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What is the best strategy for a multi-lingual couple to instill both the father's and mother's native languages to the child in a most "natural" and efficient way?

My wife and I have been speaking English between ourselves for the eight years we've been together since we met in the USA as international students and until our first son was born two weeks ago. Neither of us is a native English speaker; she doesn't know my native language and I don't know her native language well enough, and we are both pretty comfortable in English (though both not perfect), so we stuck with it; since six years we've lived in a country where her native language, German, is spoken, but I haven't really picked it up as my day-to-day life is in English.

Now that our first son was born we are wondering how to behave, linguistically speaking, around him. Her and I obviously have to keep talking English between the two of us because there's just no other option for us to communicate. When either of us is alone with the child then I suppose we could also speak our respective native tongues to help the child pick it up. But what if all three of us are together, such as at the dinner table? What should we speak?

My wife says we should have a mix where she speaks English to me and German to him, and I speak my native tongue to him and English to her. I feel this is very unnatural since I would like to understand what she says to him, so I feel it's more humane that we all speak English when we are together. But is this going to be harder for my son? He would then be immersed in three separate languages, which I understand makes it harder.

Right now he is still very small, so I guess it doesn't matter a lot yet, but when changing a diaper or picking him up she would speak to him some comforting sentences in German, which is obviously very natural, but if I'm there I'd like to understand those little jokes, funny nicknames and soothing metaphors as well. When I speak to him and she's there I do it in English because I want her to understand as well and then she's rebuking me and saying I must speak my native language.

  • An update on this question from the OP would be interesting. – Jay May 8 '18 at 8:47
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My wife says we should have a mix where she speaks English to me and German to him, and I speak my native tongue to him and English to her.

Your wife is right. The advise for parents is always: use your native tongue, consistently. Children are clever enough to figure out that you are using a different language when talking to each other than when talking to them, this is fine. A person mixing languages when addressing them however is confusing, it makes it harder for the children to separate the languages and might impair the development of their own language skills.

Also, children learn to talk the language the way you do it. If English isn't your native then you shouldn't talk to them in English - they will take over all the mistakes you are making as well. There is another disadvantage here: if you all talk English then your son will still learn German at some point since that's the language spoken in the country - but he will no longer be able to learn your native tongue, and this would be a shame. I've heard so many people say: "Yes, my father comes from Serbia/Bulgaria/whatever but he didn't teach me the language, why didn't he?"

I would like to understand what she says to him

Don't worry, you soon will be. If he can pick up the language then so can you. There aren't too many things that parents tell their children and the meaning is usually obvious from the context. If you only spend enough time with your family you should be able to keep up as the complexity of the communication increases. Remember: he has to figure out three languages, for you it is only one.

Right now he is still very small, so I guess it doesn't matter a lot yet

Actually, it does matter. Children start learning languages very early, even if it doesn't show at first. Way before you can see them understanding you, they are already picking up the sound of the language and learn to separate it in words and sentences. So you should make a decision about languages as early as possible and stick with it.

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Firstly little kids are very smart at picking up languages, and it's entirely possible they can speak 3 languages at a young age.

Still, having said that, bi (or tri) lingual kids can take a little longer to start speaking at all (nothing to worry about, but we were a little nervous).

I am raising 3 bilingual kids in English and Norwegian. Rather than me speak English and my wife speak Norwegian, we chose to speak mostly Norwegian with the first 2 kids, and push English hard from 3 years of age (or when they seem ready).

For the third child, I am going to speak mostly English, but in that case the kid often picks up their "preferred" language from the mother, and speaks the "other" language to the father.

Your situation is more complicated, there's no "right" way to do it, and if you make a reasonable plan and stick with it I'm sure it will go fine.

It sounds like your wife has already made up her mind, so the question is then if you speak your native language with your child or just English - have a think about how important it is to speak your own language first and also think about social circumstances (playground, daycare, creche, etc) where it might be beneficial for the child to have English skills earlier.

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