Google+ Raising a Trilingual Child: Exposing our kids to languages


Monday, April 22, 2013

Exposing our kids to languages

Narrow street in Italy
Since our multilingual family lives in Italy, Italian is the language kids hear most of the time.  It is also the language they speak with the father, who is Italian. I am the mother and speak Russian with them and English with my husband.

I already see some advantages for bilingual kids hearing the parents speaking a third language:
  • understanding conversation on intuitive level (more about Passive listening and language learning);
  • pronouncing words correctly ( I started teaching my children English once a week);
  • decreasing the exposure to the majority language

and I hope later at school our children will be able to learn English fast as well.

We have chosen a "one parent - one language" approach; however, we both read English books to our kids and sing English songs from time to time. 

Multilingual family language knowledge:
Mother - Russian, English , Italian, German
Father - Italian, English, German, Russian, French
Children - Russian, Italian, some English

What are your language groups?

Books on Raising Trilingual Kids

Language Strategies for Trilingual Families: Parents' Perspectives (Parents' and Teachers' Guides) by Andreas Braun  - Kindle  - Paperback

Growing up with Three Languages: Birth to Eleven (Parents' and Teachers' Guides) by Xiao-lei Wang  - Kindle - Paperback

Trilingual by Six: The sane way to raise intelligent, talented children by Lennis Dippel MD - Kindle - Paperback


You might also like reading:

 Life Story: A Journey to Multilingualism.

Planting a language tree. Does passive language learning work?  

7 facts that can determine the language spoken between multilingual siblings. 

Life Story: Trilingual mama - trilingual kid. Why would it be any other way?  


  1. We live in the uk. Daddy is french. Muummy is chinese. We try one parent one language but we read and sing in english. Also between mummy and daddy, we speak english.

    1. Thank you for stopping by! It is a pleasure to virtually meet another trilingual family! What a wonderful language combination - French, Chinese and English! Your child is lucky :) How old is your little one now? I wonder what was his / her first word and in which language? Good luck in raising a trilingual kid!

  2. I'm American, my wife is Italian, and we're planning on raising a family in Germany. We'd love our kids to be trilingual, but we're not sure how to do it.

    I know reading a lot is important, and I intend to read a TON in English. I want them to be fully capable and comfortable reading, writing, and speaking English.

    But - shouldn't I also be reading to them in German, so they'll succeed in school? Or in Italian, so they'll learn the proper language, not just my wife's dialect? How do you manage reading in all the different languages?

    1. Thank you for your comment! I think your family have a great predisposition for raising trilingual children successfully. If you and your wife keep speaking to your child your languages - English and Italian respectfully - your little one will be getting enough practice in all three languages. (Assuming that she or he will be going to a German daycare and later to school and will learn to speak German there)

      I understand your worries about German language. The school system is not that simple in Germany. The decision whether or not to do some German language activities at home depends on when your child goes to a daycare. If he starts it early ( let's say around age of 2) , you might just decide to concentrate on your home languages, as the community language eventually will be your child's stronger language. Just teach your bilingual child everything you can in your respectful languages, so he is prepared to learn already known concepts in a third language - German. One thing is to just learn a new name for something you already know, compare to learning a new concept and the words in that regards.

      Also, you do not have to start reading in all three languages at the same time. I think the best would be for you to read kids books in English and for your wife - in Italian. This will create a good base for your child's minority language development. You do not have to break a bank and buy books for your trilingual child in all the languages. You can just look for good interactive books for kids in one of the languages and talk about the pictures and what is written there.
      I would start reading to your child books in German after she or he masters speaking the minority languages. That said, nothing bad would happen if you occasionally read children's books in German even earlier.

      I would not be too much concerned that your child will learn an Italian dialect and not classic Italian language. Especially if your kid needs to be able to speak with and understand the Italian grandparents and relatives. Your child will be learning the Italian language, while your wife reads books in Italian.

      Have you and your spouse already decided what language you would speak to each other at home? In not, I would suggest to choose the minority languages that needs more support. It could be Italian, if you think your child will be learning English as a subject at school.

      Good luck on your trilingual family journey!

    2. Hi Galina - wow, thank you for the extensive answer!

      Just a few more follow-up questions: first, we currently speak at home a mix of about 60% English, 40% Italian. Should we choose just ONE of those to speak once a kid arrives?

      Also, as far as the OPOL strategy goes, what happens when you're at dinner and everyone's talking about the same topic? Do you stick to your guns and speak just your language, even when the conversation's taking place in the other language?

      Do we have to decide what language the kids should speak between each other, or do we just let them speak whatever and worry about what we're speaking?

      Thanks! As you can see, we want to get this right :)

    3. It is better to keep everything related to the languages as clear and simple as possible until your child starts speaking. (I give some tips in the article Bilingualism and speech delay. How can you help? ) For this reason I would advise to choose either English or Italian. Give preference to the minority language that will have less support in a short and in a long run. In your case I would choose Italian, as your child most likely will be studying English as a foreign language later at school.

      If you and your wife understand each other languages, you can stick with them even when you are all together. So you would speak to your child only English, your wife - only Italian.You and your wife should only speak the chosen language. You might like reading my post What language multilingual family speaks at the table?

      Do not think that you would have to go on like that forever. Not at all! It is important to keep language consistency until your child starts speaking. Later you can adjust your trilingual family language plan the way it would work best for everyone and depending on the need in a particular language support.

      Trilingual siblings. Unfortunately you can not decide what language your small children would speak to each other. Can you push them towards a particular language? Yes, but the result is not guaranteed. My children, who are two years apart, speak minority language when they play, even when there are majority language speakers around. Read 7 facts that can determine the language spoken between multilingual siblings. , if you haven't. It will give you ideas what you can do to help your little multilingual children to choose the language you want them to speak.

      Hope this helps! Keep me posted how thing are going when the time comes ;)

    4. Thanks so much for your help. Really appreciated!

  3. Hi Galina,

    I'm Mai Nguyen. I'm very glad to see your blog because I also have a trilingual family :) My husband speaks English and Korean. Both of them are his native languages. I speaks Vietnamese. I and my husband talk to each other in English, and we live in the USA.

    We have a 3 month little baby girl, and of course, we want to give her the best as we can. The ability to speak 3 languages is one of the best which we can give her.

    I absolutely speak in Vietnamese to my baby. I think my husband should talk to her in Korean because it is the minority language, and she can learn English from the environment. However, I'm really confused about it because I wont have a plan to send her to daycare until around 4 or 5 (I prefer family education before that age). That means the English environment for her is enough for her language development? Besides, we strictly do not let our baby use TV much, so the chance for her to learn English from environment is quite low. She just hears English from our conversation or when we go out for daily activities. Besides, my English is not good enough. I still have trouble with grammar and pronunciation. I'm worried if she learn English from me, it would be terrible. And you know that our primary mission absolutely want her fully comfortable (even really good in English).

    And how about reading? Should he read in Korean or English? I see your family use English, so would it make confusing ourr child when he speaks 2 languages at the same time to her like that???

    Therefore, I think about a safer way: My husband just talk in English to her. We can wait to teach her Korean later after she is quite fluent in Vietnamese and English. But to be honest, I'm not so sure it's the best way to go. I think I need your advice and your experience.

    Thank you so much.

    1. Hi Mai Nguyen! Thank you for your comment. It is great that you are planing on raising your child trilingual. I understand your dilemma.

      Here is what I would do: I would start with teaching your child your minority languages first by concentrating only on Korean and Vietnamese until your daughter starts speaking. This would happen at around the age of 2.

      Until that time your trilingual family's language arrangement should be as such: your husband speaks Korean to your daughter, you speak - Vietnamese and you and your husband speaks English to each other. Your husband can periodically, let's say about once a week, do some English language activities with the child: read books,sing songs, finger play, nursery rhymes ... ; however, his focus should be all on Korean.

      When your child is about 2,5-3 years old, you should start turning the passive English language knowledge into active. Your whole trilingual family can start speaking it at the table and at certain occasions. The goal is to slowly start interacting more and more in English, still keeping both minority languages (Korean and Vietnamese) exposure.

      As your daughter grows up she would need more peer interaction. There are many opportunities for your daughter to play with her English-speaking friends (playgrounds, play groups,little kids classes).

      If you homeschool, it is a good idea to check what children should be able to know / do before school. Search for Preschool Curriculum for ideas and cover it at home. You can introduce concepts in the minority language first and then teach them in English.

      Another option, which could work for your family, is that your bilingual husband switches between languages with your daughter. He can speak English one week and Korean another. The week period is not something fixed. He needs to see what timing works better for him. It could be every other day, every 3 days, week. He might also feel comfortable and have a good response by switching between the languages with two- weeks interval.

      I also preferred to keep my kids away from TV before the age of 2. Reading and talking to a child helps to build the vocabulary faster. However, you and your husband should feel free to watch and to listen English language programs and radio yourselves. In my family case, we, parents, do not watch the country language TV at front of our children in order to keep the balance between minority and majority languages.

      I hope this helps! Good luck in raising a trilingual child! :)

  4. Thank you so much for all helpful information which you gave me. I would try your family strategy. Hope that it work well in our situation :">
    Thank a lot, again :)

  5. Hello. I'm Pearl. My husband is Korean, and I'm a Cebuano (from Cebu, Philippines). We speak English to communicate since I know very little Korean. We live in Korea. We have a 9 month old boy and we wish to teach him the 3 languages. I've read about OPOL strategy however, my husband is usually out working long hours and so most of the time, I'm the only person talking to our son. Am I supposed to speak to him in Cebuano or English? And also use some Korean that I know? Currently, I talk to him using English 45%, Cebuano 50%, 5% Korean. And my husband usually speaks Korean if he's with him.

    1. Hi Pearl!

      Your trilingual family language strategy will depend on whether you plan to stay in Korea or move away at some point.

      If you plan to move away, it makes sense to concentrate on the country language - Korean and your mother tongue - Cebuano.

      If not, then the language priority would depend on the school your child will go to - an English speaking or Korean.

      In case your child will go to a Korean school, I would ask your husband to speak English to your child and to you, when you are all together, and Korean, when he is alone with the child. You might benefit from reading this article on passive language learning in multilingual family
      Since your husband works long hours, make sure that the child receives some Korean language input from other sources, such as Korean speaking playmates, grandparents, daycare… But do not forget to concentrate on your language too :)

      Since you are the only Cebuano speaker, I would use the language with your child as much as possible. Please consider speaking it exclusively to him and translating your conversations to others. Read this article to learn why I recommend to speak the minority language in public. Sing songs to increase your child's
      phonemics awareness.

      Try to get some books and video material in your language. Stock on you language resources every time you go back home to Philippines. Try to find other language speakers near by. If this is hard, use video calling with relatives and friends to increase the heritage language input for your child.

      Let me know if you have more questions. Good luck!

  6. HI, I am in a similar situation as Pearl, however, we are about to bring our children up in a quad-lingual (if that is a word?) environment. I am myself from Norway, my wife is from the Philippines, and we live in the UAE. Me and my wife don't speak each others languages, so we only communicate in English (which is also the common language spoken here.) We are trying the OPOL strategy, but we also have a filippino housemaid, and I insist on her and my wife communicating in English, as that is the most important language for the kids to learn. In addition, since we are living in the UAE, our oldest has already started to learn Arabic in nursery, that is where the quad-lingual part comes in, but so far she does not take any interest in it.
    What I want to ask, is if it is a good idea to let the housemaid only speak English, or should I let her speak Tagalog (Filippino) language to the kids? I am worried that they will then only want to speak that language, as that is what they are hearing all the time, and will not be speaking English or Norwegian, since they are not that much exposed to it. ( I spend a lot of time at work, and also work shifts, so I am often sleeping when the kids are awake and the other way around, whereas my wife is a stay-at-home mom and spends a lot of time with the kids.)
    Also, do you have some more tips on how to teach the kids the minority language? I have not lived in Norway for the past 10+ years, so I am out of habit quite often speaking English to the kids also, as I am no longer used to speak my old language. Not knowing any other Norwegian expats here makes it hard to remember to actually speak it.

    1. It is wonderful that your children are exposed to four languages!

      Do not worry about their ability to learn several languages at the same time. While kids are still small they are able to pick up languages easily and even understand the language they are not spoken to directly. This is what I write in the article on passive language learning .

      Your kids already hear you and your wife speak English to each other. They also hear other people outside the house. And I assume that they will be learning English at school too. If you wish, you could add more active interactions by making English the family language and speak it when you are all together. However, I would wait a little, as it is better if you speak Norwegian to your kids as much as possible.

      It is wonderful that you were able to find a nanny that speaks Tagalog. It gives one more point of language reference to your kids. So I would leave things the way they are. The only possible change you could do is to look for a Norwegian speaking nanny.

      Even though your kids speak Tagalog very well, it is their minority language and it will stay this way unless they receive a formal schooling in it. As far as I understood their school is in Arabic, so expect that language to become your kids main language of communication.

      As of Norwegian, it is very hard for a child start speaking a language, if he does not have an adequate input it in. Limiting exposure to other languages without providing more input in your language won't help.

      Look at this situation from a little different perspective. It definitely pains to realize that your children will not be as proficient in Norwegian as in their other three languages, but they have this unique opportunity to be fully trilingual from birth with a good base created for learning Norwegian, when they are a little older.

      It is important to keep on the efforts steady and do not give up.
      To get your Norwegian back and to help your kids learn it too, look for other Norwegian speakers, do not necessarily have to be with kids, and organize meet ups once a week (even once a month would work). Take your child along with you and immerse them into the language. They will have more interest in learning it, even if it will require some effort on their side.

      Make a rule, that when you are home, all reading with your children should be in your language only. Reading aloud is best what you can do for vocabulary building. Do not ask if your children would like to read. Just take a book and start reading it to them. Be aware that they might have some difficulty with vocabulary at first. I provide some reading tips here.

      Ask your wife/ babysitter to play Norwegian kids songs. I have some Norwegian Kids Radio Stations listed on the website. Radio is great for your child to listen to when you are away.

      And here is from my experience. When you used “wrong” language speaking to your kids , stop. Do not carry on the conversations. Correct yourself by saying the same in Norwegian. Lookup for words if needed . As time passes, you will do it less and less. And yes, reading books to your kids will set your brain back to the language of your childhood. :)

      Good Luck!

  7. Thank you for your advice, it puts things into perspective. We are pregnant with our first baby, and were wondering what language we should speak to our child. I am Chilean/American and my husband is French. We speak to each other in both French and English. I'm thinking of speaking Spanish to the baby, and husband will speak French. Maybe we will opt to just speak to each other in English so the baby can become familiar with the third language (We are moving to France, so French will be the majority language). Thanks again!

    1. Hi Yisol!

      Thank you for your warm words :)

      Congratulations on your pregnancy!!!

      I see you’ve already figured everything out :) Keep me updated about your trilingual baby :) I hope one day you will feel like sharing your baby progress in the Life Story Series.

      Have you already read my tips in The 9 Steps of Raising a Bilingual Child?

      Good luck to your family on this exciting multilingual journey!

  8. Hi. I am romanian, my husband is turkish, we speak in french and we will be moving to India. We are planning to have a child and I am afraid that he will be too confused to even speak..any language. Do you have an advice for us?

  9. Hello, my husband and I live in US. He speaks Polish and I speak Spanish but we communicate in English with some words in Spanish and Polish. Our baby will born in less than a month and we both want our baby to speak or native languages in order to communicate with our families, any suggestions? Thanks

  10. Hi, im encouraged by this blogue because i can see ils possible to really teach kids 3 langages. My cause is diiferent. I am rwandese and my husband is togolese. I speak fluent french, english, and my mother tongue which is kinyarwanda. My husband an i speak in french. We wanted our kids to speak at least one of our Language and so i decided to speak to them my Language. We however want them to learn english quite early but i can t speak the two languages at the same time so we let them listen to english cartoon 3/4 of the time and i am wondering if this Will be ã good method in the long run for the to acquire english ? French is the majority spoken language so i ma not so worried forrench but we would really want them to understand the 3 languages. Are we doing the wright thing? Thank you in advance

  11. Hi Galina,

    Thank you for your insightful website. Our situation seems slightly different to others above as we will be living in one of the minority languages country, Wales.

    My wife and I live in Wales. Her mother tongue is Latvian and mine is Welsh and we speak English together. We hope to start a family one day. I feel having three languages at home is for the benefit of the child and two of those languages are part of the child's heritage. English and Welsh won't be difficult due to the child being raised in Wales, however Latvian is obviously going to be more of a challenge. My wife is not as keen on three languages being spoken at home and has valid reasons. These include her worry that exposing a child to three languages will confuse and overwhelm the child and lead to later development. Furthermore, she feels the child would benefit from more 'useful' languages than Latvian and Welsh. Thirdly it puts a lot of pressure on one parent, as my wife does not have any Latvian support network living near by. She also feels that the child would always struggle to become fluent in Latvian, and language development depends on the child's natural ability which is ingrained in them.

    I understand my wife's concerns and agree with aspects of them, however there is no better teacher than it's parents, and if a language is not spoken from an early age then it becomes harder to learn and the best chance has passed by. I will respect my wife's choice once we have children but wonder if there are examples of success stories specifically with minority languages? Also I wonder is there any further advice or tips you could give us to succeed in our potentially tri-lingual household.

    Grazie / Спасибо

  12. Hello! My name is Manuela. My husband and I live in the United States and we are pregnant with our first baby! We both speak italian, spanish and english (i am italian and my husband is mexican but we are fluent in each other's language and work in english). Since we live in an English speaking country, we only plan on speaking it when we have guests or we want to read books. I was planning on speaking italian and my husband spanish but what language should we speak when we are all together in the house? Also, even though we live in the US, we have a lot of interactions with people that speak spanish (our group of friends is 70% mexican) and we live close to my sister and niece ( they are the only two people - that we see every single week- in our circle that speak italian). Btw my husband's parents and mine only speak their native languages and we talk to them on the phone regularly. Any suggestions on which language should my husband and I choose when we talk to each other? Should we pick a "home" language for when we are talking to our baby?
    Thank you in advance!!!!

  13. Hi I came across this page and it can be very helpful to me. I am Brazilian and my wife Lithuanian. We have only one child, a boy who is 2y5mo now. I only speak to him in Portuguese and my wife in Lithuanian, and we talk between ourselves in English. He is somehow exposed to Russian and rarely to Spanish and other languages. We live in Ireland where he will.also learn gaelic at school. He is not speaking at all yet and on say maybe 5 random words. However, we can see he understands both Portuguese and Lithuanian reasonably well. We've tried many different techniques to teach him the languages such as busy books, cartoons, books, drawings, etc. We heard from the creche she's having some challenging behaviour and they believe he might be frustrated that he can't communicate. Any word of wisdom on our situation?

  14. Hi I came across this page and it can be very helpful to me. I am Brazilian and my wife Lithuanian. We have only one child, a boy who is 2y5mo now. I only speak to him in Portuguese and my wife in Lithuanian, and we talk between ourselves in English. He is somehow exposed to Russian and rarely to Spanish and other languages. We live in Ireland where he will.also learn gaelic at school. He is not speaking at all yet and on say maybe 5 random words. However, we can see he understands both Portuguese and Lithuanian reasonably well. We've tried many different techniques to teach him the languages such as busy books, cartoons, books, drawings, etc. We heard from the creche she's having some challenging behaviour and they believe he might be frustrated that he can't communicate. Any word of wisdom on our situation?