Choosing the home and daycare languages for a baby in a trilingual environment

 

Question

Hello,

and thank you for all the useful info on this website.

My question is on how to approach raising a baby in a foreign country, exposing him to three languages, and if talking to him in my non-native language or not. I found many relevant discussions already, but none addressing our specific case.

Both me and my wife are native Italian speakers. We just moved with our 3-month-old baby to Amsterdam, where Dutch is the local language, but English is widely spoken. I am fluent in English having lived internationally for long time, although I do have an accent and less vocabulary than a native speaker (so I speak more of an ‘international English’, rather than a British or American one). My wife also speaks English, although slightly less confidently (she spent less time abroad). In Amsterdam, we’ll both work and socialize in English, and we do not speak any Dutch.

For our son, the mum is talking to him in Italian and hopefully he will pick it up fluently from her (and our families when visiting). Myself, I am debating if talking to him in Italian or English – so far using English 90% of times. For sure we want him to learn English fluently, as most likely we will keep moving internationally, and he will need to be able to attend international schools. 
But we might end up spending many years in Amsterdam, and in this case, it makes sense if he also picks up Dutch, for his own socialization. In a few months he will probably start attending childcare, and we are not sure if sending him to an English-only or English and Dutch one.

My question is, is it worth it for me to keep speaking English to him, to ‘prepare’ him for English childcare and later school/socialization – hence raising him as a bilingual Italian-English child from his parents, leaving only Dutch to the outside world? Or should I speak Italian to avoid any confusion, and reinforce the input he gets from his mum? I know that even if we only speak Italian at home, he would eventually pick up English from school, but I am a bit worried of the ‘complication’ of exposing him to both English and Dutch as completely new languages, at the same time. And he might end up starting childcare when already 10 months old. 

I feel comfortable enough speaking English to him, also expressing feelings, but surely my English mastery and pronunciation are limited compared to native speakers. At home, I have no problem talking to my wife in English in front of him, with her typically replying in Italian (trying to keep the OPOL – I would do the opposite when she speaks in Italian). While we were on holidays in Italy though, I felt weird using English with him in front of our families, so in those occasions I would use Italian or just don’t talk 🙂

A follow up question is how to approach the potential 3rd language, Dutch? It is less of a priority, and as non-native English speakers, we would really want to focus on him getting English 100% correct (so I would exclude a Dutch-only childcare). But if he starts being exposed to Dutch, what role can we play as parents, having no understating of it? 

Many thanks for your attention and looking forward to reading your reply!
Emanuele

Answer

Dear Emanuele,

Thank you for your kind feedback and for your question about choosing the languages for your little son. Italian and English are the languages you already use in the family with Dutch being added through your move to Amsterdam. Your son has a very good chance of becoming trilingual.

With regards to choosing which language you speak with your son, the decision is ultimately up to you, but I will present some thoughts for you to take into consideration when making your choice. Since I know that you may come across opinions which are adamant that a parent should only ever speak their native tongue with a child, I would like to say that this is not my point of view. If a parent is comfortable in speaking a different language that they are fluent in – in your case English – there is nothing to say they shouldn’t.

Another point I want to make is with regards to your comment that you would make a certain choice to “avoid confusion” and that you are worried about “complications” if your son is exposed to two new languages at once. Please do not be concerned with any of these thoughts. Many children become trilingual while growing up. Children can cope excellently with being exposed to several languages. Even if you were following the one parent, one language (OPOL) approach (with you speaking English), it is perfectly fine for you to switch to Italian when you speak with your wife or relatives at home. This would then make Italian your common family language.

Especially in an all-Italian environment during your visits to Italy it is the natural thing for you to do, so please do not stay silent if English is your chosen language with your son, but switch to Italian. Bilingual people switch between languages – it is part of their identity, so don’t try to hide this fact, but be a natural bilingual role model for your son.

A few comments separately on the different languages, to help you to make the language choices:

Italian

Italian is both your and your wife’s native tongue and the language you speak with your extended family. It is important for you that your son becomes fluent in Italian so he can build and later independently maintain relationships to his relatives and your Italian-speaking family friends. Your wife will speak only Italian with your son, so he will always have at least one person consistently interacting in the language with him.

If you decide to speak Italian with your son – i.e. follow the minority language at home (mL@H) approach, there is no doubt he will become fully fluent Italian-speaker, independent of which language his daycare or education is in.

If you choose to speak English with your son, then what you need to consider is how much time your wife will spend talking Italian with him once he starts daycare (either in English or Dutch-English). If she works full time, there will be some hours each morning and evening plus the weekends. While this should be enough to develop and maintain his Italian, with boosts during the visits to Italy, there will be little else exposure to the language for him. Italian will in this case be the language that needs most support in the future. Dependent on where you live, it might be difficult to find additional sources of Italian exposure for your son.

English

You mention that you will most likely be moving internationally and that your son would be attending international – I presume English-speaking – schools. The language of the daycare or school has a strong impact on a child’s language skills. Once your son starts to spend most of his waking time immersed in English, the language will quickly become his most dominant one. If he also speaks English with you, Italian will have a clear minority status in your family.

The onus will be on your wife to keep Italian going. Although this is perfectly doable, I know from experience and other families, that this can sometimes feel like an uphill struggle. Independent of where you live in the world, there will normally also be plenty of other opportunities for English exposure through media, community groups, etc, while there be less options available in Italian.

If you decide to speak Italian with your son, then you could, if you want, still expose him to some English prior to the daycare start. You could do this by following a variation of the time and place (T&P) strategy, where you choose to all speak English as a family, e.g. on a Sunday. You could also introduce English through songs, games and play and online resources. It is however not necessary to prepare him for the daycare – the professional carers at the daycare will know how to deal with children who do not yet speak the language used at daycare. (Most children do not speak much of any language at 10 months of age.) To put your mind at rest, I recommend that you contact the daycare in advance to speak to the staff.

Dutch

Dutch will be the community language for at least some years for you all, maybe for longer. I agree that it would be helpful for your son to also learn the local language (as it would be for you and your wife, too). Putting him in a dual language daycare would give him natural exposure to Dutch and, depending on how the activities are arranged, he should also pick up Dutch. You do not need to worry about your son being exposed to both Dutch and English – just like in a family, he would pick them both up. Children find it much easier than adults to adjust to such situations – so try not to worry about it with your adult brain.

With regards to your role in relation to the Dutch language if your son attends the dual language daycare, you would be co-learners. This would be a natural start for your Dutch-learning journey, too. You wouldn’t have to be concerned about supporting his Dutch as such, just be open to him using different languages. Should he use a word you do not understand, you can always ask the nursery staff. I doubt that this will be a big problem though, he will soon know to switch to Italian (or English) at home.

On his way to becoming trilingual, your son may mix his languages to start with, before he gets hang of what belongs to which language. This is also nothing to worry about. It is a natural part of a child’s multilingual language development.

I hope this have given you food for thought and help for your decision. If you have any additional questions, please add them in the comments!

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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