Q&A: Is it okay to have a third language as OPOL parents’ common language?

by | Mar 23, 2017 | Coaches, Q&A Being the parent in a multilingual family, Q&A Choosing the right family language strategy, Rita R | 0 comments

Is it okay to have a third language as OPOL parents' common language?




I would like to validate our family approach and maybe get some tips to improve on our current strategy. Our little one is 3 years old. We live in Austria and he is already in the kindergarten so picking up his German skills slowly but surely. My wife is Austrian so she is consistent with her German, I am Argentinian (have not been consistent with my Spanish but being 100% consistent over the past weeks after researching) and we both communicate in English.

Question – is it okay that we keep communicating in English ourselves, my wife in German with him and me Spanish with him?

Many thanks for your advice & tips!
Daniel & Anita


Dear Daniel and Anita,

Thank you for your question about whether it is fine that you and your wife speak English between you while your son is learning German from mum and Spanish from dad – so you are using the one parent, one language (OPOL) strategy to raise your son to speak your languages.

I am pleased to hear that he is already picking up German and especially that you have decided to be more consistent with your Spanish. As I presume that you will be his main (only?) source for Spanish exposure it is particularly important that you stick to Spanish with him, because very soon German will take over as his dominant language. The less exposure a child gets to a language the greater the importance of staying consistent in the use of it.

Many other multilingual families have a very similar language setup to yours, i.e. parents who both speak their respective mother tongues with a child use a third language as the common language between them. What happens is that your son will after some time learn to understand English if he hears enough of it, he will become a receptive bilingual in English. This means that he will understand the language but not speak it unless he gets a chance to interact in it. His understanding of English will however stand him in good stead if/when he starts to learn the language at school.

This is a normal multilingual family language situation and you can continue using English between the two of you. The thing that you need to keep an eye on is that your son gets enough exposure in Spanish, so make sure you have enough books for him, sing songs, read children’s rhymes and watch Spanish children’s programmes together. Arrange regular Skype calls with your Spanish-speaking relatives and friends together with your son so he can hear the language spoken by others as well. Being immersed in a language is highly effective as a booster, so visits to Argentina would be very beneficial for your son’s Spanish. If your wife knows some Spanish, you could perhaps occasionally do something in Spanish together as a family.

In a way, it can be beneficial to keep English (instead of German) as the common language between you and your wife, as this means that the majority language will not get as much of a stronghold as a family 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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