Google+ Raising a Trilingual Child: Q&A: Should a Parent Stop Speaking one language and Switch to another one?


Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Q&A: Should a Parent Stop Speaking one language and Switch to another one?


Should a parent of a 2,5 years old bilingual child switch the languages to reinforce a third one (English)? Question from a trilingual Greek- French- English mother living in Montreal Canada with her French Canadian husband and bilingual Greek-French child.


Thank you so much for your website, I have definitely learned a lot by reading your articles.

Our son is a little over 2 and a half years old and I stay at home with him. We live in Montreal Canada, so our country is predominantly English but our city is very French. I am of Greek origin, but I am perfectly trilingual in Greek, French and English, with the latter being my main language. I have decided to speak to my son exclusively in Greek. My husband is French Canadian and we had decided early on that he would speak to him only in French. At this point my son speaks Greek and French and does not confuse the 2 languages. I am happy about this, however, I am starting to worry about his English language skills. He does not seem to understand English and definitely does not speak it, but it is extremely important for me that he do so. His books, TV, are only in English and my husband and I decided to only speak to English to each other for maximum exposure. The issue is that the school system here is French. We have decided to send him to a Greek elementary school, but it is still 70% French, 20% Greek, and 10% English. However, the English program is very advanced as I found out that most children of Greek parents are only learning English at home and therefore they are all fluent in English by the time they start elementary school. My family is very Greek/ English and my husband's very French, and our friends are 50% / 50%. I am now rethinking our choice of languages...should my husband be speaking to my son in English instead of French? What can we do to make sure he is very fluent in English?

Thank you so much for your help,



Hi Christina,

I am glad you found the material on the website useful.

You are absolutely right to rethink your trilingual family strategy. Your goal is and should be to support the minority languages at home. In your son's case those languages are English and Greek. He will receive plenty of exposure to French later at school.

Have you already talked to your husband about switching the languages? The solution that you proposed yourself is the best in your situation.

If your husband is willing to switch to speaking English exclusively, he would need to transition to it very slow (!). After reaching milestones in one language a child transfers whatever he learned to another one. You want to avoid taking away the language your child might have progressed in more. At this age you can not really say which language is the main language for a child, especially when the language input is about the same in both languages, such that they develop in parallel. During this transition make sure that your child has enough French language input from somewhere else. For instance, from a kindergarten. The transition needs to be smooth allowing for developing all three languages. Still speaking French, start from building some basic vocabulary in English and then use the learned words in the sentences. Translate them, if you feel your child does not understand what you say. Your goal is eventually to reach the full immersion.

Since your child has been already exposed to English, by listening you and your husband speaking to each other, he should have the necessary base and would feel comfortable speaking English in a relatively short time. Read the article about children’ passive language learning.

Your husband might need help of a toy. You could introduce an English speaking toy-friend to your son. Just get a new toy and tell your child that it speaks and understand only one language - English. You could even make a story about this toys previous life before getting to your home. My kids love when I talk for toys, it is a lot of fun for them. Kids love structure, it helps them to separate the languages, and they are more willing to accept a toy speaking some different language than a parent.

In case your husband does not feel comfortable completely switching to speaking English ( I am talking about the long run. You still would need to proceed as described above), he could speak both languages. This is a common strategy bilingual parents use when would like to pass on both languages to a child. He could alternate the languages daily or weekly or bi-weekly depending what suits best in your particular family situation.

Let me know if you have more question.

My best wishes for your family trilingual journey:)

Best Regards,

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