Q&A: What if a parent does not understand the language a bilingual child learns first?

by | Dec 1, 2016 | Challenges, Coaches, Language development, Q&A Being the parent in a multilingual family, Q&A The trilingual+ child, Rita R | 0 comments

What if a parent does not understand the language a bilingual child learns first?



I’m pregnant with our first baby and start to be worried about the future language development of my son. I’m Polish, my fiancé is French and we communicate in English (I can’t speak French and my fiancé can’t speak Polish).

Nevertheless, we live in Poland as my partner works here in a French company. Additionally, both mine and my partner’s English leaves a lot to be desired – we make some grammar mistakes and our vocabulary is rather average then sophisticated.

Of course, we want our baby to speak all three languages but we are scared that it can be very difficult. How can we organize our lives to make it easier for our baby boy to acquire all three languages? Should I talk to him in English when I’m alone with him? I am scared that our son will start to speak Polish only, and that my partner will not be able to understand him.

My fiancé is coming back from work in the late evening and then we are spending time together so we are speaking English. There will be almost no time for him to speak French to our baby. If our son will hear Polish and English more often than French will he be able to acquire also the last language?

Can we wait for him to be 3 years old and send him to a French kindergarten in Poland with a hope that he will not be lost and that he will be able to quickly acquire a new language? I’m looking forward to hearing from you.

Kind regards,


Dear Paula

Thank you for your message and your question about raising your son to be trilingual in Polish, French and English.

I can understand that you feel worried about which language your son is going to learn and whether your husband is going to understand what your little one says in case he learns Polish first. However, keep in mind that it will take some time for your son’s language skills to develop and before he starts to talk. During this time your husband will also have time to learn some Polish – as you live in Poland, I presume this is what he would naturally want to do?

My initial thought is that you should both speak your mother tongues with your son and keep English as the common language, using one parent, one language (OPOL). Even if your husband does not get much time to spend with your son during the week, he will still have the weekends to bond, play and interact with your son. Also, even if your son were to say his first words in Polish, your husband will have enough time to catch up with him (and you would be there to bridge any communication gaps).

Since you have the option of putting your son in a French-speaking kindergarten when he turns three, this will be the perfect support for him to catch up with his French and his language skills will develop at a fast pace from then on.

I see that English is also important for you and it will naturally be the language you continue to speak with your husband. However, if you were to choose to speak English also with your son, English would by default become the common language for the whole family. Neither you nor your husband would be speaking your native language with your son. If you speak English with your son, it is very likely that your husband will do so, too.

You mention that neither of you feel fully fluent in English, so this means that your son would hear a very restricted amount of native-level language during his first few years if you were both to speak English with him. It is important that a child gets a solid foundation in at least one language, any language, at an early age – something you need to take into consideration when choosing the language you speak with your son.

What you also need to keep in mind is that once you get used to speaking a certain language with your son, it is not easy to switch, as you have established a communication pattern in the family. When your son grows, his language will soon evolve and your will have deeper discussions with him. Would you feel comfortable in using English in these situations?

As your home language will remain English, your son will naturally pick up some of it. He may not become an active speaker of it early on, but once he starts speaking Polish and French you can for example introduce some family activities that you do in English. The beneficial thing about having English as a minority language is that you will have plenty of resources available to you, both online and perhaps also in the form of playgroups or other kids’ activities.

There are many factors that influence your choices when it comes to the languages your son will learn, so what I have given above is some general advice – for a more in-depth Family Language Plan, I would have to conduct an interview with you and your husband, analysing the language situation, defining your goals and mapping out a plan going forward.

Wishing you a successful trilingual 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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