Q&A: How to adjust the family language strategy when a trilingual child’s majority language changes?

by | Jan 28, 2016 | Babies, Coaches, Family life, Practical advice, Q&A The trilingual+ child, Rita R | 1 comment



I am Mari, I am Italian and I live in Finland with my Finnish husband and our 10 months old daughter. My husband and I met in the UK where we lived for about 10 years until we moved to Finland 2 years ago. We have been always communicating in English and although I am studying Finnish we want to keep this as the main language spoken between the two of us.

We have decided that we would try to raise our child trilingual because, although we live in Finland, we communicate in English at home, and we believe that being fluent in English will be extremely useful for her in the future. We are following the OPOL strategy, with the exception that when we (my husband and I) are together talking both to our daughter, we switch to English. We try to be as consistent as possible and follow all the advice found on this blog and we also read a lot on the matter.

My doubts and questions come from the fact that, because of her daycare and education pathway, her majority language will change over the time. At the moment she is at home with me (therefore mostly exposed to Italian) but I will soon go back to work and she will first spend a couple months with her dad at home and then she will start to go to a regular Finnish nursery (hence the majority language will become Finnish). When she will be four, she will start attending an English kindergarten and after that a school where most of the teachings are done in English (the majority language will then become English). How should this affect our strategy?

Can we adapt/change the amount of time spent speaking a certain language within the family based on that? Or Is it going to be confusing for her? For example, when her majority language will become Finnish would it be OK if I spoke only Italian with her (including when my husband is with us) and my husband speak more English at home?

I am wondering whether she will lose the Italian language at some stage because I am the only person speaking it to her on a regular basis. Of course we try to visit friends and family as much as possible and have chats over the pc, but I am wondering if that would be enough. My expectations about the Italian are I think realistic. To me it would be enough that she had a basic knowledge of the language that would allow her to communicate with family and friends and I am certainly not expecting that she will master, for example, written Italian.

Thank you for your help!


Dear Mari

Thank you for the question and the detailed description of your trilingual family’s language environment. To recap, at the moment your daughter is exposed to Italian from you, Finnish from her dad and some English when you are all together. However, this will change when she first spends some time with the Finnish-speaking dad and then goes to a nursery and she will be surrounded by Finnish most of the day. From four years onwards she will first attend kindergarten then school in English. As you live in Finland she will still get a lot of exposure to Finnish (in addition to speaking to her dad).

Based on the above there will be enough exposure in Finnish and English, and you are correct in planning ahead how to make sure that she will hear enough Italian so that she will be able to communicate in your family’s language in the future.

To the question whether she will get confused by the changes in the majority language for her, the answer is ‘no, she will not’. There might be some time during the transitions where she might choose not to speak too much or show a preference to a certain language, but she will quickly adjust to the new language setting.

If your husband would be okay with you speaking only Italian with your daughter, even when he is present, I would certainly recommend that you make this change. Italian is the language she will need most help in, and making it a habit to always speak Italian with her now (yes, I would suggest you start this straight away) will make it easier to stick to it with her when the other languages become more dominant in her life.

Since she is going to attend kindergarten and school in English, I see no need to increase the exposure to English at home. She will still hear you speak it with each other and even if she were not to be fluent when she starts kindergarten, she will pick it up very quickly thanks to the knowledge she already has.

I have full confidence in that you will be able to pass on Italian to your daughter, especially if you drop English as a common language with her. Read her a lot of books, sing Italian songs together and have fun in your language. As soon as she has the patience to communicate online, set up regular video calls with relatives in Italy to maximise the exposure. My daughters heard their father’s language only for him, and they both picked it up (he was working full time as well) – so I know it can be done.

Wishing you all the best in your quest to raise your daugher to be trilingual!

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.

1 Comment

  1. Mari

    Thank you very much Rita, your answer is hugely helpful for us!


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