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Trilingualism – A Word to Trilingual Families


  • There are few systematic studies on the steps for the acquisition of a third language at an early age. It is thought that the third language acquisition process is no different from that of the second, but that it is more rapid, "because of the effective learning strategies and very developed language awareness in bilingual children" (source: Le défi des enfants bilingues, Barbara Abdelilah-Bauer, p. 101).
  • In this case, a "one parent, one language" principle could expose the child to three languages. For example, in a family in British Columbia where one of the parents speaks Japanese and the other French, we could presume that each parent addresses the child in their first language when they are alone with the child. The language the parents communicate in is likely to be English. The language of the surrounding society will be English. In this way, the child will associate the use of the three languages with distinct people and situations.
  • It seems that trilingualism is less likely to be as stable as bilingualism. According to the research, inevitably one of the three languages becomes the least frequently used. (source: Language Strategies for Bilingual Families, Suzanne Barron-Hauwaert, p. 141)
  • Trilingual children also do code switching when they are young, for the same reasons as bilingual children. Their trilingual code switching is rarer than their bilingual code switching (their use of three languages in the same sentence is rarer than their use of two languages in the same sentence) (source: Language Strategies for Bilingual Families, Suzanne Barron-Hauwaert, pp. 143-144, 150).
  • It is worth mentioning that the parents in a trilingual family are usually bilingual themselves, or even trilingual.
  • Most of the myths related to childhood bilingualism will also hold for childhood trilingualism.
  • Here are the typical durations for the acquisition of expressive language (for children to be able to express themselves orally):
    • for monolingual children expressing themselves in the language of their mother, around 3.5 years;
    • for bilingual children, in both languages (mother and father), between three and five years;
    • for trilingual children, in three languages (mother, father, and surrounding society), around five or six years. (source: Language Strategies for Bilingual Families, Suzanne Barron-Hauwaert, p. 150, citing a survey of trilingual families in 1999).

To find out more...

  • Language Strategies for Bilingual Families (Suzanne Barron-Hauwaert), Multilingual Matters Ltd., Collection Parents’ and Teachers’ Guide, no 7, 2004, 220 p. | More than 100 bilingual families shared their stories and strategies with the author of this book. From this data, the author makes links with research on the subject. She also shares her experience of being a mother having raised three bilingual children. Chapter 6 focuses on trilingualism. In addition, many comparative tables illustrate various proficiency levels for monolingual, bilingual and trilingual children.
  • Le défi des enfants bilingues (Barbara Abdelilah-Bauer), Éditions La Découverte, 2008, 207 p. | The author devotes 10 pages to the topic of trilingualism.