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.