Q&A: Four languages: three in the family and a fourth in nursery – would it work?




I have a 5-month-old boy to whom I speak Swedish (my mother tongue). We live in Scotland and my husband speaks English to him. We can sort out this bilingual equation, as I consistently speak Swedish to him and sing/read/listen to music and will mostly watch TV programmes in Swedish, and travel to Finland, where he will be exposed to Swedish (and Finnish, my other home language).

What I do not know is how to include Finnish into the daily mix, and if not having it as strong as Swedish, still close to it. Currently, it largely falls on my mum to speak to him on skype, and I try to read and sing to him in Finnish as well – but I do not talk to him (i.e. have a conversation) in Finnish.

How do I ensure that when I speak both Swedish and Finnish with my boy, he does not end up getting insufficient exposure to both, and English automatically just taking over entirely? Effectively, I want my boy to grow up trilingual or multilingual. I have the option of putting him into a Gaelic nursery/school from three years. At first, I thought this might be a bit too confusing, but now with more reading I think perhaps it would be better as it would normalise the speaking of a ‘foreign’ language in the environment he grows up in (where it is not so normal to be bilingual or multilingual).

I have read lot on bilingualism and what I’ve found on trilingualism, but the information rarely addresses the issue of one parent speaking two languages. The OPOL approach only works so far for our family. We aim to go to a Finnish school class and a Swedish play group each once a month.

Having read about trilingualism I had the idea that maybe I could switch between Finnish and Swedish every other day or week or so (in a consistent manner). However, when I attended the Finnish class recently, I found it really difficult to speak Finnish to my boy in between songs and plays. It just did not feel natural, so I doubt that would be an option. I have made certain toys Finnish though so I’m sure I can speak Finnish via that, the same as any time I speak to my Finnish friends for instance.

Neither of us speaks Gaelic so the Gaelic nursery/school idea is a bit ‘out there’. This doesn’t seem to stop most people who place their children in said school – albeit they probably don’t already have three languages from home. I also thought that if my boy goes there (this is of course some 3-4 years later) then English (while being the community language and thus majority language at home) would not play just as big a role in his life. He would communicate in four languages: Swedish/Finnish with me, English with dad and our friends here and Gaelic at school and friends made there.

I’m hoping to be able to work part-time when I go back after maternity leave and then hopefully would have two full days to spend solo with my boy which should help with the two languages. I just don’t know how best to utilise such time.

Any ideas and tips would be hugely appreciated.


Dear Sonja

Thank you for your question about your son’s multilingual upbringing. He has the potential of learning four languages early on and you are looking for the best way to achieve this.

You have clearly already put a lot of thought into this and this is a good sign. Judging by past experience, it is the parents who consider the different options and are aware of the challenges who manage to balance the family languages most efficiently and achieve the best results.

I will comment separately on each of the languages and mention aspects that you need to take into consideration when making your language choices. In a short article and without knowing all the facts (amount and type of exposure to each language as well as future changes in these), however I am unable to give you detailed instructions. This would fall under the individual Family Language Coaching service. However, I hope to be able to give you some pointers as to your options.


As you rightly say, since you live in an English-speaking environment, your husband speaks English with your son and he will no doubt have a lot of English-speaking friends, English will most likely at some point become your son’s most dominant language. This will happen independent of the choices you make. The biggest effect on this will be the language his further education will be in.


By having Swedish as the default language between you and your son, he will grow up learning it. It is important to make the most of the period when she spends time mainly with you. This is the time when you can create a solid foundation for a routine of always speaking Swedish with each other. Although you have two native languages, you feel more comfortable speaking Swedish than Finnish with your son. This is a natural reaction, as Swedish was the language you chose to start with. It is always odd when you switch to speaking a different language with a person, no matter what age. (You can read about my experience here). That you have access to a Swedish-speaking playgroup is great. Even if it is only once a month for a few hours, it is important, as he will get to interact with other children who speak Swedish. This experience is very valuable to him – it shows that Swedish is not just something between you and him, but a language that other kids speak, too.


Finnish is your second mother tongue and you would like your son to pick it up so he can communicate in it. You are already taking the right steps to pass on Finnish to your son by reading and singing to him in the language. Just like with Swedish, it is very helpful that you have access to a Finnish class where he will meet with other Finnish-speaking kids. Your mum’s support will be invaluable in ensuring that he get enough exposure to Finnish. For a child to learn a language there should be both a NEED and a WANT for the child to speak it – being able to speak with his grandmother creates both of these. However, if you want your son to become a fluent Finnish-speaker in parallel with learning Swedish, then the occasional reading, singing, playgroup and interaction with his grandmother will not be enough. I know you said that it felt strange to speak Finnish with your son, but you will have to overcome this feeling to be able to offer him more exposure to Finnish. What you could try is a variation of the time and place approach. You could for example create an area in your home, which is dedicated to Finnish. In this area you would only use Finnish, playing, reading, singing etc. This is the perfect place for the Finnish toys to stay in when they are not in use elsewhere. The area would be a reminder for you to stick to Finnish and your son would identify the space with the language. Of course, you can still read or sing in Finnish in other places as well, but this specific area would always be Finnish.


If the Gaelic nursery/school is suitable in every other way, i.e. it meets your expectations when it comes to quality of care and tuition, atmosphere and so on, I see no reason not to choose it for your son. I know it will be a fourth language for him, but children can cope with many languages. Being exposed to several languages never causes a child to be confused. Like you say, replacing the additional exposure to English (which will become your son’s dominant language) with Gaelic will have several positive effects. Not only will he learn an additional language (getting the tally up to four languages), but it will give both Swedish and Finnish a stronger position in his life in relation to English. Will there be the option to continue his education in Gaelic after the initial years? He would need to have continued interactive exposure to it to maintain for the future.

I hope this have given you some ideas on how to manage the situation with the four languages you son may learn. We can continue the discussion in the form of Family Language Coaching in case you want at Family Language Plan set up.

Wishing you a successful multilingual family journey!

Kind regards,

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.