Google+ Raising a Trilingual Child: Question about language choice asked by British-Chinese parent living in Czech Republic.


Monday, August 17, 2015

Question about language choice asked by British-Chinese parent living in Czech Republic.

British Chinese and Czech family living in Czech republic asks a question about language choice. Parents would like to raise a trilingual child that speaks English, Chinese (Cantonese) and Czech. 

Hi :)

I'm expecting my first little girl in a week! I have intentions to raise her trilingual, except I have no idea how to go about it :(

Basically, my husband's Czech and will speak to her in Czech. We live in Prague, Czech Republic, so Czech's the community language. The Czech grandparents will obviously also speak Czech to the baby, and this set of grandparents will probably have more contact with my baby.

My husband and I speak English to each other. I'm native in English and my husband's near-native. I don't really speak any Czech.

I'm British Chinese - and therein lies the problem! Technically Cantonese is my mother tongue. I say technically, because I emigrated to England when I was 8 and my parents abandoned Chinese education for me and my sister altogether. As a little kid, you don't honestly care. So now, English has become my mother tongue - I'm native in English, but I honestly can't say the same for my Cantonese. My Cantonese is certainly fluent, but it needs warming up and my English is far more natural.

I can tell Cantonese is deeply ingrained in me though, because it takes only 30min of speaking in pure Cantonese before I start mixing my languages and accidentally speaking Cantonese to my Czech husband! When I first visited Hong Kong again after 8 years, I found myself able to think in Cantonese after being there for only 2 weeks, even though up till then my thought processes had been purely in English. So, in short, my Cantonese is rusty, but it's by no means bad.

Problem - we live in the Czech Republic. Between Czech, Cantonese, and English, you can imagine English is the most important and more useful language. I'd rather my little girl spoke native English than native Cantonese.

So, 1. I don't want to speak exclusively Cantonese, purely because English is more natural to me, and, 2. As I said, English is the more important language and my baby will mostly get native English from me.

I'm considering switching between Cantonese and English - like one day in one language and the next day in the other. Knowing me, I'll mix English with Cantonese even if I tried my best not to, but I don't mind so much if she's not at native level for Cantonese.

But I honestly don't know how best to go about this. I've heard so often that you shouldn't mix language when it comes from the same person. I'm afraid if I spoke exclusively Cantonese to her (something I feel would be near impossible), then her English will suffer, especially since we're not in an English-speaking country. However, if I do not teach her Cantonese, then no one will. Cantonese is not a common language in the Czech Republic, it is extremely difficult to find any Cantonese speakers, thus there is no natural Cantonese environment to expose my little girl to to help her pick it up more naturally outside of the home. And I'm afraid that if I started Cantonese too late - like when my girl would be 3-4 years old - she would reject the language precisely because it is not used in a natural environment.

Of course I'll ask my own parents to speak to her in Cantonese, but my parents live in England, and I'm as yet unsure how often we'd even be able to see them :(

And I don't want my daughter to end up monolingual... It's be a real pity. Our priority is definitely Czech and English. I understand Cantonese is not terribly useful, but I wanna give it a go. I think I'd regret it if I didn't at least try.

But... what's the best way to go about this? And is it all right to mix languages?



Hi Iris!

Congratulations on your pregnancy! It is wonderful that you'd like to raise a trilingual baby. I believe it is easily achievable, if your husband joins your efforts and if you consider a little change in your language strategy.

I know you said you would like to speak both English and Cantonese by alternating days. This is a great idea and you should go for it if the reasons for doing it go beyond concerns regarding your child’s English proficiency level. Otherwise I would suggest to consider speaking predominantly Cantonese to your child for at least the first year or two of his life and limit English to once a week activities. As you said, if you won't teach your baby Cantonese , nobody will.

This set up will help your child to receive maximum input in the minority language and will also help you to set your brain to function in Cantonese. After such a long break in using it you might not always have Cantonese words appearing in your head right when you need them. If you keep looking for a way to say things in your mother tongue and repeat the phrases in the right language you will eventually get the language fluency back.

Also your child's exposure to English will not be limited to your weekly activities with him. He will be exposed to English passively by observing you conversing with your husband. Your child will learn quite a bit with this kind of exposure. Read my article about passive language learning.

Your husband could also stimulate your child's English learning by periodically engaging in conversations with the baby. There are many opportunities for a child to learn and practice English outside the house throughout the life. Studying English as a foreign language at school is one of them. If you engage with extra colloquium activities with your child during that time, you will be able to stimulate his language development.

You don’t need to be concerned that your child picks up the language with an accent. There are non-native speakers who are successfully passing their second language onto their children relying on audio and video resources in that language. Besides, you speak English without an accent and you will be a great model to your child, when after establishing your child's Cantonese , you adjust you language strategy to include even more English in your daily life.

If I understand right, your parents speak English to you. I believe it might be hard for them to start speaking Cantonese to you and your child. I would discuss with your parents about a possibility for them to speak Cantonese to their soon to be trilingual grandchild. Best would be to start using video calling with grandparents and practice speaking Cantonese exclusively, so everyone can get used to this new arrangement.

The following articles will help you to plan your multilingual family journey. Read them, if you haven’t.
Raising a Bilingual Child: setting your priorities from the start.

Raising a Bilingual Child. How to Start So You Don't Feel Giving It Up Halfway Through.

Good luck with your little one! Let me know if you have more questions.


Are you bringing up a bilingual or multilingual child or are you a parent to be and have a question? 

Read other parents questions and my answers in Multilingual Family Q&A Series

Feel free to contact me.

For privacy protection I can change your name and omit some personal details, if you wish. 

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Q&A: Parents heritage languages are different from community language. How to support the trilingual child's minority languages and keep them in balance.

Bilingualism and speech delay. How can you help? 

Language strategies for parents of bilingual / multilingual child.

Multilingual Family Interview: When your home languages are different from community language. Resources for Teaching Phonics and Reading to Children.


  1. Hi Iris, we need to talk. I am Czech, my wife is Cantonese living in New Zealand. Happy to share our experience with our 19 month old baby. David

    1. I would be happy to share our experience with our 2 year old learning Cantonese, French and English in Canada.

    2. Hi David!
      Hi Daniel!

      Thank you for your willingness to share your experience in raising a trilingual child. Please contact me using the email address that can be found on contact us page.

      Thank you!