In this recent question, Matej raises his son English bilingual. I think teaching English very early is a great idea because there's hardly any way around English anyway so you might as well learn it well. I consider good English skills to be essential. But because my family is already bilingual, I hesitate to add a third language at 2 years of age. Besides, I don't know yet how I would do it.

I need some ideas on how to add English into a bilingual family.

Here's my starting point:

  1. My son is learning German because we live in Austria and his mother is Austrian.

  2. Because I am from Denmark and I want him to learn his father's language too, I'm already speaking Danish to him (and no one else is, except when the family comes visiting from Denmark, or when we go there). In other circumstances, I would do as Matej did and speak only English with my son, but I don't want to speak 2 languages with him. On the other hand, I don't know anybody here that can speak English half as good as me.

  3. Television and cinema here in Austria is dubbed, so there's hardly any English to be heard anywhere. Also, there's plenty of literature (textbooks, novels, websites) in German, so there's no urgent requirement to learn English. Consequently, Austrians (like the Germans) are famously and embarrassingly bad at English. (Unfortunately, this includes the average English teachers.) I don't want my son to be that bad at English!

  4. I think English will be taught early on in school, though perhaps not right from the first school year. I can only pray that our local school has a skilled English teacher. (2021 edit: they don't...)

  5. I don't see myself being able to afford English-language private school, so whatever I do needs to precede or go in parallel with normal Austrian school.

  6. We are not planning on moving to an English-speaking country. Our life is here at the moment.

  7. All the household computers run exclusively English software. That's how I learned English to begin with, too: using a text-based adventure game and an English/Danish dictionary. It's not the ultimate solution, but a great start.

  8. My son is 2 years old right now, so I'm not in a hurry to start. I want him to really grasp his two primary languages first. On the other hand, I don't want to wait too long either. The earlier he gets comfortable with it, the better.

  9. I consider my spoken and written English skills to be excellent (for a non-native English speaker), so I am not concerned about teaching "broken English."

(I might add more points later.)

4 Answers 4


I'm no expert, but this is my understanding, from reading up on this (my daughter is trilingual).

Unless you speak the language in question perfectly, adding a language as early as at two years will make no real difference. Instead the child will inherit your accent and grammar mistakes, which although unproblematic means there is no benefit to adding the language later. This is probably why it in general is not recommended that you try to teach toddlers a language which is not your mother-tongue. There is an added benefit in how easy you can learn languages, but I'm not sure it needs to be as early as two years, and adding a third Germanic language in a bi-germanic household probably isn't as beneficial as the second language was.

It is also generally agreed that it is important for language development to learn at least one language properly, and the more languages the child has to learn, the longer that will take, although that is probably not a problem in itself.

I would instead of trying to introduce a non-mother-tongue at an early age, rather do it at school-age. This avoids the confusion by adding a new language when you are two or three or younger, which is likely to delay language development somewhat (which is probably unproblematic, but can be frustrating as a parent). In most civilized countries (France, US and UK thereby excluded [just kidding]) you start learning a second language at somewhere between 8 and 10 years, and this is often English. Having exposed the child to this language before will help, and I think introducing it in the daily language will help even more. Basically, some time before the child starts learning English in school (during preschool even), start using it daily, by the dinner table, etc, teaching the child phrases and words. After a year or two of this, you can give him/her English books and DVD's, etc and soon after you can probably start using English as a main language with the child.

This procedure seems to me to have very few of the potential drawbacks of teaching your child a language that is not your mother-tongue, while having no drawbacks in itself.

  • Thank you! I don't necessarily want to start English immediately, but it would be good to know when a good time to start would be. By starting it simultaneously with the school, at least I'd be able to provide good homework training. It might not be a "head start," but a "quick start" is probably just as good. Commented Dec 29, 2011 at 6:42

I understand a bit what you're talking about. I talk to my daughters in English, and my wife talks to them in Dutch; however, we also want them learning Hebrew as well (being Jewish, as well as having my mother-in-law being a Hebrew teacher). What we have done is gotten a couple of DVDs and audio tapes geared towards kids, and put it on when my daughter feels like watching some television (or putting the audio tapes on in the car when we go for a ride). If the DVDs are colorful enough to capture your child's attention, they will start to absorb some of the language they see. It might help to get DVDs and/or audio tapes that have a focus on music - singing some English language songs might make the process go quicker.

Because you already live in Austria, your child is going to learn German first - that's just the way it goes; by now, if you were consistent talking to them in Danish, your child should also at least be able to understand when you talk to him in Danish (I know for my child, if I ask her a question in English, she'll understand it and respond in Dutch). By exposing your child to an English language DVD, hopefully they will also be able to absorb some of what they hear, and will be better able to learn with you when your son gets older. Worst that happens? Your child runs around singing English language songs that doesn't have much meaning to him. It's worth a shot.


Adding additional language in my son's case was not sudden, but I started with very short sentences, or better, simple commands like: sit down, stand up, gimme a hug. We started early, at about 6 months of age I stopped speaking Slovak towards him (I still speak Slovak with my wife, even in front of him). We've continued with body parts or small toys (cars, etc.), and now (after two years) I ask him what he wants to eat for dinner.

Although he still answers in mother's language, sometimes, if we spend whole day together, he uses few English words (This is [a] blue car!). Due to being alone English speaker around him, I haven't asked him to answer in English to me yet, but I'm eager to start soon. I'll try to start from small things like naming things to me in English (If I play with him - it's a "car", if it is mom, he plays with "auto").

So start with small words, short sentences, let him understand what you tell in English at first. Accept correct answer correct in any language. You may excersise it at home, but still use Danish everywhere else, like you are both used to. Later, when you know more words, try to turn specific days/evenings in a week to The English Day. Perhaps, short English stories on DVD or YouTube will come handy - some animated stories don't talk too much.


I would strongly suggest some preschool television programs in English. Most preschool programs are aimed at language development and therefore would help you child learn English. Two programs come to mind - Sesame Street and Yo Gaba Gaba. Many of these programs are available on Netflix or can be purchased through Amazon. These shows are fun for preschool children and may hold their attention a little into primary school. I would say the danger with these is that you child may find them babyish as they age.

There is also an online program that may be helpful for learning to read and speak - tumblebooks.com is a program that reads the books to you while the text is on the screen. It is a subscription site, but many public libraries have links to it from their sites. There is a large number of books and may be a great independent activity for your child as they get older. I know there are many picture books as well as some beginning chapter books. Another option is that on the Nook color (and perhaps other devices) there are books that can be purchased and downloaded that will read to the child.

Many studies show that children learn additional languages best if they are learning it at the same time as their primary language.

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