Q&A: How to choose the languages to speak, read and for media in a trilingual family?

by | Aug 18, 2016 | Coaches, Maria Babin, Q&A Choosing the right family language strategy, Q&A The trilingual+ child, Toddlers | 0 comments


How to choose the languages to speak, read and for media in a trilingual family?


Dear Coaches,

Thank you for such an amazing informative website which has helped me better understand the world of learning more than one language that I grew up in and that I have taught in. During the past fifteen years I have taught young four-five year olds in bilingual schools in Brazil and now I am caring for my two-month newborn and have questions on which are the best strategies to support my plan in guiding him to become trilingual. After reading lots of questions from other families that are similar to my situation I have some ideas but also have some questions.

I was born in the United States and when I was two years old my father was transferred to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. I attended the American School and grew up bilingual, learning both English and Portuguese simultaneously.

I married an Uruguayan who grew up trilingual, with Spanish as his majority and Portuguese and English as his minority languages which he speaks very well. When we met, we spoke in Portuguese with each other. I understand Spanish and am able to communicate but with grammatical mistakes. Since our son was born, four months now, my husband speaks Spanish and I answer in Portuguese and vice versa. When we are alone he speaks Portuguese or mixes both. We live in Uruguay and I am a full time mom at least until our son is two years old.

My concern is how to maintain both minority languages, Portuguese and English when I am the one responsible for introducing and maintaining them. Both are family languages for me: English being my biological family but my parents died when I was young and Portuguese being the family language after my dad married my Brazilian stepmother before he died.

My plan to begin with is OPOL, where my husband speaks Spanish and I speak Portuguese. I chose Portuguese first since it is more emotional for me and currently more present in my life. Also because I plan to send him to a bilingual school where he will learn English. I am not worried about the Spanish since that will be his majority language having both a parent/dad’s family speaking and being his country language. My Brazilian family comes to spend summers here in Uruguay and we usually go to Rio for a couple of weeks during the year combined with me speaking would be his exposure to Portuguese.

English will be a curriculum language for our son where I will need to support with at home. I also have family who lives in the US and I would need to make an extra effort to skype as much as possible. our son will attend school here in Punta which makes me more worried about his English aquisition. This is because the structure of schools here in Punta is half day (8-12) in Spanish and half day (1pm-5pm) in English where children only begin English at the age of five. Specialist classes are all in Spanish regardless if they are during English time. I worked in two schools since we moved here and it is not as effective as the schools I worked in Brazil where children (mainly Brazilians) are immersed in English all day starting at the age of three. We are both aligned that he should learn English but I am not sure what my role would look like to make sure he becomes fluent in English without forgetting his Portuguese.

My questions:

1. What language should my husband and I speak to each other? Should the language be the one we each will be speaking to our son since we both understand both Spanish and Portuguese. I have recently read that it would be ideal if Dad also spoke in Portuguese when we are all together since that is a minority language but he believes it is important to be a role model for our son with his native language but would it help if dad spoke Portuguese to me and Spanish to our son?

2. I read in a previous post that it is always alright to read books in different languages. Considering both Portuguese and English will be his minority languages when is it alright to introduce books in English?

3. Can cartoons/songs in English help to begin to familiarize him with the language? What are your thoughts? If so, when and how much exposure?

4. Once he officially starts his exposure to English at school at the age of five, how can I support him with his English and at the same time with Portuguese so he will not forget it?

I appreciate you taking the time with all my questions and look forward to your insights.

Best regards,


Dear Meghan,

Thank you for the detailed email of your background and current situation. And thanks for the specific questions as well! I’ll attempt to answer each one below.

My answers:

1. As far as the common language that you choose between you and your spouse, my advice is to choose the language(s) that feel most comfortable to you and that allow you to communicate with each other at ease. If you have established your relationship in Portuguese and you feel the most comfortable in that language, then you should continue. As long as you spend quality time speaking Portuguese for you and Spanish for your husband with your son, that should provide him with sufficient input to progress in both languages. Will it impact him to hear you speaking a different language to each other? Most likely, yes! If he hears you speaking Portuguese to each other, it will reinforce his listening comprehension, but it will also create an additional emotional attachment to the language, especially if you and your spouse have a strong relationship and communicate well with each other. He may very well develop an affinity for the Portuguese language because of these circumstances. But this will be largely counterbalanced by the fact that you live in Uruguay and that Spanish is the majority language there. On the other hand, if you feel that it would contribute to the cohesiveness and harmony in your family to have a common family language (Portuguese), then that is okay, too. But in my opinion, the language you speak with your significant other should be a language you are both the most comfortable in so that you are at ease to express yourselves as freely as possible.

Just for perspective, I thought I’d share my own family experience. I am Hispanic/American and my husband is French and we live in France with our four trilingual children.I speak English and Spanish with my children (I’ll explain how a bit later) and my husband speaks French with them. But, my husband and I speak English to each other because that’s the language we met and fell in love in! Our children are 15, 12, 10 and 3. Their strongest language is French (the majority language), followed by English (the language my husband and I speak to each other), with their weakest language being Spanish (and I will briefly address this concern a bit later as well). To read more about our trilingual set-up click, please check this article.

2. Yes! I am an advocate of this theory! Books in my home are read in the language they are written in and this as soon as you start reading to your baby, meaning very young! In my opinion, reading the actual language is much more authentic than trying to provide translations. In addition, it helps children make a connection between the words on a page and language. This helps them to make a distinction between languages and also moves them towards emergent literacy, meaning that they learn more quickly to associate the symbols on the page with words. These skills are important bedrock foundations for literacy and bilingualism. To learn more about some of my tips for reading with a young child, click here.

3. Yes, cartoons and songs can be a definite help. I would side more with singing with your child than with cartoons although they can be an excellent resource as well. Keep in mind that children learn best through human interaction, which is why reading or singing with your child is more effective. But cartoons are fun and captivate their attention and can be a wonderful way to reinforce what you are teaching your child. I would say sing, play, read with your child as much as possible, but make it a natural part of your everyday living. The more varied your activities, the more opportunities for language exchanges and the greater the possibilities for learning new vocabulary. In our own home we try to limit the electronics (TV, computer, tablets, phones, etc.), but it is difficult to do in this ever emerging technological world we live in, so it’s hard for me to be quantitative. What I can say is the more you stay busy outdoors, or in the kitchen cooking together, or in the playroom playing, reading and singing, the less time there will be to turn to electronics. And that is a good thing, in my opinion. Use cartoons and other media sparingly as a supplement to your teaching.

Also, you mentioned Skype (which is a very acceptable form of media, especially when it’s to communicate with family and friends in one of the target languages!) and trips to the United States to support your minority language. These are activities that I wholeheartedly applaud and encourage for multilingual families! I think this will be especially important for you as you are concerned about how to maintain the minority languages, as your child grows, knowing that children often adopt the majority language fairly quickly. You can read about our most recent experience here.

4. Now, you mentioned earlier that you wanted to support the English language in your home. I think this will become more clear as time goes by as there are so many different factors that can affect language acquisition. Keep in mind that the best family language plan is one that is evaluated and adjusted as time goes by. But if you want to have a rough plan for the future that allows you to project yourself into your multilingual journey, that is a good thing. If you wanted to support both Portuguese and English, you could adopt a system similar to what I do with my children in our home. As I mentioned earlier, we live in France and my husband speaks French with our children, so the two minority languages are up to me! I speak both minority languages with my children but I use time as a separator. We spend two weeks immersed in English and two weeks immersed in Spanish. We’ve been using this system for 10 years now and it works well for our family, but is not necessarily the right thing for everyone. You can use the link above to get more details about how we organize our system. You can read it and decide if it’s something that could work for you or if you can find some way to adapt the system to your own liking.

As a final word of advice, I believe one of the most important things when raising multilingual children is seeking balance between the languages. Once you have decided what kind of fluency you would like your child to achieve (oral? written? both? basic knowledge? native fluency? etc. and in which languages?), then you will need to regularly assess your progress and make adjustments to allow more or less input in the individual languages in order to achieve the desired fluency. And don’t forget that love and enthusiasm are important ingredients that will allow all your efforts to go a long, long way!

Best of luck to you. And please don’t hesitate to write again if I can clarify any points for you.



Maria Babin

Maria Babin

Maria, born and raised in the United States to a Peruvian father and a Mexican mother, is today the proud mama of four trilingual kiddos. She loves their multilingual, multicultural lifestyle, living in a suburb of Paris, France, taking family vacations to the United States and eating Mexican tacos. She graduated from Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah in 2000 with a Bachelor’s degree in French, completed undergraduate coursework in early childhood second language acquisition as well as graduate coursework in French literature. She taught beginning French at BYU before beginning her own in-home multilingual experiment. She blogs at Trilingual Mama in a quest to explore and exploit the secrets that lead to a family’s multilingual successes, including research, practical tips, resources and real life.



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