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Let me provide you first with some context. My partner and I live in the Netherlands. I am Italian and he is Spanish, and we both speak fluent English (the second language for both and the language we most comfortably speak to each other). We can both speak Italian and Spanish, with my Spanish being a little bit better than his Italian. I can also speak a little bit of Dutch, but he cannot.

I am now 4 months pregnant and we are discussing what our strategy should be when the kid will be born. We are sure that we will use the one-parent one-language strategy, so that our child can learn to speak both Spanish and Italian and be able to communicate with our families. We are also sure that our child will pick up Dutch quite fast, as she will go to daycare starting at 6 months, where only Dutch will be spoken to her.

However, our doubt is: what should we speak to each other? Should we expose our child to a fourth language (English) when we speak all together, and keep Italian and Spanish for the one-to-one talking? Or should we start making the effort now to speak only Italian and Spanish to each other, and avoid speaking English at home? In that case, how should we go about it? Alternating Italian-spoken and Spanish-spoken days? Or alternating Italian-spoken and Spanish-spoken activities?

From one hand, we are confident that our child will learn English eventually. Virtually all kids in Netherlands do, thanks to early introduction at school, exposure in the television and the ever-increasing multicultural environment. On the other hand, we wonder if it is worth the effort of avoiding speaking English to each other, and could be actually beneficial for the child to be exposed to English already before school? Or would it be too many languages for a young child?

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  • This question and many like it have been asked before. A search of the site for trilingual, etc., would give you many helpful answers.
    – anongoodnurse
    Feb 27 at 16:13
  • You can read some hopefully helpful answers (including mine, raising a quadrilingual daughter) here: parenting.stackexchange.com/questions/42086/…
    – iulia
    Mar 7 at 17:04

2 Answers 2

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As a Dutch person myself, and as a teacher, I would actually advise you to expand your own Dutch and teach your child Dutch as the basic language (at least if you plan on living here the rest of your lives).

I have had several students of Turkish ancestry(ages 16 to 22), who at home only speak Turkish. Even now in their late teens several of them struggle with Dutch giving them a what more isolated position compared to other students because they still haven't fully mastered the language yet due to it being given no attention at home. Also the parents who are unable to still (properly) understand Dutch kinda get duped by their kids who purposely mistranslate stuff to them to cover their own asses. In the past this has led to some issues with problems not being properly addressed or addressed in time.

My advice would be to start teaching them a second language when they start to understand the concept of languages (around 3/4 years) and ease them in to it during weekends.

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    Thanks for the advice. I do master Dutch quite well. I can read, write and understand well. I am just not so confident with speaking. I think the case you are mentioning is quite different than ours. Our child will be exposed to Dutch already starting at 6 months. We have many friends with similar background and situation as ours (highly educated immigrants), and their kids born and raised in the Netherlands speak Dutch better than the parent's languages and have no problem at all with education and integration. But we will keep working to improve our Dutch. Definitely a good advice. Feb 28 at 12:26
  • Nice answer! The "purposely miss translate stuff to them" is a good one! Feb 28 at 18:03
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    The advice is usually, to speak your fluent first language/mother tongue at home with your child, as you will speak naturally and they will acquire the language naturally. If trying to use a second/less strong language the parent may not speak as much as they can't actually think of the words. Obviously the parent should also try to have a good level of dutch to communicate too, but if they are not native-fluent this shouldn't be the primary language they communicate with their baby.
    – R Davies
    Mar 4 at 10:39
  • I completely disagree with the advice above. Parents speaking to their children in a language they do not master at a native level is unnatural, pretentious, and possibly counter-productive (non-native pronounciation and grammar mistakes that the parents make will pass on to the child, who will then have to "correct" them from other input).
    – iulia
    Mar 7 at 17:02
  • @iulia just speaking out of experience i had with students who don't speak Dutch at home.
    – A.bakker
    Mar 7 at 17:10
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Great question!

I thought I had written about this here previously but I couldn't find it again, so here goes:

Our son #1 heard Spanish from from me, German from my spouse, and English from his part-time British family daycare provider. We had been influenced by two fascinating books by George Saunders. (You might get a copy from a university library or Inter-Library loan.)

In the better of the two books (I forget which is which), Saunders catalogs different approaches to bilingualism in children, and different reasons parents have had for having chosen one approach or another. He also gives practical tips and transcriptions of play-dialogue with his child.

We felt it was important to keep up the parent-couple's common language, English, so our son could be fully integrated into family life, despite my spouse having an intense job and tending toward being somewhat detached, with a prize-winning talent for blocking everything out and daydreaming.

When we left France for the US, as the child was turning 5, we decided to stop supporting French -- other than reading an occasional beloved book in French that we had brought with us in the move.

We (mainly I) had discovered that keeping a language going through the years can be a lot of work. Oh my goodness. Setting up playdates, me struggling to communicate with the French or German playmate's parent, finding appropriate books and song books in the target languages, learning the songs, finding playgroups, making visits to relatives, making supported phone calls to relatives. Also when son #1 was starting to talk, he mixed his three languages like crazy. Since the British child minder only spoke English and French, I kept a list of his current vocabulary in his diaper bag, her his current vocabulary list so she'd have a better shot understanding him.

Arriving in the US we found that in our environs, English took over very easily in daycare or kindergarten, and it took real effort to keep the German and Spanish going -- in the sense of the child responding naturally in the same language he was being spoken to in.

When son #1 was 8, we adopted a newborn. Given the predatory nature of English in our context, we decided not to promote English in the beginning.

By this time my spouse's understanding of Spanish had progressed. Dinnertime was kind of a linguistic free-for-all.

Son #1 spoke what we call "Germish" to his brother, in a 70-30 mixture, favoring Spanish.

My spouse says that talking and singing German with the children has helped them (spouse) be silly, share their sense of humor, and connect more intimately with the boys.

Son #2 attended Spanish-speaking part-time family daycare starting quite early. The provider moved out of state after a couple of years, and the child then started to go to English-speaking part-time family daycare. This child was very outgoing and found the switch low stress.

I did do a lot of planning and orchestrating and providing support for speaking with reasonably correct grammar. But in our interactions, I mostly focused on the meaning and the loving support and the fun.

Now, you: I'm not worried about your child learning Dutch in school or daycare. (Tip: in preparation for school, if your child's Dutch is very limited, you could hire a part-time babysitter for a few months to play with the child in Dutch, to help get over the hump. My son #1 needed that. It helps if the person you hire understands some Italian or Spanish. But the younger the child, the easier it is to pick up a new language.)

My personal opinion is that it's good to limit the number of languages to the number that you and the people close to you have enough time and energy to support consistently over the long term. I've known people from India who had a much easier time with this, because there is often so much daily exposure to someone who speaks language A, someone else language B, and so on on. But wherever we've lived, there's been just one dominant language, so for us it took more effort and planning.

When I was looking for my old post, I came across some interesting Q-A pages:

Should I force the toddler to speak the words and sentences which she is finding difficult to speak?

Can I "read" from English books to my infant, but use words from my native language?

Bottom line, from your description, I see no need for you guys to knock yourselves out with introducing Dutch in the beginning.

I've seen people try to suddenly change what language they've been using as a couple for years -- but the plan generally goes by the wayside as soon as somebody comes down with a bad cold or undergoes a nasty jetlag.

It might not be the end of the world if English were also postponed. In a country like yours, English will be taught well at school.

In short, I doubt you need to introduce Dutch during the parenting leave; whether English is needed early on or not depends on a bunch of factors (see my story, above).

It can be helpful to think about your goals, and some back-up goals just in case the initial goals don't work out. For example, I want my child to respond to me in my language. Or: I want my child to have a close relationship with my monolingual parents. Etc., etc.

I had to let go of one of my goals at one point. When son #2 was diagnosed with Tourette Syndrome, anxiety, OCD and specific phobias at 10, I had to let go of almost all expectations and requirements, including responding to me in Spanish. Life was just too hard for him at that stage.

My adjusted goal has been a success. Son #2 still understands everything said to him in Spanish and German. (Son #1 is now working in Germany for a German company with German-speaking clients; he talks to me in Spanish about 1/3 of the times he calls, and English the rest.)

However many languages you choose, it will be an adventure.

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