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My wife is Italian, I am Swedish. Between us we speak English, neither one of us knows the other language. We are currently living in Sweden and will do so for a while. The baby will be born in May.

My wife is actually half-Japanese and while not mother-tongue she speaks it well enough for conversational use.

I have seen Raising a bilingual child when one parent knows both languages while the other doesn't and What are some strategies for raising a bilingual child?

Our thought so far is to speak English when we are all together, Swedish between me and the baby, Italian between my wife and the baby. And then at some point, my wife's mother may introduce Japanese.

Does anyone have similar experiences of having three languages from start? What worked? What didn't?

Does anyone have any advice on whether to (and when and how) introduce Japanese?

Are there any recommended references on the subject of... raising children with three languages?

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Just a comment. Don't speak English "when we are all together". Speak Swedish to the baby. Always. Always. Always. Make sure everyone who knows Swedish always speaks Swedish to the baby. Speak English to your wife. If you need to say something to the baby that you also want your wife to understand, say it twice. Once to the baby, once to the wife. Keep this going until the child speaks Swedish reasonably well (so 3-5 years). – Lennart Regebro Feb 1 '12 at 8:39
@LennartRegebro, is this advice based on some study? or personal experience? Thanks. – ksa Feb 19 '12 at 10:09
This is the general advice from professionals, and it has been borne out in my personal experience as well. I don't know if there are any studies on it. The baby will have trouble in separating the languages, and this becomes much easier if you are consistent. Then the baby will understand that you speak Swedish to dad and Italian to mum. The general recommendation is for one person to use only one language, but that's impossible in your (and my) case. – Lennart Regebro Feb 19 '12 at 12:37
up vote 4 down vote accepted

Our thought so far is to speak English when we are all together, Swedish between me and the baby, Italian between my wife and the baby.

That's the way recommended by all sources I know of. I.e. be consistent with your use of language when you talk to the child - each parent (and other persons too) use one and the same language - preferably his/her mother tongue - at all times, as much as possible.

On average, bi- and trilingual children develop their language skills slower than others, which is quite understandable as they need to process a greater amount of stuff. However, as usual, there are wild variations in skill development. E.g. we know a child with a Spanish father, Finnish-Russian mother, currently living in Hungary and attending an English school (earlier they lived in Moscow for a while). He is a bit over 7 and speaks all five languages quite fluently. This happens, but is definitely not the norm :-)

So be patient, talk to her a lot, relax your expectations - she will most likely learn all three languages sooner or later. You are also right not to throw in Japanese into the mix yet - I would start that only around school age or even later, when she already has a firm grip with the first three languages.

Be prepared that she will most likely develop preferences, depending on how much each language is used, and by whom. E.g. our children are bilingual (I am Hungarian, my wife Finnish), and the elder is fairly balanced between the two, because she started to talk earlier, and spent more time at home with her mom. The younger, having been slower to develop, and started at kindergarten earlier, has significantly weaker and more passive Finnish skills. Obviously the wider environment has a strong influence in this once she starts to spend more time outside of home. So at kindergarten / preschool / school age you may want to take opportunities to upkeep and strengthen the other, non-local language (which would be Italian in your case, at least for the time being). Our children attend to the local Finnish Sunday school, to learn more about the culture, spend time with Finnish speaking friends, practice reading / writing etc.

Check out this related thread too - it has useful suggestions and references, also details about the checkpoints, i.e. what to expect realistically from your child at a given age.

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note that slower language acquisition seem to depend on the number of sound needing to be taught. Unfortunately I don't have the link to the research, but non-bilingual kids with different languages have a slower vocabulary growth the more distinct sounds in the language (the study was Danish with ~28 and Croatian with ~5). However, around pre-school time it has evened out. Just a note if one language seems 'easier' for the child too - it may actually be easier! – Ida Jul 31 '14 at 18:08
Based on my own experience (three bilingual children of my own), the first one was indeed slower on language skills in general : it took her forever to start talking at all and then to be understood. The two next ones got it super quick and not harder than if they only had one language to learn. – Smurk Aug 1 '14 at 1:38

Actually, if you are living in Sweden, based on the research I've read, it is right to use English when you are all together. If using the proportion of 5/7 you are using the language the baby is not exposed to outside the home during the 5 and the exposure language during 1 0r 2/7 the child will be prepared well enough for school. So It sounds like a pretty good plan based on my information.

Check out "The Bilingual Edge" for more of the research, encouragement and a listing of supportive online communities.

On a side note, why wait on the Japanese. Grandma can introduce that right away. Contrary to popular belief, it will not confuse matters.

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I speak Portuguese, my husband speaks French and we live in the US. The only language we have in common is English. Since we both can speak a tiny bit of each other's language( I more so than him), and since I am staying home mom, I try to speak all 3 of them to my son. It happens naturally depending on what I am talking about with my son. If I am trying to say something to my son that I want dad to listen, then I will speak in French or English if I dont have all the vocabulary. Dad does the same way. For instance, if he wants to say "go to mommy" than he would say it in portuguese...things like that. I am also in the process of introducing sign language to my son, so that he can express more of his desires. He is only 4 months now. But we are still in the process of learning what works and what doesn't for us. We know for sure that we want our children to learn the 3 languages even if that requires some delay in speech. Good luck to all of us brave multilingual parents!

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For any bi- or more lingual discussions, I always like to point to this great TED talk on how babies aquire languages.

Basically, they filter which sounds are important or not, so an English 'speaking' baby will develop ability to distinguish between 'l' and 'r', whereas a Japanese 'speaking' baby will not. Or as she says - will loose that ability!

It also says that the younger you are, the more easy you learn languages.

The takeaway I have is that speak as many languages as possible around the baby. He/She may not learn all of them, but being able to differentiate between different sounds will make it easier later.

I have a couple of anecdotes to share:

Friend of mine is Chinese-Canadian married to a Japanese wife. He speaks English to the kids, wife speaks Japanese. Kids are fluent in both, have both English and Japanese books and so forth. Their paternal grandparents speak Cantonese to them, but the kids don't speak it. The idea is that it would be hard to maintain 3 languages in the household (and my friend does not feel comfortable enough in Cantonese himself), but at least they learn the sounds of the language - which is very different from both Japanese and English.

As another example of how early exposure helps, I met a guy with a Danish mom, but grew up in the US. He was eager to speak Danish to me. His vocabulary was limited and he spoke slowly, but remarkably he had very little accent. OTOH my grand mother, who is German, moved to Denmark as an adult, and despite living there for 30 years or more had a few words that she could not say without a heavy accent - sounds not present in German.

So I think that speaking some Japanese to the baby is great! And then you can make up your mind when/if to formally teach Japanese.

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