Trilingual Child: Which Languages Should We Choose?

by Corey · 6 comments

Dear Madalena,

I am a Dane. I can speak 6 languages and I currently live in China with my Chinese wife (we speak English at home). We are pregnant and I am so confused regarding how to go about this bilingual issue.

We are planning to stay in China for at least 6-7 years more but after than we’d like to go back to Denmark. I think our childs’ first language should and will be Chinese but I am at a loss for whether to speak English or Danish with him/her at home.

English is of course much more useful but we hope the kid can take his primary school education in Denmark, so do you think it would it be for the best to go with Chinese/Danish or Chinese/English? I want to point out that I don’t know any other Danes around these parts so my child wouldn’t be using Danish apart from with me and when speaking to family back in Denmark.

Any advice for a bewildered soon-to-be parent?

Thank you,


Dear Nick,

Languages are useful, as you say, but for particular purposes at particular times. Learning one language from birth doesn’t mean that that language will be acquired once and for all. Similarly, not learning a language from birth doesn’t mean that that language will be lost to the child forever. What matters is whether, when and how languages matter for the user. They will be learned accordingly.

From what you say, three languages will matter to your child in the near future, although I was not sure what you meant about your child’s “first” language. If “first language” comes “first”, then your child will have at least two first languages, one from you and one from your wife. Being the only Danish speaker around your child is not a problem. You may be reassured to know that my children acquired Portuguese from me in this way too, in Hong Kong and Singapore, well up to their late teens. I see no problem in your child’s learning of English either. Whether you use it with the child or not, chances are s/he will pick it up from mum and dad’s use of it with each other.

So you can choose whichever language comes naturally to you, to use with your little one(s). You can also choose to use both Danish and English: many multilingual parents like you do exactly this with their children. There is no obligation to use only one language with one’s children, if you’re multilingual.

Here’s my guess: the minute you hold your child in your arms for the first time, you will know exactly how to use your language(s) with him/her. These things don’t require much planning (or worry). They just flow naturally, and this is precisely why children adapt to them with no problem.

Tillykke med flersprogligheden!

Do feel free to contact me privately, if you wish to discuss these matters in greater detail.


Madalena Cruz-Ferreira, PhD, University of Manchester, UK, is a multilingual parent, educator and scholar, and the author of Multilinguals are...?, a book on myths and misconceptions about multilingualism. Her blog Being Multilingual deals with multilingualism at home, in school and in clinic. Her contact, and details on her work, are at:

Disclaimer: This post and the comments provided below have been provided for informational and entertainment purposes only and is not intended to replace or substitute for any professional financial, medical, legal, or other advice. This post has been published with the full consent of the author. The author has agreed to Madalena Cruz-Ferreira answering the Ask Madalena question publicly as well as readers leaving comments in the comment section below. Multilingual Living makes no representations or warranties and expressly disclaims any and all liability concerning any treatment or action by any person following the information offered or provided within or through this and any other information on this website. If you have specific concerns or a situation in which you require professional or medical advice, you should consult with an appropriately trained and qualified specialist. Please read our Terms of Use for more detail or contact us with any questions.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Stefanie August 18, 2011 at 4:50 am

Dear Nick,

I can understand your worries and thoughts. I am German, my husband Swedish and we are living in Denmark (both almost fluently in each others language and Danish as well; speaking Swedish at home). So when we were expecting our first child for 3 years ago, we were also worried, how our trilingual language situation would affect her and how she could/would manage. We simply chose to speak our own mother tounges with Alma, Swedish to each other and let the Danish childcare institution take over the responsibility of teaching her Danish, as they are far better in that part than we are. Both Johans and my family do not understand Danish, so it felt right for us to assure, that Alma will be able to interact with our families from the beginning. It also felt more naturally for us, to speak our mother tounge with her from the beginning, as it was somehow easier to express ourselves.

We are really happy that we chose our trilingual concept for our family and in the end, there was nothing to be worried about at all. Our Alma is now, 2,5 years old, fully understands and speaks all three languages well- as far as you can say it that way for her age. It took a little longer for her to start talking, but hey it must be confusing to hear three different words for one thing from three different persons in the beginning. She now has taken a huge step forward and is talking talking talking and starts to figure out which language to use to whom. It is really very exciting to follow her language development and we are looking forward to seeing how she (and her sibling soon to be born) will manage in the future.

I fully agree with Madalena, that everything will come naturally to you as soon as your baby is born. Personally I though would recommend you to use Danish to your little one. I guess, it would make a start in a Danish school in a few years easier for your little one. You write that you speak English at home with your wife and that way your child will automatically get in touch with English as well. There are far more possibilities to learn English along the way than Danish, in case your child will not pick it up from you talking English to each other at home (which I do not believe).

Do not worry. Your child will adapt to your family’s language situation very naturally, whatever decision you will make. Just follow your intuition and what you feel for!

Tillykke med den lille og held og lykke med dit eget lille “sprogprojekt”!

Kind regards


2 Beth Ortuno August 18, 2011 at 8:41 am

Hello Nick,
From my own experience I totally agree with Madalena’s expert advice.
Before my son was born I thought I would speak all in English to him, since that is my mother tongue. But when he started talking a lot, I noticed English really dominated. That is the majority language where we live. So I started talking with him more in Spanish. I’m not a native speaker like my husband but I just try to make a little effort to speak Spanish whenever I do feel comfortable. It does seem to be helping. However, even though he hears probably 80% Spanish all the time (while I work he stays with his aunt speaking to him in Spanish also) and does not even go to school yet, his English is still stronger. Somehow I think kids simply understand what is the majority language where they are living and they desire to use it.
When kids reach those schoolage/middle and especially teenage years, their influences come from school and friends in the neighborhood as much or (horrors) sometimes even more than their parents.
This is what leads me to speak the minority language with him, when I can, since now he is still young enough that he is listening to my every word.
If your child will go to school in Denmark, won’t he or she learn both Danish and English there? In addition to Chinese with Mom, I believe your child could speak Danish sometimes and English sometimes with you, and even sometimes another one of the languages you speak. Then when you are in Denmark, you could continue with Chinese and some other language also (the Danish and English would be supported at school).
That is just an idea for you. Our local Chinese community center offers “family” classes for parents and children together. I just have to wait until my son is 4 before we can start. I am planning to learn along with him but you would have the advantage that you already speak other languages.
I have freinds (sisters) who are fluent in 5 languages since they were little kids and each of them has learned 2 more languages as adults. Through my work I have met other people who have spoken several languages since they were little. So I do not think you have to make a choice between Danish and English at all!


3 Anke August 18, 2011 at 12:53 pm


our situation is very similar to Stefanie’s, only that in our case the languages are German, Spanish, and English. That is, I am German, my husband Spanish, and we live in an English speaking country (UK). I consider myself more or less fluent in German, English and Spanish (and have a good grasp of French, as well). When our daughter Natalie was first born just over 2 years ago, we decided to both speak Spanish to her, as this is the language my husband and I use to talk to each other, and also because we thought more than two languages might be too confusing for a small child. Luckily, I did a bit more research, and found that there are plenty of examples of trilinguals out there. I am so glad I switched to speaking German to my daughter (when she was 4 months old). I didn’t think so at the time, but I feel now, that my emotional repertoire (lullabies, rhymes, etc.) is just so much bigger in my own mother tongue.
Natalie speaks both German and English fairly well (she goes to nursery in English), just fine for her age. I do feel that her Spanish is a little bit weaker, which is no surprise, given that her dad is away for work quite a lot. I imagine the foundations are laid, though, and she will be able to build onto this, when she wants to. We will have a new baby in a few weeks time, and will speak to him/her in Spanish and German from the start.
My recommendation thus for you is to concentrate on Chinese and Danish with your baby. If he/she picks up some English along the way, fine, but there are plenty of opportunities to learn the English language at a later stage, as well. After all, so many of us non-native English speakers are getting along (more than) just fine.
Good luck,


4 Katy August 18, 2011 at 7:54 pm

I totally agree with doN`t worry and it will come naturally. Kudos to you for learning so many languages and wanting to share it with your child. Giving your child the opportunity to learn a Language with their fav teacher, YOU (the parent), is an incredible
The best way to choose a language that you want to use solely with your kids is a language that you love and feel comfortable with and your child has the least opportunity to pick up. Kids can learn English easily thru DVDs.

I usually speak 3 languages with my daughter and we watch videos in other languages. She plays games on the Ipad in different languages and has no problem switching. I like to teach her new words in a minority language that are routine words – Good Morning, Wake up time. or Do you want 1 or 2 cookies? (of course they learn the numbers pretty quickly when you teach them with cookies…LOL).

GOOD LUCK and just keep it fun.


5 Corey January 3, 2012 at 7:06 pm

Thank you everyone for sharing your thoughts, comments, support, encouragement and more! It is wonderful to have such a fantastic group of people here who are willing to share their experiences with the rest of us! THANK YOU!


6 Ana Laura December 19, 2012 at 10:00 am

Hello Nick,

I am Mexican and my husband is Turkish. We live in the US and we have two daughters ages 6 and 3. They both are trilingual. I have always spoken Spanish to them, my husband always speaks Turkish. My husband and I speak to each other in English only.
During the first year and a half of their lives, we used american sign language with them as well. I observed that they used the signs to connect the three languages. It was a beautiful process to observe since I am a teacher.
At some point my oldest daughter did not want to speak Turkish outside of our home and when we visited Turkey, she did not want to speak Spanish. WE follow their lead and respect them. They can respond in any language, but we continue to speak in our native languages to them.
We started Chinese classes two years ago and they love it to. They quickly understood Chinese was new to them and the other three were part of who they are. They are exposed to Chinese every Sunday and are eager to learn more.

I hope you are having a great experience with this process to.


Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: