Q&A: How to choose the family language strategy for passing on three languages?

by | Aug 10, 2017 | Coaches, Q&A Choosing the right family language strategy, Q&A The trilingual+ child, Ute Limacher-Riebold | 1 comment

How to choose the family language strategy for passing on three languages?



Dear Rita and all Family Language Coaches,

First of all congratulations and many thanks for your website, such a great resource!

Like many of your visitors me and my husband have diverse international backgrounds and are currently considering the best language constellation for when our son is born later this year.

My husband is German and we live in Germany at the moment. He is also fluent in English. He would like to speak to our son in German. I’m Italian and can speak it well but not perfectly. I grew up abroad and attended an English-speaking school and University so English is my best language. My level of German is fluent, slightly below my Italian. My husband can’t speak Italian.

I would love my son to be able to speak all three languages so he can keep the Italian heritage and converse with everyone from both our families (some ‘only’ speak one of the three languages). We are wondering, however, if exposure to three languages from birth may be too much and whether it’s best to stick to two and introduce a third when he’s older?

The options we’re considering and would be very grateful for your advice on are the following:

Option 1
Mum with child: Italian
Dad with child: German
Mum with dad: English
As a family English School: German

Option 2
Mum with child: English
Dad with child: German
Mum with dad: English
As a family: English School: German

Option 3
Mum with child: Italian
Dad with child: German
Mum with Dad: German & English
Family language: German
School: German

Any help much appreciated!



Dear Sara,

I hope you don’t mind me telling you that we had a similar situation with our son and started with three languages in the family from day one (Italian, German, Swissgerman), and it was no problem at all.

I would say that as long as you and your husband feel comfortable with the languages you choose to talk to your son and among you as a couple, I don’t see what should go “wrong”.

I am impressed on how thorough you planned the three options! It seems to me that you have read all the articles on this site to find the right family language strategy and I guess you already have a preference for one of them? Anyway, all three options you’ve listed are very interesting and I will share my thoughts about every single one here below.

Option 1

You mention that your Italian is not as “spontaneous” and not your strongest language, but I understand that your part of the family talks mainly (or exclusively?) Italian, therefore it would be a need for your son to learn Italian in order to communicate with family, right? – If you choose this option, I would ask you to see if you feel comfortable with speaking Italian to your son. You may still know some nursery rhymes, stories (and still have maybe Italian storybooks?) that can help you with this?

Having English as a family language is a great idea, but how will he learn English if nobody talks it with him one-on-one? And when would the “family language” happen? When you are all in one room together? What if one person leaves the room and comes in again: would you then switch from one language to the other in a sentence?

I would recommend using one of the parents’ languages as family language.

I suppose you want your son to learn English at least to some extent, right? He will end up understanding it even if none of you would directly talk English to him.

Option 2

This option might be slightly easier for you as you seem to feel more comfortable talking English, right? At this point I might ask: how would you transmit Italian to your son? Would you consider introducing it later? When? And for what purpose?

Using English as family language makes way more sense in this option than in option 1 and as the dominant language where you live is German, it would support the “minority” language at home.

Option 3

Is very similar to option 1, with the difference that you will switch between English and German with your husband and you choose German as family language.

I can imagine that you and your husband switch between German and English anyway, which is totally normal in multilingual families.

I would advise though to choose one language to talk to each other in front of your son as you want him to stick to English with you and German with your husband. I always ask parents to think about the interaction at the dinner table: who speaks what with whom?

Choosing German as family language, having your husband talking German to your son and the school being in German makes me I worry a bit about English and Italian.


What you need to decide first is to find out which option is more natural and feasible for you and your husband. Which option would require you less effort? Raising a child with multiple languages requires a good plan, consistency and commitment. And please consider also the needs you, your husband and your son have to talk these languages regularly.

I see that Italian might be the “weakest” language in these scenarios: who else would provide regular input in Italian for your son? Are there friends, children, family who would talk to him on a regular basis?

What about English? Will there be other persons in your environment talking English with him?

I ask this because at some point he will need to talk these languages with more than only his parents. Children who talk the same language and people he sees regularly will be important for him to maintain the languages in the future.

Last but not least, I would ask you to think about the expectations you have concerning the language proficiency of your son. These are long term goals and I am perfectly aware that it is very early for that. Many parents want that their children become “perfectly fluent” in all the languages, but you know from your very own experience that this is not realistic. Which are the languages that are the most important for your son to become fluent in? I suppose German – as it is the school language and the language of part of his family. What about Italian? English? Will your son learn English or Italian at school at some point?

I’m sorry to ask all these questions, but my intent is to make you think about the consequences of your decision. In five and ten years from now, what would you like your son to talk (write and read)? If you can answer all these questions, you will find out which option is the best for you and your son.

Please let me know how what you decided.

I wish you all the best. Alles Gute e in bocca al lupo.

With kind regards,

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 Comment

  1. Esmeralda

    Hi, I think it’s a really good question and it looks like there are more of us who are teaching our children 3 languages then I thought. Mostly people would look at me strangely when they ask what language my son speaks And I give them 3.

    The answer is absolutely spot on as well and I love how you gave specific feedback on all the options. I can also take some learning away from that even though my situation is slightly different. The questions you raising are great aswell because it’s not a straight forward issue.

    I would like to share some of my experience to encourage you and maybe avoid some of the pitfalls.

    My son is now 4y old and will be starting school in September. From before he was born we had our language strategy worked out and we both felt comfortable with it. We live in England, my husband speaks Arabic, French (fluently) and English (good). I speak Afrikaans & English (fluently) and we can only communicate with each other in English. To be honest we didn’t actually think of a combined family language at all. We were very strict about me speaking Afrikaans only to our son and him speaking Arabic only, we planned to introduce French later at school age depending how it goes.

    This worked well until my son was 2.5y and started nursery. He didn’t really speak any language yet But had 1/2 word sentences in Arabic and Afrikaans and he picked up quickly that there was a difference, he would only answer us in our own languages he didn’t mix it. But he spoke no English at all although he understood some instructions.

    For the first 6 months in nursery we continued like this, by this time he had made no progress with his speech in any language But his understanding in all 3 languages increased rapidly He could respond appropriately to more complex requests and instructions. As he was now 3y old and not talking, he was referred to speech and language and they gave some brilliant strategies although it was about improving his English and it did. At the start of the program we agreed my husband will continue with Arabic only and I started introducing English in order to fully benifit from the program and get him ready for school.

    He is now doing so well and likely to be discharge after one more session in school. English is now his dominant language his Arabic continues to improve slightly His sees his dads family more so have more oppertunities to speak and hear from others and he will be attending Arabic Saturday classes from next year. In all this my language Afrikaans has suffered the most and I feel it was a big sacrifice. We agreed after 1 year of intensively working on his Speech and language skills, I will now switch back to Afrikaans full time. It’s not easy as I have become used to speaking to him in English and when I do speak to him in Afrikaans he answers me back in English. He only sees my family once a year so not enough exposure.

    About 2 months ago I had an idea , I used the exact same strategies and practice sessions we learned from his program and did it all in Afrikaans , with this my mum sent me more Afrikaans children’s books from home and he watches Afrikaans cartoons and I’m trying to meet up with more local South Africans to increase exposure. This has helped him progress so much he sometime spontaneously use my language again but still long way to go.

    Our family goals were always for him to only be Fluent in English and Arabic (reading &writting) and Afrikaans was to continue his heritage and be able to comfortably communicate with his family (some of whom only speak Afrikaans). If I could do it over again, I would feel less anxious to get him school ready and only do his daily home practice sessions in English and continue the rest of the day with exclusive Afrikaans. I’ve lost a year and we paying for it now, however I don’t think it’s ever too late to get back on track.

    My advice would be, be ready for people to act like you harming your child by insisting on your 3 languages while you can clearly see they can’t speak any language anyway, the pressure intensifies around 3y .

    Be ready for the fact that it looks like your child is making no progress at all, but check for yourself his understanding in those languages. What the program tought me is that speech is the last step , they need to be able to pay attention, and understand and Speech will come later and even more so for our kids.

    Most importantly just enjoy it, it is hard work sometimes but it’s so much fun seeing their world expand and they do take you with them. When he sees I don’t understand something in Arabic as I’m very limited He will tell me Mama this… means that… And he will even correct my pronounciation. Keep in mind his only 4y now and didn’t speak 1 word this time last year.


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