Q&A: Bilingual or trilingual baby – how many languages from the start?

by | Apr 14, 2016 | Babies, Coaches, Maria Babin, Q&A The trilingual+ child | 8 comments



Hello Family Language Coaches!

My husband and I are about to have a baby. We live in Italy. I am native in Serbian, fluent in English and lower intermediate in Italian. He is native Italian, fluent in English, beginner Serbian. We primarily communicate in English and live far from grandparents and relatives (who would, therefore, be with the child only a certain amount of time per year).

It is quite important for us that the child grows up able to speak primarily both Italian and Serbian, and we are happy to leave English for later. What would be the best strategy for this, how should we communicate with our child and among ourselves (especially considering that neither of us speak the other’s native language well enough yet)? Would you suggest a different goal (attempting trilingualism straight away), and if so, how?


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Thank you for your question! Well, first things first, you need to consider the majority language which, since you are living in Italy, will be Italian. If you are planning on staying there throughout your child’s formative years, and especially if your child will attend school in Italian, you should take into consideration that your child will most likely learn Italian with little to no effort on your part. You should also consider how much time you can spend with your child and therefore how much language input you will be able to provide.

A few things to think about: Will you and your and spouse both work outside of the home? Long hours? Weekends? Who will be your child’s primary caregiver? The answers to these questions will help you to estimate the type of language input that your child will potentially have access to and in what language?

However, since Italian and Serbian are a priority for your family and since Italian will be easily learned, I would recommend that you focus your attention on Serbian, the minority language, especially since you will spend limited time with Serbian family and relatives. In that respect, it would be wise for you to speak exclusively in Serbian to your child, or to find a situation where he can have direct interaction in Serbian.

Find as many ways as you can to increase the opportunities for rich language input in Serbian and to motivate your child to speak the minority language. In addition, since his contact with other Serbian speakers will be limited, it would be wise to consider Skype calls with Serbian speaking family members or finding other young Serbian speaking families in the area where you live, for play dates and social gatherings. It may be a bit of a challenge, but worth the effort!

Since we have already established that Italian should come quite easily to your child, the language that your spouse speaks depends entirely on his personal preference. Will he feel more comfortable speaking to your child in his native tongue? Or does he feel comfortable enough in English to establish a relationship with your child in English? If he does, it would be an excellent opportunity to introduce a third language early on, especially as he will most likely learn it passively through observing his parents’ conversations with each other.

Another option your spouse might want to consider is spending half of his time in Italian and half of his time in English with your son. We have a similar plan in our home and this is the way we organise our time between languages.

I hope I have answered your questions and that you feel better prepared to start on your multilingual journey with your soon to be born trilingual child! Congratulations!

Please don’t hesitate to write again if you require further guidance.



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Maria Babin

Maria Babin

Maria, born and raised in the United States to a Peruvian father and a Mexican mother, is today the proud mama of four trilingual kiddos. She loves their multilingual, multicultural lifestyle, living in a suburb of Paris, France, taking family vacations to the United States and eating Mexican tacos. She graduated from Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah in 2000 with a Bachelor’s degree in French, completed undergraduate coursework in early childhood second language acquisition as well as graduate coursework in French literature. She taught beginning French at BYU before beginning her own in-home multilingual experiment. She blogs at Trilingual Mama in a quest to explore and exploit the secrets that lead to a family’s multilingual successes, including research, practical tips, resources and real life.


  1. Filipa

    We live in Perth, Australia and I only speak French to my children and my husband Spanish. They go to daycare two days a week where they learn English. We never switch to English and put all our focus and efforts on French and Spanish. They are now 2 and 3yo and they understand the 3 languages very well but their dominant language is French, then Spanish (They easily switch to Spanish when speaking to dad or their grand mother) and English being their minority language for now.

    • Maria Babin

      Thank you for your comment Filipa. The minority language(s) will quickly change as they grow and realize that the majority language is English! It sounds like you have a great language set-up that works well for your family. Keep up the good work!

  2. Susan

    Hi i live in wales and I speak Spanish dad English and Welsh and my son age 6 goes to a Welsh school . He does understand Spanish but replays lot in English few months ago I encourage him to replay in Spanish which sometimes depends on his mood replays without complain but I started to be more strict with my native language as I could see a lot of improvement so my main question is there is any sort of support I can do to help him more as he is trilingual and he is not even fluent Welsh speaker and he had some support at Welsh too I mean strong support in Welsh

    • Maria Babin

      Hello Susan,
      When you say that your son replays, do you mean that he plays in that language or that he repeats words and phrases? If you are living in Wales and your son is attending a Welsh school that should be sufficient for him to become fluent in Welsh. Does your spouse also speak to him in Welsh? If you would like to give him a little extra support, why not set up a few play dates with children his age who speak Welsh? Children learn best from peers and when they are playing, so language play dates can be a very effective tool.
      Best of luck to you and please let me know if you have any additional questions.

  3. Laura

    Hola, quisiera que me aconsejaran como encarar la enseñanza de cuatro idiomas, estoy embarazada de mi primer bb. Vivimos en Francia, soy argentina mi idioma es español, mi marido es de India y habla Himdi y punjabi. Entre nosotros hablamos ingles fluido pero con muchos errores. Nuestras familias viven en sus respectivos paises y nos comunicamos por skype. Y quisiera que nuestros hijos tambien hablen nuestros idiomas nativos para comunicarse con sus abuelos y familiares cuando los visiten. Yo no hablo el frances hace un año que estoy, no trabajo, aunque ya comprendo mas y algo me defiendo pero termino usando el ingles cuando puedo, mi marido solo lo habla no lo escribe pero se defiende bastante en su trabajo aunque tambien esta mucho en contacto con gente de su mismo idioma. Tambien vivimos con un primo de él que comprende no tanto el ingles, algo el frances y se comunica mayoritariamente en hindi o punjabi con mi marido. Se que será un desafio muy grande de nuestra parte para que resulte bien con el tiempo por eso quisiera estar informada y prepararme. He leido mucho del metodo montessori y quisiera ponerlo en practica tambien. Aunque no encontre nada que me oriente bien en cuanto a como transmitir cuatro idiomas y quisiera pode generar un plan de accion. El choque cultural que he sufrido es grande y aun me estoy adaptando no solo en francia sino tambien del de india y obviamente no quiero perder el mio y será otro desafio a transmitir. Bueno espero sus consejos con la mente abierta!!!

    • Maria

      Hola Laura,
      Gracias por tu pregunta. Felicidades por tu embarazo! Transmitir cuatro idiomas es una meta ambiciosa, pero creo que si se puede lograr con tiempo, paciencia, y mucha organizacion! Creo que la primera cosa que tienen que decirse es que el bebe aprendera cada idioma con tiempo pero a su propio ritmo y con niveles diferentes y eso es normal. Si viven en Francia y piensan quedarse alli largo tiempo, entonces tambien tienen que pensar que su hijito adoptara seguramente el idioma de la comunidad, es decir el frances. Eso tambien es normal, y no tendran que hacer mucho porque el progresara solito. En cambio, hay mucho que pueden hacer desde que nazca el bebe para transmitirle los otros idiomas familiales. Para comenzar, escojan los dos idiomas necesarios para que su hijito/a pueda comunicarse con ustedes y con sus familiares, es decir el Hindi (o el Punjabi) y el Espanol. Cada cual le hablaria en solo ese idioma para que el bebe comprenda bien desde pequeño que hay dos idiomas distintas. Si sienten que es necesario, cuando esten todos juntos pueden cambiar al Ingles como idioma comun, pero seria mejor enfocarse en los otros idiomas. De todas maneras, si el niño/la niña los escucha hablarse en Ingles, lo aprendera de forma passiva, pero cuando ya este un poco mas grande.
      Tambien, un consejito para ti, trata de tomarte el tiempo de adaptarte bien a tus nuevas culturas porque eso es tan importante! Yo tambien vivo en Francia y te comprendo que puedo ser muy dificil, pero para criar bien a nuestros hijitos tenemos que estar bien nosotros mismas para poder transmitirles nuestro idioma, cultura, y sobre todo, amor!
      Si lees el ingles, puedes ver en mi blog, otros consejitos para transmitir varios idiomas: http://www.trilingualmama.com/why-we-stick-to-opol/
      Te deseo todo lo mejor y si quieres continuar la conversacion, puedes contactarme por mi blog.

  4. Alice

    Hello, i am Italian but I know English really well so I really want to try to teach it to my daughter she’s 9 months old..I’ve started to speak English to her since she was 3 months old..in the beginning I thought to use the OPOL method but it’s really hard for us cause my husband doesn’t speak English at all..and I felt I was excluding him ..so now I’m using English with my daughter just when we play and sometimes during the day…is it enough? A part of me is really paranoid cause I think I’m not an English mother tongue and I want to use Italian too in my day life but I love English so much..so I really need your advice..what would you do?
    Ps: then I am really worried of getting my baby confused cause sometimes I switch from Italian to English

    • Rita

      Dear Alice

      Thank you for your question – to be fair to everyone, we answer questions which need a more in-depth answer in the order they arrive. Your question will be featured in the Q&A on the 13th of July.

      Kind regards


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