Q&A: How to juggle three languages with husband, child and stepchild

by | Sep 10, 2015 | Challenges, Coaches, Maria Babin, Q&A Being the parent in a multilingual family, Siblings | 2 comments



I would like to ask a coach a question. I am Argentinean, my first language is Spanish, English and French. I am now living in Montreal and my husband is French Canadian. He speaks French most of the time at home. He has a daughter who stays with us 50% of the time and we have a baby son together.

Usually, we wanted to each speak to our kids in our language. So French and Spanish. My catch is that I have been away from Argentina for a long time. My husband does not speak Spanish so when I am tired, English is my go-to language. All of my friends here are anglophones and I generally go through life around the English environment here in Montreal. I find it difficult to think that my kids will not speak English when that is the language I choose for my every day life, but at the same time, I know that Spanish is the language of my son’s extended family in Argentina and it probably will be a language he won’t be surrounded with here in Canada.

In a perfect world, I would like to be able to speak Spanish when we are alone (or surrounded by Spanish speakers) and English when we are out or at home so my husband understands. I find that it might be too confusing and I don’t know how to tackle this.

To add a complication, I can only speak French to my step-daughter or my family-in-law so my baby will know that I speak the majority language. It is then difficult to say speak to mommy in x language when your sister is allowed to speak to me in French. We are trying to adjust my husband’s reflex so he speaks English to me instead of French but it’s a difficult habit (and he is not good with languages).

So now it’s a mess. I speak Spanish, English or sometimes French to the baby, French to my stepdaughter, English to my husband. Sometimes we mix it all together and we all have conversations in our languages (and mixing it). My baby is 1 year old, and I feel i need guidance on this.



Hello Fernanda,

Thanks for writing! Wow, that does sound like a challenging situation, but not one that we can’t find a solution for!

My first advice to you would be to encourage you to choose a family language. I believe that French would be the most logical choice as your husband and stepdaughter are French Canadian, especially during the weeks when your stepdaughter is staying with you. This will help to create harmonious family relationships. It is okay and even good to speak to your baby in French during this time. This will help introduce clarity and reduce possible tensions as you will speak to both siblings and their father in the same language when you are all together.

When your stepdaughter is not staying with you or when you are with other English speakers, switch your family language to English. Your husband will understand you, and your baby will get sufficient language input in English. In short, you will spend 50% in French and 50% in English. I use a similar system with my own family that you can read about here.

Spanish is the tricky part, but there is a solution for that as well! Choose some special one-on-one moments with your baby such as bath time, story time, etc. Speak to your son only in Spanish during these times no matter what the family language is at the time. Keep in mind that as he will have lesser amounts of input in Spanish, he will most likely not achieve the same level of proficiency as he will in French or English, but that is okay.

The important thing is to have him hear your voice speaking Spanish and to create an emotional bond with him in that language. As he grows older, you can increase his exposure to native Spanish through Skype calls to family in Argentina, playgroups with other native speakers in Montréal, or some after-school classes. If it’s possible, plan a trip to Argentina where he will be immersed in the language and culture while visiting family.

I hope you will find this perspective helpful and that you will soon be more at ease in your multilingual goals!
Best of luck to 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.


  1. Andrew J

    This is a similar situation to the one found by many ex-pats in Wales whose partners are Welsh-speakers, so their children have a mother-language, father-language and two community languages, one of which overlaps with either Mum’s language or Dad’s. Depending on family arrangements, the mother-language, say Welsh, became the dominant first language. Dad’s language, say French, would become the language in the evenings, especially at bat-time/ bed-times. If this pattern was well established before the age of three, a Welsh-speaking nursery would support the ‘mother-tongue’, while the child would have plenty of opportunities to interact with English in the media at home and in activities with friends and neighbours. However, it is important that children who will go on to use English in reading and writing are introduced to the English alphabet at this stage, since it is not phonetic, which can create spelling problems later. There are good video materials on this produced by the BBC, ‘Fun with Phonics’.

  2. Alejandro N.

    Hola Fernanda!
    I’m originally from Mexico, and my wife is Japanese. We speak English between us. We have 2 boys. Ever since she got pregnant, we decided that she would speak Japanese to the baby, and I would speak Spanish, even at the womb. The baby grew up hearing Japanese from her and Spanish from me. Once the baby started speaking, he would speak Japanese to her and Spanish to me. At two years old, I would tell him in Spanish to tell something to his mother, and he would automatically translate it to Japanese to her. He did not speak any English until he started going to school at 2 years of age (he would understand a little bit from what he heard from us). It’s still prohibited for both our kids to speak English at home (unless they are talking to friends or we have visitors). Now the oldest is 9, and he was going to Japanese school every Saturday for about 3 years, and now has a tutor, so he can keep up with it. The little one, 6 years old just started with the Japanese school on Saturdays as well. The older one can speak, read and write the 3 languages. He does switch from time to time back to English, since that’s what is more “fresh” on his mind, but I always push him to think back in Spanish, or have to remind him of a few words from time to time (same as my wife in Japanese), but we correct the words, and he’ll continue with the Spanish, so I don’t let him “slack” or get lazy and just revert to English, just because it’s easier. Now, he started to taking Chinese (I’m taking Chinese with him). So, both of them talk Japanese to my wife, Spanish to me, and my wife and I speak English to each other. I can understand a little bit Japanese and she can understand Spanish.
    Good Luck with what you decide to do, just remember that English is the easier language (I know that a lot of people get upset with this statement, but it’s not that it’s easy, it’s just easier than Spanish and French, and Japanese is the hardest – in our case – I know that there are harder languages than that). So, good luck to you – keep it up, and don’t give up. English will be spoken outside of the house since it’s the most common language. Enjoy the diversity!!


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