Getting used to a trilingual home

Our home here in Guangzhou has been mainly surrounded by Mandarin Chinese as that’s the love language between me and my husband. We met in Mandarin, fell in love in Mandarin and also got married in a Mandarin wedding ceremony. Of course we throw in a few phrases of English every now and then, especially when we have guests or when hubby wants to practice his English.

But as we are getting ready to welcome a new family member at the end of the year, we are also getting ready to become a trilingual family. According to what I’ve read, in a multilingual home it’s best that each of the parents speak their native language to their children, helping the kid to grow up bilingual. In our case I will be speaking Finnish and my husband Cantonese to our baby girl or boy.

Now that our baby has already started to make herself/himself known by kicking inside my tummy, we are also trying to form a habit of talking to the baby in a daily basis. But what has surprised us, is how strange it feels to be speaking our native languages in our home.

For years I’ve been used to speaking Chinese even with my cats, now I’ve been trying to change and talk to our cats in Finnish instead, creating more opportunities for our baby to hear Finnish. I also try to talk to my tummy in Finnish when I feel the little kicks, but often it feels pretty strange.

At the same time my husband feels odd speaking Cantonese to the baby in front of me, he is so used to speaking Mandarin in my presence that changing to his own dialect doesn’t come naturally. I try to remind him of speaking Cantonese to my tummy, even though that means I can hardly figure out what he is saying.

Mandarin will of course continue to be an important part of our life, as it’s the main language of communication between us. Our kid will then be hearing a lot of Mandarin as well, which I hope won’t get him or her too confused!

Getting our child to understand and speak Cantonese is not going to be a problem, as my husband’s whole family will be speaking it, but what about Finnish then? I have a feeling, that I really need to make an effort to bring more Finnish to my baby’s life by taking to her, watching Moomin cartoon together and actively finding other Finns to interact with.

I would love to hear about your experiences of raising bilingual or multilingual kids! Please share your story in the comments.

  • Marina

    I was raised in a bilingual home and a few of my friends are raising their children bilingual/trilingual.
    For now it feels weird to introduce languages that you are usually not speaking with your husband in your home because it somehow makes communication between you less effective. Languages are a mean of communication so you feel the best when you’re using the language that allows all the participants to communicate best. As your baby will grow to understand all three languages, you will feel a lot more comfortable; keep doing what you’re doing!
    As you said, your baby will have less contact with Finnish so it’s a good idea to use as much Finnish educational material as possible -cartoons, story books, lullabies, music CDs, etc..
    Your baby will probably be a bit confused when they will start speaking, at least I used to mix languages up because I knew some words only in one language and not the other, but multilingual kids usually understand their languages very well even though they might not be able to speak them perfectly (at a young age).
    Now that I’m an adult, I also find learning languages easier than most people, apparently. It just makes more sense, or seems a lot more doable.
    Anyway, your baby will have such a great advantage in life, knowing all these languages and cultures! Wish you all the best x

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    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    So interesting to read about your experience Marina! It really is such a gift to be born bilingual, and like you said, helps with learning foreign languages as well.

    I’m thinking of buying Finnish audio material on my holiday so I can start playing those even before the baby arrives.

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  • It’s so great to read about your pregnancy! I’m so excited to see your baby! I have been thinking a lot abouot this issue as well since I want to raise my future kids trilingual as well. We’ll most likely stay in Korea so they are exposed to Korean on a daily basis and from their daddy but I also want them to be able to be native in English and my other native language German. Must be crazy but manageable for a child especially since it’s the only way he/she will be used to. Good luck and keep us updated dear Sara <3

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    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    Thank Linda :) It’s going to be super exciting for sure! I’ve been wondering how it’s going to be for you as you are bilingual your self as well, how to balance the two languages. What I’ve read is that some parents start with one of the languages, and later introduce the second native language.

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  • cathy

    our daugther is raised bilingual (dutch and mandarin). we also speak mandarin together and i try to speak dutch, but often it is chinese because his family is around :(). i also used to speak chinese to my cat and practised speaking dutch with him too :p.
    i’ve bought several dutch listening books, children books and planning to let her listen to it. i try to say the same in dutch when i find that i’m speaking chinese :)

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    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    I’m so glad to hear I’m not the only one who speaks to her cats in different languages! I think I should get some audio material in Finnish on my holiday there.

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  • I just found that you have been updating your blog again. Exciting!

    I thought we’d do a better job of speaking our own languages to William, but I do catch myself speaking to him in Mandarin and my husband speaks to him in English at times. I guess it’s best not to sweat the small stuff. There are all sorts of recommendations for what to do with babies (No TV until they are two! No solid foods until they are 6 months! You should breastfeed at least a year!) that you can seriously drive yourself crazy trying to follow them all.

    Anyways, time will tell what will happen. William is 14 months but not really speaking yet. I think he’ll be fine as long as he is hearing (and eventually speaking) both languages on a daily basis.

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    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    I can imagine there are all sorts of advice, recommendations, rules etc for taking care of babies and kids. I guess in the end it’s just up to you which ones you follow and which ones you don’t. There seem to be a lot of shaming going on in Finland, that if you don’t do something then you are a bad mother, I try to stay out of it.

    I’ve read that bilingual kids might start talking later as they have so much to process, but that’s usually not a problem. I’ve also heard that some kids just prefer to listen first and start speaking full sentences when they decide it’s time to open their mouth :)

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    R Zhao Reply:

    It’s not so much a matter of it being “up to you,” sometimes things just happen or your baby just won’t cooperate! For example, I very, very much wanted to breastfeed but it didn’t work out the way I imagined it at all. I spent 8 months using a breast pump instead. I guess I had all these preconceived notions about how I would do things before the baby was born, but a lot of them did not work out. I think it’s important for moms to keep an open mind not only about how others parent but also about how they will parent. There are no one-size-fits-all rules to follow. :)

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    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    I guess we can only prepare the best we can, but in the end need to go with the flow :)

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  • Trang Le

    Hello Sara! I searched on the Internet for some tips to make a Chinese Cantonese fall in love with me and I found your blog. I am so excited when I read your blog. It is so interesting. Till now I read from the old posts to the newest posts and I just know that I have already have your baby. Congrats! :)

    Back to my own problem, do you mind if you suggested me some tips to make a Chinese guy love me. My friend introduced me to him because I wanted to learn Cantonese which is the root of my parental family. We have never met each other because I knew him after he came back to his country Australia after his trip to my country Vietnam. Recently we talk more and he is ready to teach me Cantonese. Thank you so much! Wish you all the best and look forward to seeing your children! :)

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    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    Hi! Nice to get your comment :)

    I think love isn’t something you make to happen or force, it’s something that will naturally happen between two people when they get to know each other and like each other.

    It sounds like you are slowly making friends and by learning/teaching Cantonese you can probably get to know each other better and have lots of topics to discuss.

    I would say to take it slow, especially that you can’t meet face to face. Later on if you become good friends or start to have feelings for each other, you could think of a way to meet and go from there.

    Have fun and good luck!

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  • Mike

    Hi

    My experience was pretty similar, as I am French and my wife is Cantonese but we used to speak english at home.

    Our daughter is 6 years old now and like you, I was pretty worried about all this language thing (will she be confused with all these languages ? will she be able to speak french ? …)

    But kids are incredible ;) They learn everything so quickly, and so easily. For the chinese languages (cantonese and mandarin), we didn’t have to worried because we live in China. So she can speak Cantonese and Mandarin like any other chinese kid of her age now.

    For the french part, it was just a little slower, as I am the only one who speak french to her here. Especially at the beginning, but now everything is fine. It’s just that I spend lots of time with her since she is born. It helps a lots.
    That’s why you must “forget” your chinese when you talk to the baby. Only use your native language, as much as possible.
    Then when (s)he will get older (around 3 or 4 yo), (s)he will understand the difference between these 2 or 3 languages, so you will be able to speak chinese to him/her too. Not all the time but at least you will have some fun learning/teaching some new chinese words.

    And for us, as we still speak english at home (between me and my wife), our daughter can understand us better and better, and she enjoys learning and speaking english with us too.

    So don’t worry too much, as long as you spend time with your kid, everything will be fine ;)

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    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    Thank you Mike for sharing! Especially that you are in a very similar situation to us. It’s comforting to know that your daughter learned all the languages well and is now learning English as well, she must be curious what mommy and daddy are speaking all the time ;)

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  • Thanks :) Have you noticed that his English is better if he hears it more than Cantonese? Do you happen to be bilingual yourself?

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