Q&A: How to choose the languages for a trilingual baby in a multilingual family?

by | May 26, 2016 | Babies, Coaches, Q&A The trilingual+ child, Rita R | 0 comments

16-05-26 QA

Question 1


I found your website and thought perhaps you could help/advise. I am pregnant with my first child and my husband and I are already thinking about what languages to speak after the baby is born. I am English, and I grew up in France so I have two mother tongues, English and French (for me it was ALWAYS English at home and French at school). My husband is from Northern Ireland and also speaks fluent French.

We are now living in Germany and last year we started speaking French together because my husband wants to keep practicing his French whilst we’re in Germany. I am not really concerned about German because he/she will most likely pick it up because we live in Germany. But I would like him/her to speak English and French fluently. Also, we aren’t sure if we will be staying in Germany long-term as I would like to go back to France at some point. Do you have any suggestions on what languages to speak at home and by whom?

I have a few thoughts but not sure what’s best:

Option 1:
Mum with child: French; Dad with child: English
Mum with dad: French; As a family: English
School: German; TV/books: English/French

Option 2:
Mum with child: English; Dad with child: English
Mum with dad: French; As a family: English
School: German; TV/books: French/English

Option 3:
Mum with child: English; Dad with child: English
Mum with dad: French; As a family: English
School: German/French (there are some international schools but we can’t be sure we’ll get a place); TV/books: French/English

Many thanks,

Question 2

Dear Multilingual Parenting Team,

My husband and I are expecting our first child. I am of French nationality, however, I grew up in the United States (speaking French at home and English at school) from the ages of 3 months to 6 years old and later on lived in the United Kingdom (where I studied and worked in English) for 14 years from the ages of 17 to 31. I consider myself to be a native French and English speaker, although I now feel more comfortable in English as I have spoken it more often over recent years.

My husband is Italian. When we initially met, we spoke English together for approximately one year. We then lived in the UK together for four years and spoke almost exclusively Italian to one another during that time. I am now also fluent in Italian. My husband speaks fluent English and good French.

We moved to Italy nine months ago and have continued speaking mainly Italian to one another (although we occasionally switch to English and, more rarely, to French). We are considering the different language combinations to use once our daughter is born, as we would like her to grow up speaking our three languages.

Is there a ‘best’ way to go about this (e.g. parents switching to permanent English when they are together and, the rest of the time, using the ‘one parent one language’ approach, or teaching her languages in different stages)? Would it be confusing for the child to hear two languages (English and French) from one parent and the community language (Italian) the rest of the time (i.e. with her father, when both parents are together and in the community)

Should our approach change depending on whether we decide to send our child to an English-speaking or French-speaking school in the future?

Many thanks in advance and best regards,


Dear Emilie and Julie,

Thank you for your questions – it is a lovely dilemma to have when you can/have to choose between the languages you want to pass on to your children. You are both doing the right thing by thinking about this in advance and planning who will speak what in the family. I will start with some general thoughts about raising a trilingual child and end with your individual responses.

When raising a child to become trilingual, the first thing to pay attention to is the amount of exposure the child will get to each language. Secondly, parents need to consider whether there will be a genuine need for the child to speak the different languages and how to maintain this need going forward.

When parents are in the fortunate position of being balanced bilinguals, i.e. they feel comfortably fluent in more than one language, they have a choice of which language they speak to their child. If the choice is between the community language and a minority language, my recommendation would be to go for the minority language, as the child will sooner or later learn the community language anyway.

If the choice is between two minority languages, then the choice is not as straightforward. My preference would perhaps be to choose the language to which the child will have less exposure. The decision, however, depends on other factors as well: How much time will the parent be able to spend with the child? Will there be any other support for the language? Will the parent be able to stay consistent in the use of the minority language (the less exposure, the greater the importance of consistency)?

There is however also the choice of no choice, i.e. a parent can speak two languages with a child, alternating for example weekly or bi-weekly. If both parents are fluent in the same languages, they can also go for the two parents, two languages option (2P2L), which in research (Annick de Houwer: Bilingual First Language Acquisition (MM Textbooks)) has been found to be as effective as the one parent, one language (OPOL) approach, providing that there is roughly an equal amount of exposure to both languages.

Usually parents fairly quickly find out what works in their family – the trickiest question usually concerns which language the family should speak when everyone is together. If one of the parents is monolingual, his or her language will naturally become the family languages. Quite often the language the parents have spoken between them before their first child was born also turns into the common language of the family. In trilingual settings, this language is often neither of the languages that each parent speaks with the child. In a situation where the family has moved to another country, the community language is the fourth language for the child.

When parents have more than one language in common, and they are both fine with using either of the languages, the deciding factor when selecting the family language could again depend on which language there will be less exposure to. Which of the minority languages is most in need of a boost? Another thing to take into consideration is which language the child will go to nursery or school in. If the education language is going to be one of the minority languages, the child will become fluent in it and the family could opt for the other minority language of the family as the one they speak when everyone is together.

Since there are so many variables, there is no one-fits-all solution for selecting the languages to speak directly with a child and when together as a family. Also, whatever the choice is, this is something that can be modified if the circumstances change. It is vital to be flexible and adjust the chosen approach for example when moving to another country or when the amount of exposure time to a language drastically changes due to some other life event.

Dear Emilie,

Exciting times! Wishing you all the best with your new baby!

Looking at the options you put down, you seem to have decided on having English as your family language, that you and your husband will speak French with each other and your husband will speak English with your baby. The remaining question is whether you will speak French or English with your child.

I agree with you, that if you live in Germany, then this language will automatically become one your child’s strongest languages. This may however change depending on if and when you move to France, unless you can find a school where German is supported in France. By what I read, your move is however not certain, so I would not take this into consideration at this point. Instead, cross that bridge if/when you get to it and adjust your language strategy accordingly.

If you stay in Germany, then for your child to learn French, you would need to use the language with him or her. Even if your little one hears French when you and your husband speak it, this would most likely not be enough exposure for your child to become an active speaker of French. For this, interaction in the language is needed. Also, if you were not to move to France, and the possibilities of attending a French/English international school are unsure, then the chances are that your child would learn English and German, but the French knowledge would be receptive, i.e. only understanding, but not speaking.

Based on the above, I would suggest that you stick to French with your baby, your husband speaks English with him or her. It is fine to have English as the common language when you are all together and have French as the language between you and your husband.

Dear Julia

Congratulations on the happy family occasion!

First of all, I want to assure you that you will not confuse your child by using different languages, independent of which combination you go for. Several languages in the family does not confuse a child. Yes, small children who simultaneously learn several languages will almost always mix their languages – this is a perfectly normal phase of their language development, but they will soon figure it out. They may take a bit longer to say the first words and string together full sentences, but this is not a delay, just a difference in the order in which multilingual children’s language develops. Research has shown that by the age of five, they catch up with their monolingual peers.

I presume you are going to stay in Italy? If this is the case, then Italian is the language you need to worry least about. Your little one will learn Italian from your husband and it will most likely become your child’s strongest language when it’s time for nursery or school. Even if you were to find an English- or Spanish-speaking school, Italian would most likely still be the dominant language

Taking this into consideration, it would be beneficial if you could increase the English exposure at home by using it as your family language – providing your husband would agree to this. As his French is not as strong as your English, this seems to be the best option for the common language.

For your child to learn French, the exposure needs to come from you. I know that you write that you feel slightly more comfortable in English at the moment, but I am sure once you get back into the habit of speaking French, reading books, singing songs etc. it will quickly feel as natural as it did when you were younger. Since it is unsure whether your child will have the opportunity to go to a French-speaking school, and if it is important to you that he or she learns French, then I would recommend that you choose French as the language you use when you speak directly with him or her.

I wish you both all the best with your trilingual babies – please do let us know if you have had a boy or a girl, and do ask any follow-up questions below!

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.


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