Trilingual edu: 3rd language falling behind

Hello Forum members,

I am father of a tri-lingual 7 year old daughter and am posting this in the hope that some of you may be able to share advice.

My daughter is in a Chinese-English immersion school in San Francisco, and we’ve been following the “one parent, one language” approach since her birth in which mom speaks only Mandarin with her, dad speaks only German with her and in family settings (e.g. dinner) we use English.

My daughter has responded well to this approach and is able to speak, write and read Mandarin and Enlist and speak and understand mid-level German. So far, I have focused her attention German on understanding and speaking but not pushed for reading or writing as I fear it might distract from Mandarin and English skills.

Due to school, homework and friends immersion, her English and Mandarin have made great progress. But earlier this year she started switching to English instead of German. I believe this is because she feels more fluid expression is possible in English while her German capabilities are lagging behind.I continue to speak only German with her.

I am now looking for any advice on what I can do to ensure that she continues to build a solid foundation for German.
I am concerned that she is giving up on expressing herself in German as her capabilities are falling behind her English and Chinese skills. I don’t have the ambition for her to write or read much German, unless this is something that’s critical.

I have considered, sending her to a 2 week German immersion summer camp in 2019 but worry that by then she may have fallen behind so much that she will not even try her German.

Many thanks for any ideas,


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A couple of thoughts (I teach Psychology of Language at the university and some of my nieces are bilingual).
a) Being 2/3-lingual doesn’t mean that the child has equal capabilities in all languages. Some of them will dominate. Most important is for the child to understand the language, the second priority is for him/her to produce it (maybe learn songs,/poems). With just a simple, but consistent foundation in those skills, the child will be able to catch up on the language quite easily if s/he gets interested later on.
b) Maybe more important: in my experience, it is not enough to talk to children in a language for the to acquire it. It is not unusual that they reject some of the languages. It is a myth that children can learn languages effortlessly, it takes resources and they also struggle, so it is paramount to get them interested in each language and “show” that mastery of it is useful. Meaningful, interesting nteraction with family that speaks the language (grandparents, cousins) and exposure to “compelling” content in it might help in this regard.

Viel Erfolg!

Another way to look at this is this: The more your daughter can feel that you’re connected to your own culture in a meaningful way and the more you “invite” her to share it, the better the chances for her to become really immersed in it.
Think about it: is it possible that your wife feels more connected day-to-day to Chinese culture (through family, activities, time spent with the language and so on) than you are to the German one? If so, that might have a big impact and you may want to improve on that particular issue. if the child feels (at an unconscious level) that German culture does not relate so strongly to her, she might want to dispense with it as an unnecessary effort. I know a couple of cases in which something along those lines definitely happened.

Noch einmal, ich wünsche euch Erfolg

Is your daughter enjoying this language process? Does she have activities that she enjoys doing-- and is she doing those fun things in German? Does she have friends her age that are German speakers that she can interact with?

Negative factors will contribute to a high affective filter that blocks her natural acquisition of German (See Stephen Krashen on Language Acquisition). In other words, she won’t make much progress if she’s in a negative emotional state while learning German-- if she is feeling pressured, anxious, bored, etc. Have you checked how she is feeling? What’s her feedback?

If your daughter wants to learn German in addition to Mandarin and English, reading will be an absolutely critical skill in the years to come.

The other question is time. Presuming she is awake 112 hours per week (16x7), how many hours per week is she interacting in German? My guess is she is not spending perfectly equal time in English, Mandarin, and German. If she is spending say, 14 hours per week interacting in German, then naturally, as a function of time and language input exposure, her other languages will be much stronger.

Thank you very much for your thoughts. Based on what you have shared, I think that i can improve on the motivational aspects of learning German., as I myself feel less emotionally attached to my culture.

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Thanks very much. I acknowledge that “time spent” on German is comparably low. I also need to consider ways to avoid frustration and increase positive motivation. I have a feeling that a key for this would be positive feedback from other German-speaking peers - that we don’t have much access to in San Francisco.