Q&A: How to maintain two minority languages, one of which the parents do not speak?

by | Aug 4, 2016 | Challenges, Coaches, Q&A Choosing the right family language strategy, Rita R | 0 comments

How to maintain two minority languages, one of which the parents do not speak?


Dear Family Language Coaches,

Thanks for this service, which has been super helpful to us.

Our kids are effectively trilingual – fluent in French, English and Japanese. Us parents are bilingual. One of us speaks to the kids in about 50% French, 50% English, the other 90% French, 10% English. The kids picked up Japanese which we don’t speak at all, because we had them in Japanese pre-school.

We are now moving to the US, and trying to figure out how to (a) preserve French; and then (b) ideally maintain the Japanese. Ideally would be a bilingual school. But … there aren’t any around us. We might be able to find one in two years that is bilingual French/English … but no guarantees.

What we are trying to understand is if it is ‘better’ to get a French-speaking part-time nanny for after-school pickup (in which case … bye, bye Japanese) … or a Japanese speaking nanny, and maintain our French with them.

Thoughts? Advice? Help!
Thanks, confused!


Dear RC,

Thank you for your question and your kind feedback – glad to be of service!

You do not mention how old your children are, but presumably they are now beyond the pre-school age and fluent in all three languages, two of which will become minority languages once you are in the US.

Your question is very valid, as when you move to the US, English will become the dominant language for them very quickly, especially since they will (at least initially) attend a monolingual English-speaking school.

Since both of you parents are bilingual in French and English, the most effective way of preserving French is to make French the only home language, or that at least one of you stick to French all the time (ideally both of you). The minority language at home (mL@H) approach has proven to be the most effective way of passing on a minority language to a child.

Getting the children used to always speaking French with at least one parent will support keeping English “at bay”. Research has shown that in cases where a parent speaks both the minority and majority language with a child, the majority language will slowly take over unless there is enough exposure to it from other sources.

With regards to Japanese, the support has to come from outside the home as neither of you speak the language. I agree that speaking Japanese is a valuable skill to have for your children, and it is fantastic if they can maintain it, and crucially, develop their skills according to their age. To do this, you will need to commit to supporting them on a long-term, on-going basis.

For children to be motivated to use a language, there must be a need to speak it. Kids are very pragmatic when it comes to using their languages and will easily stop speaking one if there is no natural reason to do it. Having a nanny who only speaks Japanese with the children will go some way to keep the language going for a while, as there will be the obvious need for your children to use Japanese. When the time of nannies is over, you can perhaps continue with an au pair or some other arrangement. As you see, you will have to find different solutions for the continuous Japanese exposure as your children grow older. For example, attending a Japanese class a couple of hours a week, will most likely not be enough to maintain their fluency.

I definitely do not want to discourage you from trying to maintain your children’s Japanese, but I also want you to be fully aware of and prepared for the implications of the task at hand.

Wishing you all the best on your trilingual 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.


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