Q&A: How to choose the common language in a multilingual family?

by | Jun 30, 2016 | Coaches, Family life, Rita R | 1 comment

How to choose the common language in a multilingual family?



I would love to get some advice from someone in the same situation because it has been a little bit messy at home.

We have a one-year-old, we live in Ireland but his daddy is Turkish and I’m Spanish. I speak with him in Spanish, his daddy speaks with him in Turkish and we talk with each other in English. Never change even if we have English speakers around or if we are all sitting together. We have all many languages on the table.

My question is, should we talk just English when we are all together or with another people and stabilize English as main language at home or continue to use our native language? I can not imagine how our conversation will be in the future.

Thank you very much!


Hello Eva,

Thank you for your question – it is a conundrum many a multilingual family grapples with, so you are not alone!

Since you are living in Ireland, English will become your son’s majority language as soon as he starts nursery or school. You have two minority languages you are passing on to your son (Turkish and Spanish), so to maximise the exposure to each of them, it is beneficial to speak as little as possible English to him directly.

English is the language you and your husband speak with each other, so English will of course always be present in your home (my presumption here is that neither of you speak the other’s language well enough to make either Spanish or Turkish the family language). However, if both you keep speaking your mother tongues with your son, each one of you will also pick up a bit of the other’s language.

My recommendation would be to continue what you are doing – research has shown that the chances of a child becoming bilingual diminish significantly if a minority language parents readily switches to the majority language when speaking with the child. Read more about this in my article on one parent, one language (OPOL).

Your son will pick up an understanding of English, even though you do not speak the language with him. He will be hearing it in the home, in the community and on media – so he will not be completely “shut out” from the discussions between you and your husband. Many parents have reported that what they thought was a “secret language” between them, sooner than they expected was understood by their children.

I can see that it is hard to imagine how future family conversations would unfold, but based on my own and many other multilingual families experience, you will find the way that suits you all. We had three languages on the go in the family all the time when my girls were small. We also got used to asking as soon as we didn’t understand something – so yes, there will be some translating involved at least initially.

Make sure you discuss this with your husband to agree that you are both comfortable with the thought that there may be moments when you do not understand something that is being said in family conversations and that you are both okay to ask and translate.

Good luck with your 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.

1 Comment

  1. Lillian Ragnarsson

    Thank you for sharing! This is very helpful.

    I am Chinese and my husband is Icelandic. We live in New Zealand and we all speak English.
    My big girl is already 5 years old and just started going to school.
    I have been speaking to her in Chinese a lot of the time, but she more or less replies in English and sometimes tells me that she doesn’t understand what I say and even gets irritated. What can I do to change this situation?

    I am running a Bilingual Baby Chinese Activity group here in Christchurch and some mums have told me that this happens to them as well. It stops mums speaking Chinese to their kids! It would be wonderful if you could give us some advice about how to deal with our kids when they refuse to speak the minor language to the parent.

    Many thanks!


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