Q&A: How to support a bilingual 3-year-old learning a third language?

by | Mar 19, 2017 | Coaches, Q&A The trilingual+ child, Rita R | 0 comments

How to support a bilingual 3-year-old learning a third language?




I’m German, my wife is Greek, we live in Greece. Our daughter is 3 1/2 years old. I speak only German to her (and she responds in German). My wife and everybody else speak only Greek to her (and she responds in Greek). My daughter’s Greek is amazingly good for this age. Her German is good, not perfect (as I work outside of Greece, I am absent about 120 days of the year).

My wife and I communicate mostly in English. Sometimes also in Greek. My Greek is ok, my wife understands German quite well and speaks a bit. Until now, it seems that our daughter doesn’t understand English. She sometimes complains that we shouldn’t speak English to each other 😉 For some weeks, she has some English lessons in Kindergarten (in a fun way). Now she starts to repeat some things that we say, she asks how do you say this and that in English and so on. She seems to be interested in and talented with languages.

Now, we are wondering what is the best way to give here the chance to learn English? Will she learn it anyway? Should we send her to some lessons (we have a friend who is a teacher) so she can make the first steps there? Or should we stop to talk in English to each other? We don’t want to push her, we just want to give her opportunities, especially as she seems to be fond of languages. As our neighbour is a teacher for French and has a daughter in the same age, we were even considering to ask her to teach the kids once a week some French.

Looking forward for your advice! Thank you very much for your answer!

Best regards


Dear Christoph

Thank you for your question about how to support your little bilingual daughter with learning a third language. She is doing really well using the right languages with you at such a young age. I am happy to hear that she is inquisitive and wants to learn more!

Since your daughter hears English at home when you and your wife speak it together and also has some lessons in Kindergarten she will by time gain some understanding of the language, i.e. she will become a receptive bilingual. For her to start actively speaking it she would need to have more exposure to it and, most importantly, get a chance to regularly interact in it.

However, she is only three and still learning her two main languages, Greek and German, so for the moment, I would just continue what you are doing and exposing her to English at home and Kindergarten. Do answer her questions about how to say something in English when she is interested – you can also introduce songs and rhymes in English, but you are right in saying that you should not push her. A child learns best when they have a desire to learn. At some point you can then look for a playgroup in English or English-speaking families whose children she could have playdates with.

There is no need for you to stop using English at home, if this is the language you are used to speaking with each other. If your daughter is occasionally not happy about you speaking English, just translate as necessary for her, so she does not feel left out from the conversation. You will however find that her understanding of English will improve quicker than you might expect. What you could do is to introduce some English time for all of you, e.g. on the weekend, when you do something fun together as a family – in English. I would take the lead from your daughter and go with what she is comfortable with and gradually bring in different activities.

When it comes to asking your neighbour for some French lessons, I would not yet seek any formal teaching for your 3-year-old. Your daughter has plenty of time to add another languages to her repertoire. However, if your neighbour is a French-speaker and her daughter also speaks French, then do let them play with each other, even if it is in French. Children can have lots of fun together even if they don’t have a common language.

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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