How to choose the family language strategy for passing on three languages?



Dear Rita and all Family Language Coaches,

First of all congratulations and many thanks for your website, such a great resource!

Like many of your visitors me and my husband have diverse international backgrounds and are currently considering the best language constellation for when our son is born later this year.

My husband is German and we live in Germany at the moment. He is also fluent in English. He would like to speak to our son in German. I’m Italian and can speak it well but not perfectly. I grew up abroad and attended an English-speaking school and University so English is my best language. My level of German is fluent, slightly below my Italian. My husband can’t speak Italian.

I would love my son to be able to speak all three languages so he can keep the Italian heritage and converse with everyone from both our families (some ‘only’ speak one of the three languages). We are wondering, however, if exposure to three languages from birth may be too much and whether it’s best to stick to two and introduce a third when he’s older?

The options we’re considering and would be very grateful for your advice on are the following:

Option 1
Mum with child: Italian
Dad with child: German
Mum with dad: English
As a family English School: German

Option 2
Mum with child: English
Dad with child: German
Mum with dad: English
As a family: English School: German

Option 3
Mum with child: Italian
Dad with child: German
Mum with Dad: German & English
Family language: German
School: German

Any help much appreciated!



Dear Sara,

I hope you don’t mind me telling you that we had a similar situation with our son and started with three languages in the family from day one (Italian, German, Swissgerman), and it was no problem at all.

I would say that as long as you and your husband feel comfortable with the languages you choose to talk to your son and among you as a couple, I don’t see what should go “wrong”.

I am impressed on how thorough you planned the three options! It seems to me that you have read all the articles on this site to find the right family language strategy and I guess you already have a preference for one of them? Anyway, all three options you’ve listed are very interesting and I will share my thoughts about every single one here below.

Option 1

You mention that your Italian is not as “spontaneous” and not your strongest language, but I understand that your part of the family talks mainly (or exclusively?) Italian, therefore it would be a need for your son to learn Italian in order to communicate with family, right? – If you choose this option, I would ask you to see if you feel comfortable with speaking Italian to your son. You may still know some nursery rhymes, stories (and still have maybe Italian storybooks?) that can help you with this?

Having English as a family language is a great idea, but how will he learn English if nobody talks it with him one-on-one? And when would the “family language” happen? When you are all in one room together? What if one person leaves the room and comes in again: would you then switch from one language to the other in a sentence?

I would recommend using one of the parents’ languages as family language.

I suppose you want your son to learn English at least to some extent, right? He will end up understanding it even if none of you would directly talk English to him.

Option 2

This option might be slightly easier for you as you seem to feel more comfortable talking English, right? At this point I might ask: how would you transmit Italian to your son? Would you consider introducing it later? When? And for what purpose?

Using English as family language makes way more sense in this option than in option 1 and as the dominant language where you live is German, it would support the “minority” language at home.

Option 3

Is very similar to option 1, with the difference that you will switch between English and German with your husband and you choose German as family language.

I can imagine that you and your husband switch between German and English anyway, which is totally normal in multilingual families.

I would advise though to choose one language to talk to each other in front of your son as you want him to stick to English with you and German with your husband. I always ask parents to think about the interaction at the dinner table: who speaks what with whom?

Choosing German as family language, having your husband talking German to your son and the school being in German makes me I worry a bit about English and Italian.


What you need to decide first is to find out which option is more natural and feasible for you and your husband. Which option would require you less effort? Raising a child with multiple languages requires a good plan, consistency and commitment. And please consider also the needs you, your husband and your son have to talk these languages regularly.

I see that Italian might be the “weakest” language in these scenarios: who else would provide regular input in Italian for your son? Are there friends, children, family who would talk to him on a regular basis?

What about English? Will there be other persons in your environment talking English with him?

I ask this because at some point he will need to talk these languages with more than only his parents. Children who talk the same language and people he sees regularly will be important for him to maintain the languages in the future.

Last but not least, I would ask you to think about the expectations you have concerning the language proficiency of your son. These are long term goals and I am perfectly aware that it is very early for that. Many parents want that their children become “perfectly fluent” in all the languages, but you know from your very own experience that this is not realistic. Which are the languages that are the most important for your son to become fluent in? I suppose German – as it is the school language and the language of part of his family. What about Italian? English? Will your son learn English or Italian at school at some point?

I’m sorry to ask all these questions, but my intent is to make you think about the consequences of your decision. In five and ten years from now, what would you like your son to talk (write and read)? If you can answer all these questions, you will find out which option is the best for you and your son.

Please let me know how what you decided.

I wish you all the best. Alles Gute e in bocca al lupo.

With kind regards,

Ute Limacher-Riebold

Ute Limacher-Riebold Ute Limacher-Riebold is a multilingual writer, blogger, language trainer, consultant and coach for internationally living families. She has a PhD in French literature and a Masters in Bilingualism. She is a lifelong expat (or ATCK) and has lived in Italy, Switzerland and France, now living in the Netherlands with her Swiss husband and three multilingual children. She is a language consultant and coach at Ute's International Lounge  and blogs at Expat-Since-Birth, Expat living in The Hague about multilingualism, Third Culture Kids, how to embrace expat life and European cultures. – She is fluent in English, German, French, Italian, Dutch and Swissgerman. Facebooktwitterpinterestlinkedin