How to prioritise family languages and raise a trilingual child?

 

Question

Hi,

I would like some advice about how to raise our daughter speaking multiple languages. She is only five weeks old but I think we should work out what we’re doing now.

We live in an English-speaking country. I am English but also fluent in Spanish plus I speak some Farsi, French and a little Italian. My husband speaks Farsi and two minority Iranian languages (on phone to family members or friends in Iran plus a few friends here from the same region.) Together we speak a mixture of Farsi and English which is usually basic conversations in Farsi and anything beyond that in English as his English is far better than my Farsi.

I know our daughter will speak English fine due to our context and I feel confident about Farsi too as we have many Iranian friends. Therefore, I’d really like to raise her with an additional language.

Should I speak solely Spanish to her, husband Farsi and then English together?

Or, should I continue with mainly English and use Spanish for specific activities/times?

Should my husband and I speak mainly Farsi together? (I want to improve my Farsi anyway) as it’s important to us that she definitely develops fluency in Farsi.

Should his family members speak one of the minority Iranian languages with her? (This would only be on the phone currently but could still be daily)

Also, we don’t anticipate staying in an English-speaking country long-term (but at least the next five years) so should I just focus on English with her?

Thank you,

Kay

Answer

Dear Kay

Congratulations on your bundle of joy! Congratulations also on thinking about your family language plan at this stage – it is so much easier to get into a routine early on than to change something later.

You both want your daughter to become fluent in Farsi and you have agreed that your husband will speak Farsi with her. You would want her to learn three or more languages. You have three main questions, which I will address in my answer:

  1. Should you focus on English or Spanish with your daughter?
  2. Which family language should you and your husband speak together?
  3. Should extended family members speak one of the additional heritage languages with your little one?
  1. If you stay in the English-speaking country you are living in now for at least five years, your daughter will undoubtedly pick up English. Depending on how much of her time she will be immersed in the language e.g. at nursery and/or school, English may well become her dominant language. So if you want her to also learn Spanish, and you are comfortable with the thought of it being the main language between you and your daughter, then I would recommend that you choose to speak Spanish with her. Unless you will move to a Spanish-speaking country, it will be significantly more difficult to keep the Spanish going than to maintain English. If you do move after five or so years, you can then reassess the situation depending on which languages your daughter will be surrounded by.
  2. As Farsi is your main priority I would recommend that you use as much Farsi together as you can. It happens so easily that the majority language, in your case English, gains momentum within the family. This can happen especially when a child enters nursery and gets more used to speaking the majority language during the day. I understand that you are not fluent in Farsi, but don’t be afraid of having a family conversation in two languages. Your husband can speak Farsi and you can answer in Farsi whenever you can, and when not, use English. This way you would also get more opportunities to improve your Farsi skills.
  3. I always encourage families to expose children to all the available languages. It doesn’t always mean that the child will learn the language, but at least it will be a familiar one. Your daughter will not pick up a language only through phone calls and video calls. If you would like her to learn more of any of the other family languages, then I would recommend that your husband dedicates some specific time to using these with your daughter. If you know of other families, and especially children, who speak them, then try to arrange for your daughter to spend time in and environment where she can “soak up” the language.

Wishing you a successful trilingual family journey!

Kind regards,
Rita

Rita Rosenback

  Rita Rosenback Rita is an author, Family Language Coach, blogger and speaker, who was born into a bilingual family on the Swedish-speaking west coast of Finland. After studying languages in Finland and Germany she worked as a university teacher, translator, interpreter and manager of multinational teams. Rita is now a full-time writer and coach and has been living in the U.K. since 1998. Rita is the mother of two grown-up multilingual daughters, who are the inspiration for her book: “Bringing up a Bilingual Child”, an easy-to-read guide for parents, where she navigates the reader across the “Seven Cs of Multilingual Parenting: Communication, Confidence, Commitment, Consistency, Creativity, Culture and Celebration”. Currently English and Swedish are Rita’s main languages, but she instantly switches to Finnish or German or to her Finland-Swedish dialect when the opportunity presents itself (and when push comes to shove, she can communicate in a very basic Punjabi). Rita is the creator and driving force of this website, and she gives talks and holds workshops for parents and teachers on the topic of bilingual children. She also coaches families on how to make the most of their languages and raise their children to become confident speakers of the chosen languages.

Facebooktwitterpinterestlinkedin