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Rules of trying to raise a child trilingual
Thread poster: Britta Dennisen

Britta Dennisen
Local time: 17:45
Jul 6, 2005


I have read a lot on this forum about raising your child bi-lingual, but am still a little unsure how to do so in 3 languages.
We live in the Netherlands and I am a German speaker, my boyfriend is Dutch. We used to speak English when we met (I lived in England) as I did not speak any Dutch, but this has now changed to Dutch since I have moved to the Netherlands and am geting better at speaking it.
I want to ensure (if possible) that our child speaks 3 languages; German, Dutch and English and was going to take the following approach:
I am going to speak German, my boyfriend Dutch and we talk to each other in English (for both of us it’s nearly as good as our mother tongue).
Does that sound like the right approach if done so consistently or would anybody give different advice?


Kurt Porter  Identity Verified
Local time: 20:45
Russian to English
+ ...
Trilingual Jul 6, 2005

I think you're on the right track. Of course, need to supplement with formal education along the way in all three. Lots of TV/Radio, news, books, etc.

Good luck!


Arthur Allmendinger  Identity Verified
Local time: 17:45
English to German
+ ...
You have to set priorities Jul 6, 2005

Britta Dennisen wrote:

Does that sound like the right approach if done so consistently or would anybody give different advice?

German, Dutch and English are similar languages, belonging to the same Germanic language family.

On the one hand it is easier to learn English when you speak German or Dutch. On the other hand it is quite difficult to distinguish between these languages. You have to pay attention to that, set priorities and decide which language is more important.

These three languages may interfere with each other in the mind of your child.


Karolina Katsika
Local time: 17:45
French to Greek
+ ...
Rules Jul 6, 2005

Hello Britta,

I think that it is a very good idea and it will be very benefic for your child. I have the same eperience with my children. I am Greek, my boyfriend is Morrocan and we live in France. I speak to them in Greek, my husband in Arabic and we speak each other in French. They also speak French in the playground. And it works perfectly!

Of course, it is necessary to use educational material (books, songs, etc.), but the most important is to visit the countries where the other languages are spoken, once or twice a year and to stay at lest three weeks if it is possible, so that the child can talk with other native speakers apart you.

Ther are rules about the bilingual/trilingual education that you can find in books about bilingualism (for example: if you start a phrase in one language, you must finish in the same language). And there is also a supposed psychological impact(feeling of being excluded of the parental couple, duality, etc.), but I think these are only suppositions.

If you want, you can contact me about further detalis of my experience.

Good luck

Brgande (Karolina Katsika)


Clare Barnes  Identity Verified
Local time: 17:45
Swedish to English
+ ...
Don't worry. Jul 6, 2005

These three languages may interfere with each other in the mind of your child. [/quote]

I don't think that this is anything you need to worry about. I have a bilingual son who has learned to keep his languages completely separate fom each other (English/Swedish), and is now desperately keen (aged 8!) to learn French. Young children's minds are capable of much more order and understanding than many adults give them credit for. They can also be little tyrants when trying to trick their parents into speaking the "wrong" language!

Just be consistent in your language usage and the rest will follow.


Marijke Singer  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 16:45
Dutch to English
+ ...
Jul 6, 2005

[Edited at 2005-08-05 23:44]


juvera  Identity Verified
Local time: 16:45
English to Hungarian
+ ...
Go ahead and be consistent Jul 7, 2005

The most important thing is, start with your strategy from the day s/he is born, (you didn't say, if you are expecting or already have a child) and stick to it.

Don't worry, if s/he is slow to start speaking, some children are. My first son started to say things before he was one, the other hardly said anything before he was approaching two, but then he came out with fully formed sentences. (He still is one of those rare human beings, who thinks before he speaks.)icon_smile.gif

You can give your child a great gift for life.

Best wishes


Lexi-tech  Identity Verified
Local time: 10:45
Italian to English
+ ...
Do what comes naturally Jul 31, 2005

Clare Barnes wrote:

These three languages may interfere with each other in the mind of your child.

I don't think that this is anything you need to worry about. (still a quote from Clare)

My experience has been that to do what comes naturally is the best, because then you will be consistent. It is the only self-imposed rule that works. I will just give you my example. Italian is my mother language, English is my step-mother language, my husband's mother language is English. I live in Canada which is officially bilingual, in Quebec, where French is the official language, and where third languages are often treated as "heritage" languages.
I never imposed Italian on my son, but only spoke it when circumstances (visits by relatives or trips to Italy) or my mood dictated it. His first sentence was, as he was watching our neighbour water the lawn: Man (EN) donne (FR) acqua (IT). You can imagine that I thought I had made a big mess of the whole thing. But no, Alan sorted it out for himself. He goes to school in French and now, from school, has added Spanish to the lot. He is very verbal and in writing makes mistakes in Italian because he has never learned it formally.


[Edited at 2005-07-31 12:09]

[Edited at 2005-07-31 12:10]


Peters Trans
Local time: 17:45
Spanish to English
+ ...
Just in time! Aug 29, 2005

Wonderful, I was just about to start a similar thread as I have read alot about bilingual situations but few about trilingual situations.
My wife is expecting our first child. I'm Irish, my wife is Spanish and we live in France.
Now, everyone had been telling us to speak our own native langauges to our child, i.e. me in English, my wife in Spanish and he/she will learn French on TV, daily life, at the crèche... But, I had my doubts about this. The other day I finally raelised I had a friend who was brought up like this (another translator). She was born to an Italian father, Spanish mother and raised in French sepaking Switzerland. When I asked her advice, she said, "well, what language do your wife and yourself communicate in?"... the answer is English, as my wife insists even though she is more or less blinigual and even speaks English with abeautiful Irish accent! So basically, this womans advice was that we should speak to our child in English, he/she will learn French as we're living here and Spanish will be a third language (more frequent travel to Spain, more contact with his/her Spanish grandparents as unfortunately my parents are quite old and can no longer travel due to health reasons). To be honest, I think this makes more sense.
Yet, I/we still need to be convinced!
Thanks for any comments.

[Edited at 2005-08-29 10:24]


Local time: 17:45
English to Hungarian
+ ...
trilingual family Sep 17, 2005

[quote]Peter's Trans. wrote:
" we should speak to our child in English, he/she will learn French as we're living here and Spanish will be a third language"

Are you sure you both have to speak English to your child? It's not your wife's mother tounge.

Our situation:
My L1 is Hungarian, my partner is Norwegian-English bilingual.
The two of us communicate in English - at home. (With friends, etc. we both speak the other one's native lang., too.)
To our son I only speak Hungarian, his father only Norwegian.
Our not-yet-3-year-old speaks English as well. Noticably in less complicated sentences than in the other two languages, but my guess is that in a couple of years it will even out. Within our little family he only uses English at the dinner table, but upon meeting others when he is addressed in English, he answers in English. (Same happens with the other two lgs., of course.)
So, for my son, mama-lg. and papa-lg. are person-related (+extended family), English is situation-related.
What helped, I think: whichever country we are in he often uses the phone with other family members (grandparents, uncles). To start with, he was mainly listening, granted.
Otherwise, he only has me speaking Hungarian to him in Norway, and only his father speaking Norwagian to him when in Hungary.
I hope it's more or less clear...

Let me recall something I heard at a lecture (of Judit Navracsics, she reseraches multilingualism)
Family with Arabic L1 mother, English L1 father, living in a third country (or English-speaking country, I don't remember), using English as the family language. The children only speak English. They understand their mother's native tongue, but they don't use it productively.
BUT: by their mother they can only be disciplined when she uses her mother tongue! She can say whatever in English, they won't take it seriously, it's not "honest" enough.


Peters Trans
Local time: 17:45
Spanish to English
+ ...
Thanks Mamaka! Sep 19, 2005

Thanks for your reply... I was getting worried that nobody was sending me any advice. Since posting, and through further investigation, we have decided to do what you describe as your situation. I will speak to my child in English, my wife in Spanish, and well, I imagine he/she will learn French watching TV/on the street/at the crèche/school.
We will however (my wife and I) speak English between ourselves, as this is the language we usually use to communicate in (my wife's decision... not mine!).


Andreas THEODOROU  Identity Verified
Local time: 17:45
Greek to English
+ ...
My 2 p's worth Oct 1, 2005

From my understanding based on experiene and a bit of reading, the golden rules are to make the language learning process as natural as possible: to expose them to the language in a natural environment (books, songs, films) and *especially* to people. If there are not many people speaking that language where you live, then I would say visits abroad are a must.

These were my rules for learning two languages, and I think that they are even more applicable when it comes to a third language.

I think your approach should work mainly because I know that Dutch people are exposed to English so early on. And England isn’t a million miles away!

Peter's Trans. – Congratulations, first of all. In line with my own theories, the first approach you mentioned made more sense to me. I wonder whether the exposure to Spanish will be sufficient with your friend’s scenario. It all depends on whether you want them to be fluent or to ‘prime’ them so they can pursue the language themselves when they are older.



Local time: 18:45
Hebrew to English
Trilingual in Israel Feb 8, 2006

We are a trilingual family: I am American, my husband is French, and we live in Israel. We have 5 kids. We have tried to be consistent about speaking our native languages to all of them. Hebrew is for school, friends, and among the kids themselves. My husband and I speak a mixture of all 3 to each other, depending on the situation.
Comprehension: they all understand all 3 languages.
Speaking: The oldest (age 13) is the best about replying to us in the appropriate language. The second 2 are inconsistent, but willing when reminded. The fourth replies to us only in Hebrew. I think she is just stubborn, because she speaks to the grandparents in the appropriate languages. The fifth (age 2) has yet to develop a pattern.
Conclusion: You have to be really stubborn, more stubborn than your kids, because it is definitely an effort for them. It does not come easily
But the reward is incalculable.


Daina Jauntirans  Identity Verified
Local time: 10:45
German to English
+ ...
So right Feb 10, 2006

jsetbon wrote:
Conclusion: You have to be really stubborn, more stubborn than your kids, because it is definitely an effort for them. It does not come easily
But the reward is incalculable.

Yes!!!! I love this quote. You are absolutely right.

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