Being multilingual

When you end up talking another language with your kids…

This post is for this month’s Raising Multilingual Children Blogging Carnival hosted by Headoftheheard. This month’s theme is “Hidden Opportunities”. 


When you are multilingual and start having kids, you have to choose which language you’ll talk to your children. Linguists always recommend to talk your “mothertongue” to you children. But which is the mothertongue if you are perfectly bilingual? In my case: should I talk Italian or German to my kids?

When our son was born, we lived in Italy and as Italian is one of my mother tongues, it was very natural for me to talk Italian to him from the beginning. Our home languages were Italian (me and my son), Swissgerman (my husband and my son) and German (my husband and me) and we were convinced that he would pick up German automatically too.

When we moved to the Netherlands our son was 2.5 years old and he went to a dutch daycare twice a week since almost immediately. After two months he started to talk less and less Italian to me. My husband was still talking Swissgerman to him and I noticed that my son prefered to answer me in Swissgerman or even Dutch too. Supposing that this was just a phase, I kept on talking Italian knowing that he would at least gain a passive competence in this language.

Unfortunately in this period we didn’t find families with children of his age with whom he could talk and play. He also realized that I did understand and talk all the other languages he was exposed to, including Dutch. So, why should he bother talking Italian only with me?

Then our twindaughters were born. I still kept talking Italian to my kids. I hoped that when my girls would start talking Italian my son would follow them. In fact, they all three did for almost four months when my daughters were 11-15 months old. But then my twindaughters started to communicate in an autonomous language that had nothing in common (neither phonetically, nor morphologically) with the languages they were exposed to.

This secret language became a problem in our family because nobody could understand what they were saying. Against all warings from linguists, my husband and I decided to narrow down the languages in our family and started to talk German altogether. I did study bilingualism and was perfectly aware of all the negative impact this change could have on our childrens’ linguistic developement.

Fortunately, all our children did respond very well to this change: our girls stopped talking the secret language and now, six years later, they all talk English, Dutch and German almost every day and they even talk a bit Italian with our Italian talking members of the family and Swissgerman with the Swissgerman ones when we visit.

When you’re a multilingual parent it is very difficult to teach children simultaneously more than one language. It requires a real commitment and means a lot of work. Some families have fix situations or days where they talk one or the other language. We do have fix times when we talk English or Dutch at home, but I didn’t try this (yet) with Swissgerman and Italian (that would be 5 languages within our family on a regular basis…), but I’m convinced that giving my children even only passive input of Italian and Swissgerman helped them to understand the languages and to even talk when they’re exposed to it for a longer period.

Our initial attempt to raise perfectly bilingual children in Swissgerman and Italian may seem to have failed, but we have now children who talk perfectly English, German and Dutch instead, who have a basic competence in Swissgerman and Italian. Sometimes multilingual parents have to make choices that may not be the ones they wanted in the beginning, but that are vital for their children to survive in the jungle of languages.

If the situation with my daughters wouldn’t have happened, I wouldn’t be teaching my kids to write and read German (our schools’ curriculum doesn’t provide German lessons at an early stage). I would like to teach them Italian too, but my son recently told me that he would like to learn Spanish and French first… Alors, on parlera Français or hablaremos Español instead.


If you would like to read the updated version of this post, please read it on my website.

47 replies »

  1. There is always a perfect plan in the beginning and then something happens….it’s called life! I am a strong believer of talking to your kids in your mother tongue, the language in which you know all the childrens’ poems and rhymes. If it comes from the heart it must be right. However, sometimes, life situations make you take turns you would never have expected. But remember, there is no age to learn a new language. Ciao!

  2. Of course, Expat-with-Kids. I have two mother tongues, therefore it’s not that easy. Italian was the language coming from my heart, but I took the turn towards German and am prepared to take some more in the future. – Ciao, ti auguro una bella estate (in Ticino?)!

    • Welcome, Chasing-the-Donkey! I’m pleased you found my blog. The choice about the languages to speak within the family shouldn’t be too confusing. If you make a list about the languages your family and closest friends talk and what language is needed in the country you live in, it will help you to figure out which languages your child will “need” to understand (and talk). But first of all, it has to work for you and your husband (or other care takers). – It worked out for my kids, yes. Not for all in the same way but that’s ok. Everyone is different and has the right to have preferences and to be good in different areas. I’ll maybe write a post about this too, soon 😉 – Tell me more about your situation, I’ll try to read all your posts on your blog, but maybe you would like to add something?

  3. I like how you were flexible with your language decisions… I wrote a post on this and am ready to adjust our strategy in the future if the situation presents itself. While consistency is important in raising multilingual children, you have shown that apart from that, it’s also very important to do something that works. If you’re consistently doing something that isn’t proving fruitful there is little point in continuing. It’s better to, at that point, be flexible and change to something with results; which you did. Good job!


    • Thanks, Jeff. I must say that I’m pretty impressed on how the children can adapt to changes like that. Changing the languages within our family was a challenge, but my husband and I learned a lot about our children and about ourselves. We both were not very convinced that we did the right thing: for my husband and for me, German was not the language we would have chosen for our family, but with a bit of effort we managed. Consistency and flexibility can be combined and lead to success 😉 – Thank you Jeff, for your lovely comment. I really appreciate your support! Ute

  4. I came here from multilingual kids carnival and enjoyed this post! We are monolingual parents raising a fluent trilingual kid now 12 ( Mandarin/Spanish/English) and soon to add French. I suppose my daughter might run into these issues when she has children.

    We’ve hit a few curve balls as well, but always found ways around. Life always adds an interesting twist to raising multilingual kids!

    • Welcome, Jeanne, I’m happy that you liked this post! It’s very exciting to see how multilingual children react, evolve and change in different linguistic contexts and I’m looking forward to see the next steps my kids will take in whichever direction our life will bring. You’re right: “life always adds an interesting twist to raising multilingual kids”! – I wish you a very exciting journey with your kid! (I would love to know more about your linguistic situation ;-))

  5. I loved reading about all your kids’ languages! It’s always interesting to see what happens naturally even if it’s not what we originally wanted or intended. They still have 3+ languages, just not the three you originally thought. I’m fascinated by your secret language of twins story (I clicked over to it). I have heard this about twins but never knew anyone who had this experience with twins. My girls who are close in age (19 months apart) have a language they sometimes use together-it’s not like the secret language of twins but it’s a play language and when one of them switches to it, the other will automatically too and they have a pretend conversation in it. To me, it’s an approximation of Arabic and Spanish (2 of their 3 languages). I wish I could remember how old they were when they started it!

    • Dear Stephanie, thanks for stopping by! I think that at some point all children develop some imaginary language. If, in your case, you can recognize elements from the languages the children are exposed to, it’s surely easier for the others, and it’s really considered a game and like something that will probably end at some point. I also thought that the secret language of my girls had something in common with Dutch/German/Swissgerman or Italian, but no. After a month of studying their speech, I realized that this was more like the secret language among twins described in the studies I read about this. As the context was different that the one described (my girls were not abandoned or somehow isolated), I have my own theory about the reason they developed it. But I’m looking for more examples to consolidate it.

    • Welcome Ashley, thank you very much for your reply. I’m very glad you liked this post. As a “former” linguist (as I used to work as one years ago, but I guess “once a linguist, always a linguist” ;-)) I was very reluctant to swim against the stream, but sometimes practice needs to be different from the current theory… In which aspects of language are you interested in? I would love to know more. U.

      • I definitely agree that theory and reality are sometimes two different things. I currently teach ESL at a university in the US. I have also taught in China for several years. I studied ESL for my master’s, so I got to learn a lot about the theories, and still want to learn more, especially about second language acquisition. I am so jealous that you are perfectly bilingual and then some!

      • I imagine that you learn a lot teaching ESL. About second language acquisition: you probably know the Cambridge Studies in Second Language Acquisition? And there are many studies about this. I know several about Italian, German, French – but not English 😉 – Do you teach only adults or also children? I did always teach mainly adults and see now, with my children, that there are some English teachers who are not trained in ESL and who have some problems about teaching spelling etc. to children who are bi- or multilingual.

  6. Thank you very much for this post! I just reblogged it on 3rdCultureChildren – I’m always looking out for posts/discussions on raising kids within a bi/multilingual environment… Thanks again and greetings from La Paz, Bolivia! 😮

  7. Phew – that is indeed a problem. From a practical point of view, I think that English is still the most widely used language for international communication, so it does argue a case for it as a dominant extra language.
    We have a problem in that my young granddaughter is talked to by our housekeeper in Zulu and is developing a good understanding of it, but this is stunted by the fact that none of us have more than a smattering of it.

  8. Interesting!
    I’m Korean-American but raised by a Hungarian who was teaching me Hungarian at a young age. However, I also had ear issues and when the pediatrician tried to speak to me in English and I didn’t respond, he thought it was because of that, but it was because I didn’t speak English – so they stopped. Oh well.

    Regarding kids who don’t speak the same language – not an issue. We took my kids to meet their Hungarian cousins last year and they still managed to play, plot against each other, and have a blast. They figure it out. Probably similarly to what your twins were doing – which is more of a twin thing, not a bilingual thing.

    Great article!

    • Thank you, Sarah, for your comment. The situation you describe with the pediatrician is, unfortunately, very common. It’s a shame. I guess that pediatricians should be more informed about bilingualism and multilingualism – as much as teachers…
      I’m experiencing the same effect of full immersion with my kids too. As soon as we are with family or friends in the “right” linguistic environment (in our case Germany or Italian speaking part of Switzerland/Italy) they improve their speech. xx Ute

      • Thanks for the reply! It drives me crazy because half of my family speaks fluent spanish and it’s a language that could really benefit the kids but even though I’ve asked, nobody ever speaks it around the kids. They worry that the kids won’t want to talk to them because they don’t understand. I’m like, if they’re over, start by telling them to ask for dessert in Spanish – they’ll learn quickly and go from there.

      • Sarah, I can understand how you feel about that situation. Sometimes it’s quite hard (nearly impossible?) to teach people that being bilingual doesn’t mean being somehow crazy (or schizophrenic…). But maybe your family is just afraid of the responsibility? Or they think it’s asking them too much?
        If you talk a bit of Spanish you could teach your children how to say “hello” and “good-bye” etc. in order to “break the ice” and convince that half of your family to speak Spanish to your kids. The kids could also learn a Spanish song etc. . Maybe you have friends who talk Spanish too? Have a look at this site: to get inspired! I wish you all the best : Hasta luego! xxx

      • Oooh, love it, I’ll check it out! I will try but I’m told I speak valley girl spanish (Like Ohmigawd!). I took years of Spanish and finally mastered it, then to try something new I took a semester of french and wrecked my spanish pronounciation. LOL! Practice, practice, practice.

  9. I’m so glad I found this blog! I am having a hard time with my (gasp!) 4 1/2-yr-old who refuses to speak any English at all. I am American but have been living in Northern Italy forever, where I married an Italian man who speaks fluent English and French, we all carry dual citizenships and we travel often to the US. My family speaks to me in English only. My children travel often abroad and after a coupld of weeks in the US begin to understand ppl when they address them in English, but it’s soon forgotten once we set foot in Milano again. However, I have exposed my children to the English language while in Italy only int he past couple of years, because my in-laws stressed their concept of it being rude for us to teach a language the rest of the family didn’t understand completely (I first obliged, then came to my senses!). Perhaps I should just switch to Englsh as our household language… I do sing to them, read to them, watch movies with them in English… It just doesn’t seem to stick. I’ll read all of your posts for more insights…. Thanks ! D

    • Welcome, Daniela, to my blog. I’m really glad that you’re sharing your story. I have several friends who experience the same as you. Children understand how others (grown ups, family etc.) react to the “other” language and can easily refuse to talk the language (or even refuse to acquire it!) if they have the impression that their ususal environment is not accepting it. It’s very difficult and sometimes impossible to convince people that teaching a child our proper mothertongue is not an insult but a natural need! When I started to talk Italian with my kids, a part of my husband’s family did also express the fear that they wouldn’t understand what they were saying, but as my husband did talk Swissgerman to them, there was no reason to be worried. – Switching to English as your houshold language seems a good option for me, but how does your husband feel about this? Would he agree to talk a language that is not his mothertongue to the children? He could still maintain Italian and you talk English to the children. You don’t say where in Northern Italy you live, but there are maybe some bilingual groups (mums and kids) or you could start one. Your kids need to have peers in their daily or weekly life with whom they talk English regularly. Not during “lessons” but playing together, going out together (to the park etc.). They need to feel that the language you want them to talk is necessary, that it’s valuable. And you can do a lot yourself, by reading English books to them, by showing them (age appropriate 😉 DVD’s, CD’s etc. I can also recommend the BBC site for children: you’ll find plenty of games, songs etc. that your kids can do. Last but not least: I’m in a blogger-group of Mum’s who are raising multicultural children around the world and there are many excellent ideas for how to do it – I don’t know how you’re trying to convince your children to talk English, but by being passionate and determined yourself, you’ll surely succeed. I wish you all the best and, please, let me know what you’re planning to do. I’m very interested in knowing how things will evolve with you and your kids! Ti auguro ancora una bella serata. Con un carissimo saluto, Ute 😉

    • Adam, I’m really glad that you’ve enjoyed reading the post. Yes, it requires a lot of effort, but it’s really worth it! We’re now in the Italian speaking part of Switzerland for holidays and I’m amazed how quick the children re-activate their Italian vocabulary and don’t seem to have any problem to interact with locals! Full immersion with peers is really the best thing ever! It helps us parents too, because children teach other children “their” world, the vocabulary they need for their games. It’s the key to their language and builds the base for everything that follows (they don’t need to understand Dante or Petrarca (yet ;-)).
      Yes, let’s keep up our efforts.

  10. BRAVO to you for following your ‘gut’ when handling the secret language situation – that’s the advice I give the young mothers I meet who are facing the challenge of which language/s to use in the home. Deep down, we all know what ‘feels right’. We just need the courage to listen to it, ignoring the so-called experts (which often include in-laws!). xx

    • Thank you for your comment, Kathryn! I really appreciate it. Yes, I studied bilingualism before having kids and knew all the pros and cons about those situations. But when I encountered the problems with my daughters I didn’t hesitate. Of course, it took a few weeks to sort out everything also with my husband and my son, but, to be honest, I didn’t ask the rest of the family 😉 I must admit that when it comes to my children, the way I parent etc. nobody has the right to tell me anything. I may do mistakes (who doesn’t?) but I do usually follow my “gut” and up to now that was all right. – I’m very glad that I found your blog by the way, I like it very much. I just need to know more about “transnationals” 😉

  11. This is very inspiring – and it also makes my head spin! I am constantly amazed by how wonderfully versatile and clever children are; up to us parents to keep the doors open and adapt…We are in France, balancing billingualism and a bi-cultural homelife, I’m looking forward to following your blog for inspiration!

    • Welcome to my blog, Jenny. I’m glad you found this post inspiring and would love to know more how you do balance bilingualism and bi-cultural homelife in France (I visited your blog and found some hints already ;-)). Please feel free to share here on my blog. Bienvenue et à bientôt! Ute

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *