Originally published on January 27, 2010
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Today´s question was sent from England by Monica.
I’m an Italian mum of a three-year-old girl. My husband is Portuguese and we live in England. At the moment Italian is the dominant language as she spends most of the time with me, but she knows fews words in English as well.
I really would like to raise my child trilingual, as we have the right condition to do so. However, my husband tends to speak to her in Italian making lots of grammatical mistakes. I do think that he should be consistent with the Portuguese even if it is not easy for him as he speaks Italian or I would say “his own Italian” to me as well.
I would really appreciate if you could give an advice on which would be the right thing to do. Thanks in advance… your website is great!!!!
What a wonderful dilemma to have! This said, your points and questions are very well made.
You would like to raise your daughter trilingual and your language environment would lend perfectly to this. As you noted, you could continue to speak Italian and your husband could start to talk Portuguese to your daughter. She would learn English through her environment.
The big family change would be for your husband to shift to another language, i.e. Portuguese. In general, I do not encourage a parent to speak a language that they do not master and thus passing on a poorer vocabulary and grammar. For monolingual families circumstances are different, – and that is another subject and approach.
Keep in mind that switching from one language to another does not always feel instinctive for a parent, who might have reservations at many different levels. A gradual change could be helpful. For instance, starting in the bath tub, and moving onto meals, until your husband speaks only Portuguese to your daughter and you Italian. This is the One Person One Language (OPOL) technique and it is the most successful, I believe, because it is the most consistent and easiest to follow for parents and children.
Also, I would encourage you to speak with your husband about how he feels regarding the family language dynamics. You both want to be on board. I would encourage you both to establish what I call a “bilingual action plan,”- in your case a trilingual action plan, where you write down who is going to speak which language, when, and which activities.
Raising children bilingual and trilingual is very exciting but also requires on-going communication and planning.
Naomi Steiner, M.D. is a developmental-behavioral pediatrician and clinical researcher at the Floating Hospital for Children at Tufts where she is also an assistant professor in pediatrics. She is interested in how children develop awareness to cope with their emotions, behavior and learning.
Dr. Steiner has a longstanding interest in bilingualism and multiculturalism, which is a topic that she enjoys teaching and discussing. After more than a decade of working closely with families around these issues she has written a book, with Susan Hayes, called 7 Steps to Raising a Bilingual Child. She is multilingual and is raising multilingual children.