Q&A: The trilingual family

by | Sep 18, 2014 | Coaches, Q&A The trilingual+ child, Ute Limacher-Riebold | 3 comments


My children are learning three languages, because my husband is English, he, of course, speaks English to them; I am Mexican and speak Spanish, and we live in Italy. I only speak Spanish to them, but only speak English to my husband. They go to childcare, and that’s the place where they are learning the native language. They are born in Italy. What advice would you give me?

Thank you!


Dear Idania,

thank you for your question. It seems to me that you have already found a good balance with the three languages in your daily life, you speaking Spanish to your children and English to your husband, and your husband talking English with your children.

May I ask how old your children are and if there is anything that makes you worry about the language situation within your family? I can imagine that due to the fact that you talk English to your husband and he talks English to your children, a classical situation, for example during meals, would be that Spanish is spoken less frequently? If so, my question would be: Does your husband talk Spanish? Would he agree to talk Spanish with you from time to time in front of your children? I ask this because this would put a bit more emphasis on Spanish, and also give you the opportunity to talk “your” language with all the members of the family.

You say that your children attend a childcare where they are learning the native language: would this be Spanish then or English? We usually call “native language” the language of both or one of the parents. I suppose you mean that they talk Italian at the (Italian) childcare? In this case, they talk Italian at childcare, English with their dad and Spanish with you. May I ask which language they speak when interacting among them? Will they use English, Spanish or Italian?
I’m sorry to ask so many questions, but I would like to make sure I fully understand your situation. I’m looking forward to your answers and would really love to continue this conversation.

With kind regards,

Ute Limacher-Riebold

Ute Limacher-Riebold

Ute Limacher-Riebold is a researcher, writer and an independent Language Consultant and Intercultural Communication Trainer at Ute’s International Lounge. She has a PhD in French literature and a Masters in Bilingualism and is a trained Speech and Language Specialist. Ute combines her knowledge in linguistics and intercultural communication, and her experience as multilingual and multicultural, who managed to successfully adapt to other languages and cultures, Ute made it her mission to translate research into evidence based, easy-to-apply tips for parents, families and practitioners, to use in everyday life. After Italy, France, and Switzerland she now lives in the Netherlands with her Swiss husband and three multilingual and multicultural children. Ute is fluent in English, German, French, Italian, Dutch and Swissgerman, and understands Spanish and Portuguese.


  1. Idania

    Thanks a lot for your questions…
    My daughters are: Niamh is 34 months and Ciara 17 months. Niamh is speaking a few words in both languages. I believe she understands more italian. But she understands a lot of what I say.
    My husband doesnt speak spanish, so the only spanish they get is from me. Ciara speaks only a few words, like Mamma, Pappa, Cacca, and gato.
    Fortunatelly my Mom comes for two months soon, so, they will get a lot of it.
    Yes, you are right, ghey speak italian at childcare. I would’nt be able to say which language they speak between them, cause they dont speak very much, but I think Niamh would focus on the italian or spanish.
    I hope this helps. And thanks again!

  2. Ute

    Dear Idania,
    Thank you for your quick response! Your girls are still quite young but I understand that you’re worried that their Spanish will not be their most dominant language. It surely would help if you could find peers for them to talk to. Maybe there is a playgroup – or you could start one? – of Spanish talking children in your area? Having visitors talking Spanish to them will surely be very beneficial. You can help them also by reading and singing with them and watching (age appropriate) DVDs in Spanish. Becoming or “being” bilingual is a process and there will be times where your daughters will speak more Italian than English or Spanish.
    May I ask if your husband would consider learning Spanish, maybe alongside with your daughters? This would put more emphasis Spanish in your family and help your husband not to feel excluded when you talk Spanish with your girls. It would also give you the opportunity in the future, to for example talk Spanish all together at meal time (or whenever you choose to talk it as family language).
    I would also suggest to make a language plan. It will help everyone involved to get a clear picture of the language situation within your family and remind you to be consistent in your choices.
    You can find a great example of a language plan in Rita’s book. If you want, you can get back to us with specific questions with how to get on with the plan.
    I would really love to know how this all works out for your family.
    Con un carissimo saluto e spero a presto,

  3. Idania

    Thanks again, and sorry for the late response.
    I love the idea of the spanish talking playgroup, I do know there is a lot of latin families around the area.
    I tried to buy the book on Itunes, but it looks like still not in it. Going to try to buy it on amazon. Definitely would like to have a plan. I am not worried tha spanish is not going to be their dominant language, but I would love them to be able to have a conversation with my parents, brother, sister, nieces, and of course, the rest of my relatives.
    Thanks a million.


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