Q&A: Three languages and sign language – too much for a two-year old?

by | Jun 18, 2017 | Coaches, Non-native language, Q&A The trilingual+ child, Rita R, Toddlers | 2 comments

Three languages and sign language – too much for a two-year old?




Looking for a suggestion for introducing my second languages to my toddler. My husband and I are native English speakers. I was a Spanish teacher for five years, so I speak it well, but I’m definitely missing lots of cultural background and seriously lacking in the nursery rhyme department. I opted to use my native language in my daughter’s first two years, as it was good for our relationship and I learned that OPOL would not likely be successful since I’m not native.

I do know I need to start soon and I know I want to use time & place. To complicate matters, I am moderately good in mandarin since I lived in China for two years, and I would love to introduce that to my two-year-old as well. Do you recommend one at a time? Will there be too much confusion if I split my day in three time segments, using Spanish in the morning, English in the afternoon, and Chinese in the evening?

I would start slowly, for only an hour in morning and evening, and probably repeating myself in English to help her get the idea at first, before moving to target language only. Eventually I would like to split my day in thirds. Not sure if this is too distressing for a very bright 2-year-old who already speaks English a lot and knows a good bit of sign language?

I plan to continue using sign (we are already learning that together, as daddy knows it) as I speak to help comprehension. Am I crazy? 🙂 Daddy is home during the mornings and works evenings, speaking some Spanish but not a lot. I think he would be supportive of learning with our daughter.

I stay home with her and plan to homeschool in the future so it could continue. Any suggestions for a family language plan? We do have some Spanish and Chinese friends where I could grow relationships, even though we aren’t close right now. This is a very multicultural area although majority English without seeking out the minority subcommunities.

We can’t really afford immersion school or a nanny right now. I’m afraid if I choose different language days, it might be harder for my husband and not consistent enough for language acquisition.

Thoughts please?


Dear Amber

Thank you for your question about raising your daughter to become multilingual in English, Spanish, Chinese and sign language. I love your enthusiasm and engagement in giving your daughter the gift of several languages!

Talking with your child in a language which is not a native one for you is always a big challenge and commitment. This said, many parents opt to do so and I would not categorically say that the one parent, one language OPOL approach is bound to fail if one parent is not speaking their mother tongue. Yes, it is not easy, but also not impossible. Never underestimate the power of a committed parent!

Whatever you decide to do, it is important that you discuss and agree the plan with your husband. You mention that you think he would be supportive of learning Spanish alongside your daughter, but since he has only limited time with your daughter, during that time he should feel comfortable in communicating with her. Would your husband be fine with the main language spoken during the mornings being Spanish?

Using sign language alongside spoken languages is a great way of making sure that you daughter can communicate even if she were not to know the words for what she wants to say. The fact that your husband also knows sign language is even better! Instead of repeating a word or phrase in English, I would as far as possible use sign language to clarify the meaning of any new vocabulary.

I know it is very easy to be ambitious about the languages we want to teach our kids, but it is important to be realistic as well. Communication is the main purpose of languages, and learning more of them should never come in the way of being able to communicate with the people around you. I would not introduce more than one additional language at a time and I would start with Spanish – this will give you a good insight into how it will all work out and what to focus on.

A variation of the time and place (T&P) would indeed be a good way to do this. One approach you could take is to speak Spanish with your daughter when you are alone with her and stick to English when your husband is around. As mentioned, discuss this with him to get his point of view – you need his support and backing for whatever you do. If you can find some Spanish-speaking families whose children your daughter could play with, this would be a great additional source of exposure to the language.

You mention that you still need to catch up with regards to culture, nursery rhymes etc in Spanish – this is another reason to focus on Spanish to start with. If you were to introduce Chinese alongside it, it would put a considerable amount of additional pressure on you to keep up with both. It might feel okay to do it now, at your daughter’s current level of communication, but keep in mind that the discussions and topics are only going to get more intricate and require more vocabulary and cultural knowledge as her language skills evolve.

As you are planning to homeschool you are in a great position to introduce Chinese later as part of the curriculum. You can even start before that by singing some songs and reading children’s rhymes in Chinese. Should you find a playgroup in Chinese, this would also be a great for her to get a feel for the language. Once you have introduced Spanish, you will know better what approach to take.

In a short Q&A, I can only give you general advice and some suggestions on how to proceed with your plan. To be able to put together a detailed Family Language Plan for you, I would need to conduct an in-depth interview and catch up with you face-to-face (either online or in person). Please get in touch with me if you are interested in this option.

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. Annalisa

    My language learning really took off after I learned [American] sign language, and I agree with Rita that using sign language, rather than English, for clarification is definitely the way to go. However, one note about “sign language” that you may want to keep in mind is that it varies from culture to culture (or spoken language to spoken language; I’m not sure). Here in Guatemala where I live with my native husband, the American Sign Language sign for “toilet” is actually not a good gesture to make (in our community). At home, it should be fine, but I think it’s something to be aware of if you do get involved in cross-cultural playgroups.

  2. Karolina

    We are in a slightly different situation because we are both (husband and I) using our respective native languages (me Polish, hubby Spanish) with our kids OPOL but English between us and more frequently now with our preschooler, especially as we are also homeschooling. I also speak Spanish so do incorporate some into our day as well, after noticing that our daughter wasn’t using it as much since I’m home with her and she gets limited exposure compared to the other two spoken languages. And we use ASL together somewhat sporadically, learning it together and hubby knowing the most. We’ve been using all four languages from birth. I don’t think it’s too much, but we’ve been doing it since birth. I would just add to the advice you’ve gotten to think about what your linguistic goals are for your child. That should help you decide the extent of Chinese you’d want to incorporate. Since its such a different language from the others though, I would start exposure in the form of music, books, even shows, just so when you do start to speak it, there will be some background familiarity.


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