How to choose the right trilingual family language strategy?

 

Question

Hi Family Language Coaches,

Thanks for sharing so many useful tips and resources – I just discovered your website’s Q&A section and I really love it! I have a question about raising a trilingual child.

I was raised bilingual (English and Italian) and grew up in Italy and the US. I was very lucky in this sense, because I did get enough exposure to both languages besides just hearing them from my parents. My husband is Dutch but grew up in the US. We have always spoken to each other in English, and even though we’ve now learned the basics of each other’s heritage languages, we would find it totally unnatural to switch to Dutch/ Italian.

We are now pregnant with our first child, and of course we’d like to “pass on” our three languages: English, Italian and Dutch. We recently relocated to Amsterdam, Netherlands and she will attend daycare here. I’ve been thinking about mixing the OPOL and time & place strategies: during the week we can OPOL Italian/ Dutch, and in the weekends, when we are all together as a family, both my husband and I can speak to her in English. Also, I am inclined to keep English as our family language, because – as I said – any other option would feel uncomfortable for us.

We also considered supplementing our “strategy” with frequent trips to Italy (we already do that anyways, because we just love to spend one weekend a month in our house in Rome) and playgroups in English. There’s a large expat community here in Amsterdam, so it shouldn’t be hard to find other American (or English-speaking) families for some playdates.

Do you think that could work? Or does it sound too complicated or confusing for the child?

Thanks!
Anna

Answer

Dear Anna,

Congratulations on the soon-to-be new member of your trilingual family! Thank you for your kind feedback and your question about raising your little daughter to become trilingual in Italian, Dutch and English.

I can see from your message that you have already put a lot of thought into your trilingual family language strategy and what would work best for you. And this is the most important thing. All families as well as the language preferences of the parents are different. Families that on the surface look the same, may well find that an approach which works for one family does not do so for the other.

The trilingual family language strategy you suggest with OPOL (one parent, one language) – Italian/Dutch during the week and mL@H (minority language at home) – English only during the weekend will give your daughter continuous exposure to all the three languages.

In the following I will comment on each of the languages with regards to what you need to take into consideration.

Dutch

Dutch will most likely become your daughter’s strongest language at some point. As you will live in the Netherlands she will be surrounded by the language in the community, through the media etc. She will attend nursery in Dutch and her dad will speak Dutch with her. There will be plenty of exposure to and opportunities to interact in the language for her. Taking all that into account, you may also want to consider other options with regards to her schooling as outlined below.

English

As English will continue to be the common language between you and your husband, your daughter will also have continuous exposure to it. If you decide to switch to English only during the weekends, then your daughter will also be interacting in the language, which will enable her to also learn to speak it. If she were only to hear English from the two of you, she would learn to understand it but may be reluctant to speak it (receptive bilingualism). In addition, like you say, Amsterdam is a very international city and you will find plenty of opportunities to find English-speaking children that your daughter can play with, either in playgroups or through playdates.

Another option for you could be to look for an English-speaking nursery and further education for your daughter. If you were to choose this option, my recommendation would be that both you and your husband always stick to Italian/Dutch when you speak with your daughter. You would still however speak English with each other. Your daughter would get her interactive English exposure from nursery and school. An additional advantage of this approach is that you would speak more Italian with your daughter. You and your husband would also improve your skills in each other’s languages as you would hear more of them in the home.

Italian

Italian is the language you will have to put most effort into, as you will be the only speaker of it in the day-to-day life of your daughter. You have not mentioned (and maybe you haven’t decided) at which age and for how many hours a day you plan to put her into nursery. At that point her exposure to Italian will lessen. If she goes to full-time Dutch-speaking nursery at an early age (before one year), and you speak English as a family during the weekend, then you will only have weekday mornings and evenings to speak Italian with her. However, much of this time you would also speak English with your husband, and he would speak Dutch with her. So, you need to be realistic about how much Italian exposure there will be for her.

Having the opportunity to frequently visit Italy is a great asset for your daughter’s Italian. Being immersed in a Italian for one weekend a month can really boost her Italian skills. This is especially true, if you can find her Italian-speaking children to spend time with during your visits. Another option to add more Italian exposure could be to look for an Italian-speaking nanny or au pair and reduce the hours at nursery.

To be able to give you a more detailed answer I would need to know the whole picture of which language she would be exposed to when and for how long. This would then fall under the Family Language Coaching. Please contact me if you are interested in this option.

Choosing the right trilingual family language strategy

Whichever trilingual family approach you decide to go for, one thing is clear – you will not confuse your daughter by exposing her to several languages. You should choose the strategy that you feel comfortable with. Remember also that you can always change your approach at any time, if you feel that the chosen one is not working. You would notice this e.g. if your daughter shows strong reluctance to speak a certain language. However, don’t expect her languages to develop equally well in all languages. It all depends on the amount and quality of interactive exposure she gets to each of them.

I have found that the best predictor for successfully raising children to speak more than one language is the awareness and commitment of the parents, and you already seem to have plenty of both!

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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