Hello Family Language Coaches!
My husband and I are about to have a baby. We live in Italy. I am native in Serbian, fluent in English and lower intermediate in Italian. He is native Italian, fluent in English, beginner Serbian. We primarily communicate in English and live far from grandparents and relatives (who would, therefore, be with the child only a certain amount of time per year).
It is quite important for us that the child grows up able to speak primarily both Italian and Serbian, and we are happy to leave English for later. What would be the best strategy for this, how should we communicate with our child and among ourselves (especially considering that neither of us speak the other’s native language well enough yet)? Would you suggest a different goal (attempting trilingualism straight away), and if so, how?
Thank you for your question! Well, first things first, you need to consider the majority language which, since you are living in Italy, will be Italian. If you are planning on staying there throughout your child’s formative years, and especially if your child will attend school in Italian, you should take into consideration that your child will most likely learn Italian with little to no effort on your part. You should also consider how much time you can spend with your child and therefore how much language input you will be able to provide.
A few things to think about: Will you and your and spouse both work outside of the home? Long hours? Weekends? Who will be your child’s primary caregiver? The answers to these questions will help you to estimate the type of language input that your child will potentially have access to and in what language?
However, since Italian and Serbian are a priority for your family and since Italian will be easily learned, I would recommend that you focus your attention on Serbian, the minority language, especially since you will spend limited time with Serbian family and relatives. In that respect, it would be wise for you to speak exclusively in Serbian to your child, or to find a situation where he can have direct interaction in Serbian.
Find as many ways as you can to increase the opportunities for rich language input in Serbian and to motivate your child to speak the minority language. In addition, since his contact with other Serbian speakers will be limited, it would be wise to consider Skype calls with Serbian speaking family members or finding other young Serbian speaking families in the area where you live, for play dates and social gatherings. It may be a bit of a challenge, but worth the effort!
Since we have already established that Italian should come quite easily to your child, the language that your spouse speaks depends entirely on his personal preference. Will he feel more comfortable speaking to your child in his native tongue? Or does he feel comfortable enough in English to establish a relationship with your child in English? If he does, it would be an excellent opportunity to introduce a third language early on, especially as he will most likely learn it passively through observing his parents’ conversations with each other.
Another option your spouse might want to consider is spending half of his time in Italian and half of his time in English with your son. We have a similar plan in our home and this is the way we organise our time between languages.
I hope I have answered your questions and that you feel better prepared to start on your multilingual journey with your soon to be born trilingual child! Congratulations!
Please don’t hesitate to write again if you require further guidance.