Trilingualism? Just Do It!

by Alice · 46 comments

Trilingualism? Just Do It!

 The author, Alice Lapuerta, with her husband and daughter

By Alice Lapuerta
This originally appeared in Multilingual Living Magazine.

When we first embarked our multilingual adventure, my husband and I had a problem: we did not speak each other’s languages. Even though we communicated in English with each other, we decided to use our mother tongues with our children. He’d speak Spanish, I German. The result was that neither of us understood what the other was saying.

My husband, a native Spanish speaker, said he would feel weird speaking English to his baby daughter. I understood that, because I felt the same. With an Austrian mother and a Korean father, I grew up speaking German, Korean and English. Yet German was my home language and the language of my childhood. I knew more nursery rhymes and songs in German than in English or Korean. I’d feel strange speaking English or Korean with my baby. So German was going to have to be the language I used for mothering.

Only: what to do about my husband, who wouldn’t understand a word I said? Wouldn’t he feel left out? Wouldn’t I feel left out when I didn’t understand what he was telling our children? And how on earth were we ever going to communicate as a family?

“Let’s just try it. We can always stop after two weeks and speak English only if we don’t like it,” we told each other. And so our multilingual adventure began.

I remember those first few days very well. We were sitting at our breakfast table, trying to converse in three languages with an unresponsive newborn.

“Uh, bebé, quieres tetita?” asked my husband our daughter, not really expecting an answer.

“What did you say?” I immediately butted in, afraid I’d miss out on something important.

“I just asked whether she wants a bottle.”

“Tetita is bottle?”


“Okay. So. Isabella, magst du ein Fläschchen?” I felt obliged to say the exact same thing in German. For how else was our daughter ever going to learn this properly? I turned to my husband and explained: “I just said the same thing as you.” I felt stupid.


We ate on in silence. The baby started to fuss.

“Qué pasa, bebé?” – “Was ist los, Mausi?” we said at the same time, then burst out laughing.

Granted, so these first few dinner table conversations were a little awkward. Two weeks later, things were a bit better. We agreed that we could probably handle it if we tried this just a little longer.

Four years later our family is firmly trilingual, and we’re enjoying it! We are so used to using three languages simultaneously that we don’t even think about it anymore. We’ve become conversational in each other’s languages. That’s right! I understand everything my husband is saying and I don’t need to ask for translations. And my husband’s getting better and better in German as well.

So how did we do it?

We just did what was most natural for us and we stuck to it. Fairly early on, we stopped translating every single word for each other, because that became truly tiresome. It felt unnatural and it started to bog down our conversation. With the translations stopping we also had to give up the anxiety about “excluding“ the other person, as well as our own sensitivity of “feeling left out.”

I learned that it was OK that I didn’t understand every single word my husband told our child. I learned to trust that hubby and baby were not plotting against me. Husband and baby are probably not conducting deeply philosophical discussions on Kant and Nietzsche, but something more along the lines of: “Eeeww sweetie-pie, you’re all stinky, did you make poo-poo again ? Let’s see what went on in that diaper of yours …”– “gagagabababa…” – definitely not Kant. Trust me. By the time your kids want to discuss philosophy, you’ll have learned your partner’s language so well that you’ll be able to join in the discussion.

There are a lot of theories out there, models of One Parent One Language, family language versus environment, minority language versus majority language and so forth. These theories are all great and by all means, go and read what’s out there.

But there’s no rule of the thumb, no single solution that’s going to work for everyone. In the end I think everyone has to do what feels right to them, given their particular situation. In the end you make up your own rules. We have two simple rules: be consistent and don’t mix languages. With mixing I mean Spanglish, Germanglish or Germspanish. You get the point.

In the meantime, our daughter has blossomed from an unresponsive baby to an exuberant, extroverted little chatterbox. Like every parent of a multilingual child, I obsess about her speech development and worry about “confusing” her or being responsible for a major speech defect.

Isabella did indeed seem to take longer than average in starting to talk. When she finally did, she rambled along happily in a Spanish-German mix, adding a spice of fantasy babble. Nobody understood what she was saying. I worried.

So we had her evaluated by a professional Speech Therapist. I braced myself for this being the end of our multilingual endeavor. The therapist, however, strongly encouraged our trilingual effort. “Continue what you are doing. She may be a bit delayed in German, but it is still within the normal range. Don’t worry about it. She’ll catch up on her own soon.” Thus was her response, and I nearly hugged her for it.

Indeed, since Isabella has started kindergarten she is speeding up on German. Now she is lagging behind in Spanish, and yeah, I worry about this (as a bilingual parent one never stops worrying, does one?). Isabella is a clever one. She has figured out that Papi speaks and understands German very well, so why bother speaking Spanish to him? This is a new situation for us, something that we still have to figure out.

So I go to the multilingual community online for support and answers. There are wonderful websites like the Multilingual Babies Chatboard on Babycenter. It’s wonderful to meet other bilingual parents there, to share experiences and advice. Without their support we wouldn’t have made it.

Multilingualism in our family has become an old shoe. It’s natural to us, but to most people we meet we are either unique, very courageous or plain freaks.

“But how do you DO it?” people keep asking us. As I embark on a complicated explanation of Hubby-speaks-Spanish-to-the-kids, I-speak-German-to-them, we-speak-English-with-each-other-but-not-directly-to-the-kids and currently Isabella prefers to speak German but she can also speak Spanish to Papi when she feels like it but mostly she mixes –and she doesn’t speak English yet – but she CAN count in English, you know….All I get is a bewildered look.

Okay. So I guess it does sound kind of complicated. What can I say?

We just do it.

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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{ 42 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Marjan May 24, 2010 at 2:51 pm

Lovely article.
What was so nice to see with our 2 trilingual kids was that once they started talking they had a choice out of 3 languages to pick a word. And I noticed the very first words all started with a ‘b’. So in fact they had much more possibilities to communicate.


2 Mable May 24, 2010 at 3:45 pm

We are tackling trilingualism as well with 2 kids. It is not easily and can be discouraging at times, but we are keeping at it. They speak mostly English, but the good news is that they do not reject or get overwhelmed when they hear the other two languages because they’ve heard it all along.


3 Zanete May 26, 2010 at 4:49 am

Oh my God! What a great article! Every word written sounds like my own situation. I have 2 daughters (oldest almost 3 years old and youngest 1 year old), my partner speaks Spanish with the girls, I speak Latvian, but me & my partner we talk English to each other. And I have EXACTLY the same worries as described!!! …. Its such a relief to know there are other families trying the same thing and its working. Thank you, Alice, for sharing this! This helps me to go on! 🙂


4 Alice Lapuerta May 26, 2010 at 12:43 pm

Thank you for your lovely comments! Stay tuned for more articles/blogs of this sort in the future. And let me know what, in particular, it is you wish to read about!


5 Marie May 28, 2010 at 10:55 am

Thank you for the wonderful and encouraging article. We are also a trilingual family (Dutch, Spanish, English). The kids go to a Dutch Saturday school, and I speak exclusively to them in Spanish. My husband and I don’t speak each other’s native language well enough so we speak English to each other. The kids are becoming fluent in all three languages without any delay in speech or intellectual development. Our only concern is when they enter the public school system that most of the time doesn’t support multilingualism, and at times penalizes the student.


6 Tara May 29, 2010 at 8:44 pm

This was such an interesting article! I have to say I felt a very personal attachment to your story as I am half-Korean and married to an Austrian! We are currently raising our children bilingually with German and English but I have been considering adding Korean to the mix as my children spend a great deal of time with their Korean grandmother…our children are 5 & 3 years old, is it too late to introduce the third language?


7 Alice Lapuerta May 30, 2010 at 9:50 am

Marie, that’s indeed a big concern. Finding a school that supports multilingualism can be a challenge, but it’s not impossible. We’ve just gone through this whole agonizing process of having to chose a public school that’s virtually next door, versus a school that’s on the other side of town, but that supports our trilingualism … guess which one we chose … 😉 Stay tuned for that story!


8 Alice May 30, 2010 at 9:58 am

Tara, wow, that is the coolest thing! This is the first time that I’m “meeting” someone whose situation is similar to mine … 🙂 As for Korean, it is never too late to add a language. The Korean grandmother (your mom?) has already done so, and I bet your kids already have a rich repertoire in Korean songs & nursery rhymes! If you wanted to, you could build on that and start speaking Korean to your kids – leaving English to the environment (I am totally assuming you are in the US?). It is up to you and how comfortable you and your family would feel with this language scenario. My advice is – you have guess it: to just do it! 😀


9 dinie May 31, 2010 at 10:41 pm

I’m so grateful to find this website and this lovely article. I have a 19 old months son, which I quite worried because until now he could not speak a proper word (but he can understand and follow instructions). Everybody said he is having delay communication because of the exposure to multilanguages (my husband speaks Mandarin to him, I speak Malay to him & babysitter speaks Arabic to him; we are from Malaysia).

But after read your article, I know that my son won’t have a problem. Maybe he just a late-speaker.

Thank you guys…keep up the good work!


10 Alice Lapuerta May 31, 2010 at 10:56 pm

Dinie, if you haven’t already do read Corey’s article “Does Bilingualism cause Language Delay”? She points out something very important toward the end: Bilingualism does, for a fact, NOT cause speech delay. BUT this doesn’t mean that our children are exempt from speech-language disorders (meaning there can very well be a problem BUT not because of Bilingualism!) – as Corey points out it is important that we understand this. But, like all other children, some multilingual children speak earlier, some later … neither of which has to be indicative of a problem. But if you do think there is cause for worry and your concern doesn’t go away, it is always better to check out a specialist!


11 Sandra June 20, 2010 at 11:44 pm

Hi! Good for you. Our girls (3 and 6) are tri-lingual French, English, German. OPOL was the way for us. English with Mom (from Canada), French with Papa (France) and German here where we live and where the girls were born. Our common couple language between my husband and I is French, and the girls go to a predominantly French, French-German school. We are lucky as we all speak and understand the three languages. The girls have gone from speaking predominantly German (with one another and with us) when they were in daycare to French (now that they are in school with other French kids). When I pick them up from school, they speak to me in French, but I answer in English and by bed time (and on the weekend), their “language chip” has switched and they speak with me in English. We know they need to have a “mother tongue” at one point, but it is a process and the kids DO adapt. I’ve read that tri-linguals are best supported by 33%-33%-33% language exposure. That has happened to us – a bit by default – and they are doing very well. I agree – Just do it!…but be consistent.


12 Alice June 21, 2010 at 3:08 am

Hi Sandra, thanks for sharing! It is always really interesting and encouraging for me to read and hear about how other trilingual families do it! 😀


13 lsforever June 21, 2010 at 3:24 am

Hello! so great to read this artcle, Alice! My family is also like your and others’ families that raising kids in a multilingual enviroment: I speak Mandrin to my daughter, my husband speaks French to her. Between me and my husband we speak English. My daughter’s school language is Dutch! No major problem with that so far and we are happy with the outcome: my daughter is able to speak Mandrin and French reasonably fine according to her age and now speeding up on Dutch! However, there is one thing that has started bothering me recently. My 4 years old daughter started stuttering! She seems struggling to say a proper sentence. You can tell she also feels frustrated herself. What I can do is just ask her to take a deep breath and speak slowly. It has been like this for more than 2 weeks and sometimes she is better and sometimes gets worse. I am very concerned and worried about it! Is it because of mutilingualism? Is it temporary? I dont know if other multilingual children have similar problem.Hope to share experiences and hear some advices……


14 Alice June 21, 2010 at 4:06 am

Hi, I’m relatively sure that multilingualism doesn’t CAUSE stuttering. If she does have this problem she would have it regardless of how many languages she speaks. We’ve gone through phases where my daughter, especially, was so excited about conveying something that the words seemed to sort of stumble out of her mouth, and it sounded like she stuttered. Like you, I told her to slow down, and when she did take her time, she did just fine. Or sometimes she searches for a word in a certain language and can’t think of it immediately, and it sounds like she’s stuttering. (This happens to me too, by the way).
But, if you are really concerned about this I would consult a professional, possibly even a Speech Therapist? You could also ask Madalena this question in the Ask an Expert section? 😀 Hope this helps!


15 lsforever June 21, 2010 at 4:42 am

Thanks for your quick reply, Alice! I don’t think multilingualism would cause stuttering either. I think I didn’t make myself clear by just saying ‘Is it because of mutilingualism?’. What I meant is because my daughter has to switch languages all the time, with limited vocabularies in all these different languages at her age, she tends to have some difficulties to speak fluently (like you said ‘searches for a word in a certain language and can’t think of it immediately’) — in a way, it is mutilingualism that ’cause’ the problem. .^-^… At the moment, I rather believe it is the language problem more than my daughter’s speaking problem. I will give her more time.


16 newmom July 12, 2010 at 11:51 am

thanks for this encouraging article. i am a bilingual english-spanish speaker (grew up in mexico in an english-speaking household) and now live in the us, married to an indian (marathi-speaker). i have a six-week old (thus typing one handed while she feeds) and we have every intention of bringing her up trilingual. the article and subsequent comments make me feel that she will grow up able to think in cross-lingual, and cross-cultural, ways.


17 Wendy Bergonse January 24, 2011 at 5:47 am

I’m glad this came up — I have been pondering it since I’m pregnant. My husband is Brazilian (Portuguese) and I speak fluent Spanish. I want him to speak Portuguese with the baby, me to speak Spanish, and English will be learned from my fa…mily who lives close by, plus living in the U.S. (And hubby and I speak English together, even though I can get by in Portuguese). My question is this: Are Portuguese and Spanish too closely related and confusing for a baby? Because even though I spoke fluent Spanish when I learned Portuguese, learning it pretty much destroyed my Spanish for a while!! Would be very interested in advice on this! Thanks!!!


18 Alice January 25, 2011 at 12:47 am

Hi Wendy, it won’t confuse your baby as s/he’ll learn to separate the languages (Spanish for you, Portugese for Papi) sooner or later. She’ll know when to speak Portugese, and to whom, and the same for Spanish. Even if s/he does mix for a while – and she will do that! – it is quite a natural thing to do for multilinguals and nothing to worry about. Mixing is actually not a sign of “confusion,” nor is it a problem (only in the eyes of monolinguals it is). Watch your child later on how she becomes real sensitive about separating her languages and what language she speaks to whom! It is very interesting. My kids, now school age, are really picky about speaking the “right” language to the “right” person! 😀

I’d be interested in learning more about why you think Portugese “destroyed your Spanish”.


19 Wendy Bergonse January 25, 2011 at 1:30 pm

Hi, Alice, thanks for the great feedback! As for how Portuguese “destroyed” my Spanish: Well, Spanish is not my native language, but I speak it at a native level after studying Spanish my whole life, then living in Spain as a teen/early 20s (that sealed the deal). I used to be able to trick Spaniards into thinking I was native. I also worked at the Embassy of Spain in DC for four years. In any case, I married a Brazilian, and we spent three consecutive months in Brazil with his family. Once I got back to the States, I was trying to speak in Spanish with friends from Spain, and it would come out mixed with Portuguese or with a somewhat Brazilian accent. Ack!! I couldn’t speak Spanish anymore, suddenly. I know that my brain would switch back into it after getting back into thinking in Spanish.


20 Alice January 25, 2011 at 10:55 pm

You write: “it would come out mixed with Portugese or with a somewhat Brazilian accent.”

Hehe, you’ve just described a very typical behavior of a multilingual! Happens to me all the time! The joys and frustrations, eh? Experts call this “code switching,” and there are actually studies done on this phenomenon! 😀 I know it can be really frustrating sometimes but this is quite normal, really, and you find yourself in good company here!

If you’re interested, there’s a study in progress right now:


21 Amy January 25, 2011 at 2:22 pm

Very interesting! Thanks for sharing your current experience, Alice. I am fluent in English and was raised in Chinese. My husband is French Canadian, so we are also embarking on a tri-lingual journey with our 3 kids. I speak in Cantonese with the kids, and daddy speaks in French. The kids are picking up English in school, and speak a mix of French, English and a sprinkle of Chinese amongst themselves.

Alice, i’d be curious to learn more about how you felt about growing up being exposed to Korean, German and English. We’re going through this for the first time, but you grew up and were a product of a trilingual environment. Any advice to share?


22 Alice January 25, 2011 at 10:44 pm

Hi Amy, thank you for your lovely feedback! You can read all about my “multilingual wisdom” 😀 in my column “Jabberlingual” (on top left of this page). Several of these articles are autobiographical in which I talk about the joys and frustrations of growing up with three languages (see “Of things in the attic” for instance).

My main advice? We all need to let go of these myths that make our lives hard. One of the main myth being that a multilingual speaks all her languages perfectly, unchangingly, at all times. Not true! Languages come and go, some are weaker than others, some stronger, this again changes according to our needs. Then teenagerhood happens and wham, guess what: your child suddenly thinks she needs to block a language because of identity issues. After all these years of you trying to juggle three or more languages in a family, and just when you think you’ve done it! – suddenly your child decides a language is uncool! This is when you think you’ll definitely throw in the towel. And then watch her three years later scamper off to that country for a year on her own to learn the language again, and to sign up at University language courses to frantically catch up all that she thinks she’s missed. Only to realized she never “forgot” the language, really.

So basically, that all in a nutshell. And yep, the above teenager was me 😀


23 Dorota May 21, 2011 at 9:40 pm


Such a great article! This is also mine situation. I speak polish, my husband French and we speak English together. I am 7 months pregnant now and have been thinking what to do. I do speak French, but much worse than English, and my husband doesn’t speak Polish. he felt uncomfortable about not understanding what I would say to our son, so I thought that I will translate for him, or we will speak English to the child when we are all together, and our languages when we are alone with him. The thing is that I will spend a lot of time alone with our son, but my husband won’t, so his French will be much worse. Maybe we will do what you did. It is encouraging! But what did you do with reading book? Did you stick to books in your language? I would like to read books to him in English too. Simply, because we live in USA, and there is a lot of quality children literature easily accessible…But maybe I should wait till he goes to an American preschool…and stick to Polish and French books before that…let me know what you think.


24 Alice May 22, 2011 at 12:20 am

HI Dorota, thank you for your lovely comment! I do read books in the majority language German to the kids now and then. There are several books that they like and want to read over and over again, so we do. But most of the time I choose to read books in our minority languages English/Spanish simply because they need more input in those languages. They get to read books in German at the kindergarten anyway. I also read in Spanish even though I don’t always understand everything I read. When they are babies it doesn’t matter in what language the book comes in as you can translate them into all 3 languages (you know those basic baby books about counting and colors). We might go through them first in Spanish, then English, and when we feel like it in German, too.

Later they develop their preferences (not according to language interestingly but according to topic and what the book is about) so you are stuck to reading certain books a zillion times. And when they are at school it gets even easier. Then you just need to make sure that you have TONS of books in all 3 languages lying about the house so they can pick them up and read them at their own whim. Isabella reads a lot on her own, now equally well in English and German; Dominik has a preference for English, and we read the basic baby books about colors/animals with my youngest in all 3 languages.

Hope that helps and good luck!


25 Natalia November 17, 2011 at 1:00 pm

Very useful and interesting article and comments!

My daughter (3,5 years old) is also trilingual: Romanian, Russian, German. OPOL is also our approach and it seems to work fine. Both of us, parents, grew up bilingual (Romanian,Russian) and we are in Germany now. The only thing I am not so sure is what to do when she uses words from a different language/languages. Until now I have always repeated what she said in Romanian (that’s ‘my’ language). My question is what else can I do to help her not do the code switching, and how long this code switching can last? We speak Romanian and Russian to her since she was born and she went to a German day-care at the age of 1. This code switching is a relatively new thing – it used to work better when she was younger.


26 Lila December 3, 2011 at 3:24 pm

Being able to speak each other’s language, as a couple, is fundamental when you start the difficult project of trilingualism. It’s easier as you can reply immediately in your own language to what your partner is saying, so your little one will easily make links. Then, adding a third language (usually the one in the environment) will be simpler as well, if you are both fluent and provide your children with enough input to face conversations out of home.

Even if trilingualism does have some difficulties, it will be always easier if parents are able to speak the three languages involved at an acceptable level, so I think it might be risky to try it when you don’t have an excellent command of these languages and communicate in a second language with your partner.


27 Wendy Bergonse December 3, 2011 at 7:29 pm

Hi! I’m back now, with an almost 7-month baby named Matteo. :0) So, the update is that sometimes I speak Spanish to him, and sometimes I speak English to him (my husband speaks Brazilian Portuguese to him), and I wonder if this is going to be a problem. I ended up not speaking Spanish to him exclusively, because truth be told, English feels more natural to me, being my mother tongue, even with my fluency in Spanish. Is this a bad thing? I want him to learn Spanish fluently but I don’t want to confuse him by speaking two different languages with him…… Any thoughts on this?? Thank you :0)


28 Jeff March 9, 2012 at 11:46 am

Hello all-

I am an American and my wife is from Mexico. Our family language is Spanish which is mostly due to my desire to speak it all the time in order to get as fluent as possible for our future children. I wanted to speak Spanish all the time at home for the future child’s benefit, as we live in the US our little baby boy will obviously learn English from the environment. However, after research and time, I have decided that I would like to add a third language to the mix. The last 4 months or so I have been studying German and am currently at maybe an A2/low B1 level (European scale for some sort of reference). Our child will be born in 4 months or so, and I would like to do OPOL with him, with me obviously using German, my wife Spanish, and then English from the world.

I have a few concerns with this. Concern #1 is, obviously, I’m not a native German speaker. I was able to learn Spanish to a high level and everyone says I actually could pass for a native speaker, albeit somewhat “off.” Mexicans are often very surprised at how well I speak/etc so I’m hoping that means I have a decent skill level/ear/whatever you want to call it with languages. German, I’m hoping, will be the same. I will, obviously, never speak either perfectly, nor anywhere near perfectly for my taste, I feel that I can get to a very good level in German. Additionally, I would look for babysitters, pre-school, other German families, and anything else I could do to help cement German as a community language and not just some poorly-spoken father language. Is this possible?

I am also fairly concerned about the English input before the child starts school. Our home language is literally 100% Spanish. Our relationship started in Spanish and has been so long that it feels odd/wrong to speak to my wife in English. However, if I’m not speaking English to the child, and there is no English in the house, how does it get enough English input to function when it does start school. The only thing I can think of is to use pre-school/outside-of-the-parents influences in English but those are planned to be used to cement German. Any ideas? Most of our friends, church, etc are in English but that is pretty limited when you think of the child’s life as a whole. My family lives far away and we only see them a few times a year, her family lives in Mexico but I’m pretty sure they are moving here in a year or so which will help with the Spanish inputs.

Anyone have any ideas? Appreciated!



29 Lila March 9, 2012 at 2:21 pm

Hi Jeff,
First of all, good luck with your project!
I think no one should tell you’re making a wrong or right decision because raising a child with a language other than yours is something so personal!
I just can share my experience and tell you that is absolutely normal if speaking your native language feels weird after having communicated in a second language with your wife. However, I do think it is important because is the only way you feel totally comfortable and let your child have the right input. Can you imagine telling your child off in a language you don’t perfectly manage? or having to think twice everything you say to your child in everyday life? Maybe you can do it, but in my case, I just thought it would be too exhausting and fake so we decided to use our native languages to speak to each other (French and Spanish) even if we had only been using Spanish since we met. It was difficult at the beginning but it has worked very well and our daughter is perfectly trilingual, thanks to the environment language (English). I’ve got a C1 in English and B2 in French and my husband’s got a C1 in English and B1 in Spanish but we wouldn’t feel right if we used a language other than our native to communicate with our child.
When she started picking the 3rd language, our language therapist advised us to help her just establishing little routines, for example bath time or dinner because it is important to encourage them and track their progress in that language. If she used it only out of home, we wouldn’t know about her language needs and what we can do to help her improve.

So, yes, I think it is never too late to start speaking your native language, it will be good for your child and for your wife as well, then you can add a third one, maybe later on.

Hope it helps.


30 Andrea January 17, 2013 at 7:52 pm

My God, I want to do something similar with my family when I grow up and have children. I’m bilingual but i’m incorporating a third language. So that means I’ll be trilingual! Great. My mother tongue is spanish but i grew up with english as well. The third language I’m on is french but it’s quite hard, but it doesn’t matter. I’ll learn it anyway, peu importe quoi! J’adore le français.


31 Anna Wolleben May 12, 2013 at 12:49 pm

Thanks for mentioning the anxiety about “excluding“ the other person…That was my biggest worry and therefore I switched to the language of my husband-German, who doesn’t speak my language (Polish). I thought, I ma the only one with this problem, i thought, this is my personal problem…silly me!


32 Danuza May 12, 2013 at 4:39 pm

Thanks for sharing your experience!!! We’re in the same situation, me Brazilian (Portuguese) my Husband Austrian (German) and we both speaking English with each other. My 2 year old speaks both (each-parent-one-language) . Sometimes I wonder how much of English she really knows. She’s some speech delay comparing to her other kindergarten friends but she’s grabbing at least the two languages (as I can see the results) Still a little anxious about the English though 🙂


33 Expat May 12, 2013 at 6:27 pm

Dear Alice,
Congrats. My family is in a slightly similar situation. I’m French, he’s Hong Kong Chinese, we speak English to each other and we live in Taiwan. So i speak French to the children, he speaks English to them and the environment, school, friends, grand-parents… speak Chinese. French is their weakest language because the only input is from me, so every summer, we try to go to France. This year for the 2nd time, they are even finishing the school year in France at a local school. It is an excellent arrangement if the grandparents are willing to take them in. So good luck to you.


34 Viv May 12, 2013 at 6:58 pm

Hi everyone, I read Alice’s article before my son was born and was really encouraged by it, now, 2 years later, it and the many helpful comments are giving me a needed boost of confidence. We kept consistently to German-with-Papa, Mandarin-with-Mama, English from Grandma and the environment and German with all other German relatives. Julien was never a chatty infant and I was a litle nervous when at 15 months other kids were babbling and making 1 syllable words while he was content to only smile, shriek and sign (his own, not taught by us). Now he is almost 24 months and despite a delay vis-a-vis other more loquacious kids his age, we have seen improvement in his expressive ability. He understands all 3 languages perfectly and for the last half a year, has been reacting to them appropriately, whether it is following instructions, suggestions or throwing a tantrum when he hears NO.

Interestingly, I noticed that Julien is unable to produce certain sounds in the English or German alphabet (which are very similar) and whichever sounds he CAN produce, he is able to use those words actively in daily life. He can say A, B, D, E, M, N, O, P (and correspondingly, “apple”, “nana” for banana, “ball”, Papa, Mama, “up”, “wo” which means me in Chinese and “da” German for there) but he cannot manage C, F, L, K, S, V and all the corresponding words that contain these consonants in any of the three languages, not even “cat”, “bus” or “dog” — his favourite things. I’m hoping that this is just a normal development trajectory for Julien and that once he is able to make those sounds, he will speak, and I don’t even mind what he speaks, I can’t wait to have a conversation with him!

I am wondering if anyone out there has noticed similar outcomes or stages in their children’s development and if you have any advice for us?


35 david January 6, 2019 at 4:56 am

Same situation for my son, now 19 months. I speak English with him and his Mum speaks Chinese and English and we live in China. He can say M O I B and corresponding words but not other things, not even cat, bus, dog his favourite things same as your son! How did things work out for you?


36 Eric May 13, 2013 at 11:09 am

Dear Alice,

Thank you so much for your post. It is actually rare to get testimony from trilingual and + children and I felt particularly uplifted by the parents’ learning part of the story…

My wife is Estonian (Fluent English / French / Swedish as translator). I’m French (Fluent English with basic conversational in German and Spanish). We met and leave in Luxembourg and mostly speak English together.

We follow OPOL and sent our boy (1yo) to English speaking Montessori kindergarten (since we wanted him to get to hear native speakers and also mix with our international environment). Up to there, we’re quite fine with the situation, keeping up with the minor language (Estonian) thanks to a strong community / play groups, ect…

Difficulties will be coming as we’ll have the possibility to sent him to Luxembourgish preschool (integration to the country where we intend to stay but 4th language might be one too many) or European School in French (incurring a very dominant language) or English (we think this is the easiest language to acquire outside scholar system with all available materials) or German (again 4th language not spoken at home).

One might say that it is good to have such a choice but in practice, this is a nightmare to choose. On top of all, our 2nd kid will join the family in 3 month 😉

This is why any input / thoughts / experience would be more than welcome and most appreciated. Of course, we’ll adjust to the ability / responsiveness of our kids but I think it’s always better to have a “game plan” that can be adjusted than no plan at all 😉

Thanks so much in advance for your answer.

Ps: bonus question : I read your comment about reading books in a language that is not yours – which I never considered – would you say that this is something that specifically fits your family or is it some generally accepted behavior (I was quite surprised to read this as it quite differs from OPOL).

Thanks again ;))))


37 Neil Blonstein May 14, 2013 at 9:06 pm

In an ideal world of stable marriages and peace millions of multilingual people would build a new trilingual world as you attempt. I was planning a trilingual family…but then came a divorce before my daughter’s 10th birthday and those plans were disrailed. I am not alone in believing that the easiest route today to create a literate bilingual world is offering the easy planned language Esperanto founded on a strong belief in future peace without the baggage of hundreds of years of colonialism and racism, something that all major languages can claim. Esperanto is a gift to our children.


38 Istvan Ertl May 14, 2013 at 10:04 pm

We had/have very much the same situation in our family: mother speaking French to our children, myself speaking Hungarian to them, both of us speaking Esperanto between ourselves, and the outside world pouring Dutch onto our small ones. Now (aged 17, 15) our kids speak all of these languages, and some more.


39 Expat May 16, 2013 at 8:10 pm

Kids can cope with four languages. Academic researchers in the fields of language acquisition and linguistics have found that before the age of 12, children have the capacity to acquire a language, rather than learn it, and can therefore be “native” speakers. What you need to know is that their language development will be slower in the sense that they’ll be more proficient in one language rather than another. So if they can have regular exposure to the language they are weakest in, then you’ll ensure over the long run that they acquire it.
Good luck.


40 franco-danish May 22, 2013 at 12:45 am

I enjoyed reading the article but i have to say i never really shared the mom’s worries. We are a french-danish couple with a 2 year old. Hubby speaks danish and i french to the child and we speak english together. That was the natural thing to do to speak our mother tongue with the child and we certainly didn’t worry about feeling excluded when the other spoke to the child. Our baby goes to a danish nursery and feels more comfortable in that language but she understands everything i say. Now she also started saying a few words or short sentences in english and we sit there beaming, proud little parents. Her speech is as developed as the other kids in the nursery her age and even if it’d been delayed we would have been cool about it. Life’s too short to worry, enjoy your kid and all the babbling, that is part of the game.


41 Ana June 3, 2018 at 2:57 am

Such a beautiful article! It is encouraging and shows how harmonious multilingual family communication can be. It shows exactly the family dynamic I would love to have some day.

My mother tongue is Croatian, my English at C2 level and standard German at B2 level (the last achieved in 3 years, plan to get to native level one day). My previous partner spoke the Bavarian dialect at work ane with his family and friends and standard German with me. His English was not good enough for deep conversations and I do not know a word in Bavarian.

Together with other problems and incompatibilty, the language issue lead to the end of the relationship. It was a hard and sad decision to make, but (among many other values) raising a miltilingual child (German, Croatian, English and a potential forth one, if the father would not be a native English or German speaker) is a non-negotiable for me.

This might sound harsh, but I had to move to a bigger city, surround myself with a group of friends and colleagues who do not have local-partiotic tendencies and who prefer standard German over any dialect. Multiculturalism cannot be achieved in every environment, but is the healthiest for our well-being (and our potential children). We have to choose it purposefully.

In conclusion: constantly improving ourselfves, learning and surrounding ourselves with like-minded people is essential.


42 Magda October 1, 2018 at 3:11 pm

What a great article – I feel I could write exactly the same about our situation! Same method – OPOL – One Parent One Language. It works great for us. Our 4 years old son speaks 2 languages fluently and he started learning third language at school recently. HE IS NOT MIXING LANGUAGES. And he never did. He switches naturally from one language to another.
Now our daughter who is only 20 months can say many words in both languages.
Kids really learn so quickly.
I agree – 2 rules are very important – be consistent and don’t mix languages.
So simple.
And so natural.
Just speak your mother tongue from day 1 since birth.


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