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Saturday, 11 February 2012

The burden of trilingualism?

I promised myself no "proud mum" posts on this blog - but I'm just itching to boast about Sofia's expanding trilingual vocabulary. She's got "bye-bye", "tschuess" and "au revoir" off pat now (you'll have to imagine the cute baby pronounciation), and she's using the right language with the right people. Other words she only says in one language for the moment, "Ball" (in German) and "night-night" being two of her most recent acquisitions. Oh, and not forgetting "meow/miau" for the cat (of whom she is still horribly afraid, although she's now bigger than the cat and much more mobile than she used to be.)

But to round this post off a bit, I thought I'd look at the word lists* we did for Annabelle and Leonard when they were learning to talk. The first thing I noticed was that there were four columns, not three. Ok, so one each for English, French and German - but the fourth one? That was for "own inventions", which are sometimes obviously down to immature pronounciation, but "afwa" for water? And "paco" for helicopter? Some bits are also just cute: they both said "heavy" when they wanted me to carry them because when Leonard, the older one, would hold his arms up to me like his little sister did, I would often say to him "Oh, you're too heavy to be carried now." So "heavy" became their short-hand for "pick me up!"

The distribution between the languages is interesting too in its randomness. There's not any particular type of word, either in relation to grammar or meaning which tends to be learnt in one language or another, other than "encore" (more in French) which all three of them mastered very early on and before they could say the same thing in English or German (this tells you more about baby psychology than reams of books by experts). There also isn't one language that dominates. I sometimes get asked which language the children learnt first, and it's a question I can't answer: it was all three at once.

The other odd thing about these word lists is the timing. Leonard didn't have more than a handful of words/meaningful sounds at 18 months, and he was approaching 2 before we had enough to even make up a word list of any significance. Annabelle on the other hand at 13 months had a page-long list! And Sofia is somewhere in between the two. I think within our family we probably span the typical range of baby language learning, from "not unusual but fast" to "not unusual but on the slow side" - so I'm happy to stick with the collective conclusion of "not unusual - and coincidentally doing it in three languages." 

*Are you cringeing at the mention of word lists? It wasn't just that, we documented everything - to begin with. It went from almost an hour-by-hour record of Leonard's every bodily function, to weekly, then monthly diary entries for Annabelle, and poor Sofia so far has about one page in the baby log! Yes, we are really that sad...


  1. We had a word list until two years or so, and it probably actually helped us know what she was saying, since we had the same "this language / that language / combination / made-up language" issue as you. We never kept a baby book as such, but I did write letters to the (first) baby each month with details of what she was up to. I kept those up until some time before her third birthday and just managed to write another one a couple of weeks not only did I slack on the last year and a half, the (second) baby hasn't had any letters yet! I have a small amount of guilt about that, but we do make sure to take pictures of him so it's not all about the big sister :-D

    So no, that's not too cringe-worthy, or if so then we're in the same boat!

    1. Hi Melissa,

      Thanks for your comment, makes me feel a bit better! Actually, I suspect there are a lot of people like us out there. I know of a couple of people who kept excel sheets of their baby's milk intake vs weight gain in the first weeks - at least we never went that far!


  2. I write down words and sentences my son says, too. He is growing up mostly bilingually with a bit of Spanish as a third language. I am German and my husband American. We live in the US and I used to study well, I use him to keep practicing my Spanish. (evil me ;))
    I sometimes sit and listen to what he is saying while playing by himself and write down conversations he has with his toys that are usually in a German English mixture with an occasional Spanish word. lol
    I think it is a nice thing to do. No worries about making lists. :) (I blame it on my degree in linguistics hahaha)

  3. Me too--love the lists of kids' new words!

    I haven't finished my four-year-old son's baby book (though I finally completed the scrapbook of his first year), but I never even started one for my one-year-old.

    What I do have (in addition to the word lists, which occasionally I share on my blog) is a little book called "Mom's Memory a Day" or some such. It's small, but each page has a date and is divided into five section. So for five years, I write one or two sentences about something one of the kids did or said that day. When I finish, any one page will give me an example of how they changed from year to year.

    I can't seem to keep track of milestones in a formal baby book, but I (usually) can manage to jot down that my baby took her first steps or my son used his first plus-que-parfait!

  4. I was such a shocking 'proud mum' that I made long lists of all the baby signs my kids knew... and then blogged about them! I guess it's a way for all us hardworking mums to give ourselves a pat on the back too :-) Well done for keeping up 3 languages, and please keep sharing those lists!

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