3 Things I’ve Learned Raising Trilingual Children

If you are a parent then you know all to well how important it is to stimulate your child’s language development, though what happens when you live abroad and are responsible for this alone?

This is the reality for us expats who live in a different country and would like to give our children the gift of a second language.

Let’s let you in on a little secret that most people don’t know when raising bilingual children: they don’t get confused by speaking several languages, as a matter of fact, they could keep learning languages!

My children speak 3 languages fluently: Danish, English and Portuguese and along this journey there have been a lot of challenges – kind of like a science experiment in many ways.

Here is the first thing I’ve learned so far in raising my trilingual children:

1. We Need To Be Consequent

“” is the method to subscribe to as a bilingual parent.  This basically just means that we keep to speaking one language with our children rather then switching between languages.

I have three children: Matthias, Livia and Kaela.

trilingual children

And in the beginning my great dream was to speak to Matthias in English, Livia in Spanish and Kaela in Portuguese – this way I’d be sure that they would get them all!

The truth is that it would create extreme amounts of jealousy between them “why do you speak Spanish with Livia and not with me?“, So I’m glad it didn’t happen.

This may not be the case for every expat parent, though it underlines the need to speak one language consequently to your children.

Worse Then a 90’s Mix Tape



Some expat friends of mine have decided not to implement the whole “being not only a parent but a language teacher for your child when abroad” thing.

They’re good intentioned, loving people that make an honest mistake: mixing two languages together with the child or speaking the foreign language with them.

Why is this a mistake? Because the child is smart and will happily take the easy way out…

This can go two ways:

  1. The expat speaks the local language with his/her child.
  2. The expat speaks their native language with his/her child though doesn’t require a response in their language.

#1 is usually due to an incorrect belief that the child will get “language confused” if they learn a second language and that “it will be easier for him/her in school etc”. 

This is simply put untrue and an old wives tale to say the least.

Your child’s brain is like a mass of clay waiting to be molded, your’s on the other hand is pretty much molded, hence why you might transpose your difficulties with learning a language as an adult (confusion etc) onto the child.

Your child’s mind adapts to it’s surroundings and they will learn 3 languages fluently (case and point), 4 languages fluently if you invest in that or whatever you throw at them – just don’t be the teacher of them all 😉

#2 is another very common scenario and usually has to do with laziness (or knowledge).

I can’t tell you how many times my wife has said “they answered you incorrectly, make sure and correct their English” to which she usually gets a “oh, sometimes I forget” response.

We do get forgetful, comfortable, lazy or whatever the case may be (speaking for myself here) and it gets tough to continually be correcting our children.  And if you are really the only one speaking English – or insert language here – to your child, it’s a lot of work!

Though it’s one of those things where the hardest part is getting ourselves to pick up that shovel to begin digging a hole, as we know that it’s hard work and just have to face it.

Once we get our hands dirty and begin doing it though, it only becomes easier with time.

2. We Can’t Give Up

When my son or daughter comes up to me and spits out a whole bunch of words in any other language then my own, my first reaction is not to fight it.

The easiest thing for me to do is to just ignore the little Danish or Portuguese wording or logical structure of the language, because I understand what they’re saying.

Though the correct thing to do is to bounce the sentence back to them correctly.

Here’s an example:

Matthias (my son): “Daddy, you no want chocolate?”

Me: “Daddy, you don’t want any chocolate?”

Matthias: “Ah…Daddy, you don’t want any chocolate?”

It Can be Taxing but It’s well Worth the Investment



After a long and tiring day, the last thing on my mind is correcting my children’s English…

The truth is that if I don’t, no one else will!  And since it’s important that my children not only learn the language of their father and family and English as a universal language, it’s important that we as expats give extra time and effort.

It really is a win-win because it gets us out of our comfort zone and self focus making another person’s needs be the center of our thoughts.

This is not only a selfless act leading to boundless personal growth, but beneficial for our children on many levels.

3. The Other Language(s) Take Longer

One of the most common stereotypes about bilingual children I get is that “they will take a longer time to speak than other children”, let me hit this ball out of the park at once and tell you that this is not true.

Just take my little terrorist daughter Kaela as an example, she has 2 years of action and fury on this earth and no language will stop her from communicating!

Her vocabulary is greater in the local language then other children her age and she has a working vocabulary in 2 other languages as well.

It’s not uncommon for her to turn to me and spit a bunch of words out in English (though sometimes jibberish), then turn to her mother and do the same in Danish.

Yeah there are some words mixed together but those will get ironed out over time.

As a matter of fact, she just ran to me with cup in hand at this very moment and said “jeg vil more water Daddy!” (jeg vil = is “I want” in Danish)

It Does Take Longer



The truth is that for every one word that any other child learns, your child will have to learn 2 (or more).

So if a typical 4 year old has a vocabulary of 1,400 words, then your child will need to match that number and have a vocabulary of around 2,800 words. I.E. your 4 year old will be able to speak as many words as an average 6 year old child!

This is something important to understand and where many parents think that the child has difficulties in learning their language.

If your child is out playing all day in Portuguese and comes home with new words he/she just picked up from hours of stimulation, you will then have to match those new words.

You will always feel like you’re chasing the effect of countless people’s language stimulation on you child, which is actually true.

So run this race and build your endurance as the payoff is huge in the end.

Final Words

This was a very specific post for people who have children abroad though it is something very relevant as my inbox is reflective of.  So I hope that this has been helpful in understanding how to deal with the challenges of a new language around you and what you should do.

How has it been for you raising a bilingual child abroad?

Valeu!

Kevin

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  • Me n my hubby have this same “problem”…Hes pakistani (urdu), Im brazilian (portugueses) and as I dont speak urdu, our language of connexion is english…Our daughter is 19 months old and shes still not speaking many words, as a matter of fact she just speak Mamma n BABA (urdu), although shes very communicative in her way…we are all curious to see wht shes gonna speak first…But I confess Im a bit confused myself…I dont know exactly wht to do…So Your article came in handy…From now on I`ll try to speak with her only in portuguese and as he speaks in urdu with her, later on she will learn english eventually…

    • You are exactly right, it can be confusing but keeping to that single language will make her fluent.

      You’re in Brazil now right? If so, then her first language will undoubtably be Portuguese…

      Just keep being consequent with her and she will be speaking in many language before you know it!! 🙂

  • Love this ! I am America living in Brazil with a 2 year old. My Portuguese is so very bad, with my son going to school I thought he was going to fall behind in speech since we speak English at home, although his grand father speaks in Portuguese with him. Come to find out his speech is amazing and he understands both. Although he mixes both and sometimes I have no idea what he is saying but he is far from behind.

  • A very interesting post! I would like to comment on your advice what to do when an incorrect sentence is produced by a child. Cognitively speaking, the best method would not be to provide the correct sentence for the child, but to make the child think about its output and repeat the statement. For example, if your child asks “Daddy, you no want chocolate?”, the ideal reaction would be “What are you asking daddy?” or something of that sort, because it makes the child produce the correct version on its own. This was just recently covered in a linguistics lecture on multilingual first language acquisition I went to.

  • Hi, thanks for the tips. I was so worried about it even had doubt if I should have children at all. my mother language is persian, my husband is swiss so he speaks swiss german and we speak english together at home, was thinking my baby will never talk and will be always confused. it was good to read your article and now i hope for the best.

  • I live in Canada, I speak spanish, my boyfriend is from France and between me and him we speak english. I speak to our son in Spanish all the time and he hears me and his father speak in english. He is 18 months old and has yet to speak fluently or speak at all. Most of the time its crazy giberish but we don’t worry because its harder when it is 3 languages and he still communicates very well with us.

  • Hi Kevin, thanks for that great post ! I would like to have your opinion about something me and my wife are thinking about implementing with our first baby girl (due in a few weeks) using 3 languages. Our aim would be to raise her in 3 languages, my wife will only speaks portuguese (her mother language), and I will alternate between French (my mother language) and English using the following pattern: two weeks of French then two weeks of English and then back to French and so on… do you think that method could work if we keep the consistency. Can I be the point of reference for more than one language ? Regards, Cédric

  • Hi Kevin, I’m a fellow Dane though I have chosen my home to be Japan instead of Danemarken. My wife and I are expecting a little girl and have inevitably clashed over the issue of language usage.
    Since we are living in Japan and my wife is Japanese it’s only natural for her to speak Japanese to our baby. However, in my case it’s a tad harder.
    Ideally we would like to raise our daughter trilingually (Japanese, Danish and English) especially since English education in our language of choice is so horrible. I would of course speak Danish to her on a daily basis, but how do I include English. Change every day?
    You mention in your blog that you have been successful in raising your offspring to be multilingual. Other than the above could you share some more nuggets of gold for us struggling expats?
    One
    Thank you in advance.

  • Wonderful post! I found it very helpful and supportive. Our family works similar to yours: I speak Portuguese, my husband speaks Arabic and we live in arabic country. I found my babies (boy with 2 years and half and a girl with 1 year and 7 months) speaking both languages, as they hear portuguese from their mum a lot and hear arabic from dad, his family and friends. Both kids speak both languages, not perfectly, but can communicate well. I noticed girls tend to speak faster or have a larger vocabulary, since my baby girl speaks much more and better then our boy although she is younger. In my opinion, if english isn’t our first language and we are not used to speak it frequently, we shouldn’t worry about it. At the end, they will all learn at regular school, english courses or -surprisingly- at video-games and movies (so my brothers did it)!

    Loved the blog initiative! Best regards to you and your family!

  • My kids are multilingual and somehow it just comes naturally. I am Russian myself, speaking Russian to kids, my husband is Polish, speaking Polish. We both were born in Lithuania, so were our kids. Lithuanian became their third language when they started going to playschool. When the eldest was 7 years old, we moved to Ireland where he went to English school. Became quite fluent English speaker after 6 months, Now 10 years later as we use Lithuanian only going to visit grannies on holidays, my son had almost lost it. He still understands simple phrases but he is not able to communicate in Lithuanian. We never pushed or insisted on using any of the languages or giving any preferences. It was just coming so naturally. In fact I think being be/tri lingual is helping them in learning other languages. My both boys are top students in learning Irish and Spanish in school. Hard to say who they identify themselves as, but language is only the part of culture you belong to. I’ve asked my child what language does he think when he was about 8 years of age. He thought for a moment and answered ‘I don’t think in any language, i just think’.

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