Bilingual or trilingual – how to choose the languages for a baby?

 

Question

Hi there,

First of all, thanks for all the answers to similar questions and your effort to help parents deal with this delicate issue. I have read through several but still have some questions which hopefully you can help me with.

First some context: My daughter Lara will be born in two months’ time and my wife and I live in London for more than ten years now. I come from Colombia, so my native language is Spanish. My wife comes from Poland and speaks Polish. My Polish is limited to a few words and her Spanish, although a bit better, is not enough either.

We speak English to each other. The truth is after many years in the UK we feel like English is our most comfortable language. We work in English and speak the language between us and with many friends. My family lives back in Colombia and most of them understand and speak English very well. My wife’s family does not speak English well so is a bit more concerned about teaching Polish to our daughter. Regardless, we feel like it would be beneficial to teach our daughter Spanish and Polish, while allowing English to happen when she goes to school, so she would be trilingual.

For this reason, we thought of OPOL system in which I speak in Spanish and she speaks in Polish to our child. The English will come alone with exposure to other kids and school. My concern is not that much if the child will learn. I come from a musical family which seems to help with sounds and languages. You have also pointed out in several answers how easy kids learn if a system is in place.

I am more concerned about the quality of communication as a family and if it’s affected in this kind of scenario. Although we may learn each other’s language in the process, it is clear that we will not understand what the other parents is saying to the child all the time.

Say at the table or if we are both playing with the child. Seems a bit strange to be sharing an activity and talking in two languages. What language will the child default to in this kind of scenario? He may be speaking to both of us, so what then?

Secondly, when a new child comes along. What language will they speak between them?

Third, the child will inevitably prefer English in the long run. Will this mean that communication with us will suffer as we try to impose Spanish/Polish? I know my relationship with my mother is better (as we spoke on our native Spanish) than with my father (in English) as with time I did not know how to express myself as well in English (back when I lived in Colombia).

So the main question I guess is, what is the family language? We thought then that we could speak in English if we are all together. But some of your posts suggest this will inevitably lead to the child defaulting to English in general and avoiding the other languages. Although we want our child to learn the languages as it has obvious benefits, we don’t want this to lead to communication problems between us.

I don’t think the baby learning three languages is absolutely crucial. For me the most crucial thing is that we are all happy and able to communicate comfortably and efficiently as a family. Most cases here have one of the parent languages being the common language. In our case not sure if this will work out in the short term considering we both want to be comfortable speaking in a language we know well and can establish a good relationship under.

What do you think? Sorry about the long one! Hope you can help, it would mean the world for our new family!

Kind regards
Simon

Answer

Dear Simon,

Thank you for your thoughtful question and congratulations on your soon-to-arrive little daughter Lara! I am impressed by how much thought you and your wife have already put into her trilingual upbringing – something which to me is very reassuring, as that shows how dedicated you are. Parents who plan and discuss these matters, like the two of you, are usually successful in whatever language strategy the decide to adopt.

I agree with your plan to use the one parent, one language approach with both of you speaking your native language with your daughter. This means always using Polish/Spanish when you talk directly with your daughter. It is also fine that you continue talking English with each other. You do not have to change that. As you write, Lara will learn English as well, since that is the language of the community.

With regards to the advice to avoid speaking the majority language at home to support a minority language, this is particularly important when there is only one minority language with little exposure (only one parent using it). Having two minority languages however changes the dynamics. By using English as the common language between parents, the minority languages get roughly an equal amount of exposure each. (Of course, this depends on how much time each parent will be spending with the child.)

Next, I will address the three specific questions you have.

How to communicate when the whole family is together?

Since you have only been using English in your home, it will inevitably feel a bit strange when you start speaking your native languages – for this reason I would recommend that you start with it already before Lara is born. Get used to speaking Polish/Spanish with the bump! You may think that it is odd that you would be playing with your daughter in two different languages. This is however what happens in millions of homes across the world.

You are right that there will be situations when you do not understand what the other parent is saying to your child. For this reason, it is important that you agree to translate whenever necessary. It is equally or even more important that you both ask whenever there is something you want to know. You are in this together, and I trust you can work out what is the best way for you. Based on experience from other families, there will be a bit of translation to begin with. The need for it will decrease as you both pick up more of each other’s languages.

In the scenario you describe (sitting around the table or playing together), you would be speaking Spanish and your wife Polish. Your daughter will most likely use both languages – for example say something in Spanish to you, then turn to your wife and say (in Polish) “Do you agree, mum?” or if your daughter thinks her mum would not have understood, she would repeat (or rephrase) the same thing in Polish. Keep in mind that such situations (where your daughter will partake in a discussion) will not arise until in two to three years’ time, so you will have plenty of time to practice getting used to having several languages in one conversation. Also, in years to come, when your child/children has/have learnt to speak both Polish and Spanish, and there is a strong routine of them speaking these languages with you, you can decide to lead some discussions in English, should you find this necessary.

What language will future siblings speak with each other?

You are right that – presuming you continue living in an English-speaking country – English will become your children’s dominant language. The phase when English may take over as the sibling language is when they are both in English-speaking daycare or school. So they may well choose to speak English with each other in the future. This is up to them to decide – as parents we can only support and guide, and then let go, trust and allow our children to make their own choices.

As long as your trilingual children are small, they might choose to speak both Polish and Spanish with each other, depending on the situation. To encourage this, make sure to engage Lara in your language plan. Explain to her how important it is that she speaks Polish with her little sister/brother when she is with their mum and Spanish when you are with them. She is the big sister who can help her sibling learn both languages – she has a very important role. When you are all together, trust me, you will find a way to naturally use both languages.

Will the family communication suffer when English becomes the trilingual children’s strongest language?

Having a strong common language with your children is important. I can understand your concerns based on your own experience with your father. However, you are not your father. I of course, do not know him, but I have the feeling that you have already put much more thought into the family language situation than what your father would have done. You are aware of the challenges and are preparing for them. You will be keeping a close eye on how things develop. I am confident that you can maintain a close relationship with your children independent of which language you speak with them.

I do not feel that passing on both Polish and Spanish to your children will negatively affect the communication within the family. If you both strongly support the idea of raising your children to be trilingual, then you will find a way to communicate together. You will gain more and more understanding of Polish and your wife will become more familiar with Spanish. Remember that it is perfectly fine to lead a family discussion in different languages – the main thing is communication (language is just the chosen output method). You can speak Spanish; your wife Polish, and the children can decide which language they want to use. In addition, like I wrote above, in time, you can decide to have some family discussions in English, if you want. Knowing all the languages will give you the freedom of choice.

You mention that it is not crucial for your daughter to become trilingual, and I understand where you are coming from. I too would choose happiness above knowing another language, if those were the only choices. However, I really do think that both can be achieved in your family. As I mentioned at the start, your awareness of the situation is the best safeguard for you and your wife finding the ideal way to navigate your way through the multilingual challenges (and joys!) in your family.

If you consider the alternative, i.e. to drop one of your languages, as I see it, it would end up being Spanish. With your wife’s family not knowing English but your family does, this would be the most likely scenario if you were to decide on only two languages. Would you feel comfortable with that thought? Also keep in mind that if you chose to speak English with Lara, English would gain a lot of ground in the family language setup, and it would become Lara’s dominant language quicker than if you were to speak Spanish with her. An early English dominance would also make it more challenging (but not impossible) for your wife to pass on Polish.

I know you said that you have both become very comfortable with speaking English and feel that you might even prefer it to using your native languages. This is also understandable, as English is the language you have been mainly using for the last ten years. It has become much more than a fluent language for you: you have used it not only at work, but also as the language of emotions between yourself and your wife. This would equip you to use it also with your daughter, should you choose to do so. However, language is not only about communication, it is also very much about culture and being able to convey that to your daughter. Being able to use the language of your own culture to sing lullabies, recite rhymes, read stories and play games is a huge emotional aspect when you become a parent.

I hope that my answer has given you some food for thought – I am confident that you will find the best way for you to raise trilingual children, but should you wish to delve deeper into exposure times and setting up a Family Language Plan for you, then please contact me at rita [at] multilingualparenting [dot] com.

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.

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