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My wife and I expect our first child and are currently preparing everything for the arrival. We read some books and also were able to observe friends with their children. I speak fluently English (mainly through work) and our native language is German. We decided to raise it with both German and English and already have some strategies.

My problem: My wife's family speaks a special kind of Croatian which has a lot of German words and differs largely from the classic Croatian. In their region the language is also taught in school, so they can learn it professionally. Now they want to 'teach' our the same language they are speaking, but I doubt they are able to do so with basic school knowledge from 40 years ago.

I observed this behavior in her family where the parents started talking mixed German and German-Croatian. They usually build sentences and introduce Croatian keywords. The children were mostly confused since they only here the words from their grandparents and only can associate the unknown word when the grandparents point to it or use the German phrase.

I am unsure that just some vocabulary is helpful for learning our two main languages since nobody can teach it the grammar and real usage. Their main argument is: 'Its better to know more languages', 'children learn so much faster' and 'its good to know some words from another language'. The main difference is that they learned it in school parallel to their parents talking at home. This will not be the case in our home.

Is it harmful to introduce a third language with just phrases, occasional words and no clear learning path?

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    What kind of “harm” are you expecting? – Stephie Oct 29 '20 at 13:06
  • Usually they only speak in fragments for a short amount of time (when they come visit or take care of the kids). There is no structure or consistency. German and English can be spoken at home and will be taught (preschool, kindergarden) very early on. – v3xX Oct 30 '20 at 6:49
  • What country are you in? – Azor Ahai -him- Nov 13 '20 at 18:39
  • We live in Austria – v3xX Nov 16 '20 at 13:09
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Is it harmful to introduce a third language with just phrases, occasional words and no clear learning path?

"Harmful" is a strong word, but it's certainly not optimal. Kids are good at learning lanugages but they do it by imitating what they hear and see. So it's really desriarble that the exposures comes from a good native speaker, otherwise the kids will just pick up the bad things: dialect, weird grammar, language hopping/mixing, etc.

Our kids grew up with 2 or 3 languages (depending on the kid). This worked quite well but if you want it to actually stick, it requires constant exposure & interactions with native speakers preferably in "normal" every day situations, not just a class room.

Two of the languages were US-English and German. The US high school they went to offered a German class, but we decided to pull them out of the class. The German teacher was NOT a native speaker, had a pretty bad accent and did not have a particularly strong graps of the language. It was pretty clear that instructions from a teacher like that would do more harm than good to a kid that already operates at a native level.

Another potential problem in the early phases is "mental overload": two of our kids went to a two-way Spanish/English school program. That means that the instruction language of every subject alternates between English and Spanish every month. That's an extremely effective way to learn a language but it also means that the kids are often a little behind their single language peers, at least in the beginning. If you teach math in Spanish to a native English speaker, the kid learns Spanish and math at the same time, but the math instruction is not quite as effective as compared to being taught in the native language. After a few years this disappears and the mutli-lingual kids are usually ahead in all subjects, but it takes some time to get there. Learning another lanugage is a bit of a distraction so you may want to make sure that the language learning is worth it!

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  • I witnessed such behavior with her cousins. Their kids couldnt express themselves or had trouble telling us something because the words did not fit. I always say jokingly that the third language will be a programming language. I guess we have to emphasize that her grandparents must talk only in german with our child – v3xX Nov 2 '20 at 6:52
  • Kids CAN learn three languages, but you need to set up an envrionment that's conducive to it. Make sure you use only one language at a time, it's clear what language to use in which situation and it's an interaction with a good native speaker. – Hilmar Nov 3 '20 at 13:21
  • My niece, brought up in Dutch and Slovak, heard her environment use English at times. When about 10 she decided to add English to her languages and she became very good in it while her Dutch and Slovak stayed good. So it might be worth to offer the third language to the child/children and allow them to make the decision for themselves when they are old enough to make it. – Willeke Nov 8 '20 at 12:25

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