Will My Trilingual Child Be Equally Fluent in All Three Languages?

by Alice · 21 comments

If we have three languages in our family, are my children going to be equally fluent in all languages and be able to speak them with native-like ability?

Answer from Alice Lapuerta:
The chances of acquiring equal, native-like fluency in all three languages is probably a bit unrealistic. As with bilingualism, language aptitude is subjected to change over time, as the child’s needs and circumstances change.

There are always stronger and weaker languages, and some languages are only acquired passively. Tell yourself this is not a bad thing. Identity issues and language preference will also come into play sooner or later.

Sometimes it seems our children have ‘forgotten’ a language, only to pull it out again as soon as the need arises. I have found that fluency waxes and wanes as my child moves from one life stage to another.

In my daughter’s preschool years, Spanish dominated. As soon as she entered German kindergarten, she preferred German. Then we relocated and adopted English as a family language, and lo and behold she prefers English over all languages.  As soon as abuelita comes to visit us for several weeks, suddenly Spanish is “in” again.

It is not that she forgot her aptitude in the other languages, but she simply decides to focus on a certain language depending on her needs and circumstances. Knowing this, we shouldn’t set ourselves up for failure by setting unrealistic goals such as aiming for ‘equal, native-like fluency’ in all three languages. We relax more knowing that it is natural for our children to go through phases when they just don’t speak with native-like ability – at least not yet.

For more information on raising multilingual children, see Madalena Cruz-Ferreira’s article, “Raising Multilingual Children: Why the Fuss?” in the March-April 2007 issue of Multilingual Living Magazine: (multilingualliving.com/enjoy-multilingual-living-magazine).

Alice Lapuerta, the Editor of Multilingual Living Magazine, is a regular contributor at Multilingual Living. She grew up in a trilingual household of German, Korean and English. She and her husband from Ecuador live in Austria where they are raising their three children trilingually in German, Spanish and English.

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{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Martin May 13, 2010 at 2:34 am

Our situation is this: I’m British, my partner is German, and we live in Spain. Our son, now 6, was born in Spain. I met my partner here and had never studied German before so we started and continue talking together in English. Ever since our son was born I speak to him only in English and my partner solely in German (exceptions are when we have visitors etc., who only know Spanish). Daniel went to a Spanish nursery school for three years so is pretty proficient in this language. Now he goes to a German school (though many of the students are Spanish so that’s the main lingua franca of the playground etc.) He doesn’t like it when I speak Spanish to him though he tends at times to slip into this language when he speaks to me, similarly with his mother. There was quite a bit of cross-language mixing on his behalf at first, but that’s gradually disappearing. I teach English and my partner teaches German, so we both have a good idea about the linguistic and pronunciation issues involved. My only fear, if you can call it that, with his English, is that his only real exposure to it is from me, my partner (who speaks it excellently but is not of course a native) and the TV…from which he comes up with various American expressions from cartoon shows which I would never utter! Therefore, maybe his English would sound a bit odd or stilted to native English speakers. (Probably the same happens with his German.) The solution to this? As many foreign trips to England and Germany as we can afford, and exposure to as much “real” English and German as possible, whether via the internet, TV, songs, etc.

This said, he’s able to translate between the three languages for someone not able to speak one of them, and knows which words belong to which language, and his pronunciation and amount of vocubulary in general is pretty good, all things considered.


2 Corey May 15, 2010 at 1:14 am

Martin, it is amazing to read your family’s language organization. Fabulous! I think you are right on track with you speaking English, your partner speaking German and Spanish being picked up from the community. A wonderful way for all three languages to have their place in your child’s life.
I wouldn’t worry so much about the issues with accent. Think of the alternative: no (or at least very little) English! And that would be such a pity. The trips to English and German speaking countries is one of the best ways to help work on that, as well as encourage more language use.
In fact, I’m envious! I’d love it if my children could pick up a third language by living in a country with another community language!
Keep up the dedication and continue to enjoy your wonderful mix of languages!


3 Erin Renault May 15, 2010 at 7:36 am

I am American, my husband is French, and we have two daughters, th oldest being 4 years old. We have been living in Italy for the past two years. Our oldest was two when we arrived and was already dealing with learning to talk and doing it in two languages. And then she learned Italian. Today she is more proficient in Italian than English or French. Often times at home she will speak in Italian, even though we talk only in French or English and any movies or books are in English or French. We have found that she has difficulty at times expressing herself in these two languages and we are constantly reminding her to speak in one of the two languages. Is all this “normal”? What can we do to help her in improving her fluency in “our” languages?


4 Cathy May 17, 2010 at 11:08 am

I would love to hear any suggestions on how to raise a child trilingually in a strongly monolingual country. My baby is six months old, so I have to find a way how to do this “right” (for us) I am bilingual (Tagalog and English) I grew up bilingual. My husband is German, and we live in Germany. We decided to speak English at home and let him pick up German through his environment. Where does that leave Tagalog? There are only a few native speakers in my area. My sister’s kids speak only Tagalog, so this is important to me.


5 Laura March 1, 2012 at 6:39 pm

Hi Cathy,
I would suggest you speak Tagalog and your husband continues to speak English –and English could still be the family language, but when it’s just you and your child I would suggest you just speak Tagalog to her–and read, read, read in Tagalog to her as much as possible, even books that originally are German or English. And then of course lots of reinforcement through songs or other media.
Good luck!!!


6 Katia May 17, 2010 at 8:00 pm

What about finding other English-speaking parents/families in your city who also speak English at home and want to teach their kids English and maybe organizing some get-togethers with those families and their kids? So that your child has opportunity to make friends with other English-speaking children and maybe even speak English with them? When I was growing up in USA in a Russian family my parents had Russian friends (also immigrants from Russia) who would come over for dinner with their kids, and while adults would mingle and chat among themselves, we kids would all play together and would all speak Russian in the process. Great thing was that for many years we also used to live within walking distance of each other for a long time, so we, the kids, had a chance to get-together on the playground and visit each other on a regular basis and all the while we talked in Russian. I don’t know how hard it is to find other immigrants from English-speaking countries where you live. But if you could, having a language based community for your child to interact with and practice language skills in is very helpful. This becomes especially relevant, when, as kids get older and older, they tend to spend more time with their peers and they tend to look up more to their peers than to the parents. Just having that contact with a community of peers who speak your language is very helpful.


7 Cathy May 19, 2010 at 9:52 am

Thanks Katia! You just gave me the idea to organize an English-speaking playgroup!


8 Corey May 19, 2010 at 10:16 am

Erin – yes, everything is on track! Just as you observed, your daughter is using Italian at home sometimes because she is getting so much exposure to that language. Three languages is NOT too many languages so just stick to what you are doing. Exposure and consistency are key for trilingual families in particular. Why? Because you want to establish the following as early as possible: (1) habit: you want your daughter to simply get into the habit of speaking each language with you and your husband. This comes by being consistent over time. (2) vocabulary: the more your daughter hears you and your husband speaking your languages, the more expressions and vocabulary she will pick up. We can’t communicate well if we don’t have the words to do so – and those words come from being around others (hearing!) who use the words we want to use.
It is possible that your daughter may end up wanting to speak Italian all the time. If this happens, this isn’t your fault! Just remain consistent and in time your daughter will come back around.


9 Corey May 19, 2010 at 10:23 am

Cathy – to your question “Where does that leave Tagalog”? Yes, excellent question to ask yourself! I would recommend that you try out the following for a while and see how it goes: You and your husband speak whatever language you want together, your husband tries to always speak English with your baby, you try to always speak Tagalog with your baby. Let German come from the community.
Here are my reasons for suggesting this: Your baby is going to learn German no matter what and the chances are very high that your baby will get a lot of English exposure over time as well (not as much as German, of course). Tagalog is the one that you will need to focus on as much as possible. Set up the habit now for both you AND your baby – you both need to start establishing that comfort level which is needed so that it comes as second nature down the road.
If this plan doesn’t work, no worries, try out a new configuration. And if you move to an English-speaking country? Then your husband can gently and slowly switch from English to German.


10 Corey May 19, 2010 at 10:25 am

Katia – YES, great idea!!! I second Katia’s recommendation! Here is an article I wrote about starting a language playgroup – it may help. http://www.multilingualliving.com/2010/04/23/how-multilingual-families-can-start-a-language-playgroup/

I so hope you and others will share YOUR tips on starting language playgroups and what benefits and pitfalls you experienced! 🙂


11 Cathy May 20, 2010 at 10:06 am

This is a learning curve for me. Though i was raised bilingually, the Philippines is a place where many people are trilingual, and took that fact for granted. Thank you for this website! I subscribed to the magazine and thought it was a shame that its run ended.


12 Corey May 20, 2010 at 4:04 pm

Cathy – yes, it is amazing the difference between living in a country where most of the population speaks at least two languages, if not more. It comes as such a surprise when we live in a fairly monolingual country and will NEED to give some attention and effort to language! I’m going through a similar realization with my kids but in a totally different situation: swimming. As a child, I grew up near a river and learned to swim one summer after another, pretty much on my own. Here in Seattle the water is too cold most of the year and so everyone signs up their children for swimming classes. Even though that feels so strange to me and so un-natural based on my childhood, it looks like my kids won’t learn to swim any other way! Thank you for sharing!


13 Diane May 23, 2010 at 3:51 am

My mother language is French, I live in Israel with my Israeli husband and our 1 month old boy. My husband is encouraging me to speak French to our son. However, he does not speak french himself. As my Hebrew is still very basic we communicate in English.
So now i am puzzled… Obviously my husband will speak Hebrew to our son. I could speak French but my biggest concern is that MY HUSBAND will not understand what I say to our child. This disturbs me because I think that it is very important that everyone understands each other in the family. I find it primordial education wise.
In this case, I could drop the French and raise our son bilingual English-Hebrew. Or I could speak French and translate as much as possible everything in English to my husband (my husband is not into learning French by the way…) Or I could speak French when I am 1 on 1 with my son and English when we are the 3 of us.
At the moment I am mixing all the languages and I think I should start being consequent soon! What are your advises/experiences? Thank you!


14 martin May 23, 2010 at 11:31 pm

Diane, I’d say that you should definitely go ahead with speaking French to your son. You’ll probably find that your husband begins to pick it up as well, at least passively, even though he may not actively wish to learn the language; but the fact that he actually wants you to use this language is very positive.


15 Corey May 23, 2010 at 11:36 pm

Diane – I definitely agree with Martin! And especially for you, I made sure today’s post was about Alice’s experience raising her daughter trilingually, even though she didn’t understand her husband’s language! So very touching and what encouragement! Let us know what you think and if Martin and Alice’s support helps! Here is Alice’s article: http://www.multilingualliving.com/2010/05/23/trilingualism-just-do-it/


16 Aidan August 5, 2010 at 12:42 am

Thanks for setting up your site, it is really great. My family situation is similar to the other commenters. I am Irish with English as my mother tongue, my wife is Polish and we live in Holland. We have followed a one parent one language strategy with our three daughters from the start. The girls get Polish from my wife, English from me and Dutch from the community. My older daughters (5 & 6) go to school now so Dutch is their main language even outside of school. However, they only ever speak Polish to my wife an other Poles and they only speak English to English speakers. My youngest daughter (2) speaks a mixture of three now but no doubt she will be a speaking Dutch primarily soon.
In our case English is the weakest language but we are okay with that because English is a major prestige language here so they will definitely be motivated to improve when they are older. We were most concerned about Polish being dropped as we know many Polish children who only speak Dutch.
We are actually considering introducing Spanish as a fourth language in the next years by sending the kids to summer camp. Both my wife and I speak multiple languages and the older girls already want to learn Spanish because we go to Spain regularly. I think that a child needs a main language particularly to facilitate schooling but after that I think that everything is flexible. You don’t have to speak every language you know at native level, it can be a lot fun just knowing the basics, the same rules apply for children.


17 Corey August 16, 2010 at 10:40 pm

Thank you so much for your comment, Aidan! Your family’s languages sound amazing and fun and fabulous – boy am I envious! I totally agree with you about English and what a great statement: “You don’t have to speak every language you know at native level, it can be a lot fun just knowing the basics, the same rules apply for children.” I can not agree with that more! I think it is silly that we spend so much time and effort trying to define what, exactly, a bilingual/multilingual is. I call myself multilingual, even if I can’t converse perfectly in some of my “other” languages. As Madalena says so well in her Ask Madalena answers: our languages ebb and flow, meander and wander based on when we need them, how much exposure we are receiving, if there are other speakers around, etc. etc. Having FUN with languages is what makes it all worth it!
I just checked out your blog – fabulous! So glad to read your comment here!


18 adonflor September 27, 2010 at 5:43 pm

A very interesting discussion indeed! I strongly believe that in our world one needs to be fluent in at least two languages for any chance for a happy and successful life. Raising our children as trilingual, I believe it is the best gift we can give them for life. But in the same time I strongly believe that we must be careful not to ruin their childhood for the sake of learning languages.

Our situation is as follows: I am a Greek speaking Cypriot living in Cyprus. (I think it is obvious by now that I am not fluent in English). My wife is a trilingual half Bulgarian, half Cypriot (actually a bit more complicated than that but this is not really relevant). She speaks fluently Greek, Bulgarian and English since she had an English primary and secondary education here in Cyprus. We decided to raise our daughter as a trilingual. So for the first 18 months we only spoke Greek to her. Sometimes mom would sing to her Bulgarian songs. When she was about 18 months old her mom begun speaking/reading to her in Bulgarian. By the age of two and six months she could understand Bulgarian but she would reply in Greek. Then a summer trip to Bulgaria did the trick. At the beginning she felt frustrated for she could not communicate with her cousins in the village. On day 2 or 3 of our trip, she woke up in the morning and asked me: Why can’t I speak Bulgarian? I told her that I was sure she could speak Bulgarian if she wanted to. Hat Trick! The same day she spoke Bulgarian. You might say out of the blue, but the truth was that she already knew the language because of her mom’s talking and reading during the previous year. It was just that she didn’t feel the necessity to speak it since everyone around her spoke and could understand Greek. But now she had no other option. So there she was. She started with simple words at the beginning, then sentences and by the time we came back to Cyprus a couple of weeks later she could express herself in Bulgarian almost as good as in Greek.

Then at the age of three we sent her to an English speaking nursery (after having spent a few months and a couple of hours every day at a Greek nursery). There she was faced with another challenge: learning to communicate in English. There was a bit of frustration during the first couple of months, but that was it. I must stress here that her teachers were excellent and although native English speakers they knew enough Greek to speak to her when it was absolutely necessary. Since then Greek has become the “dad to daughter language” which is also the community language as well as our family language i.e. when we are all three of us or all five of us (plus her 20 years older brother and his girlfriend :-)). Bulgarian is the “Mom to child language” but she also gets the chance to use it with her grandmother and cousins (also trilingual) here in Cyprus as well as with some family friends. English is her school language and apart from school she has many other opportunities to speak it here in Cyprus.

The three basic rules we follow are:
1. We do not mix up words and we always start and finish a sentence in one language. We insist that when she doesn’t know a word in one language to ask instead of using a word from another language. I think this is very important and I noticed that this doesn’t put any pressure to her, on the contrary she is more than happy and sometimes relieved to know the right word for the right language.
2. We speak a language that everybody around us understands . This is a matter of being polite and excluding people from a discussion is not polite at all.
3. The child must have plenty of time for UNSTRUCTURED play with other kids and for getting lost in “fantasy land” by herself. We feel that this process of continuous structuring in her mind needs to be balanced with as many as possible unstructured activities.

By the age of 5 we had to deal with the issue of reading and writing using three entirely different alphabets (Greek, Cyrillic and Latin/English). I think the trick here is not to put pressure on the child to learn all of them at once, but – as with speaking a language – leave an interval of at least one year before the child is introduced to reading and writing another language. So she started with reading/writing English at reception (always attending an English school) while she only played around with Greek letters and for which she learned all the sounds by asking continuously: which letter is this dad?. A few months later she discovered that she could read words in Greek, all by herself and through fun and play while her English literacy skills at school were developing through a structured method. (it might be useful to note that Greek is a phonetic language and there is no guessing as to how a word should be pronounced as in English. It is spoken as it is written more or less like in Spanish, although diphthongs in Greek can be very tricky).

Then in year 1 she started reading/writing in Greek at school, since it is obligatory for Greek – speakers in English schools to follow simultaneously the official Greek Language curriculum. She is 7 now, has just begun year 2 and her literacy skills in English are well advanced for her age (her reading age in English is 9 years and 9 months) while her literacy skills in Greek are also excellent. Strangely enough, or maybe not so strangely, it seems that her English literacy skills helped her catch up quicker with Greek since she was already familiar with the basic ideas of reading such as what is a sentence, punctuation, expression, what is a verb etc. She could read sentences and paragraphs in Greek right from the beginning whereas she had to start with simple word books in English a year earlier.

Although she is by now familiar with the Cyrillic alphabet and can read simple sentences in Bulgarian we decided not to start working on this until next year. For the moment she enjoys listening to stories in Bulgarian.

One thing we found very useful is that for some reason most of her dvds (she doesn’t like TV so when she feels like watching something she prefers her dvds) have the option to choose between Greek, Bulgarian and English (or at least between two of them). She often comes up with observations about the use of the language in each version and how things (and especially songs’ lyrics) are translated from one language to another.

I need to say that we have never made her feel anxious or stressed about learning a language (apart from the normal pressure each parent puts on her child at school especially when she gradually moves away from learning through play at nursery to a more structured way of learning at primary). We tried very hard for this to come naturally through fun and play. But both my wife and myself were/are very consistent in applying our rather improvised method.

I also think that being able to speak 3 languages (one or two as primary languages and another fluently but secondary) is something that helped her with other subjects at school such as numeracy as well as with her violin lessons and reading music (another language system in a way). I also feel that this has broadened her understanding of the world and gave her an increased ability and confidence to learn other languages too. One simple example is that she begun picking up Russian since some of her peers at school are Russian native speakers. Her knowledge of a Slavic language must have helped but it is amazing how these kids always know which word goes to which box. I hope this will work next year when she will be introduced to French at school.

Last but not least, I think spending time with a child, talking to him, playing with him and above all reading to him since his infancy is the most crucial factor for a *happy* trilingual child. Thanks for the great opportunity to put all those thoughts in a writing.


19 David December 11, 2011 at 7:21 am

I would like to thank everybody who have shared their thoughts or experiences. I have yet to have a child, but the idea of multilingualism is of interest to me (I speak Vietnamese, my wife speaks Tagalog, and we live in Canada). It is very encouraging to hear the success stories. I definitely feel that I shouldn’t have a “it must happen or I’ll be disappointed” attitude. If it happens, it happens, but I’ll definitely give it my best effort and make sure it is all about fun!


20 Chong February 28, 2012 at 9:39 am

I am still an undergraduate student and not planning to have a child any time soon. But my dream of being an expatriate in the future prompts me to think about how to teach my children languages.

As a Chinese Malaysian, I speak Mandarin, Cantonese, Malay, English and Hakka (my actual mother tongue) in descending order of fluency. It would be interesting and challenging at the same time to see how are my children going to learn their languages, especially if my future wife speaks other language(s) as well!

Thanks for all the comments they have been insightful and useful so far 🙂


21 Beny October 18, 2012 at 7:49 am

defiantly i am a living proof i speak Hebrew Russian and English fluently as well as being able to think in these languages


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