A few months ago, my husband’s colleague reached out to ask about our experiences raising bilingual children. During this chat, our friend mentioned reading Trilingual by Six by Lennis Dippel. We are raising our children to be fluent (both spoken and written) in German and conversant in a second language. Language acquisition is one of my academic interests and a personal passion for our family, so I was keen to learn more.
I knew of the book, but never read it. To be honest, I think I was thrown by the title… if my kid is already eight, am I too late? Was the author going to tell me my child had no shot at picking up a second language, much less a third?
Admittedly, I may have been a little harsh in prematurely judging this book by its cover (literally no pun intended) because in Trilingual by Six, I found a treasure-trove of practical advice and resources about raising bilingual and trilingual children that went far beyond the theory-based books I’d read before.
Lennis Dippel is emergency medicine physician and parent raising his own trilingual children based on the methods in this book. I can’t remember what in the book gave me this impression, but it seems to me he and his family are in many regards your average, busy working American family. Perhaps as a result of this, his recommendations are practical and economical, and grounded in a common sense that you don’t see in many language books.
Now, if you’re looking for a general overview of what bi- and multilingualism is about, or you’re on the fence about whether to introduce foreign languages to your children, this isn’t the book for that. While Dr. Dippel does a surface scan of the topic, I’d suggest something like The Bilingual Edge: Why, When, and How to Teach Your Child a Second Language by King & Mackey or Seven Steps to Raising a Bilingual Child by Steiner, Hayes and Parker.
What this book delivers is the nitty-gritty of how to source and implement native language instructors for your children in an efficient and cost-effective way. The central theme is finding native speakers of the target language within your own community and employing them as babysitters and tutors. Dr. Dippel breaks down how to identify these speakers, what skills to look for (and which ones to ignore) and how to convince these prospective employees to work for your family.
As I said, this book is chock-full of information. Particularly helpful is Dr. Dippel’s list of the top 10 factors that determine high quality language exposure for kids, which I’ve added below. Following it, I narrowed down a handful my favorite ideas in the book, some entirely new and others really good reminders.
8 Favorite take-aways from Trilingual by Six
1. Why is it so important to learn a language by six? Why is that the magic number?
Language acquisition is a biological, instinctive skill, different than math and reading which are learned cultural skills. The idea is that if not used or activated by age 6, the already-inherent language skill begins to fade away from non-use. That’s not to say adolescents or adults can’t learn a new language, but it’s harder. Frankly, “children who learn within this slightly-higher [ages 3-6] but still very early timeframe have a higher long-term success rate than older children and adults”.
2. Your child will need roughly 10 hours/week of practice in the target language in order to be expert/fluent by high school graduation, assuming you start at or near birth.
This is based on Malcolm Gladwell’s rule of 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert in any given field, however Dippel hypothesizes that this number could be lower for children that start acquiring the language before 3 years old. But for the simple purposes of this article, let’s assume 10 hours per week for round numbers
3. “Language Babysitters”, a term Dr. Dippel coins in Chapter 8 are your “secret weapon” to teaching your children a target language or languages.
These babysitters are usually recent immigrants, whom you can identify by seeking out immigrant enclaves in your own community. Don’t know where to begin? I highly, highly recommend you pick up the book and check out pages 180-181 for the list, and then refer to the previous chapter for more detail on each of his suggestions.
4. A native speaker with a PhD in early education may not be as good of a language instructor for your children as an immigrant grandmother that doesn’t speak much English.
Two reasons: 1) it’s better if the babysitter does not know and therefore cannot slip into the child’s native language and 2) flashcards and worksheets are neither appealing to children nor are they more effective than conversation in learning another language.
5. Your ideal candidate for a language babysitter is a “loving chatterbox”.
She should thoroughly enjoys spending time with kids and knows how to speak with them. Her level of education and ability to speak English are less important (to the point above). This one runs entirely counter to the language babysitters I’ve been seeking out for years with little luck and have recently found success with a model closer to Dippel’s.
6. A few hours of instruction several times a week are better than one long stretch once per week.
Frequency and repetition are key to language acquisition.
7. Foreign language DVDs, YouTube videos, and movies are good way to increase language exposure.
The can also make your children feel more main-stream with friends who may have a lot more access to pop culture. They are not, however, NOT a substitute for a live native speaker.
8. In acquiring language skills for your children, it’s critical to reduce the stress for the parents.
If your children are bored, they’ll rebel against learning new languages. If it’s expensive and stressful for you, you’ll procrastinate. Find an approach you can stick with for the long run.
Are you exposing your children to any foreign languages, and if so, how? Please comment below!