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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
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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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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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