Q&A: When to introduce a parent’s second language to a trilingual (-to-be) baby?

by | Nov 12, 2017 | Babies, Coaches, Q&A The trilingual+ child, Rita R, Toddlers | 2 comments

When to introduce a parent’s second language to a trilingual (-to-be) baby?



Dear Multilingual Coaches,

I was really pleased to find a place like this offering so much on the topic of multilinguism!
Me and my husband have a six-week-ols baby girl, and I wanted to seek your advice on how to introduce our child to all three languages we/I speak on a daily basis. So, let’s start!

I am a Serbian who started learning English as a toddler and consequently became an interpreter. I have spent most of my life working in English and feel very confident using it. I have lived in Italy for eight years now since my husband is Italian, and I am fluent in Italian. I was obviously thinking of using the OPOL strategy since it is very important to me that my child is able to communicate with Serbian relatives most of whom speak only Serbian. I am not concerned about Italian since we’re surrounded by it and my mother-in-law will take care of the baby once I get back to work which will be roughly speaking when the baby is six months old. My mom will jump in at times but not too often since she lives in Serbia.

I am worried about introducing English given our environment and the fact that my husband and I speak Italian to each other. When the baby is one year old I was thinking of sending her to a bilingual (Italian-English) school but I should probably mention that in Italy this concept still isn’t as advanced as in some other countries, like Northern Europe for e.g.

What do you think I should do?
1. I speak Serbian, my husband Italian and we speak English when we’re together?
2. I speak Serbian, he speaks Italian, we speak Italian to each other as we always have and I speak English to her on occasions such as: bath time, bedtime story, cartoon time, arts and crafts?
3. I speak both English and Serbian and he speaks Italian?

I thought that being bilingual myself would have given me an advantage in realizing what I should do but I am quite confused here too! 🙂 The thing is, that most of our friends are Italian, once I get back to work I will not spend enough time with her to introduce both languages equally. My husband’s knowledge of Serbian is passive and insufficient, his English is good and quite advanced but not perfect… All of this makes me wonder how we should shift from one language to another in order for her to get the best of it.

So far, we have been using OPOL with an occasional song or phrases in English during diaper change time, bath time and before bed time, maybe trying to read a short story or similar. Her reaction so far seems that of every new-born without any particular reaction to the change of languages whereas she already clearly shows that she is well aware who the person talking to her is. She recognizes me, my husband and both grandmas.

I am looking forward to hearing your advice in order to act in timely manner and prepare her for a possible trilingualism. Thanks a lot for any piece of advice you’ll offer!

My very best,


Dear Dragana

Congratulations on the birth of your little baby girl – wonderful! Thank you for your question on how to raise her trilingual to speak Serbian, Italian and English.

I agree with you that Italian is the language you need to be least concerned about – presuming you continue living in Italy Italian will very soon become her strongest language. When you return to work, she will be surrounded by Italian for most of the day. For this reason, I would recommend you to focus on Serbian for now. As I understand it, you will be her only exposure to the language, and once you are back at work, this will during weekdays only be a couple of hours per day at the most. Any additional time your daughter can spend with her Serbian-speaking grandmother and other relatives is a bonus.

Please feel free to continue singing to your daughter in English – she will enjoy your songs no matter which language you use! This will also get her used to hearing English. If you have checked that the Italian-English school meets your and your husband’s expectations when it comes to the standard of education, teaching style and general atmosphere, then it would be a great way for your daughter to learn English. When children start a bilingual school this early, I wouldn’t think there is any expectation of prior knowledge to the “other” language (English, in your case). I would however check this in advance to avoid any surprises.

These are my thoughts about the three family language options that you mention:

1. you – Serbian, husband – Italian, together – English
While this would be a great way to introduce more English into the family, it would also be a change to what you currently do. How would your husband feel about this? Would he be comfortable in changing the language you have always spoken together? It might sound like an easy thing to do, as you both know English, however, it is not a straight-forward swap, so you would both have to be very committed to your decision to make it work.

2. you – Serbian (and occasionally some English), husband – Italian, together – Italian
This is what you currently do and you both are used to. If you do have the option of a dual-language Italian-English school, then I think you can continue using Italian as your common language for now. Serbian would be the language you consistently speak with your daughter (with a little bit of English thrown in, in the form of songs, rhymes and games). This is the best option to ensure that your daughter gets as much exposure to Serbian as possible.

3. you Serbian & English, husband – Italian, together – Italian
This option would mean that you would use some variation of the time and place (T&P) strategy to pass on both Serbian and English to your daughter. If you were to stay at home with your daughter for a longer time, then this might be a good alternative. However, as the time you will be spending with your daughter will drastically reduce when she is six months old, I would recommend that you go for option 2. and focus on speaking Serbian with her. As you mention, there will be very little time left for one-to-one time with your daughter, especially during the week, so sharing this time between two languages would not be easy.

I hope my answer has helped you decide – please do ask any further questions in the comments!

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.


  1. Mandie Davis

    Hi Dragana,

    As usual I totally agree with everything Rita has said! I would add one point, to help it easier for your daughter to know when you are swapping languages. I usually recommend that there is a toy (for example a teddy bear) kept on a fairly high shelf, which can be seen but not played with. Take the toy down whenever you swap to English. So the bear will dance and sing with you, or if you are watching an English movie he can come and sit with you both. If you then find an English language group to go to, take the bear along too! This way, your daughter will have a clear signal when you are speaking English, plus if she wants to do some English practise, she is able to point to the bear even before she has the concept of understanding that you are swapping languages.

    I hope this helps.

  2. Dragana Cetojevic

    Dear Rita, dear Mandie,

    I just realized my comment never got sent actually!
    I just wanted to really thank both of you!
    So far so good. I’ve been back at work for a little more than two months and everything is working fine. I keep on speaking to her in Serbian even when we’re in company of Italian friends and she understands what both my husband and I are talking about if we for eg say Throw me the ball. She reaches for it and throws it at us. As per English, I normally sing to her in English since I know more English kids’ songs than in any other language. We also have frequent video calls with my Serbian family. She doesn’t seem confused by any of this but she rather embraces all of these things with a smile on her face! Mandie we do have a fluffy toy called Hippo Pippo who speaks only English!!!!
    Each experience is different but it seems that in the end children are less worried and much more prone to learning anything than what we think they are!
    Thanks once again!



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