January 25, 2011

Raising Trilingual Kids: English, German, Scottish Gaelic

Posted in Uncategorized at 9:26 pm by mariawolters

My husband and I are raising our children trilingually. This is sufficiently rare (and interesting from a linguistic point of view!) that I have decided to devote a series of posts on my research blog to it. (Well, it’s not that rare among the people I know – I am aware of English/German/Greek or English/Japanese/Czech, for example; in my daughter’s Gaelic primary school, an average of one or two pupils per year have German parents, and there is a small Japanese community). While most of these posts will collect my observations and notes (raw data to you linguists out there), I will also occasionally look at the relevant literature. This post is an introduction to our trilingual context, and how it came to be.

I am a bit of a language geek, having studied general and applied linguistics, phonetics, and computational linguistics at university. My first encounter with Gaelic was in 1995/96, when I spent a year at the University of Edinburgh’s Department of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics (now Linguistics and English Language). While there, I decided to investigate the local languages (naturally!), in particular Scottish Gaelic. Scottish Gaelic or Gàidhlig is a close relative of Irish Gaelic and one of the three main languages of Scotland, the other two being Scots and English. I ended up taking a term of Scottish Gaelic for beginners and wrote my final thesis in Computer Science on a text-to-speech synthesis system for Scottish Gaelic.

After my return to Germany, I worked as a lecturer for a while, and got married to my husband, who I met at university. We are both Germans, and use the language almost exclusively at home. I moved to Scotland in early 2001, my husband followed in mid 2001, and we have been living in Edinburgh ever since. When we expected our first child in 2005, my dormant affection for Gaelic reawakend (what can you say, pregnancy hormones!), and I decided to put my child through Gaelic Medium Education (GME) . Apart from the obvious advantage of learning one more language, preserving linguistic heritage, and having a strong culture of music, drama, and poetry, GME has an excellent reputation for scholastic excellence. So my decision wasn’t entirely irrational. Oh, and GME kids are not bound and gagged by endless assessments and strict key stage progressions. While they learn at their own pace, they nevertheless somehow catch up with their peers, sometimes even surpassing them, by the time they move on to Secondary School.

When my daughter, and later our son, were born, I took them to the local Gaelic playgroup, Croileagan. Although not much Gaelic is spoken, because most of the mothers are English, it is enough to get a flair for basic vocabulary and sentences such as “Suidh sias aig a bhòrd!” (Sit down at the table).

Both my children started an English-speaking day nursery aged between 7 and 9 months. They go / went there three to four days a week and often attend English-speaking creches. While we will sing English songs with our children, read them English books, and let them watch television and DVDs in English, all other communication with our children is in German, even if other people are present. We will only speak English to our children if we want to make sure others can understand what we are saying (e.g., when admonishing them for misbehaving).

My daughter is now 5.5 years old. Her dominant language is English, which she uses with other children. Her German is hampered by lack of exposure to the language, and we are currently working (informally, of course!) on declensions, conjugation, and irregular verbs. I would say in terms of language acquisition, she is at her age level in English, and one year behind in German. She started attending sgoil-àraich (Gaelic nursery) for four, then five session when she was three. During her whole time there, she rarely used Gaelic at home, and did not even sing songs.

At age 5, when she started primary school, with full immersion in the language, that changed dramatically. She no longer asks for her gloves, but for her miotagan, not for her hat, but for her bonaid. Today, she wanted “an Saft sin” (Saft=juice in German) and declared of an activity “‘S e boring”. All I need to do to get her to speak is throw in the odd phrase or sentence. Since my own Gaelic is extremely patchy, I am sadly unable to provide her with the models that I frequently use to improve her German, but school is, as far as I can tell, doing a great job.

My son is not using any Gaelic yet, but he understands simple words and commands. He is English-dominant, but his German is catching up fast, and come August, he will hopefully join his big sister in the Edinburgh German Saturday School.

Next post (some time in the near future, during another interminable bedtime): Learning to read in Gaelic, how on Earth does that work?



  1. Seumas said,

    Just stumbled upon this blog, and your post on raising trilingual kids. Hoping to do the same a few years down the track, with Gaelic, English, and Mongolian, and so will be interested in your experiences.

  2. Deborah Gantt said,

    I have a 10 month and 1 month old granddaughters. Shaylah the 10 month old is learning American Sign Language, English and Gaelic. English will be the dominant language for now but we sing the ABC’s in ASL and sing Gaelic nursery songs and use simple Gaelic phrases. Mommy and Daddy give her plenty of English so I try to balance the other two languages. Shaylah moves her hands imitating me when I use sign language and she is making sounds of her languages. Wonder what her first word will be? will it be in sign language, english or gaelic?? Time will tell, but the journey will only benefit the girs

  3. Mike said,

    Our 4 yr old son is bilingual–Japanese and English. We live in the US; my wife is Japanese and I am American. Our son is at age level in Japanese–maybe one year behind in English. He stays at home during the day, so of course only Japanese is spoken. When I come home, he switches to English. He started English speaking preschool this year, and his English has been steadily improving. He also attends Japanese Saturday school.

    For his primary school, we are considering a German immersion school, as the overall educational experience would be far superior to a “regular” public school. We consider the idea of the added language (German) to be a “bonus” from the school. We are considering this, but we’re also concerned this may be a bit too much, too soon. Kids are so resilient though!! I came across your blog to see “how you do it”, what the challenges are for three languages, etc.

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