Gibberish – Our Way of Teaching Our Child 3+1 Languages

Some of the questions I get the most are in regards to what language and how many languages we speak with Freja. Most of you know that I am German, hence German is my native language, while Christoffer’s is Danish as he is originally from Denmark. What many people do not know: our “family language” is actually English. Christoffer and I met in an English-speaking environment at university (where he was heading the mentor program), surrounded my many other exchange students from all over the world. Little did we know that we would end up dating, falling in love, moving to Switzerland, getting married and start a family together. But fast forward seven years and here we are. So Christoffer and I have always been talking English with each other and we probably always will. It feels the most natural to us, both being pretty much fluent. So obviously Freja should learn English from the start, as well as German and Danish. But how to achieve this in the best and easiest way for her?

I have to admit, I am not a big believer in a theoretical and methodological approach, nor do I like to read “how to do” books. There are so many possibilities out there and many of them, or none, might fit your child. And even if it works well with your first born, it might look totally different should one have more children (just judging from how different my sister and are for example). And this also can be applied for educating your child in general and not just for language education (Miriam from brought up an interesting discussion about this the other day, which got me thinking about all of this in the first place). What we want to teach Freja and our hopefully other children are our morals and our values, things we believe are right and wrong, and we want to try out things, which work for us. And we want to do this not by reading books and “applying” a certain method or theory but in a way we feel is right. That does not mean, that we will not try out things I have heard or read about somewhere, but we will for sure never use a certain “style” all the way through.

So what are we going to do with Freja in terms of her learning various languages? This is a tricky one and as we of course also do not want to do anything wrong and I did indeed read several books on this topic. The main problem is that one can find various books and articles on bilingual education, however only very few on learning three or more. I personally read the book “Mit zwei Sprachen gross werden” by Elke Montanari and “Growing up with three languages” by Xiao-lei Wang. Both books were interesting and I certainly took certain pointers from each of them, but none of them provides a perfect solution for us. So we created our own… (please keep in mind that we will probably not live in Switzerland forever and we might therefore have to adapt eventually at some point, see below)

  • Both Christoffer and I will always speak our mother tongue (German or Danish respectively with her) with the exception if we live in a country were one of our mother tongues is already spoken, which is the case at the moment. The person who’s mother tongue is spoken in the country of living will then switch to English. But in general we want her to have one person associated with one language.
    • This means Christoffer will at the moment speak Danish with her while I actually speak English to her when I talk directly to Freja. Should we at some point move for example to the US, where the will most likely have completely English-speaking surroundings I would switch to German.  Should we move back to Denmark however, we would have to do a complete switch: I would switch to German, Christoffer would switch to Englisch, while she would hear Danish in her everyday life outside of the house. However at the moment her childcare place is a (Swiss)-German speaking one, meaning she will hear German at least 4-5 days a week from 8am – 6pm, making it important for me to speak English in our free time.
  • The grandparents speak their native tongue to her as well, meaning Christoffer’s parents and siblings speak Danish to her, while my parents and sister speak German to her.
  • As I am currently not speaking my native tongue with her it is important to me that she still knows, that I also speak German. Hence, when I am with German speaking friends, we obviously speak German with each other and they also speak German to her when addressing her directly, while I speak English to Freja.
  • Christoffer and I speak English with each other and when we are talking together and with her at the same time, we also use English. Only when one of us has 1:1 time with Freja, we speak English/Danish to her directly.
  • We constantly have to remind ourselves to stick to those rules. It is not always easy and we often forget, but as soon as she is actually talking I think it will actually be easier.

This is how we do it and so far it works for us, however she is obviously not speaking yet so at some point we might have to adapt, also depending were we will living by then. I have no doubt that she might have certain delays in her languages skills and mix up a lot of words/languages in the beginning. This is completely normal for children who learn more than one language from the beginning on but is usually not turning into a problem later on and by the time they start school they are not behind anymore whatsoever. We see it as a huge advantage for her to learn not just one but three languages (four if you count in Swiss German, which is quite different from the “high” German, especially in the beginning) and both of us would have secretly liked to have this opportunity when we were children.

Which languages are you speaking with your kids and how are you doing it? Do you have any other “pointers” for me as well, things I should maybe try? I am always open for suggestions and love when things actually fit into our little “plan”.

Love, S.

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