Trilingual by Six by Lennis Dippel MD (Review)

Trilingual by Six is a cool little self-published book that I found at the library. Using the data that kids learn languages better and more easily than adults, Dippel writes about his quest as a monolingual older father to get his children fluent in at least three languages by age six. The book is part memoir, part advice on how to do it. Dippel is married to a native Spanish speaker, and he writes that his two children can speak Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, and English.

The secret sauce of this book is Dippel’s method of hunting down the ethnic enclaves, preferring the enclaves to the immersion schools or tutors (though he says that these are also useful). He recommends that people hire “language babysitters” and require them to speak at least 60 words a minute to your kids. No need for fancy flashcards or lesson plans; just have them talk. He talks about going on craigslist, hitting up the ethnic restaurants and supermarkets, and even trying to network at the churches for natives who might be looking to make some extra money. From what I’ve seen among people I know, Dippel’s emphasis is completely correct–those ethnic enclaves are like gold. They do in fact have the best teachers, and if you can do it when your kids are between six months and 3 years old, your kids will pick it up really well.

I think this could work. As someone who has tried something similar and failed, I think the biggest barrier is social. Native American-born kids want to speak the dominant language in the communities where they live. They want to speak to other English-speaking kids, and they want to do what other American kids do. Even with some of the China-born parents I know who only speak to their kids in Chinese, there seems to be a push to just use English. Plus, there’s pushback from mono-lingual or native-English-speaking parents. If your kid has a problem, you want to resolve the problem. If you can’t address it in the target language, chances are good that you’ll use English.

From my experience, I’ve only seen two completely successful models of complete bi/tri lingual parenting:

a) I know one Chinese immersion teacher who scares the s#$t out of her students so that they only speak to each other in Chinese. It’s fairly successful since the kids are too scared to speak Enlish. But this woman only teaches until first grade, so most of her kids lose it soon after they leave.

b) Among Japanese ex-pats who spend a few years here, there is an ethnic enclave where the kids all go to the same Saturday school and the kids are raised with the knowledge that they’ll be returning to Japan within five years. There isn’t as much of a need or desire to integrate since it’s hard for anyone to see English as the dominant language for these kids. Plus, the Japanese is reinforced by annual company-paid return trips to Japan.

Other than that, I think language works on a sort of continuum. Fluency is a bit hard to define; if you understand 90% of what people are saying, are you fluent? Fluency is not the same as native. I can’t imagine that any kid raised in the U.S. speaking, say, Chinese, could walk into a Chinese business office and talk about falling sales, rising stock prices, increasing demand, or anything related to the specialized world of business, although I imagine a native kid raised in China could at least fake it. In any case, I do agree that an additional language or two is good for the brain, regardless of how far you get. So I’m totally supportive of what Dippel is doing.

Check out his book, and check out his website. Again, I think it’s really hard to make it work, but his method is probably among the best ways to get as close as possible to the goal.

10 thoughts on “Trilingual by Six by Lennis Dippel MD (Review)

  1. Sounds like exploiting cheap immigrant labor again to me. Forcing baby-sitters to speak to the kids? Isn’t that what paying standard market prices for language teachers is for?

    It’s like that “ethnic food” discussion: different countries are seen as more “haute culture” over others because of the labor costs involved.

    But people should definitely reach out to different immigrant communities and make friends if there’s a reason to want to learn the language, and not the “Asiaphiles” trying to offensively date Asian women. >.<

  2. HAHA! Hey, Aardvark, thanks for posting on this and breaking the monotony of the SJW charges of “anti-Blackness.”

    It’s totally cheap immigrant labor, but he also talks about ensuring that it’s done legally. When he writes about having the teachers talk, he’s referencing the fact that lots of babysitters these days are addicted to phones and screens. He says that you need to make it clear you want none of that.

  3. Reminds me of Trump’s granddaughter from Ivanka and then the converse of English ‘teachers’ in China/Asia and the pay disparity… >.<

    Anyhow, the next online rage will be Ghost in the Shell. Get on it to be hip with the youngsters. lol

  4. He seems to have the right idea about how to go about it, but it takes commitment. You need to really sell the idea to the people that will help, and make sure they follow through. Either your going to have to set up some form of trade or pay a premium.

    One of the concerns I would have is that even if you are successful getting a child multilingual, you would need to make sure to continue to use those language skills until they can use those skills in someway at work or college. Otherwise it seems little more than vanity on part of the parent. What is it worth to know a language at 8 and forget it by 16?

    The theory he uses seem to have been superseded, but ultimately that doesn’t matter. If it works, it works. Adults are able to learn language easier than children, they cognitively more mature. I would think of it like the term “wins above replacement” in baseball. Even if a child learns language slower than an adult, adults have more things they need to do. If a child is spending 10 hours a week with a babysitter learning a new language, what is the alternative?

    One thing the child does better is being able to pick up the psycholinguistics. Adults will have an accent in the language they are acquiring, unless they put in a lot of work and have talent. The child’s brain during the critical period is still very plastic and can pick up the standard sounds of the language much more easily.

    The other side benefit of this approach is that it helps to build up social capital. The parents and the children are forced to get to know more people outside their network.

    Having just read small parts of the book, I’ll probably pick it up. He sounds like he has a lot of good ideas.

  5. Jman,

    You know, it’s a great idea. I know one guy who is bilingual in Spanish, and he uses his bilingualism to get chess lessons from an International Master in Chile. How cool is that?

    My theory is that language is just a tool that kids use to get what they want when they’re young. So if a kid has no needs, he won’t have to use language, and he won’t need to progress. I think that’s the difficulty in raising bilingual kids. If they don’t need the target language, they won’t use it. I’m not sure if there’s any way around this. To make it work, I think a parent NEEDS to find an enclave or network where the target language is used. Otherwise, it’s really hard.

    Do you have kids? If you do, let me know how it works.

  6. Oh goodness you had to ask if I have kids. I have a three week old micropreemie, who was supposed to be born in June! He is doing well, but we will see how it all shakes out.

    We will have the bilingual thing in our house. I don’t speak much Spanish, and my mother-in-law only speaks Spanish. Plus my wife is going to be Spanish instructor after she gets her Masters in Second Language Acquisition. It is more or less a point of personal pride to have a child that is bilingual. Getting that third language is something we talked about before. This book seems to have the practical steps to do it. For us, it would be pretty accessible to find someone in those enclaves with just a little effort and we wouldn’t have to go too far out of our way.

    I agree about the difficulty of raising bilingual kids. It can really be hard to find enough exposure and interaction in a two languages. It takes a lot of effort on the part of the parents to make sure both the exposure and the need for the different languages can happen. Luckily we are in a good spot to make that happen, I know of a lot of others who are not. If you lack a big support network, it can become hard. It seems like the book tries to address that issue.

  7. Oh, man, I’m so sorry to hear that. But I’m glad he’s doing well. If he was supposed to be born in June, that’s really really early, but with medicine these days, I think he’s got better chances than in the past. Anyway, I hope things turn out for the best.

    This book definitely has the best blueprint I’ve seen, mostly because it stresses the social apsect and the support network. If you’ve got the right people in your corner, it can be done. I also like this book’s emphasis on speaking over writing until the age of 7.

    I’m thinking of posting something about adult language learning this week. I believe this has changed a lot also in the internet age. The resources are just so much better than they’ve ever been. If you can add this to your toolbox, it might actually help with your kid.

  8. I think, Chinese American should think of upgrading homeschooling education with roleplays in virtual worlds. There is a lot of research about virtual schooling. Children are able to master three languages. Look at Switzerland it is very common to speak three languages fluently.

    The advantages of language learning in virtual worlds is that you can organize a transnational labor division for teachers. It is possible to hire an English or Chinese teacher in a zero tax jurisdiction to lower the labour cost. Everything is a matter of political organization.

    We in the Chinese Diaspora should not be satisfied with only white tearchers for our kids. We need 24/7 virtual education for our kids to give them a firm language competence to make their way in life.

    Some examination task can be outsourced to anglophone Indians with Amazon Mechanical Turk, and the Chinese language training can outsourced some asks with Witsmart.

    I think we in the Chinese diaspora should reorganize the kindergarten and upgrade it with a Big Delta 3D Printer to adapt furniture to the size of little childrens. Their fathers shouldbe responsible to make 3D models and the community should perform the production program.

    In school policy think we should upgrade the school with a modern networked version of the Gary Plan school. This school type contains two half-day schools which alternate the usage of rooms. It enables us to differentiae between gender groups. Very often girls are performing better in STEM if they are separated in the class room fromthe boys. Virtual classes enable us to stream courses from Singapore, Hong Kong or Australia for Chinese American kids.

  9. Pingback: Learning languages as an adult | bigWOWO

  10. @Junwei

    Hi Junwei, I read a great comment you wrote on another Asian website. How can I contact you to ask more?

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