Q&A: Will introducing a third language set back the second for a bilingual toddler?

by | Jan 22, 2017 | Coaches, Language and bilingualism, Q&A The trilingual+ child, Rita R, Toddlers | 0 comments

Will introducing a third language set back the second for a bilingual toddler?




Hi all!

We are an Italian family of three, our son is now 20 months old. We always speak Italian at home, with me mixing Italian and English. My son attends an Italian nursery school, but is highly exposed to English as we also have an English-speaking nanny and we always watch TV, sing and read in English.

Now he is starting to speak a little Italian (just few basic words), he shows to understand English, but still he didn’t say one single word. The problem is that we are now relocating to Sweden for several years and given to the school system he will attend his preschool mainly in Swedish.

I am a bit scared that introducing a third language, when the second one is not well consolidated, can delay his learning in both languages plus I am not sure if he is truly developing his English skills. Any advice?



Dear Emma

Thank you for your question about introducing a third language for your son, who is currently a bilingual toddler learning Italian and English.

You do not mention how much time he is exposed to Italian and how much to English, but it sounds normal that his first words would be in Italian as that is the language you speak at home and the one which he is immersed in at nursery school. He probably has less exposure to interactive English (i.e. the time he spends with his nanny), so may take some time still before he expresses himself in English.

Children vary greatly as to when they start to speak. At your son’s age the most important thing to keep an eye on is progress – is he using more words in Italian and can he understand more simple commands and questions in English? It is sometimes difficult to track these incremental changes, so I would recommend you to keep a weekly language diary where you note down the words your son uses and understand in each language.

With your relocation to Sweden, your son’s language environment will change with a third language added. He will attend a Swedish nursery and then go on to a Swedish-speaking school, so Swedish will soon become a dominant language for him. Since both you and your partner are Italian, I presume this is the language you will continue to speak at home, so your son will continue to be exposed to Italian.

This leaves your question about how to maintain and develop his budding English-skills. Note that learning several languages simultaneously does not cause language delay. Many children grow up trilingual, so please do not worry about this. The speed at which a child learns the individual languages however depends on the amount of exposure to them, as well as on the opportunities and the need to speak them. As long as you can arrange the necessary English exposure for your son, his English will progress.

Will you still have a nanny when you move to Sweden? If yes, then you could continue with a similar setup as you have now, where the nanny speaks English with your son and you sing, read and watch programs with him in English. You could also look for an English-speaking playgroup for him to attend or find English-speaking families to arrange playdates with.

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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