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Quadlingual Environment: Experiences, suggestions?

  1. #1
    yellowmud is offline Registered User
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    Quadlingual Environment: Experiences, suggestions?

    Hi there, I am new to this forum.
    Not even sure if that would be the correct term for four-languages.
    My wife and me are waiting for the birth of our son. He is due in three weeks. I am German, and my wife is Chinese (mandarin speaking). I was wondering if people would like to share their experience about raising children in a multi-lingual environment.
    My wife and me communicate in Mandarin and English (roughly 50/50, sometimes horribly mixed). We want my son to learn German and Mandarin. So far the plan is that we both only use our mother tongues to speak to him (my wife only understands very little German. so that might get funny at some point).
    I am a bit concerned about Canto and English. Both language are very similar to Mandarin and German respectively and will certainly flow around him as well in the HK environment.
    Is there anybody with such a linguistic configuration around here?
    What is your experience with separating languages? Absolutely necessary or not?
    Any kind of experience welcome.

    Cheers

  2. #2
    yellowmud is offline Registered User
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    What did you guys do about names actually?
    We will give him two complete names, German and Chinese.

  3. #3
    spockey is offline Registered User
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    (1) Start with your respective mother tongues. Usually, the primary caregiver will transfer the primary language (mother tongue) of your child. The other language development can manifest itself in many different manners. Currently, my child is a passive bilingual. Understands but reluctant to use German. English is his mother tongue as we both use it. So he speaks English. Starting with what you are both native in is very important as you are setting his/her foundation of universal grammar.

    (2) When communicating with each other - husband and wife, choose a language you are both proficient in - we use English. I don't speak German. My son only hears German from dad. He thinks that it's a secret dad-son language. If neither of you are proficient in English, then leave that to school as a domain to pick up the language and you can support this language development.

    (3) When your child is old enough to understand the distinctions, then you can introduce a fourth language. Select domains in which the child can use Cantonese only... E.g. Attend a Cantonese church - domain based usage or attend a Cantonese playgroup. The principle behind this is that in order to support any chosen language, attend groups associated with this language.

    All language exposure must be consistent and clear at the beginning. Try not to code-switch as it confuses your child and the development of universal grammar (the foundation understanding of grammar) can be totally screwed for all languages. That is why it is advisable to start with the languages which you both are native in. If the universal grammar is not developed well, the evidence is only obvious much later and by then, it'll be too late. I see this in my classrooms where kids come from multilingual homes of different dialects... not even different languages.... just different Chinese dialects. Parents code-switch as neither parents can communicate well in their respective mother tongues.

    My opinions are based on personal experience and on my own academic work on bilingualism. I am by no expert and it has been a year since I've completed any research on bilingualism. Effective bilingualism/multilingualism is a complex process. We have decided on building foundations for our child. As early exposure research is inconclusive. A lot of it is hearsay promoted by baby mags/ed mags., opinions by "experts". What is the clearest indicator for success in multilingualism (in the future)is laying a healthy foundation in mother tongue(s) development. Children do get confused - work with the limitations and abilities of your own child.
    So, good luck!
    Last edited by spockey; 08-13-2009 at 07:51 PM.

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    yellowmud is offline Registered User
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    Hi Spockey,

    Thanks for this detailed and competent answer! A secret dad-son language sounds interesting. ;)

    I planned to stick to one language in talking with my son. Although, as a linguistic layman, I haven't thought about it in such a proficient manner. Yet, it makes intuitive sense and if this strategy might even be important for some foundational cognitive structures, it seems even more important.

    As for communication between us, we use both Mandarin and English and are both proficient in both (although I could certainly improve my Chinese) Does your advice on not switching codes also go for husband-wife communication? That would prove a bit more difficult for us I suppose.

  5. #5
    spockey is offline Registered User
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    I'm not for code-switching during the foundation years - particularly for two very complex languages: Chinese and English. I'd say stick to one language and try very hard not to code-switch. It's not easy but important in the early stages.

    My son is able to distinguish and understand that there are three languages around - German, English and Chinese. So, we're now able to code-switch but only because he understands them and the placement of the word in the sentence is the same.

    For example: You have to shower now.
    Dad would say it in German and because I am trying to use more German words in my daily conversations and also trying to show him that it is possible to use German in his speech (where as I said he is a passive bilingual), I would say, "You have to duschen." Or I would just say, "Duschen!"

    We've only just started this - He is 3+ and clearly knows the distinctions between languages and the concept of differences is clear.

    I should also add that sometimes, kids don't display bilingualism until much later. So whatever you do, keep at it. My friends' daughter did not show signs of bilingualism (and proficient to boot!) until she was 4. She began speaking fluent French and English almost at the same time. What is important is to remember that their brains are like sponges right now and will manifest their abilities in their own time.
    Last edited by spockey; 08-14-2009 at 08:03 AM.

  6. #6
    FutureHKmom is offline Registered User
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    Spockey- your replies are very helpful! I have a question about my own situation. My son is almost 5 months old. My husband and I are fluent in English and Cantonese and speak to each other on both. My helper speaks English only and as I work full time I also have a daytime nanny Monday to Friday who takes care of my son and speaks to him in Cantonese. Grandparents who see my son on weekends speak in Cantonese to him. We want him tobebilingual in English andcantonese. So what language shouldme and my husband speak to him in? Right now we mix our two languages when we speak to him. Should we pick one language each and stick to that when we speak to him? Thanks!

  7. #7
    yellowmud is offline Registered User
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    I see. Thanks!

    So I guess we should think about a family language. I guess I would prefer Mandarin as it would help me to improve. Guess my wife would prefer English though.

  8. #8
    carey is offline Registered User
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    This is an interesting topic as this has been our concern as well. I have no suggestion to offer but wants to share our situation and perhaps we could meet when our children are a little older so that they can play together. :)

    Yellowmud, similar to your situation, My husband is German and I am Chinese. We are both proficient in English. So, at home, we speak English only because my hubby's Chinese Mandarin is as poor as my German.

    Our son was born in Hong Kong and has a Chinese name (with my family name ) and an English name ( a first name that spells the same in German and English and he take his father's last name).

    Our 11 week old has been exposed to English, Chinese Mandarin, Cantonese and a Cantonese local dialect.

    Our helper speaks Mandarin and Cantonese. By my request, she only talks to my son in Mandarin.

    My huge extended family speaks a local dialect. We are living in the Mainland and near my family. My extended family gathers quite often and our son is exposed to this dialect whether we like it or not.

    I posted a while ago in this topic and I believe Spockey also gave me some helpful advice.

    Many people said to me that our son may delay in his speech because he might be confused with so many different languages around him.

    We want our son to be able to speak English and Chinese Mandarin first, since English is our common language and China is where he is raised.

    Intuitively, We just think that he should take one language at a time and have that to be his active language.

    And thinking back my own language/dialect learning process, it helps us to decide what might work for our son. I learn to speak local dialect at home; learn to read and write Mandarin at school; learn to speak Cantonese through watching TV ( although Cantonese and our local dialect are quite similar). I learn English at school and then perfected it through traveling, living and studying in English speaking countries.

    So, at home, we would stick to one main language, English (mother and father language) and then Mandarin (mother and helper, helper and son). Extended family dialect can be a passive language that he understands but hopefully talks back in Mandarin.

    While in China, we plan to send him to English medium playgroup and school. Then he would learn Mandarin as it goes with my helper or other teachers. As for German, We hope he would get it through our trips back to Germany and attending summer schools there when he is older enough.

    I think we all agree that acquiring three languages ( able to read and write) requires a lot of hard work for adults. I believe it's hard work for babies and children too although they learn faster than us. I don't want to place too high expectation on him.

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