Raising a Trilingual Child: First Words


We were set to raise a bilingual baby (at least until 3,5 years or so), but we found ourselves in the situation of raising little gosling trilingual. How did a monolingual Romanian family get here? By chance.

I found out I was pregnant when we were in the process of moving from Belgium to South Africa. Pretoria was meant to be a 4 year stop. Little gosling was born there, but until 6 months he only heard Romanian. Then, I went back to work and he spent eight hours a day with an English-speaking wonderfully warm, cheerful and very chatty Zimbabwean nanny. At 15 months, he started daycare in English, again eight hours a day. By 19 months we had moved back to Belgium for professional reasons and he started attending a French speaking nursery. 

Before we left South Africa we realised that although little gosling heard only Romanian when together, he responded much better to commands and instructions in English. When we relocated, I felt regret at letting him lose the budding English and we decided mommy should continue speaking to him in English, daddy in Romanian and he would have French at school. And we would speak Romanian together. So far (he’ll turn two in two weeks), so good. 

His first word was “apă”, water in Romanian. The second one was “light”. And he used it a lot; I recall him vividly having us switch on and off every light in the house, over and over again, with him in our arms. And that was it for quite a while, until 18 months or so. 

I had read that kids exposed to more than one language start speaking later. According to one of the apps I was following describing monthly baby milestones, he was slower on the speech development ones. I used to compare notes with colleagues from mixt families and bilingual babies and it always seemed theirs were progressing faster. The apparent speech delay was not something that bothered me, but it was something I was following very closely. 

The more so as I had made efforts to speak to my baby constantly, since forever, to read and sing to him, to help with his speech development. I remember reading that advice when the baby was just born, wondering what does one tell a newborn, but I quickly found my words and always chatted away, commenting and describing everything I was doing (had a very detailed nappy-changing script 😅, among others) and all that was around us. 

I had interiorised very well the fact that every baby is different. And something I had read about not worrying about speech delay before baby turns two. His pediatrician also did not seem concerned at all. He was 100% perfect to her. 

When he was 19 – 20 months, I wrote down the words that he said (to compare it against the app 🤪): “ca” => car; “ta” => star; “ba” => ball; one; “sa” => sun; “outsa” => outside; up; “dow” => down; “fa” => flower; here; there; “sos”=> socks; bum; eye; wash. Most of the words were in English. I assumed the three weeks he spent at home with me before he started nursery in Brussels were responsible for this. The two words that came out in Romanian were “bebe” for baby (I used to call him simply that for a long time) and “apāti (a picat)” for “it fell”. 

When he was 20 months old, we spent an entire month with his grandparents in Romania. I could sense my parents’ uneasiness at little gosling understanding English (which they don’t speak) and appearing oblivious to Romanian. By the time we left them, their communication with the baby was fluid and smooth. His vocabulary in Romanian got richer. At 21 months and a half, after one month and a half of nursery in French, he started saying his first words in French. He was so funny the first time he said yes successively in all three languages “yes.. da.. oui”😂. Thereafter, from 21 months +, he’s been amazing us with the amount of new words he says every day. 

Mixing and combining languages is one of the perks of raising a multilingual child. Sometimes, it’s easy to get the new words, by their sound or from the context. Other times, we need to figure out first the language and then the word 🤪. Lots of trial and error involved, mostly fun, but occasionally quite a source of frustration. 

It happened already once to me that I was unable to understand what he was requesting or figure out the language. I tried asking questions, pointing to different things around us, nothing worked. He kept repeating the word in a more alarmed and frustrated tone each time, looking almost beggingly at me, and I became more and more frustrated as I could not figure out a way to understand. I picked him up, hugged him, apologised and distracted his attention. Terribly frustrating 😔..But it won’t be the last time this happens, I suspect. 

English is at this stage his primary language, by far. Romanian next and only a few words in French, at this stage. However, from the nursery they told us he understands everything. At least that was the case before the coronavirus lockdown, three weeks ago. As for use of words, he tends to use the language in which he first learnt a notion; occasionally, the language used is attached to a special occurrence; rarely, he uses the words in the two languages (English and Romanian) interchangeably or at the same time. 

For many months, he identified the dog with “ouf ouf” in both languages. Only recently he started referring to it in the Romanian version “ham ham”, as well.  He never says dog or cățel. The cat is always “pis” (“pisica” in Romanian). The sheep is always “ba ba”; although he knows the words for it in both languages. 

Tree is always “pom” and fire is “foc” (in Romanian) – I assume because he still remembers when we dismantled the Christmas tree and his grandad put it on the fire. Eggs is always “ouă” – again, I assume it is because he was going with his granny every day to fetch the eggs laid by the hen. Water is still “apă”; have not heard him use the English word so far. The other day, we were reading a story and he heard “water lily” and he retained the word as “apă lily”. Hilarious! 

As for French, his very limited vocabulary so far includes words from (i) commands, generally mealtime related: “fini”=> done, when he’s finished his meal or any activity or “enco” (encore) => more, again, which he uses when he wants to get more food or repeat an activity; (ii) nursery rhymes (“bateau” => boat, “crocodile”, pronounced the French way). What happens is he comes home, says the word and the next day I ask the nursery staff whether they sing a song about it. How I know it is a song? He says it accompanied by some body movement 😋. Then I come home, find the song on youtube and learn it so that I can sing it to him when he asks “sing that, mommy!”

I am very curious to see in time how he will evolve, but our guess is French will fast gain ground, once the lockdown is over and the nursery opens again. I have building serious stocks of reading and cartoons and spoken stories in English mostly and will plan long holidays with his grandparents for his Romanian. Being a failed bilingual kid myself (my mom dropped the second language, Hungarian, early on so that I could get along with kids in my community), I’m quite determined to make the best of the trilingual upbringing. Luckily, Brussels provides a conducive environment for this. 

Leave a Comment