Q&A: How to pass on and maintain three languages in a family facing a possible move?

by | May 25, 2017 | Babies, Coaches, Q&A Moving to another country with a bilingual / multilingual child, Q&A The trilingual+ child, Rita R | 1 comment

How to pass on and maintain three languages in a family facing a possible move?




I have a question about raising a trilingual child and I need some guidance on that! My name is Daniela. My first language is Brazilian Portuguese. My Indian husband is a Hindi-speaker. We live in the United States where I am a PhD student. We have a 7-month-old boy we want to raise trilingual but there are a number of issues which make it hard for us to decide the right path for our son’s language instruction.

The first issue is that we are not sure which country (India, Brazil or the US) we will settle down yet. We will stay in the US for at least another year, though. In terms of language, me and my husband both speak English as a foreign language and this is the language we used between each other at home.

Baby spends most of his time with me and my Portuguese speaker mother and we have a very limited social life in English. My husband speaks Hindi with my baby but they interact with each other very little in this language.

Given the fact that we still do not know where “home” is, and that baby does not go to school or have English speakers around what is the best approach for our family to make baby learn the Portuguese, Hindi and English, at least so both families in Brazil and India do not feel so frustrated?

Thank you very much!


Dear Daniela

Thank you for your question about raising your little son to become trilingual in Portuguese, Hindi and English.

Since your son is spending most of his time with you and your mother, he will get plenty of exposure to Portuguese, so this will most likely become his first dominant language. I would recommend that you keep to speaking Portuguese at all time when you interact with him. This is especially important if you were to move to India, as he would be less exposed to the language. Should you move to Brazil, then you could increase the use of English, should you wish to do so.

You mention that it is important for you that your son learns Hindi, but also write that there is “very little” interaction in the language between your husband and your son. This will be your biggest challenge – unless you were to move to India (at least for some time). For your son to grow up speaking Hindi, he will need frequent exposure and interaction in the language. If you live either in the US or in Brazil, your husband will be the main source for this exposure.

I would recommend that you discuss this with your husband, to make him aware that his support is vital for passing on Hindi. I am sure he does know this, but it is good to bring it up to discussion. Some parents are known to find it awkward or strange to speak their own language with a baby, if others around them do not understand the language. Therefore, it is important that you show your support for him speaking Hindi with your boy, even though you would not understand what is being said. Also try to source some books that he can read to your son. Sometimes it is easier to read a book than to just talk – especially until a child starts to communicate more actively.

Independent of where you live, you and your husband will presumably continue to speak English with each other. This is fine and will not be confusing for your son – as a matter of fact, it is a normal language setup in many multilingual families. English will always have a place in your home, even if you were to move outside the US, so your son will get some exposure to it. However, just like with any other language, he also needs an opportunity to interact in the language to become a fluent English-speaker. If you stay in the US, this will not be a problem – he will pick up English from the environment, or through nursery or school.

Should you decide to move either to Brazil or India, then you need to pay more attention to the English exposure – maybe consider daycare in English and later an English-speaking school? It would be beneficial for you to investigate the different options before a potential move, so you know what the options are and that you can choose an area where you can find the appropriate services.

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.

1 Comment

  1. Clarice Y.

    Oi Daniela!
    Like you I am Brazilian living in the USA, but my husband is Japanese and my kid is 3yo. I can tell you that he understands Portuguese perfectly, but answers me in English. This is because his vocabulary grew from the interactions in English during playdates and preschool. Now I find myself translating our conversation so that he hears the words in Portuguese. I’m hoping that when I am able to take him to Brazil he will start speaking in Portuguese more often – that’s what happened when we went to Japan when he was 2yo.

    I can’t do much to help with his Japanese language set, but I do what little I can like putting a Japanese CD in the car, switching the language of a favorite DVD, and using my limited vocabulary for certain customs (like I always refer to chopsticks as ohashi). There are certain words that he prefers in Japanese (ie hikokee will always be airplane) and he can sing some kid songs in all three languages. My husband usually does bedtime stories in Japanese since, like yours, they don’t interact much in this language.

    Keep doing what you’re doing and things will work out for your family.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.