OPOL - one parent, one language, which is supposed to work beautifully. So this would be an awesome scenario for us if we lived in Germany - our son would grow up learning German from his environment, his dad would speak only English to him, and I would speak only Thai to him. Since I couldn't convince my hubby to move back to Germany with me to start this beautiful experiment, I had to rethink my strategy.

In the end I figured that I would just try as best as I could, let my instincts lead me and just see how things would progress.

When Julian was first born, my parents were not with us yet - they arrived in the US when Julian was 2.5 months old and they stayed for almost 4 months to help us take care of him until he was 6 months old and we were comfortable putting him with a nanny. After so many years in the US, English has really become my comfortable language. It's what I surround myself with daily, work, home, friends, TV, books, etc. So it was a conscious effort to remind myself to not speak English with my baby. I slipped into English plenty of times, and sometimes I was just too lazy and tired to care. But I knew I wanted Julian to be exposed to both Thai and German as early as possible.

My first strategy was to switch my languages daily. One day German, one day Thai. I quickly tossed that idea. I just got wayyyyyyy too confused! Especially during those early sleepless nights of nursing him every 2 hours or so, I couldn't remember if it was German day or Thai day and would forget from one hour to the next, heck sometimes from one sentence to the next!

So then I came up with German week and Thai week. And that worked out beautifully for us. All my close friends even know about German and Thai week and will ask me what week I'm on with Julian :)  Even though I look at them strangely and wonder "hello.....??? What about throaty harsh German sounds anything like soft singy songy Thai in your world??" And sometimes I even say it out loud. Trust me, only to my closest of friends. With others, those thoughts stay in my head.

My goal was to not speak English with Julian at all, most importantly while at home, but even as we went out shopping, etc. And after the first few weeks of getting adjusted to my new deal, it became easier and easier. Hubby was so supportive from the beginning, he never made me feel weird about speaking in other languages to my child, and he never ever complained about not understanding or feeling left out.

Now Julian is almost 3 and we are so very proud to say that he understands all three languages equally well. Yes, he responds primarily in English. It's his comfort language after all, and the language of his environment. Nanny and her household speak English, TV is in English (we kinda cringed at Dora/Diego and Kaylan... really, do we need to add Spanish and Chinese to the mix??), Mommy and Daddy speak English to each other, and and and. Julian was also a late talker. At his 2 year check up our doctor urged us to make sure we count that he at least speak 50 words because he would refer us to a childhood language development expert if that was not the case. We counted about 65 words. Luckily he really took of with his speech around 2.5 years, and it's been nonstop ever since. He still probably isn't caught up with many of his peers at this age, but he is getting there very quickly, and we never had any doubt about his comprehension and ability to communicate. With him speaking late, I definitely did and do not want to discourage him or set him back even further by insisting he speak Thai or German with me. What I do is continue to speak exclusively German with him during German week, and exclusively Thai with him during Thai week. He understands everything. He just chooses to respond in English. Now that his vocabulary is growing, he is more willing to add German and Thai words by request. And there have always been certain words he prefers in Thai or German. He definitely understands that there are different languages we use with each other, which is still surprising to me. All of this is simply amazing to me... to grow up bilingual and never having to think about it is one thing, but to see and watch your own child grow up learning three languages at the same time and so early on showing that he is aware that we use multiple languages is just amazing and completely awesome and cool to me every single day. Because he responds primary in English sometimes I start doubting myself and "test" his ability to understand Thai and German. So then I start asking him questions, giving him directions, etc. and without fail, he proves that he knows exactly what I tell him.

He loves to watch the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, and we downloaded a bunch of episodes for the iPad. A few months ago I discovered a bunch of episodes in German on YouTube (gotta LOVE YouTube!) and had Julian watch them. It was hilarious watching his big eyes when he realized that Mickey & Friends were speaking German! He was just beside himself, giggling and as each character started speaking he would just exclaim in utter surprise but with so much delight "Mommy, Mickey speaking DEUTSCH!!", "Mommy, Donald speaking DEUTSCH!!"

When we have German visitors staying with us, his German vocabulary definitely increases. The same happens with Thai speakers. We FaceTime with my parents at least once a week so that they can interact with their only grandchild and it makes me so happy that he is so close to his ตา (Thai - maternal Grandpa) and ยาย (Thai - maternal Grandma) and even asks to call them on the iPad. 

When we took Julian to Thailand with us for the very first time last October, Julian wasn't speaking much but 
understand everything and everyone. I truly felt that it was such an easy transition for him, as he didn't seem 
to be unfamiliar with his environment. In his little world, all was okay because first of all, Mommy and Daddy
were with him, and second he understand everyone in his environment and was able to easily communicate.

The iPad has been such a wonderful resource anyway. There are so many multilingual children's books and apps
that we were able to download. And thanks to our frequent German visitors Julian's bookshelf has just as many 
German children's books as English. And he has CDs with German children's music. 

If you are a parent out there wondering if you can do the same with your children - you can! Children are such
sponges, they absorb so much and their capacity to learn is just amazing. I am more and more confident that
I will be able to stick with German and Thai as Julian gets older, and that he will start using both languages more 
as he gets older. I know that as an adult, my Thai language skills have become so much better and more
fine tuned. And this is the language I never had true formal education on - I simply learned it by speaking Thai
at home with my parents, with their circle of Thai friends in Germany and our family in Thailand.

Was it strange for me to speak a different language to my son as we were out in public? Yes, it was. It still is sometimes, 
but after a while you get over being so self conscious and paranoid that others are looking at you
in a strange way and might think "What is she speaking and why is she not speaking English in our country?"

But honestly - I don't care. I had to tell myself that very early on. I can't let that influence how I will interact with 
my son in public. I know it's something I will most likely have to deal with again when Julian gets older and
becomes more self conscious and aware that he is speaking a different language than everyone else.

I know I was when I was a child. There were so many times I was embarrassed to have to speak Thai with my 
parents in public and wished they would just speak German. And I don't know how many times I was
embarrassed that my parents didn't speak German fluently and had a noticeable accent. I remember so many times
that I was painfully embarrassed that my mom would ask me to speak to the doctor for her because even though she 
spoke and understood German, she wasn't 100% fluent in it and it sometimes she asked us to help out if she 
wanted to make sure there were no misunderstandings. Or she couldn't think of a certain word. But that's normal
for a child who wants to fit in. I just know that Julian will probably experience those same emotions one day.
The  one thing I hope for him is that it might make things easier for him as I don't have an accent when speaking
English, that was definitely a big embarrassing factor as a child.

If you have any experience with multilingualism in your home, please share, I'd love to hear!

Thank you for reading this extremely long post :)

With love,



  1. My experience was as a child visiting family on the reservation; it felt perfectly natural to speak Lakota (Sioux Indian) on the rez and English when not on it. My daughter chose to learn German because her grandfather spoke it but would occasionally spike it with Lakota words or Scottish slang (my husband is from Scotland).

    It's wonderful you're being so conscientious about sharing the gift of languages with your son!

    1. Wow, that is a great experience for both you and your daughter, thank you for sharing!

  2. wow, i`m impressed!!! other people get money for this... they are called teachers! and you? you teach, learn, correct, play, sing, talk about it every day!!! be proud, dear phanit!!!

    happy FREUday from germany ;-)

    1. Thank you liebe Jules :))) Ueber Deine lieben Worte habe ich mich auch sehr geFREUt :)

  3. Wow, Phanit, I am deeply impressed. I would give anything to give my future child the chance of beeing raised bilingually. Unfortunately it never worked out for me with foreign man ;-) I set my hope on an expat life in the future, pls. keep your fingers crossed. Having a child is far far away from me right now, but when the time comes, I would consider having an English speaking Au Pair. What about an Au Pair for you? Isn't that an option?

    Again, deepest respect for your effort of giving your son the chance of three languages. Wish you and your family all the best!

    1. Thank you so much! I am definitely keeping my fingers crossed for your expat life in the future, which country do you prefer? I'm nosy :) An Au Pair might be an option once we get a larger house, right now it's kinda small and I'm not sure we would want another person living in here with us! But we have definitely thought about an Au Pair! Or even a nanny from Thailand one of these days.
      Thank you for your very sweet comment :)


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