Q&A: Choice of languages when raising a trilingual child

by | Jan 8, 2015 | Coaches, Q&A The trilingual+ child, Ute Limacher-Riebold | 22 comments


Dear Multilingual Parenting team,

This is a trilingual situation: My husband (native American/good Greek speaker) and I (native German/very good Greek and English speaker) currently live in Greece with our 19 month old son and are planning on moving to Germany in about 2 months. I speak German to him, while my husband speaks English and the rest of the environment (Grandmothers, caretaker twice a week) speaks Greek. My husband and I communicate mainly in English, less in Greek, and he doesn’t understand German. Our son seems to understand all of us quite well, but doesn’t say very many words yet.

I have two questions regarding our move. Firstly, I’d like for him to continue being exposed to Greek, so I am considering switching to Greek once we are there. We will also travel to Greece frequently, but other than us there will be no exposure to Greek and I feel it would be culturally a great loss if he wasn’t raised with Greek. Other than again being in a situation where I communicate in a foreign language in public (which isn’t always pleasant as I often feel rude for not including the present company) I feel confident doing it. Is there a possibility of confusing him? I guess there is no danger of him not picking up German. Which leads to my other question: I have found a nice bilingual daycare for him (English-German) which I like because it is a continuation of the multilingual environment he is being raised in and his peers there will have similar backgrounds. But would it maybe be more advisable to put him in a purely German daycare so he is more exposed to German? My husband will continue speaking English to him, Grandfather and friends will mainly speak German (other than when they speak to my husband, who is going to start learning German there).

I would greatly appreciate your thoughts and opinions and want to express my gratitude for your blog and newsletter: It makes me feel very good that there are so many others in similar situations out there!

Thanks and best regards,


Dear Ira,

I understand you’d like to create a multicultural environment for your son by talking Greek to him once you move to Germany. You seem very confident and aware of what this switch and talking Greek-only with your son may entail. This is very important as there can be several issues along the way, and the more determined, confident and convinced you, your husband, your son and your social and family environment are, the better the chances are for you to raise your son successfully with Greek, German and English.

I’d like to point out several aspects you may want to consider.
When switching from German to Greek-only with your son, you ask if he’ll be confused. It all depends on his character and how he responds to this kind of change. He has surely heard you talk Greek already, so, if he will hear you talk Greek “only” in one-on-one situations once you live in Germany, it may take him some time to accept it but it’s not something completely new for him. If you want him to have a smoother transition language-wise, I’d advice to introduce Greek-only gradually. Maybe by starting to talk Greek to him at specific moments of the day (for example while having lunch or playing with him) or during the weekends (maybe including your husband?), and then see how he reacts.

As you are a multilingual parent, I have a few questions about you switching to Greek only.
– Do you think that you will feel comfortable to talk Greek with your son when your German family and friends are with you?
– Will you then switch to German when you talk to them? Which language will you talk for example if you’re all sitting around a table?
– Will your German family and friends be supportive and accept that you’re not talking German with your son? I ask this because you may prefer talking German with them.
– Later on, how will you feel when you hear other German parents talk German to their children at school and you keep on talking Greek?

As multilingual parents we often like to switch and talk all “our” languages but we also want to belong to social groups, and using the same language helps to “fit in” easier. This applies to adults and, of course, to our children too. It may be that if you are the only person talking Greek to your son, he will feel excluded, “different” and one reaction could be that he refuses to talk Greek. Especially when he has no need to talk Greek, because you talk German too and nobody else in his daily life talks Greek. You may want to consider talking German with your son in specific contexts: at school, with his friends etc. This will drastically reduce his exposure time though. One option may be that you and your husband agree to talk Greek as family language. This would make it more valuable for your son and keep the input a bit higher. – Your husband can still talk English to him and you German and Greek.
You may also need to find a way to increase the weekly Greek input if you want your son to be fluent.

This is my next question: what are the language goals you want for your son? Would you like him to be able to talk to family, friends in Greek? Would you like him to be able to read Greek? If yes, who will teach him to read and write in Greek? The higher your expectations are for your son to be fluent and proficient in Greek, the more you’ll need to work on it. – Are you sure there is no Greek family where you’re going to live? You will need some support from other speakers, your son’s peers, maybe even teachers to keep Greek interesting and necessary for your son.

Also, your son knows that you’re perfectly able to speak also the local language and he will wonder why you choose to talk Greek. Aside from that, he will want to fit in with his peers and maybe even prefer talking German once he goes to school. As he will also keep on speaking English, I’d advise to send him to the school you mention. Not only will he have daily German and English input, but he will also find children with a similar cultural and linguistic background.

I’d advise you to make a language plan for the next 3 years and see how it works, how your son and your environment respond. And you, your husband and your extended family will need to agree on the changes too, because you’ll need their support with this.
This all may sound a bit discouraging, but this is not my intention at all! I’d like to offer you my full support and help with this.

With very kind regards, alles Gute und bis bald,

Ute Limacher-Riebold

Ute Limacher-Riebold

Ute Limacher-Riebold is a researcher, writer and an independent Language Consultant and Intercultural Communication Trainer at Ute’s International Lounge. She has a PhD in French literature and a Masters in Bilingualism and is a trained Speech and Language Specialist. Ute combines her knowledge in linguistics and intercultural communication, and her experience as multilingual and multicultural, who managed to successfully adapt to other languages and cultures, Ute made it her mission to translate research into evidence based, easy-to-apply tips for parents, families and practitioners, to use in everyday life. After Italy, France, and Switzerland she now lives in the Netherlands with her Swiss husband and three multilingual and multicultural children. Ute is fluent in English, German, French, Italian, Dutch and Swissgerman, and understands Spanish and Portuguese.


  1. Ira Vonderthann

    Liebe Ute,

    Thank you so much for your detailed reply, I appreciate it greatly! I have to say what you describe did discourage me a little bit, which is not at all your fault, I think you only point out some truths that I knew about but slightly repressed in an optimistic attempt. I have to explain that I grew up with 3 languages also, French being the third, which I learned in a french preschool and school from the age of 2. This is probably partly the reason my aspirations are so high – I know it is feasible and I know the benefits. But in my case the set-up was a little clearer (living in Germany, father spoke German, Mother Greek, school French). Of course the cultural aspect of Greek also representing part of our heritage is equally important.
    I think I like your idea of maybe using it together with my husband at certain times and in specific contexts of the day and also maybe not strictly using it in a public context if I feel it might “marginalise” him – which is what I do now with German but it isn’t that important yet as he doesn’t really speak back and he is too young to feel embarrassed.
    To answer your questions, I would feel fairly comfortable and I think friends would be supportive, but of course there are going to be odd situations.
    He really wouldn’t be exposed to other Greeks in Germany, as I wouldn’t want him to do the Greek school and take away his free time (it is after hours and Saturdays) but we will be coming to Greece and the Grandmothers frequently, I am hoping till he gets into school maybe every 3 months. SO there would be some exposure and incentive in the Greek context.
    What do you think regarding the daycare, is it beneficial to consider a bilingual German-English daycare? Simply because his exposure to English would otherwise also be relatively limited and some more multilingual kids might help him.
    Vielen Dank und auch Dir alles Gute!

  2. Ute

    Liebe Ira,
    I totally understand your situation and I don’t think that your aspirations are high: I also grew up trilingual and wanted my children to grow up multilingual too. But we need a strong support as there will be ups and downs, and in order to keep a certain balance between the languages, we need to work on it constantly. The Greek school you mention could be an option for when he is older though. I know many parents who send their children to immersion schools/courses in the weekend. Of course, it depends on what they do in those schools, if the child enjoys this time etc.
    A German-English daycare would surely be interesting for your son, not only because he’ll get regular input in both languages also outside your family but he’ll probably get to know other children in a similar situation.
    Meanwhile, you could try to get all kinds of books, DVDs, CDs with children’s music etc. in Greek to listen to, watch and read with him. It may seem obvious, but once you’ll visit Greece and he’ll talk with peers, sharing the same stories, songs etc. will help him even more to feel connected to that culture and language.
    Ich wünsche euch allen alles Gute und viel Erfolg! Bitte zögere nicht, weitere Fragen zu stellen, ok?
    Bis zum nächsten Mal,

  3. Ira Vonderthann

    Liebe Ute,

    erstmal herzlichen Dank fuer Deine bisherigen Ratschlaege – es tut wirklich gut zu wissen, dass sich auch andere Menschen in aehnlichen Situationen befinden und man sich austauschen kann! Ich werde sicher Fragen haben, wenn wir in Hamburg ankommen, gerne wuerde ich mich dann nochmal bei Dir melden. Bis dahin alles Gute!

  4. Victor


    My name is Victor, I live in Mexico, I speak Spanish, English and French.
    I have a 7 months little baby, and I want her to speak these three languages. She starts to say some words in the three languages since I speak to her mom in Spanish; I sing her and watch movies and tv. in English, and I speak to her some phrases and words in French ( because I love it and I lived there 2 years). Also before she was born I put her lot of classic music, and songs in these three languages too, and I continue doing it.
    I think Spanish is not a problem, she will learn it automatically. Her mom, relatives and community we live now speak only Spanish. But what should I do with English and French?
    I thought speaking to her just French was a good idea, but no one but me speaks it, plus I have no sources like a relative, TV. or school in French in the place I live now (just internet) in the other hand I sing, watch, and listen just English since in Mexico it is easier to find English sources, like tv. Movies, media, songs, in addition all the toys she has were bought in the U.S. so they say phrases and vocabulary in English. Besides we plan to move to the U.S. in 3 years.
    I’m very confused, I don’t know how to proceed and what strategies should I use?
    I want her to speak French but English in my opinion is going to be very important in her life since we plan to move there in three years.
    I really need your help; I hope you can help me.
    Best regards.

  5. Ute

    Dear Victor,

    You’re already doing a great job with your daughter! I think you perfectly assessed your situation already: you have many English resources and you will maintain her exposure to Spanish once you’ll move to the US, as her mum talks Spanish to her and you have Spanish as your “family language”.
    As for the French: at the moment you say that you would be the only person talking French to her. What will happen when you move to the US? Will you move to a place where her exposure to French will increase or stay the same?
    You ask for a strategy. For your situation at the moment, I would suggest a combined strategy: OPOL (one person one language) at home, when you are alone with her, you speak English with her, when she is alone with your wife, she’ll speak Spanish with her and when you’re all together you may want to speak Spanish. Why Spanish? Because if you consider moving to US in 3 years, she will most probably talk English at daycare and then school, right? Therefore, the exposure to Spanish will diminish – maybe you’ll find other children and families and meet with them regularly in order to keep up the exposure to Spanish too. But on a daily basis, her exposure to Spanish may be only with her mother and you – when you’re all together.
    Also, as far as I understand, it is important for your daughter to speak Spanish to interact with extended family, right?
    What you can do as second and additional strategy, is to choose one day per week where you only talk French to her. And you can start today. Like a “French Monday (or other day of the week”. It would be important to make that day very special: listening to French music (for children, with rhymes she can understand), playing games in French, even cooking in French (my naming the objects, counting etc.). By spending a whole day “immersed” in that language, it can be fun for both of you and you would have the opportunity to build easily her vocabulary. I understand that you don’t have many French resources at the moment. You may find some online (there is for example http://www.poissonrouge.com, and Isabelle Barth has a great facebook site where she shares all sorts of resources: L’atelier de Français – L’école FLAM; I’m sure she can help you with this too!). Of course, you can also order many books, CDs, videos for example via Amazon. But, to be honest, we don’t really need many resources for our children to “learn the world in the other language”: by spending a whole day (or two, this is up to you) immersed in the other language, you will name all the things, tools, feelings etc. that are necessary for your interaction and that is a great start already!
    At the moment, your daughter is very young and interacting with you, hearing you sing songs, talk to her and showing her your passion for the languages you’re talking to her is the most important thing you can do. And please, keep in mind that it takes a lot of patience, persistance and commitment from everyone involved to bring up a bilingual child.
    I hope this answers a bit your questions? If not, or if you have concerns or doubts, please don’t hesitate to contact us.
    Je vous souhaite à tous tout le bon pour que votre fille devienne une vraie bilingue.
    With very kind regards,

  6. Mariella

    Dear Ute,

    I have a similar question to the ones above. I’m planning on getting married next year and want to have a child in the coming years. I was raised in Miami speaking German, Spanish and English, but am now living in Germany and marrying a German who speaks OK English, but no Spanish. I want to raise my future child with all three languages, but dont know how to go about it, especially because my husband-to-be is a native German who wants to speak German to the child. Im not sure if it is even possible to speak to the child in both English and Spanish at the same time. Im just very confused and not sure how to go about it at all. My parents didnt have that problem as I learned English in school, my father is a native Spanish speaker and my mother is a native German speaker. Since both my parents live in the US, it is not possible for my child to be able to learn Spanish just speaking to the grandparents because they are too far away. I would really appreciate any advice.


    • Ute Limacher-Riebold

      Dear Mariella,
      First of all: congratulation for your imminent marriage! You say that your husband in spe is not speaking Spanish. Does he consider learning it? I ask this because this would make it easier for you to speak Spanish and English to your children one day. Usually, when parents don’t share a language, they tend not to use it in the family. But as you would like your child(ren) to grow up trilingual, it would be helpful if your husband would at least understand the basics. He could learn it alongside your child – as many parents do.
      But even if he wouldn’t talk Spanish, you can still raise your child by talking two languages with him/her. It wouldn’t be the classical OPOL situation, one person one language, but you would combine it with T&P, time and place. For example, you would talk Spanish with your child when daddy is not at home and English when you’re all together OR Spanish three or four days per week and English the other ones. This kind of combination can work but needs quite some discipline from you and your surroundings. What you’d also need is to find playgroups in those languages as you’re going to live in Germany. You don’t say where you’re going to live, but there are some cities where you could find playgroups even online already now. Of course, it’s quite early to start searching, but it would make sense because it could help you determine the place you’ll going to live. This applies also to daycares and schools: will there be schools/daycares who offer bilingual education, or who are supportive for bilingual education?
      You can do a lot beforehand but what I would suggest now is to decide together with your husband-to-be, what you feel comfortable with: if he would also accept talking English and German to your child, if he would be ok with having the child talking a language he doesn’t (yet) understand etc. And, if you are going to live close to your family in law: you would also make sure that they support you with this, because you’ll need all the support you can get. It’s not meant in a negative way, but especially when you need to “cover” two foreign languages, you want to make sure that you don’t have to justify and defend your project over and over again.
      I would love to hear your thoughts and, please, keep me updated.
      With very kind regards, mit herzlichen Grüßen – und alles Gute zur bevorstehenden Hochzeit!

  7. Domingo

    First of all I would like to congratulate you for such a wonderful website. It’s very interesting to learn from other parents and your answers to them are very useful and eye opening.

    We have recently moved to the US with our year and a half baby. My wife speaks German to him and I speak Spanish to him. My wife and I speak to each other in English.

    Since he was born we have been very consistent, speaking only in our mother language to him, and only English between us.

    Now in the US, we are looking for daycare/nursery for him and we are not sure what is the best choice, language wise.

    We have the possibility to register him in a German immersion kindergarten, and also we can do the same in Spanish. However, we are concerned that this decision might delay his English, even though is the dominant language in the community.

    Would it be better to go for an English nursery even if it is detrimental for his German or Spanish or it is better to choose the German or Spanish kindergarten?

    Thanks in advance for your advice.


  8. Grigorenko

    I have a similar situation as the Spanish/English/German one above. I am American, but grew up speaking Russian at home with my parents (Russian immigrants) so Russian is technically my first language, although My English is better, since my education was entirely in the US. I now live in France with my French husband and our son and I am fluent in French. I very much want my son to by trilingual like myself, and have been speaking to him in Russian since he was born. His father speaks to him in French. My question is how best to fit in the English? I have a bigger vocabulary in English, and read and sing to him in English, in addition to Russian. I also speak to his father in English when we are all together, although his father doesn’t always respond in English! (He has trouble switching between languages). I also speak English to my son when we are with other English speakers. I have so far been prioritizing Russian because I feel a cultural connection to the language that I want him to have, but I’m concerned about my vocabulary not being as extensive as in English, and that in trying to have him be trilingual, I will just discourage him entirely. He is 19 months and says some words in Russian, but most of his words are in French (daycare is French), and almost no English. Should I insist on English being our family language, and get my husband to speak English to our son when we are all together (but it’s a little awkward for my husband), and continue with Russian on my end (my husband doesn’t understand Russian). Or should I speak to my son in Russian on odd days and English on even days, for example, and let my husband speak French to him all the time? Is a bilingual English/French school really important in this case? If we lived in the US, i think this situation would be easier, but I’m very confused about how to be the bearer of two minority languages! Thanks in advance!

    • Rita

      Take a look at this answer that Maria gave to another question – it might be the best solution for you. If your husband is not comfortable in speaking English with your son, I would recommend that you do not try to make him switch.

      Kind regards,

      • Grigorenko

        Thank you so mich for taking the time to answer, Rita! I indeed stumbled upon Maria’s post yesterday as I was reading the threads, and I loved the idea so much, I decided to try it out right away, starting today! I didn’t really talk to my son about it yet (he seemed a little confused), but I’m pretty confident this a good solution. One question: do you recommend cutting out all interaction in the other language during the two week period of a language? Including songs and books? Up until now, I have always been doing books and songs in both languages interchangeably, but maybe this is confusing? And how about when we are interacting with a English speaking family during the Russian two weeks, or vice versa? Thank you so much for such an informative and helpful site!

        • Rita

          I would stick to the routine as much as possible, including books and songs. However when others are present, speak the language that everyone understands when you speak together. You can still switch to the relevant language when talking directly with your child.

  9. Evelin Suij-Ojeda

    Dear all,
    I need your advise in regards to my situation:
    I am a Spanish native speaker, my husband is a Dutch native speaker. At home we use English to talk to each other.
    We live in The Netherlands which means our baby boy needs to learn Dutch. I want our baby to also speak Spanish so he can communicate with his Venezuelan family. But he also needs to speak English since that’s the language we use at home due to the fact that his father speaks no Spanish and I speak no Dutch yet.
    I am confused in regards of what language to speak to our kid. What we have done so far is that I speak Spanish when my baby and I are alone. My husband speaks Dutch when alone with our kid and we speak in English to the baby when we are together.
    Would this approach confuse our child? What is your recommendation?
    Thanks in advance

    • Maria Babin

      Hello Eve,
      Thanks for your question! I think your language plan is a good one as each parent is modeling his or her mother language (Spanish and Dutch) and you have also chosen a “common family language” (English). I believe this will give balanced exposure to your child (but this also depends on who is the primary caregiver, if one or both parents work outside of the home and the quality of the langue input), but more importantly, I believe your plan will allow your child to have cultural and emotional ties with each of the three languages! Culture and emotion are very important elements when transmitting languages as they allow the child to create a tangible tie with each language, thus increasing his or her motivation to use the language in question!
      You also have created clear distinctions between the languages (Mom speaks Spanish, Dad speaks Dutch, we speak English when we’re all together) and this helps to avoid confusion for the child.
      I think you’re doing great! And remember that you can and should re-evaluate as you go along, making adjustments as you deem necessary. Just as a reference, here is the way one family re-evaluated their language needs: http://www.trilingualmama.com/adaptingyourfamilybilingualplan/
      Best of luck to you!

  10. Akiko Frischhut

    Hi All

    My husband and I are expecting our first child, a boy in June. He is Scottish, I am German and we live in rural Japan working at an international university. We only moved here last year and cannot really speak Japanese, although we have started to learn it (I speak a tiny bit, my husband basically nothing.). We speak in English together, and our social circle is recruited from the university where everyone speaks English. I am actually half-Japanese but grew up in Germany and my parents did not raise me bilingually, something that I always regretted. So I am very happy to think of my boy as learning all three languages. Plan is that my husband will speak English to him, me German, and my husband and me will speak in English. My husband speaks neither German nor Japanese. The surroundings will be entirely Japanese. I am a bit concerned for two reasons. First, none of us can speak the language he will be immersed in in his social context. We were considering to have a nanny for a few afternoons a week from three months onwards, but if me and my husband already speak different languages to him and the nanny then immediately a third, will that be too much at such early age? Unfortunately, here in Akita there are literally zero non-Japanese care/nursery/school options we can choose from.
    Second, will it be possible for my son to learn German? Is the one-parent-one language enough if he has no other exposure at all? Even when we go back to Europe, we do not really spend much time around German speakers since we speak English with all our common friends and I usually only go and see old friends/mother and brother for xmas.
    I was just wondering what you make of this. Should we at least wait with the Japanese exposure until he goes to the nursery (10 months or maybe one year)? Any good advice about German? I know the best thing would be for us to learn fluent Japanese asap and for my husband to learn German as well, but let’s be realistic, we have very demanding academic jobs and that won’t happen in any near future (although of course we try as best as we can with Japanese at least). I am really not sure how to go about this, so any advice would be great. Thanks!!! Akiko.

    • Rita

      Dear Akiko,

      Thank you for your question, which we will answer through a separate Q&A. To be fair to everyone, we answer the questions in the order they arrive, so your query will be featured in the Q&A to be published on the website on Sunday the 28th of May. Check the main page on that date!

      In the meanwhile, should you be interested in individual family language coaching, please let me know and I will send you some details.

      Kind regards

      • Akiko Frischhut

        Does this mean that my question will only be visible by then or that it will be answered at this date?


        • Rita Rosenback

          Hi Akiko – the answer to your question will be composed that week and published on the mentioned day.
          Kind regards,

  11. Wioletta

    Dear multilingual parenting team

    My name is Wioletta and I am a Pole who has lived in England for 12 years now. My partner is Scottish. We have a 3 month old daughter to whom I speak exclusively in Polish and he does in English and Scottish. I am wondering about introducing German to her as I hold a degree in teaching German. I tried speaking it to her before but it felt quite unnatural. I worry that I will overwhelm her with the third (maybe fourth, if counting Scottish as a separate language?) language. I am passionate about foreign languages, however I do not have any German speaking friends or relatives in Germany (as opposed to relatives in Poland) All I do is listening to German radio and reading German books these days. Additionally I will not be going back to work for several years and only focus on raising her and hopefully her sibling. We live in a small town in England. My partner speaks neither Polish nor German. What would be the best method of teaching her Polish and German in your opinion?

    Thank you for your time.
    Kind regards

    • Rita

      Dear Wioletta

      Thank you for your question which will be featured in the Q&A section on Thursday the 7th of January. You will find a link to the Q&A on the homepage on that day.

      Kind regards

      • Wioletta

        Dear Rita

        Do you mean Sunday the 7th of January?

        Kind Regards

        • Rita

          Dear Wioletta,

          yes, sorry about the mistake. The publication date is Sunday the 7th of January (this weekend).

          Thank you,


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