Our son is almost 3 and speaks decent Spanish (my language) and French (father's language) for his age. We have been using one person one language. But at childcare he practically does not speak the third local language (German). He has been in German childcare for 2 years and as they tell me is clear that he understands, and makes himself understand (but mostly not using language). According to the person in charge of language development at childcare he does say some words but only in a one-to-one conversation and very softly. Outside he engages to play with other kids but only using non verbal communication. When language comes into play he might retreat to play on his own. I believe it affects his social skills. He will be starting kindergarden soon and I would like to encourage him to be more confident about him speaking German, to ease integration in kindergarden. Any ideas? I have tried role playing where one character speaks the third language (German), but if I get a word he purposely modifies vowels (ex: schnill instead of schnell), besides I am not fluent.


First of all, I wouldn't worry too much. Learning languages takes some time. It is often said that speech in bilingual kids can be delayed. Even if he is already fluent in his first and even his second language, he might just need some time to process a third one. It's a good sign that he understands German; give him some time, and the rest will follow.

I think more one-on-one interaction might be good for him, as he will easier develop the confidence to speak; this could be with adults or with kids. Perhaps this is also something the childcare could encourage? And I don't see why you shouldn't be able to invite German speaking playmates over to your house.

If you're really worried about his social skills, I would also consider trying to find Spanish or French speaking kids his age with whom he can play. Playing with them will boost his confidence and his social skills, which in turn he can then apply when playing with German speaking kids.

I think the most important thing to remember is not to put any pressure on him. He's learning a lot at the moment (three languages in three years! and that on top of all the other stuff toddlers need to learn!) and feeling that he has to meet any specific standard made for monolingual kids will only set you and him up for failure. Relax!

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Tree years of age is early yet, but it is clear that your child is suffering to some extent because of your desire that he be trilingual in the manner that you have chosen. Two years in German daycare, and he gestures or speaks softly to be heard; he removes himself from social situations where language is relied upon.

Is your husband fluent in German, or does he speak French at his workplace?

If your husband is fluent in German, then I propose that you pick a time when everyone speaks only German in the home, for example, at the supper (evening meal) table. You might suffer (little in comparison to what he goes through every day at daycare) and you will benefit by becoming fluent in German as well. (This is how my parents kept my siblings and I fluent in their native language.)

If your husband is not fluent in German, then please consider hiring a German tutor to come in for both you and your child several times a week (he has a lot to catch up on before kindergarten.) That way, you can speak German to him at home, increasing his skill, and keep French and Spanish at the supper table.

Whatever you do, it will be important for him to have friends, and this looks bleak for German speaking friends at the moment. If you spoke German more fluently, you could invite German speaking playmates over to the house - he might become more comfortable in one-on-one conversations that way, especially if you could translate if the need arises.

This is the age when children with linguistic problems tend to develop stuttering. That would be a sad thing to have happen to any child with the linguistic pressures your son is facing. Help him in any way you can to relieve this pressure.

(With my children, we spoke only Spanish whenever we were in the car. That worked quite well. They were older, however, and each had a Spanish-English dictionary in the seat pocket in front of them. Though this rule is no longer in effect, they have retained their Spanish.)

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  • I think it should be said that it's not clear that the child is "suffering" in daycare. The child is apparently modifying his behavior as a result of not knowing German as well as the other kids, yes. But we can't simply assume the child is suffering without observing him ourselves. Does he resist going to daycare? Does he squirm when he hears German? Is there any evidence that we need to fear something like stuttering? Parents have enough anxieties about the choices they make for their children without us adding guilt and new purely hypothetical things to worry about on top of it. – msouth Sep 24 '14 at 4:47
  • @msouth Per the OP: When language comes into play he might retreat to play on his own. I believe it affects his social skills. He will be starting kindergarden soon and I would like to encourage him to be more confident about him speaking German. And if you read the link to sturrering, you will see the reason I included it. – anongoodnurse Sep 24 '14 at 4:50

My guess is that your child will do fine. It takes effort to lean to speak, and up to now, understanding German has been enough. Daycare for the first three years does not exactly make a lot of linguistic demands on a child.

I had a son who largely refused to speak his (only, native) language until well after the age his older brothers had. There was simply no need--he had three brothers, very close in age, that could anticipate/interpret anything he needed to communicate. When it got to the point that he wanted to express more complex things, he started talking.

I know of plenty of people who learned the language of their guest country by simply being sent to school starting at kindergarten. Your child will be well ahead of that due to the huge advantage of all the immersion you're providing him by putting him in German daycare.

If he has learned to speak two languages and understand a third, I think it incredibly unlikely that he will have trouble learning to speak the third, when it actually becomes necessary to do so.

He is not yet confident speaking German. Therefore, he only speaks it softly, and doesn't do it in front of groups. Nothing surprising there. As long as no one is doing anything to cause him unnecessary anxiety about it, my guess is that he will at some point just start talking.

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