I am a native English speaker while my wife is a native Spanish speaker. We would like our 2.5 year old son to have what neither of us never had – a true foreign language to help him through life (most likely German, Chinese, or Russian). However, we are hesitating about doing this out of fear of the implications for his development because the third language would not be a native language spoken at home. Should we wait ’til later? If so, around what age? Blake.

Dear Blake,

Your son is currently being raised bilingual English and Spanish. Congratulations! As you have probably already realized – bilingualism takes up time and effort. This said a normally developing child can be raised trilingual without affecting development. The challenge is to assure on-going language in-put in all three languages. I would suggest that you discuss with your wife what your goals and proficiency level would you want your son to reach in each language. These goals can and should be amended over time, however they will help you answer the question that you raise: “when should we start and how much effort and what kind of activities should my child be doing in each language?” For instance aiming for written proficiency in one language that a child will get from school, is different from aiming for literacy proficiency in three languages. The later will require intensive training early on. Another important issue to discuss is the choice of language. This is a complex issue with obviously many facets, but as noted above, on-going language input will be key, so considering a language with strong availability for exposure will be important.

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. You can read her answers here.

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