Q&A: How to cope with multiple languages in a family?

by | May 21, 2015 | Coaches, Practical advice, Q&A Choosing the right family language strategy, Rita R | 13 comments


My wife and I are having a baby, we are truly excited but we are scared about the language in how to educate our child. We are of different nationalities, Portuguese and Russian, we live in Germany (since one year) and our common language is English (our German language is still developing).’

We have been reading about bi-language parenting, but in our case it’s a bit of a mess, at school our child should speak German, most of the day he will be surrounded with German. At home, we both want to pass on our language (Portuguese and Russian). However, between my wife and me we only speak English.

What should we do? How many languages can we honestly hope to raise our child in? Also, how to cope with the fact that I don’t speak Russian and will be never to have insight on their conversations.

Should we force ourselves to learn perfect German and have that as a common language, or should I learn Russian (and my wife Portuguese). Should we move to another country like UK where at least we can all have a common language?

Please help,


Dear Alvaro,

Thank you for your message and congratulations on the happy family-addition-to-be!

First of all, please don’t be scared about the language situation – instead be excited about the prospect that your child will grow up to speak many languages! Based on your family language setup this will most certainly be the case. As you are planning ahead and thinking about the options in advance, this gives me even more confidence that you will successfully raise your little boy or girl to become fluent in several languages.

Also, your case is not “a bit of a mess” – you would be surprised to discover how many migrant families are in a similar situation as you are! As you rightly state, your child will learn German (presuming you stay in the country) at nursery or by the latest at school, so you need not worry about the German part of the equation. You don’t have to quickly become fluent German for the sake of making it the common language of the family, I would actually discourage you (not from learning it, but) from making it your home language. The reason for this is that once your child gets more exposed to German, the possibility that he or she would avoid Russian and/or Portuguese in favour of German when speaking with both of you would be at lot higher if German were to be one of the languages you use at home. This would make it more difficult for you to maintain the level of Russian/Portuguese exposure.

Both of you want to speak your mother tongues with your child (which I fully agree with), so your strategy will be a variation of the minority language at home (mL@H) strategy, with the modification that you actually have two minority languages in the home. In this scenario, consistency in language use is more important than ever, so make sure your child gets exposed to both Russian and Portuguese as much as possible. If one of you will be a stay-at-home parent, I would recommend that the other parent reads the bedtime stories and also does some additional activities during the weekends to ensure a balanced exposure to both languages.

If you continue speaking English with your wife, your child will most likely become a receptive bilingual in English, i.e. understand but not speak it. This will not confuse your child, nor will it negatively affect the learning of any other language. English is probably the easiest language to arrange other exposure for, and your child will have a head start in learning it later on in life. While it is fine for you two to speak English to each other, when you address your child, I recommend that you stick to your own languages.

You ask how to cope with the situation when one of you does not understand what the other parent says to your child, and I can understand your concern. However, keep in mind that it will take quite a while before he or she learns either of the languages and that initially the language is very simple. Since you mention learning each other’s languages as an option, I take it that you are both open to learning at least some Russian/Portuguese. If you have the time and energy to learn them well, that would be great, but if this does not happen, don’t worry. Knowing some basics would be a good start, so that you can have an idea about the topic of the discussion. You will also both be learning each other’s languages alongside your little one.

The most important thing is to discuss this openly between yourselves and agree to translate whenever necessary and to ask when either of you would like to know what is being said. If anyone of you feels left out, speak to each other about the situation. Also, agree to never use your language to try to hide anything from the other parent.

I do not see the need to move to an English-speaking country to gain a common language. Translating back and forth, and family members using different languages in a discussion will most likely become the norm in your family. It did so in mine and I have heard the same comment from several other families with multiple languages. It might be difficult to see how this will work ahead of time, but trust me, it does! Just make sure that you and your wife agree on the principles I mentioned above.

Good luck with everything, and please do get back to us with an update and any further questions you might have.

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. Laura Martí

    Thanks SO much! we have been thinking about this for months! Our situation is very similar:
    -my first language is Spanish (but French is my beloved second language)
    -my husband is Azari Turk – Persian bilingual
    -we speak in English to each other (and with most of our friends)
    -we live in Denmark
    Our baby will be born in a couple of months, and we want him/her to learn Spanish, Persian and English. He/she will have to learn Danish as well (and we will have to improve ours!)
    This page gave me an idea of how to develop an strategy for our family.. I feel less scared now, and I’m actually very excited, since I feel I’m going to learn Persian along the way, and I’m going to improve my Danish 🙂
    Again, thanks!

    • Rita

      Thank you for your kind comment, Laura, and congratulations on your baby news! I am happy that I was able to alleviate at least some of your concerns!

  2. Ella

    Thank you so much for this post! We also have a similar situation. We live in London, my husband’s native language is Spanish, mine are Russian and Ukrainian, we speak Spanish between us with a bit of English thrown in when I am short for words in Spanish. We speak our native languages to our 2.5 year old daughter. I had to choose only one of mine though. Sometimes I translate what was said in Russian to my husband or just give him a quick summary, but we also found that he started to recognise some words and often picks up the general meaning of the conversation. Our daughter’s first choice of language is Spanish (because my husband is a stay-at-home dad), her second choice in Russian, but she picked up English in her nursery so quickly and when she plays on her own she started now speaking to her toys mainly in English! We both read to her in our languages, too. If she responds to me in Spanish, I just keep talking to her in Russian or sometimes ask her to tell me the translation in “mummy’s language”, and she does! When she is older, and English language starts to prevail, I suppose we will need to “beef up” her knowledge of Spanish and Russian with language lessons and hope that “immersion” holidays with our families will help, too.

    • Rita

      Fantastic – sounds like you have a true linguist in the making!

  3. Branka

    Let me try to present your first four years, at least our experience:
    I am Serbocroatian, my husband mother language Spanish, we speak English between ourselves and we live in Italy – children were also born in Italy….
    When they were 9 months old, they have started an Italian kindergarden.
    At the age of two, you could tell they understood all languages spoken to them (so except English), but speaking 0. When you see monolingual kids at the age of 3, you really feel like a failiour sinse your kids are not able to say even a simple two words sentence. At three and a half, you feel frustrated since your kid finds it difficult to explain in any language what happened in the kindergarden, what it has eaten or similar. Then, all of the sudden, in just 6 months you get almost surprized how fast it passes from 2 to 3, 4, 5 words sentences in your fluent minority language, you hear them play in the community language or sing even in English. We have noticed a special interest in English, they play by repeting after us English words, even if I don’t think they understand what they actually mean.
    In short, set up your expectations accordingly and go for it.
    Concerning your Russian, you just need to understand it and since the kids were born, my husband has become too good!!!
    Good luck!!!

    • Rita

      Hi Branka, thank you for sharing your family’s story! My younger daughter also followed the pattern you describe with regards to her language development. However, my elder daughter was the complete opposite and was able to express herself in two languages at the age of two. This just shows that there can be great differences even between siblings, even though they grow up in very similar language environments.

      • Branka

        Hi Rita, thanks for your reply. Yeah, very true. We should be ready for any speed they choose with no stress

  4. Karolina

    Great to read about similar family language situations! Hubby and I live in the US and speak English to each other. We mostly speak our respective native languages to our toddler, me Polish, he Spanish. We also both use ASL signs with her, and often it’s the difference between if I understand what she’s saying or not!

    • Rita

      Thank you, Karolina – great idea to use ASL signs alongside your own languages!

  5. Annalisa

    I agree completely. My brother’s wife speaks Arabic and learned English when she moved here as a child. She wants their child to be bilingual; so she speaks both Arabic and English with the child (maybe not the best technique, but they’ll get there eventually). She says that my brother is starting to pick up more Arabic as a result (and he agrees); he did not speak much at all previously.

  6. Wojtek

    My wife and I are in a similar situation. I’m from Poland, she’s from India and we live in the U.S. Our 17-month old daughter goes to day care here, which is in English obviously. We each speak to her in our native languages and it’s clear she can understand and follow commands. For example, if you tell her to hug her teddy bear, she’ll go to her teddy bear and hug it, so it appears to be working. An additional wrinkle for us will be teaching her the Hindi alphabet, which is Sanskrit-based and different from ours. Also, don’t worry about the language of the country where you live. That will sort itself out.
    It’s really important to be consistent and maximize exposure to your respective languages, especially if your kid spends several hours a day in day care, kindergarten, etc. We live in New York where there are large Polish and Indian communities, so we are also looking at pulling her out of “normal” day care and putting her into a Polish or Hindi day care. If options like that are available to you, I would recommend looking into them or finding a nanny that speaks your native language. However, I stress again that parents are their children’s primary teachers and if you stick with it, I think you’ll see good results.

  7. Ellen

    My husband grew up speaking only English. He later learned Russian and some Ukrainian because his grandma was Ukrainian. His father was forced to only learn English. I grew up speaking mostly English mixed with what my father could remember of Spanish. I did 1yr. of Spanish in high school, but never used it. I started back when my youngest son was 2yr. old. I realized that I wanted to share that with him. I did not get a lot of Spanish in our home until our three sons were 6, 7, and 9. My youngest son does the best. He seems to learn easily. I also had daughters ages 5, 4, and 2 at the time we got really serious with Spanish. I then had our youngest daughter when my then 2yr. old turned 4. I wanted them to learn together. So we review basics together and then do more advanced work with the older kids. They definitely need to use it more and be exposed more to Spanish, but they understand most basic directions pretty well. I have started having them use some basic Russian with daddy while continuing to speak Spanish with me. I use the Russian phrases we are working on with daddy, but speak Spanish with them. I am trying to reinforce what they are saying to daddy while still maintaining Spanish speaking with them. I also have them say hello and goodbye, please and thank you to grandma and grandpa in Spanish with me and Russian with daddy. I read to them in Spanish at night. Daddy is trying. He only has one book in Russian so far. We can not afford new books. It is hard to find used books in Russian. We have an Alphabet book. My husband has not been to Russia or the Ukraine or spoken to anyone in either language since we got married in 1999. I feel bad that he is losing his ability to speak very well since living in the United States means we shop and do business in English. English is the language for school and work and daily shopping or business. He does have a Ukrainian fairy tale book, but can not remember enough to read it very well. I am trying to encourage him to try. I told him it does not have to be perfect. He can relearn and teach the kids. He wants to take the kids to the Ukraine, but it is so expensive especially for so many people. He believes that is what we really need to help us learn. He is currently trying to find family in the Ukraine. I do have to say switching between Spanish and English happens to me a lot. Especially when going from Speaking Spanish to my kids to Speaking English with my husband and vice versa. I try to be intentional in Speaking Spanish with my kids and as much Russian as I can with my husband. He took Spanish in high school and still remembers some. He is now taking Spanish with us and I am trying to learn Russian with him and the kids. It is hard, but it is worth it. We are making progress. We have all learned a little sign language and French and German and Chinese as well. I used sign language as a way to communicate with the two youngest girls to make language learning smoother. It worked well, especially for the second from the youngest daughter who had trouble transitioning. My oldest son wanted to learn German. My youngest son wanted to learn Chinese. My second daughter wanted to learn French. My second son wanted to stick with Spanish because he was not sure what he really wants to do. My oldest daughter does not want to learn anything most days. Other days she trys to speak to me in Spanish. My second youngest likes Sign language. My youngest daughter wants to speak Russian, Spanish, and English. She told me she wants to speak our languages to us and English to every one else. She is only 4yrs. old. My kids current ages and languages: Alex,15,(German)Michael,13,(Spanish)William,12,(Chinese)Rose,11, (Spanish)Rebecca,10,(French)Abigail,8,(Sign Language)and Sasha,4,(English, Spanish, & Russian). I am teaching and learning Spanish and Russian. These other languages are interests. We have all learned please, thank you, yes,and no in all the languages mentioned. They are required to use all the languages to everything,thank you, yes, and no at least once a week. It gets complicated sometimes. I am trying to share our languages with them as well as honoring their interests. I already told them that they need a language to graduate high school. They have also been informed that special credit will be given to those who are fluent in the language when they graduate. My youngest son and daughter are both quick learners when it comes to languages.I am proud of all my kids and their efforts to learn everything my husband and I can teach them.

  8. Eilidh

    I cannot comment for Portuguese, but I know that there are several bilingual German-Russian schools (both state and private) in Berlin and that most other cities have several Russian kindergartens and dopolnitelnie shkoli (can’t think what to call that in English), as well as many other Russian speakers who you could connect with to support language and cultural development.


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