Q&A: How to pick the right language combination for a baby in a multilingual family?

by | Apr 6, 2017 | Babies, Coaches, Q&A Choosing the right family language strategy, Q&A The trilingual+ child, Rita R | 1 comment

How to pick the right language combination for a baby in a multilingual family?




I have a kind of complex situation when it comes to picking my child’s languages. I grew up in the USA with a family with Frisian/Dutch and Brazilian sides, but only used English growing up aside from infrequent exposures to Portuguese and Dutch. I began learning both languages on my own as a young teenager and now speak both fluently. I have two degrees in Spanish, which I also learned from a relatively young age, and was a bilingual educator (English/Spanish) and Spanish teacher while I still lived in the US. I converted to Judaism in college and ended up marrying a native Hebrew and Russian speaker. We now live in the Netherlands.

The problem here is that we are expecting a baby girl and want to raise her speaking as many languages as possible, as well as possible, and equally well – but we don’t want to overload her brain or actually stunt her abilities in any language. We want her to learn at least one family language from each side, which is a little difficult in my situation.

She will learn Dutch just from growing up here, English is compulsory in schools, and while I speak close to fluent Portuguese, I do not feel confident enough that I could raise a child to speak it with an accurate accent and with completely correct grammar. I would be much more confident raising a native Spanish speaker, and would eventually like her to speak Spanish, but that is not one of my family languages. Hebrew, which I do not speak fluently, is our religious language, and no doubt she will learn at least a little simply from growing up a Jew.

My husband grew up in Israel with Soviet parents, and spoke Russian with his parents only – so he speaks with a native accent and “innate” grammar, but does not have a sophisticated vocabulary nor has he even been to Russia. The question is, does my husband speak Russian or Hebrew with her, as it is doubtful that she will end up with fluent Hebrew just from attending school?

English seems like the best choice for me to speak with her based on our informal criteria, but since most Dutch children grow up to be fluent English speakers, I’m not sure if using English will really lead to her being as multilingual as possible.

And what language do we speak all together? My husband speaks English with a thick accent and okay Dutch, and I speak okay Hebrew with a thick accent.

Thanks so much!
With love from Margo and Shefer


Dear Margo and Shefer

Thank you for your question – wow, what an impressive list of languages to choose from for your daughter! It is a great multilingual family dilemma to have, but a dilemma nonetheless.

You and your husband as the parents will have to make the final decision on which languages to speak with your daughter, so I can only offer you some pointers based on what you have told me.

First I would like to address your thought about raising your daughter to speak “as many languages as possible” and “equally well”. Please keep in mind that very few people are so called balanced bilinguals, which means that they speak each of their languages at the same (high) level. Allow your daughter to develop her languages naturally without worrying which language she is more or less fluent. I would also be wary of setting as many languages as possible as one of your goals. Instead, find a way to naturally incorporate the important languages into your family’s life.

For you, the decision is between English and Spanish (and Portuguese?) – as I see it, English has been one of your family languages (although maybe not one of your heritage languages), so it could fit your criteria. That said, it is correct that English is probably the language which will be easiest for your daughter to learn later (apart from Dutch that she will no doubt pick up as you live in the Netherlands). You do not mention which language you and your husband talk together at the moment – if it is English, then you could continue using it as a family language and your daughter would pick up some of it this way. Later, you could also introduce English-only days for the whole family to boost the language.

I understand that you would like to pass on a family language, but since you do not feel confident in using Portuguese, why not opt for Spanish instead? This said, I think you may be setting the bar a bit too high for your own Portuguese-skills – you do not have to be perfect in a language (who is?) or speak it without an accent (we all have some kind of an accent) to speak it to your child. If you can arrange other, native-speaker Portuguese exposure for your daughter she would most likely learn to speak it close to native-like. However, if you do not feel that it is right to choose Portuguese to speak with your daughter, then don’t. By the sound of it, your Spanish-skills are excellent and since you are keen on the idea for her to speak the language, this could be the right choice in many ways.

Your husband has the choice between Russian and Hebrew – again, it does sound like he could well speak Russian with your daughter. Keep in mind that your daughter will take a few years before she starts to speak, so he will have a lot of time to catch up with his Russian and improve what you describe as a not so “sophisticated” vocabulary. The fact that he has not been to Russia should also not stop him – I can imagine that his parents have passed on Russian traditions and the culture to him and he can pass it on better than for example a Russian-tutor will ever do.

Hebrew is the other choice your husband has. You do not mention how much exposure your daughter will have to the language, but if you would expect it to be only a couple of hours a week (weekend-school), then this is most likely not enough for her to learn it, and you would have to find another way of boosting the language. If you intend to put her in a Hebrew-speaking school full time, then this would be enough for her to become fluent. Your husband’s decision between Russian and Hebrew would thus depend on your priorities – which one of the languages is more important to you? Can you arrange additional exposure in either of the languages? Will you have other native-speakers to support you with the languages?

With regards to your common family language, if you choose English, I wouldn’t worry about your husband’s accent. Your daughter is much more likely to pick up your native English way of speaking. What you may well find in the future is that you have family discussions in two or three languages which you all understand – it is all about the communication in the end, not about which language each one of you speaks!

Wishing you a successful truly 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.

1 Comment

  1. Emma

    This is a really interesting concept. My parents raised me speaking in their native dialect but my childhood was spent mostly speaking English (school, friends, university.) While I may not be a “balanced bilingual” as you write about in your article, I do now find it easier to learn other foreign languages because of my early exposure to different sounds and foreign language word. I’m currently learning German in Berlin and I am already starting to slip into the “German brain” and find myself thinking in German!
    I think raising your child to speak more than one language will eventually lead them to speak many languages. (In my experience from my own life this holds to be true. )

    Thanks for sharing this xx


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