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My husband and I are aiming to raise a child who’d speak 4 languages natively (I’m a native speaker of Ukrainian and Russian, my husband is Japanese, and we are both proficient in English and use the language on a daily basis).

Those of you who managed to raise not just bilingual kids but trilingual or even quadrilingual, what was your strategy? How did you achieve the goal?

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  • What is the majority language in the country where you live? Is it one of the 4, or yet another one?
    – iulia
    Oct 30 '21 at 19:10
  • @iulia we live in Japan, so that would be Japanese.
    – Enguroo
    Oct 31 '21 at 3:05
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There are certain language associations that people create, that you can use to your advantage.

There are two common ones that people use:

Associations with people: Mama speaks language A, Papa speaks language B. (grandparents, extended family, friends, all can have an association with a language)

Associations with places: We speak A and B at home, and C at playschool.

But in addition to the above, there's also a third that people don't really use as much:

Associations with activities: Bathtime we speak language A, Playtime as a family is language B.

What my husband and I do - which works really well - is a mix of all three of these methods. A summary of our methods:

  1. Each parent speaks their native language with the child in one-on-one activities (this is called OPOL - one parent one language). The child associates a language with each side of the extended family.

  2. A common language is spoken together as a family. (which may be a third language).

  3. A parent who is fluent at 2 or more languages, can associate those languages with different times of day or different activities. Bedtime = language A, bathtime language B, and so on.

  4. We keep an eye on our daughters language preferences and make sure to emphasise a language she seems to be lacking in.

Using (1) and (2), you can easily and naturally cover 2 or 3 languages just by using OPOL. For extra languages you can use (3), although it takes a bit more time and effort to make sure they're exposed to those during the day. However, with habits it can be quite easy to get into a routine.

I also highly recommend each parent reads to the child in their language(s), daily, in all languages they know well enough to fluently read children's books in (it takes time, but it is so worth it!).

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We've got two tri-lingual and one bi-lingual.

In my opinion, the key is immersion: There have to be many moments in time where using one specific language is the the only (and also natural) option. We speak our native language at home, they'll always will pick up the countries language in school and with friends and we were lucky enough to enroll two kids in a two-way program that alternates the instruction language between the primary and secondary language of the country. Half of the kids were native English, half were native Spanish so a lot of their friends were native Spanish speakers and that what they spoke when they visited their friends.

Immersion is great for learning to speak and understand and ok for reading. Writing, spelling and grammar really benefits from some formal instruction, but that's no fun and can be a bit of an uphill battle.

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My husband and I are raising a quadrilingual daughter who is currently 5 y.o. and equally proficient in all 4 languages. We were aiming for trilingual actually (my native Romanian, his native German, and Swedish once she'd start preschool), but around 2 years of age she started showing clear signs that she understood English as well - which is the language my husband and I use with each other.

In short: we have been using the one person one language method (as described by Stan above) from birth. Even now at the age of 5 we still stick to alternating bedtime reading evenings, which of course guarantees equal exposure to extra vocabulary outside the everyday spectrum of conversational topics. In the first year of life when I was on maternity leave she was obviously exposed more to Romanian, and we tried to balance that by dad taking over as much as possible during the weekends (extra reading, walks with her in a wrap so he would constantly talk to her, skyping with his family, etc).

Also during the first year some exposure to Swedish started since me and baby were frequent visitors of different baby groups where there was singing, reading, or just chatting to other parents in Swedish (association with activities). She then started preschool at 18 m.o., in Swedish. Note: no Swedish at home! (association with places) Home was (and still is) exclusively for "our" languages, although she may choose today to occasionally watch some cartoon in Swedish (we want to leave that choice open for her).

Once or twice a year we travel to the grandparents without the other parent, for her to get full immersion into one language only (though we haven't done that last year because of the pandemic). These trips usually give a tremendous boost!

As for English: it simply happened by "passive" exposure, initially. We did not direct English at her at all until after the age of 3, once it became clear to us that she had identified English to be our "inclusiveness language". For instance, we would sit around the dinner table, we'd be carrying out some simple parent-child conversations in our respective languages, and she would try to reply in English instead so the other parent would also understand. This started happening around 2-3 years of age.

I recommend trying to find kids of the same age who are natives in the respective languages and meet regularly. As kids grow they will enjoy finding use in all those languages outside of home, best if associated with playing.

Today: English is our family language - we use it when all of use are part of a conversation, to watch some animation together, etc. Otherwise it's Romanian or German. Occasionally she may use Swedish when she wants to reproduce some dialogue from preschool. Cultural life outside the home is in Swedish (theatre or music shows). We estimate that 50% of her awake time is in Swedish, 15% Romanian, 15% German, and 20% English. By this rate, we expect Swedish to become more and more dominant once she starts school and will be able to read and write in Swedish and enrich her vocabulary by studying sciences, maths, history, geography, etc. We will keep doing our best at home and provide her as much exposure to the other languages as we can and for as long as she will enjoy it!

I hope this helps and good luck. It'll be an amazing journey!

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