Over ten years ago, at university in Australia:
Bob: What languages do you speak?
Me: Finnish, English, Thai, Spanish
Bob: Oh wow! Where did you learn Finnish, Thai and Spanish?
Me: Well, Spanish – that I learned on the streets of Barcelona. The rest I learned from home.
Bob: Oh – but which one is your first language?
Me: Well… I suppose I learned Thai first, then Finnish, then English.
Bob (looking very confused): But how come you speak such good English then? Did you live in the US? And how did you learn Finnish? And wait, how do you speak English so well? Thai people have an accent.
In the lift at our condo in Bangkok:
Somchai: Hello, little boy.
My son: Sawasdee krub (Hello)
Somchai: How are you?
Me: Khao phoot angrit mai pen (He doesn’t speak English) (I lie)
Somchai: You are such a nice little boy.
My blond 5-year-old gives me a skeptical, raised eyebrow look.
I am a bi-ethnic, transnational, and trilingual third culture kid, and so are my children. This locker is not very crowded, but it’s definitely where I would place myself and my kids. There are numerous occasions in my life that I have had the previous conversations, with variations, depending on where in the world I’ve been, and who I’ve been with.
My kids are not little geniuses. They can speak three languages fluently, and that is perfectly normal, given attention and care when setting the language policy at home. While it was not seen as the norm for a person to have several national and linguistic identities back when I was a child, it is becoming increasingly normal today. It’s important to talk about this, because there are a lot of misconceptions surrounding language acquisition and national affiliation. I won’t go into the nitty-gritty details, but as a linguist, I will say the following: Child language acquisition is a very simple thing. Under normal circumstances, children learn as many languages as they are consistently and frequently exposed to.
Children will not develop the same capacities in all their languages. This is no cause for concern - monolingual speakers do not all speak the same way, either. Kids develop different styles of communication in their different languages because the set of people they interact with in each language is different. I am better at argumentation and analysis in English, more paranoid in Finnish, and more chilled out and helpful in Thai. It is not a sign that I am a ‘poorer speaker’ or ‘semilingual’ in any one of the languages, but simply that I am conditioned to feel different emotions and express different ideas in different languages due to the variation in speakers I was exposed to growing up. If a monolingual speaker were shy and not-so-talkative, people wouldn’t rush to say that their language is underdeveloped, the same way as they do for multilinguals when they are shyer in one language. I would argue that it is more accurate to say I have as many personalities as I do languages, as opposed to saying I am a person who speaks many languages.
Generally speaking, a monolingual speaker learns to express a lot of things very well in one language. Then, when a monolingual learns a second language as an adult in a classroom setting, even if they learn it more or less perfectly, they tend to be ‘compound bilinguals’. This means they have one concept, and simply use two different words (in two different languages), to express the same idea. This can often give rise to the feeling that speaking a second language is difficult, because the concepts don’t quite match up, no matter what is written in the dictionary. A ‘coordinate bilingual’, on the other hand, learns two languages independently of the other, and thus develops separate thought paradigms. These two languages do not directly translate, but rather, the words have slightly different ‘coordinates’. This is the reason why multilinguals find it easy to code-switch, and can tell you all about how two words that are dictionary translations of each other are still not quite the same thing.
Growing up, my brothers and I always spoke Thai (if we happened to be in the same country). For me, it is the language of being looked after, and the language of endless discussion about food and poo. It is the language where I can be as stupid as I want, or try to be smart, and I am still the baby of the family. Finnish was the language that I sometimes spoke with my dad. He didn’t speak much when I was a kid, and was often condescending when he did. Finnish became the language of being defensive, of being wrong. My parents spoke English to each other, and I went to international schools in several countries, starting from my kindergarten days. My teachers were encouraging. English became the language where I was right, where I could build a logical argument, and where I could hold my own ground. Of course, over time, I’ve learned other patterns of behavior in all three languages, but my childhood most certainly set the tone.
I never questioned my tri-lingualism until I became an adult and had to defend it regularly. I still couldn’t tell you which is the language in which I ‘experience a sense of self’. That’s mainly because I am 100% myself in all three. I am just three different selves. These selves are not inherently Thai, Finnish, or even international. These selves are a product of the models of interaction I learned as a child.
Which brings me to the present day. My children are also both citizens of Thailand and of Finland. They speak Finnish with their wonderful, encouraging dad, and have a great sense of humour in Finnish. My husband speaks almost flawless English, and so we speak English at the dinner table. Despite this, our kids have a more Indian/Philippine accent in English because they go to an English language daycare where their teacher is from the Philippines and their classmates are Indian. In Thai, they tend to ask more questions, and are probably more argumentative, probably because of my own role in the family. None of it has anything to do with a ‘Thai side’ or a ‘Finnish side’. It’s all to do with social interactions.
When you look at it that way, you can see that the kids will both develop different interaction styles in all three languages, too. My son is totally blond haired and has grey eyes. For some people, like Somchai in the second scenario, language and ethnicity are so intricately tied that they believe hair-colour has something to do with language acquisition. My daughter, on the other hand, is often described as a carbon copy of me. Nowadays, mixed-ethnic children are so common that nobody questions her ability to speak Thai. On the other hand, they do not expect her to be able to speak English, then, and it wouldn’t surprise me if she still has to encounter people like Bob in scenario 1 when she grows up.
I want to make sure my kids are equally proficient speakers of all three languages. As we currently live in Finland, Finnish is taken care of. They get plenty of exposure to English, too. Thai is a bit tricky. It is unfortunate that many Thais here either believe a) that their child can only learn one language fluently or b) that they will automatically learn Thai because they are half Thai. The foregone conclusion in both cases is that the Thai parent speaks broken Finnish mixed with some Thai to their child(ren). Apart from ensuring that the child probably won’t pick up Thai, many of these kids end up needing speech therapy. What further aggravates the issue is that the Thai teacher who teaches school children also speaks a mish-mash of the languages, a fact that the cities of Helsinki, Espoo and Vantaa have not reacted to, despite numerous complaints from parents.
It is also important to remember that on my own, I cannot make sure my kids speak Thai well enough to communicate with a lot of people. They would only have a limited vocabulary and interaction style if only exposed to one speaker. So I employ a Thai teenager as their babysitter twice a week, and expose them to as many people who speak Thai to them as possible. When my kids were smaller, I gently reminded my friends not to speak Finnish with them. While some people saw me as harsh, I also believe I have made a difference in my circle of friends and acquaintances. Many have told me that after seeing how my totally blond kid can speak Thai, they have been more careful not to mix languages around their own kids. With the help of some friends, we set up a Thai kids club, where mothers speak to each other in Thai, and we arrange fun activities for the kids in Thai, and Thai only. Language is a social thing. The human brain is calculating and efficient (some would say lazy), and it certainly won’t bother learning a language well if it figures out there is an easier way to communicate. That’s the reason why many multilingual children do end up speaking just English (or whatever the dominant language is) to their parents. My kids would do the same with me if it weren’t for the community of people they are regularly exposed to that only speak Thai. Thai is a necessity for them, not an option. Of course, for some, this can seem like a lot of effort. And people should totally do what works for their families. If some language is an unnecessary burden for the family, why maintain it? Whatever works, right?
Do you want your bi or trilingual children to feel that they are themselves in your native language(s)? That should influence your decision as to whether you a) actively expose them to strong communities that use that language, and let them find their own place within them, or b) feel that you alone are sufficient as the main source of language exposure. The former means that your child will probably develop a strong character independent of you, and be able to navigate a wide array of social situations in that language. The latter means that they will primarily see it as a language they can only speak well enough to communicate with you and perhaps a select few people who know them very well.
Of course, you can always cross your fingers and hope that the child finds a place in that language community later on in life, and save yourself the effort. That happened to me with Finnish – I had more or less stopped actively speaking it, but then I went and married a Finn and moved to Finland. I am now a native speaker of Finnish slang, with practically no knowledge of Finnish written style. It’s a good thing my ‘Finnish community’ in Finland are the young people I work with, who seem to mainly appreciate my informal style of communication, and my colleagues, who care more about content than grammar or style! However, my mind still goes on overdrive thinking of ways to defend my poor grammar every time I send out an e-mail in Finnish, though, as I am sure someone will complain. My English character, a zealous grammarian, cringes in disgust at my low standards, yet applauds my practicality. My Thai character can't wait to hit send, seeing as there are better things to think about, such as if I ought to have mentioned I wrote it on the toilet, and what new thing to try for lunch.