Four languages for a one-year-old – how to go about it?

 

Question

Hi,

I really would like to get an answer from you about our particular family language situation – four languages 🙂 I am Lithuanian, my husband is Italian, we communicate with each other in English and we live in Norway. We both speak Norwegian at our jobs, but at home we prefer to use English with each other.

We are raising an 11-month-old daughter. Till now she has heard 90% of time Lithuanian and 10% Italian (my husband is not so talkative). For two months our daughter will now hear a bit more Italian because I returned to my job and my husband is staying at home with our daughter. But in the evenings when I am at home, I try to speak Lithuanian as much as I can. Our daughter also hears English when I am communicating with my husband.

When our daughter is one year old, she will go to a Norwegian-speaking kindergarten. Now we are using the one parent – one language method. But in one month she will start hearing Norwegian every workday. During weekends I want to bring her to Lithuanian community meetings that she has a possibility to hear Lithuanian as much as she can. I am planning to bring her to weekend Lithuanian school when she is older.

In our town there is no big Italian community, no Italian-speaking children around. My fear is that our daughter will not learn Italian language. Actually I am a bit afraid that she will not learn Lithuanian as she is starting kindergarten from such an early age (at one year), but at least I am trying to read books, meet other Lithuanians, that our daughter is exposed to Lithuanian language as much as she can.

Italian grandparents visit us 3-4 times per year for one week. They talk a lot and entertain our daughter. But I think this is not enough and father needs to communicate with our daughter on daily basis by reading Italian books, playing.

What to do with the English language? Should we start speaking Norwegian at home between me and my husband, so our daughter hears three languages instead of four? But our Norwegian is not 100% grammatically correct, so we are afraid she would learn some mistakes from us.

Sorry for the long question, I hope you can give me some hope that our daughter will speak both parent languages and kindergarten language 🙂

Thank you!
Renata

Answer

Dear Renata

Thank you for your question about the best way to ensure that your daughter will grow up learning all the four languages you have in your family.

Your situation is actually very good for your daughter to enable her to pick up all four languages. However, it will require commitment and a lot of communication with her to achieve this. I will comment on each of the four languages separately, so you can be aware of all the aspects that play a role. I agree with the use of the one parent – one language approach that you have chosen.

Norwegian

As your daughter will start nursery at one year of age, she will pick up Norwegian from the kindergarten. If you stay in Norway, I presume she will also attend school in the language. This will ensure that she becomes a fluent Norwegian-speaker early on.

I would not recommend that you switch to speaking Norwegian at home. There are several reasons for this: Your daughter will not need the additional Norwegian exposure to pick up the language; you and your husband are not used to speaking it as your common language and you think that you are not fully fluent in it; and, perhaps most importantly, Norwegian could take over as the family language. This would make it more difficult to pass on Lithuanian and Italian. My recommendation is to make your home a Norwegian-free zone when it comes to the languages you use with each other. Unless, of course, you have Norwegian visitors that you need to include in the discussion. Even in these cases, it would be best if you stuck to your native languages when you speak directly with your daughter and translate to others as necessary.

Lithuanian

Based on what you describe, it does sound like your daughter would get enough Lithuanian exposure to pick it up from you. It is of course impossible to say this with certainty based on your message, as I would need to do an in-depth interview and questionnaire with you to know the details. This would fall under the Family Language Coaching service.

You have the advantage of connecting with a Lithuanian community and even the opportunity to enrol her in a Lithuanian weekend school. Be consistent in your use of Lithuanian with her, both in and outside the home. This is especially important if there comes a time when she speaks to you in Norwegian. Don’t be disheartened if that happens, this is something most parents in multilingual families experience. Children are pragmatic about their languages and will often use the one that comes easiest to them if they know the other person understands it. Do your best to make it a solid routine that you always speak Lithuanian with each other.

Italian

Everything that I wrote about the consistent use of your native language equally applies to your husband and Italian. As it looks like there will be less exposure to Italian for your daughter, consistency is even more important. Don’t get me wrong, using the one parent – one language strategy does not automatically require that parents are 100% consistent in their language use with their kids. However, the importance of consistency rises the less exposure there is to a language.

I understand that you would wish your husband to communicate more with your daughter, and I do agree, but we need to keep in mind that we cannot and should not try to change another person’s personality. If he is by nature not very talkative, then you cannot force him to chat more. The wish to talk must come from himself. Reading books would be a great help if he would prefer that. Remind him that he does not have to do kids’ stuff. Some parents, fathers in particular, find it difficult to communicate about topics that you would usually pick up with kids. He can talk about anything he is interested in, e.g. read aloud from a magazine about a hobby he has – discuss with him to find what would be easiest for him.

It is great that your daughter’s Italian grandparents are visiting several times a year. This is a fantastic boost to her Italian exposure. Once your daughter grows up and her attention span grows you can also connect with them online in different ways. Read this article about long-distance relationships for more ideas. Visiting Italy to be immersed in the language would also be very beneficial for her (the same of course also applies for Lithuanian).

Again, to get a better picture about the actual amount of Italian exposure your daughter gets, I would need to have more information from you.

English

As English is the common language between you and your husband, your daughter will learn to understand the language. This happens sooner than you think, so don’t expect to keep your “secret” language for too long. You are in a fortunate situation that it is English which is the language she gets least exposure to. Initially there will be no interaction with her in it, so she will not learn to express herself. She will have a receptive English skill. I say fortunate, because English is probably the easiest language to find exposure to from other sources. Your daughter will also learn English at school, and she will hear it on TV and media. You will most likely find English playgroups she can attend, summer schools she can participate in, and so on. If available, you could even consider enrolling her in an English-speaking school when she is a bit older. For now, I would not put any emphasis on the English skills, just let her learn at her own pace by listening to you.

I hope my response has given you some pointers on how to go about using your languages in your family. If you have any additional questions, please add them in the comments and I would be happy to expand.

Wishing you a successful multilingual 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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