a trilingual family holding hands

Beyond Bilingualism: 4 Tips for Raising Trilingual Children

By Kimine Mayuzumi and Riyad A. Shahjahan

As a transnational couple, for years, we’ve encountered the following question: “How do you raise trilingual kids?

Simply living a transnational and inter-linguistic marriage/relationship does not guarantee an inclusive multilingual home environment. There are moments and situations when children may question multilingualism, particularly when surrounded by monolingualism (in our case English). At times, we may question offering a multiple linguistic environment to our children as we may feel communication will be restricted. Many parents, who are bilingual or speak beyond the dominant language, may feel pressure to speak English (i.e. the dominant language in the local) by external forces.

Despite all the odds, we have maintained a multilingual lifestyle/environment with English, Japanese and Bengali. Based on our experiences, here are our 4 tips for raising trilingual children.

1. Speak your first language CONSISTENTLY

When we first became parents, we decided to consistently speak our mother tongues to our son. Even though we spoke English to each other, Kimine intentionally spoke only Japanese to our son and Riyad spoke only Bengali to him. As such, our son distinguished what language to speak depending on his audience. Now that he is 12 years old, he is proud of his trilingual ability and is motivated to maintain his multilingual identity. We don’t have to be as intentional as before.

Of course, it is not that simple. Sometimes, when all of us wanted to communicate together, speaking English seemed much easier. Other times, we were concerned about our son’s mastery of English language since he was not permitted to speak English at home. We’ve encountered numerous hilarious and awkward family moments. For example, our son heard a message twice in both Bengali and Japanese, because we as parents didn’t notice that the same message had already been communicated to him in the other language.

Despite these challenges and odd moments, we maintained consistency with honoring and prioritizing our native languages with our children, especially while they were very young.

2. Affirm and reinforce your child(ren)’s multilingual skills

Long before our son became proud of his trilingual skills, we often affirmed his unique and wonderful ability to speak different languages. Even in public, sometimes other grown-ups noticed that our children were trilingual and expressed to us how wonderful that was. In that situation, we as parents fully accept the compliment with a smile and express pride in front of our children. This was our way of validating our kids’ multilingual identities inside and outside the home.

This point leads us as parents to be firm about speaking our first languages even outside our home or community, which also aligns with the first point – being consistent with your spoken language. We were aware that if we were uncertain about our respective language role outside the home, our children would be shy or feel ashamed about expressing themselves in multiple languages. Given the global dominance of the English language, it was political for us to maintain multilingualism both inside and outside our home.

We also encourage our children to speak our mother tongues not only when they communicate with us as parents, but also when talking to people in our communities (i.e., Japanese communities and Bangladeshi/Bengali communities). Some people in a Japanese community may start speaking English to our children. Then we would say, “they (our kids) speak Japanese.” Then the community members switch to Japanese to talk to our children. Same in a Bengali community as well.

Our kids also learn Japanese by hanging around with Japanese friends and skype with their grandparents in Bengali. In the limited occasions to speak Japanese and Bengali here in the US, it is essential for us, grown-ups, to intentionally create such linguistic environments.

3. Encourage siblings to speak a non-dominant language

After the arrival of our daughter, we maintained consistency with spoken Japanese and Bengali with our children. When we spoke our mother tongues to our second child, it reminded our son that he was not supposed to speak English to his little sister. We also explicitly discouraged him from speaking English to her too. So in this case, he had to choose between Bengali and Japanese. 

Frankly, there has been a hierarchy between the two languages as well. Our son chose Japanese, rather than Bengali, to speak to his sister possibly for the following reasons: media influence (e.g., Japanese cartoons, TV shows, and songs), Japanese cultural capital in the world (i.e. exoticized throughout the world), and the amount of time they spent with their Japanese-speaking mom.

The point is, if our children spoke English to each other at home while speaking English all day at school, it would have been difficult for them to maintain their Japanese at the same level. Because our children spend a lot of time together playing, talking, and watching TV, speaking Japanese/Bengali to each other has been crucial for their multilingual development. Nowadays our son even encourages his sister to speak only Japanese and Bengali at home.

4. Affirm your child(ren)’s cross-cultural identities

Language is not simply about communication, but also integral to our children’s ways of knowing and being. For us, maintaining trilingualism meant also affirming our respective culture’s values, food, music, entertainment, and so on, beyond the dominant culture inside/outside our home. For instance, our children are constantly exposed to our respective cuisines and competent in our culturally-oriented eating habits (i.e. using chopsticks, eating with their hands, and so on).

We also strive to affirm their cross-cultural heritages by exposing them to non-dominant cultural values and ways of being. For instance, we ask them to reflect on and question the dominant culture’s music (i.e. classical Western music and instruments), holidays (Judeo-Christian dominant), foods, history (i.e. Euro-American), entertainment, arts, and so on, so that they are aware that these are not universal. 

Ngugi Wa Thiongo, in his book, Decolonizing the Mind, reminds us language was part of the cultural bomb used by the colonizer to displace colonized ways of knowing and being. Hence, simply affirming and speaking non-dominant languages of our children is not enough. But exposing and maintaining all the elements of that linguistic culture (i.e. food, festivities, arts, etc.) is just as important.

We don’t know about the future whether our kids will keep speaking the different languages. But for now we are grateful and proud to share the process.


* You might also like the new post: What is being a trilingual child like? Here are our anecdotes.


Featured image by Mike Scheid on Unsplash

About Riyad A. Shahjahan

Dr. Riyad A. Shahjahan is the co-founder of Being Lazy and Slowing Down, an Associate Professor at Michigan State University (MSU) and formerly a certified coach for National Center for Faculty and Diversity Development (NCFDD).