Making trilingualism work out

I should probably lie and say that I hired a 10-year-old to illustrate this article

Risks around trilingualism

I’ll start by identifying the some of the risks according to when in time they appear.


If the couple speak the host language at home before the arrival of the little ones, this can be detrimental to the development of the heritage languages. The exposure of the children to the host language will be massive and the heritage languages may be used only when one parent is present. Apologies if I am sounding a bit harsh here.

Neighbours, friends and playdates

After the household language arrangements, the next ring of “threats” are external. I have identified neighbours and friends as a source of potential risk to the heritage languages.

Well, they don’t look like a threat, do they?

Childcare and school

So far the previous cases referred to situations where the parents are present. If you are lucky enough to be able to spend most of the first years of your children with them they will not get an early exposure to the host language. However if you need to make use of childcare from an early age, this applies to you.

“Dad, but I know you do speak English” (picture credit unknown)

Mitigating the risks — what can I do?

Often just talking to the parents is not enough for the children to achieve fluency. There are some steps you can take to help you stay on track.

Learning your partner’s language

This will avoid the uncomfortable situation of one parent not understanding what the other one is saying to the kids. The learning will be gradual and organic beginning with babytalk and evolving to 3 word sentences and later full sentences. Four years is plenty of time to learn to speak a language like a 4-year-old. This may also be rewarding on other fronts, such as you being able to speak to your in-laws directly for the first time! (or maybe not…)

Stories, songs and cartoons

Ideally always in the heritage language. Try to find Paw Patrol, Thomas the Tank Engine or Postman Pat in your heritage language and buy the DVDs. They will still be able to speak about the characters and stories with their friends but at least they had that exposure to their heritage language.
(Note: don’t overestimate the effect or watching TV in the heritage language. It’s obviously better to watch in heritage language than not, specially to catch some kids’ expressions they won’t hear from you, but the effect is minimal compared to spending the equivalent quality time reading a book or playing wordgames)

Some cartons *not in English*

Language games

Gamification was a buzzword in online business a few years ago. It seems to have faded now, but it’s something that always worked and will always work with kids. If you want them to learn something, wrap it in a game. I started doing this with my eldest from the age of 3 to reinforce grammar. Spanish is a language with lots of verb tenses, subjunctive forms, etc. Monolingual kids take to get it right, but I noticed that mine was just saying everything in the present tense.

Learning about the world

If they learn about something first in the heritage language, that’s always going to reinforce the language. You’ll lose control over that once they start school. It’s impossible to catch up with 5 hours of schooling with just a couple of hours in the evening. Being a 1-to-1 session with your child is a pro, but you being tired after work is a con.

Nanny and grand-parents

A nanny or au-pair native in the heritage language will make a huge difference. Not just for the amount of time exposed to the language, but just to the fact that there is another person to speak with and to learn from. Vocabulary in particular will be benefited by this.

Playgroups and Saturday school

Try to find other families with the same heritage language. Arrange playdates from an early age to make sure that the children *meet* in the heritage language. If their English is good enough when they first meet, they may realise quickly and abandon your language on the first date.

A playgroup (photo: Stratton Playgroup)

Further reading

If you want to read more about the topic I can recommend the book “Growing up with three languages” by Xiao-lei Wang. It’s a nice read and interesting to see the different age stages. I’m looking forward to a 2nd edition when the kids are adults!
Here are the links to the book on Amazon US and UK. (these are affiliate links)



Software Engineer | talks about software, multilingual children

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Alberto Faci

Alberto Faci

Software Engineer | talks about software, multilingual children