Q&A: How to pass on two minority languages in a multilingual environment?

by | May 11, 2017 | Coaches, Language development, Q&A Choosing the right family language strategy, Q&A The trilingual+ child, Rita R | 1 comment

How to pass on two minority languages in a multilingual environment?



My name is Maria, I am Italian and together with my Libyan husband we have a 10-month-old son. Together we live in Malta, where our son was born. Our common language is English, since I do not understand Arabic and my husband doesn’t understand Italian. In Malta, English is an official language besides Maltese.

Most of the times I talk to our son in Italian, I read to him in Italian and English and I encourage my husband to talk to him in his mother tongue, Arabic. Unintentionally, when my husband comes home, I do tend to talk sometimes to our son in English, as I want my husband to understand what I’m telling him. My husband does the same. As well, when we’re going out we talk English, since this is the social language. Besides, most of our friends are foreigners who also talk English. Accidentally, our son hears Maltese too from his father when he is talking to his clients or when we are outside.

As you can see, we constantly use three languages in our family, Arabic being spoken the least. I do not know If I’m doing well, but as I said, I encourage my husband to talk to our son in Arabic, as I consider a native language a gift, a treasure that a parent can offer to the children. I myself am fluent in five foreign languages, but I was raised in a monolingual family.

Would you please give me advice regarding a language strategy that might be the best for the development of our son? He hears so many languages that it worries me a little. So far, he said only once ,,mamma” and the rest only monosyllabic language.

Thank you very much!


Dear Maria

Thank you for your question about your son’s multilingual upbringing – your message brings back lovely memories from when I visited your gorgeous multilingual island a few years ago. I am also very impressed by your language skills, learning four more languages after growing up in a monolingual family!

Please put your worries about the many languages aside – your son will not get confused by them. Children grow up in multilingual environments all across the world without it affecting their language development. Your son will learn Italian from you and Arabic from his dad, providing that you and your husband stay consistent in your language use when you speak directly to him and there is enough exposure to each language. English will also very soon become one of his languages (and Maltese will no doubt be added to his language repertoire in a few years’ time as he gets more exposed to it).

It is great that you keep reminding your husband to speak Arabic, as this is the only way your son will learn the language while growing up. It is important that there is enough exposure to the language for your son to learn it. It would be good if your husband spent one-on-one time with your son to increase the Arabic exposure, for example reading bedtime stories and doing activities together where only Arabic is used.

I would recommend you consider whether you could increase both the Italian and Arabic use so that you do not always switch to English when the other parent is present. Many discussions can be understood from the context and you could agree between yourselves to ask each other when there is something you want to understand. I am saying this, because the more English your son hears and the more accustomed he gets used to the language, the greater the chance that English gets an increasingly stronger foothold as his main language.

Of course, you and your husband would still stick to English between you, but even when you are out and about, it would be beneficial if you were to use Italian/Arabic when you speak directly with your son. I know this can feel odd at times, but you can always translate into English for others in the company whenever necessary.

I cannot emphasize enough how easily it happens that the use of the common family/community language, increases over time, especially after your son learns to speak it. Establishing firm family routines about who speaks what with whom is so much easier when a child is small, than having to change a language pattern at the stage when you notice that English is starting to take over.

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. Jane

    My husband did not speak Estonian before our son was born but as you do not speak to a child using long and complex sentences AND repeat the same things all over again, it is a good learning point !!! My husband doesn’t speak Estonian but understand that everything. At dinner table we speak french but if I have a direct request to my son I say it in Estonian. There have been situations where I explained something to my son and my husband says the same thing in French.
    More you use Italian and Arabic in front of each other (roughly translating) the more you all benefit linguistically!


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