My greatest struggle moving to Denmark is with learning Danish. I mentioned in one of my posts that I "sweat blood" to learn Danish. Thus, learning language, multilingualism, language development are topics that interest me.

Being a cross-cultural family, we agonized over the language decision when J was born. Finally, we made the decision to go with 3 languages - Danish, Mandarin and English, although I was a little apprehensive. But nevertheless I was very determined to do so, even if it means that J would be speaking much later than the other children.

One of the reasons being that a few cross-cultural parents have told me that the day would arrive when the child would not want to speak the language that is not the main stream of the society. Thus, the earlier I start with Mandarin and English, the longer it means J will be willing to speak it... until that day arrives, which i hope it will never come.

Another reason is because I learned Hokkien, Teochew, Mandarin and English as a kid. Those languages I learned as a kid, I could still speak them till today. I could feel those languages, but with Danish, I do not have the feel. I learned Danish when I was an adult at 28, and even after having passed the Danish exams with flying colours, I am still struggling with it, and it does not stick as naturally as Hokkien, Teochew, Mandarin and English. It would be a struggle for the rest of my life. This tells me that it is very important to learn a language at an early tender age. As such, I have decided that J should not struggle with any of the 3 major languages in his heritage, and the best thing to do so is to start from Day 1 with Danish, Mandarin and English.

Here is our strategy:

1. We have decided that Daddy would speak to J in Danish, I would speak to him in Mandarin, and we would speak English with each other, so that J gets to hear English.

2. I will also include reading English books to him, so that he will associate the opening of an English book as a clear division between the languages.

3. Once Mandarin is firmly established (it happened at around 18 months old), I will make Sunday as "Speak English Day", where I will only speak English to J.

Here are some more tips from my experience (I will add them as I go along):

1. Name the language, before switching to another language

This helps your child to differentiate the languages and understand the concept of different languages. Before switching to English, I will tell J, "Now J, mommy is going to speak English to you". Or I will say, "J, today is Sunday. Mommy is going to speak in English to you today". Or I will say, "Now J, Mommy is going to switch back to Mandarin Chinese". Only after informing him do I switch back to Mandarin Chinese.

2. Tell Your Child that You Don't Understand Danish

I learned this from a colleague of mine. If J speaks to me in Danish, I pretend that I don't understand Danish. I would only follow him, if he repeats the request in Chinese. 

Vice versa, when J tries to tell Daddy what he wants in Mandarin Chinese, I will say to J, "J, Daddy only understands Danish. Tell your request to Daddy in Danish, and he will respond to you." J (2Y4M) will then switch to Danish with Daddy.

3. Make Mandarin a Secret Special Language between You and Your Child

I learned this from a colleague of mine. Tell J that Mandarin is a very special language between you and him, that no one else understands.

4. Bring Your Child to English-speaking Church

I try my best to bring J to church. Besides hearing English, the most important for us is that he grows up knowing God and Jesus.

5. Find Your Child Mandarin-speaking Peers

We have been very blessed to have a neighbour whose daughter is around the same age as J. They play a lot together and speak Mandarin (and Danish sometimes) together. This among all I believe is the biggest factor for J's willingness to speak Mandarin, when 98% of all Chinese moms I spoke with in Denmark did not succeed.

There are many books on bilingualism, but not many studies done on trilingualism, and much lesser on languages as far apart as Chinese and Danish. Thus, we are, in a way, treading on a road-less-travelled.

I will try my best to record down these milestones in my blog if I have the time and discipline, mainly because I wanted to remember all these special moments, but also because I would like to contribute to the observations of trilingual family studies.

Updates at 3 years old (7 March 2012):

After 3 years of raising J as trilingual, we are very glad that he has not fallen behind the Danish kids in terms of language. Although it is generally observed that bilingual children tend to start talking later, this has not been the case with J. At 3 years old, the assessment from the vuggestue reported that J's Danish is above average among Danish kids. The Danish daycare teacher described his Danish as "flot dansk sprog, flot udtale, flot ordforråd. Leder pt. efter det rigtige ord, spørger om ord. Taler gerne, fortæller, tager sproglige initiativer, bidrager til samtaler, forstår dialog" meaning J speaks "good Danish, good pronounciation, good vocabulary. Looks for the correct word, asks questions about words. Eager to talk, takes intiatives, contributes to conversations, understands dialogue."

J is very willing to speak his mother-tongue, Mandarin, and he speaks to me only in Mandarin, and makes good effort to find the words in Mandarin, rather than take "short cut" with Danish words. He hasn't shown interest in recognizing Chinese characters, unlike my friend's son, D, who 2.5 months younger than J, and could recognize many Chinese characters. On the contrary, D does not like to speak Mandarin. J enjoys being read up Chinese story books, but he hasn't shown much interest in Tang dynasty poems, nor any motivation in reciting them. But it could be me, who has not been very diligent in focusing on Tang dynasty poems, given there are so many other things that compete for our time, and with such limited time available to a working mom.

J understands what we say to him in English fully, repeats a lot after me, and has started to speak some English. At 3 years old, he started to take the iniative to pick English books and bring them to me. He did not like Bible stories or nursery rhymes in the past, but after persevering with giving him small taste of English books, at 3 years old, he will ask me to read him Bible stories. He will ask for 3 stories in a row and could sit through all the 3 stories. He would continue, until I say stop. At 3 years old, he now enjoys nursery rhymes, which was my worry in the past for him not showing any interest in nursery rhymes.

Updates at 3.5 years old (23 September 2012):

J's Danish is moving ahead in full force. When he speaks to himself, it would be Danish. Thus, I think he thinks in Danish. It should not come as a surprise, as Danish is the dominant language of the society. However, I am sad that it is sometime carnivorising his Chinese. At times, his Chinese is regressing. For example, he forgot how to say "door" in Chinese. I know that in the growth of a child, regressing is normal. I am prone at seeing the glass being half empty, but I should really see it as being half full. Instead of rejoicing for the strikes J makes in Danish, I worry about his Chinese.

He loves to sing in Danish. That's my fault, as I am not so good at singing to him in Chinese.

I worry about that language increasingly becomeing a potential barrier between me and my child, since I would not have the language to communicate heart-to-heart with him in Danish, and he would not have the language to communicate with me heart-to-heart in Chinese or English. People told me that I should not worry about this, but I think and analyze far ahead. We are thinking of sending him to an international school, to give English and Chinese a more equal chance to establish themselves. It is a very difficult and tough decision, and we are still in the thinking process.

That aside, I should really be happy that he is doing well in his Danish - that means one less thing to worry about. I use to worry about whether J could articulate himself well among Danish kids, it is a lesser concern now. I should also be happy that compared to many Chinese and mixed-Chinese kids here, he is by far better at opening his mouth to speak Chinese - which does speak of my success seen in that light. But I compare myself to my own standard, not others. And according to my own standard, I am still falling short.

Oh the agony and heartache of pursuing the dream of trilingualism... who would have understood... apart from God. Will I give up and take the easy way? No, I will go on... I have heard and seen so many people who grow up searching for their heritage and regretting not learning their mother-tongue. Since I am the one making the decision here, I will make the decision to press on towards trilingualism. Am I tired? Which life is struggle-free? Compared to many in the world who have to struggle to put food on the table, such a struggle seems trivial, but nevertheless real struggle. No fruit comes struggle-free anyway. I am a fighter. I will not give up.

Updates at 4.5 years old (13 October 2013):

Things are going well, but I know that for Chinese to have a chance, and for him to maintain the level of trilingualism and continue to make progress, I would need more time with him. As of 13 October 2014, I have chosen to go part-time with my work, so that I have more time with J. This will give me more time with him so that he is exposed to mandarin. It will also free us time to send him to Chinese class and arrange playdates with other Chinese kids his age.

Updates at 5.5 years old (22 November 2013):

J's Danish is going well. He could understand English and speaks more and more English, during our English Sundays. J is also making steady progress with his Chinese. He is still willing to speak mandarin with me, although he mixes in Danish words and Danish grammar once in a while. He is also getting better at writing Chinese characters, but at the moment, we are still working on his hanyu pinyin.

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