Q&A: How to maximise the exposure to two minority languages?

by | Oct 6, 2016 | Coaches, Q&A Choosing the right family language strategy, Rita R | 0 comments

How to maximise the exposure to two minority languages?

Dear Rita,

Thank you for all the knowledge you share. Your page has been an invaluable source of information. I have one concern I wonder you might be able to help me with.

I was born in the US but raised in Italy by Italian parents. My English pronunciation is not perfect but above average as I lived for seven years in the UK, graduated there and have been working since for a British company. I met my Japanese husband in London and five years ago we moved to Tokyo.

Our daughter was born in Japan and is now two years old. My husband speaks to her in Japanese and she also goes to a Japanese nursery school so Japanese is her preferred language. However, I speak to her and her father in English, so she also sings, counts and says many words in English.

I’d love her to at least understand Italian and I have been so far relying on skype calls to my parents, books and videos in Italian. We also stay in Italy for a month two times a year. However I’m afraid the exposure is not sufficient. Also because I speak to her in English my friends and family tend sometimes to mix languages or switch to English.

How would you suggest I increase her exposure to Italian? I have tried switching to Italian few days a week but I find it unnatural as I’m used to speaking English. Would it be a good idea to speak only Italian when I’m in Italy? Would that set back her English too much?

Many thanks in advance for your help,


Dear Tania,

Thank you for your question and for your lovely feedback. I am happy that you find the site useful!

Your daughter is very lucky to grow up in an environment where she has the opportunity to learn three languages! As you mention, Japanese will be her dominant language and it is up to you to pass on both English and Italian. Since you speak English as the home language and your preferred language to speak with your daughter is also English, I do not foresee any problems with her becoming a fluent English-speaker, even if you spend some time of the year in Italy.

So the question is how you can also pass on your other language, Italian, to your daughter. I am pleased that you have set a realistic goal for her, becoming a receptive bilingual in Italian, i.e. you would like her to at least understand the language. However, I do believe that you can arrange enough exposure for her so that she can also learn to speak it.

Having the possibility of visiting Italy for two months a year is a huge advantage for your daughter’s language learning and my recommendation would indeed be that you switch to Italian during your visits. Not only would this maximise the Italian immersion, but it would also make you more comfortable in speaking Italian with your daughter. In addition, it would have the added bonus of your friends and relatives also automatically sticking to Italian, following your example.

I know how difficult it can be to change the language you speak with your child, so I understand that it does not feel natural when you try to switch to Italian with her when you are in Japan. It is however great if you read to her and watch videos in Italian together. This means that she is used to you speaking Italian and this is a good place to start.

I don’t know when your next visit to Italy is, but I would start increasing the Italian exposure by switching to only Italian, also when you address your daughter, during the calls with your Italian relatives. Then, during your next visit, do your very best to stick to Italian with her – it will make sense to her as everyone else speaks Italian as well. A month is a long enough time for you to get better used to speaking Italian with your daughter.

You did not mention whether your husband is accompanying you to Italy. If he does, then your daughter would still get English exposure when you speak with your husband. If he does not come with you, then since you are staying in Italy for a month at a time, I presume you will be in frequent contact with your husband, speaking English during your calls together. You can also keep on reading English books to her while in Italy. However, do your best to leave the use of English in other situations to a minimum.

Once you are back in Japan, try introducing Italian as the language of communication between the two of you on certain days or in certain situations. It will be easier to do once you have practiced for a month while in Italy! Don’t worry about confusing her by switching between the languages, she will be able to keep them a part, if not straight away (most bilingual children mix their languages early on), then at least once she becomes more confident in them.

Wishing you a successful multilingual 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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