Being multilingual

Which language to choose (part II)

Steter Tropfen höhlt den Stein
Steter Tropfen höhlt den Stein (Photo credit: tschoppi)

 (“Constant dripping wears the stone”)

(updated 2020)

Raising bilingual children is not only a commitment which requires lots of energy to provide the regular inputs, maintain the passion for the language throughout all the years, but also requires a great amount of flexibility.

Several years ago, I wrote a post about the language choice we had to make within our family and how we managed to still keep up with the languages we didn’t talk on a regular basis.

When I stopped talking Italian to my son he was 4,5 years old. I honestly hoped that some day he would ask me to speak it with him again. Among my children he is the one who started earlier with reading and writing, and he is  very talented in languages (and literature in general).

A few years ago he had the opportunity to follow classes in Spanish and French and I was very pleased to see that he loved both of them.
We had very long discussions about the similar vocabulary, the difference in orthography and, of course, the analogies with Italian. This exposure to related languages made him realize that talking Italian is valuable too. It wasn’t the first time he heard those languages, but learning about them at school, in a setting with peers, made them apparently more valuable for him. – For me this was a very interesting aspect. I always thought that being exposed to a language in “real life”, i.e. during holidays and with friends would suffice to persuade somebody of the necessity to learn it. But the peer-pressure and the formal setting was the trigger for my son at this stage (11 yo).

English: Chart of Romance languages based on s...
English: Chart of Romance languages based on structural and comparative criteria not on socio-functional ones. Based on the chart published in “Koryakov Y.B. Atlas of Romance languages. Moscow, 2001”. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was immensely pleased when he asked me to talk Italian with him again; and he asked in Italian! I think that only parents whose children have not replied in the desired language for a long time can understand what this meant to me. These 6 words meant the world to me: “Vogliamo parlare in Italiano d’ora in poi?” It was the greatest gift he could give to me. – We now talk Italian in the weekends and occasionally when we are one-on-one. We both enjoy it very much!

This phase of re-introduction of Italian started 6 years ago and although my son does not read or write Italian regularly, and surely not up to a level of fluency that one could call nearly-native, and which was my initial plan, I am confident that should he ever need to improve his language skills, he has all he needs to succeed.

With this short “update”, I want to share that initial plans can change. It can be difficult to make a choice that meets the child’s needs, but there is always a chance to re-introduce a language later in life! We go through phases in all domains of life, also with regard to our languages.
My son is currently learning Chinese with his Chinese friend, which I wholeheartedly welcome and support! I am looking forward to seeing what the future of languages will bring!


When we “gave up” Italian and Swiss-German a few years ago, my husband and I were worried that this lack of consistency would affect the language acquisition of our children. We thought that they would not understand us talking German to them, that they would refuse replying to us in German and that they would forget those other languages and never be interested in them.

I think that the fact that those languages kept being important for my husband and me, that we still used them also in the presence of our children – while talking to friends etc. – and that we regularly visited our relatives who speak those languages, kept them easily accessible for them. Italian and Swiss-German are part of their language repertoire and they know that they can nurture them whenever they want.

I’m convinced that the consistent passive exposure to these other languages helped our children to still have “a good rapport” to them.

Like if the door to access those languages was always open. This not only happened for Italian, but also for Swiss-German for our son, which he talks with great confidence and the right intonation while talking to his Swiss-German family.

The fact that our children would not actively use them on a regular basis does not prevent them to use and learn them at any later stage in their lives. – I know by my own experience that this can happen.

Planting seeds of knowledge
Planting seeds of knowledge (Photo credit: CIMMYT)


“We can plant different seeds, water them, expose them to sun, but can’t predict how fast they grow and when they will come to fruition.”

13 replies »

  1. How sweet that you and your son have a language that you speak together on weekends. And it is very encouraging to hear that he is realizing the importance of those other languages, even if the catalyst is peer pressure.

    • Yes, I was not sure if he would ever ask me to talk Italian to him again, but I also think that he realized how important this language is for me and now that he is “ready” to learn it and wants to know more, I’m more than keen to help him. – If it felt hard to “let go” Italian and Swissgerman at the beginning, it is really comforting to see that our children are interested in learning the other languages we talk. – And I made a promise to myself: if one of my children decides to learn a language I don’t speak, I will learn it too. It seems only fair to me.

      • Thank you thriftytravelmama! I’m sure you will. Which languages do you speak with your boys? English and German? I’m sure that during your trips you’ll lighten their passion for language as part of the culture too. Alles Gute und bis bald! 😉

      • Yes, we are pathetic monolingual Americans striving to become bilingual for the sake of our kids (and ourselves, but for some reason children are a stronger motivator). Though we don’t have to, and it’s awkward and hard sometimes, we try to speak German at home during dinner. And yes, our hope is that by traveling the world, they will grow up to be world citizens that value and adopt other cultures as part of their own. Vielen dank 🙂

      • Ha, I like your humour! It’s great that you introduced German during dinner: I find it the most exciting moment of the day. At least in our family: everyone wants to talk about the day and the wordflow is sometimes overwhelming (mostly in a positive way 😉 ). You’re raising TCKs with all the advantages this kind of live entails. I’m looking forward to knowing more about your journey. Alles Gute und viel Spaß!

  2. You must have been delighted. Interesting to see what factors influence our kids most. I’ve enjoyed delving into your blog and am happy to know that someone out there has been successful at reactivating a family language.

    • Thank you, Georgia. Yes, I’ve been very happy about this new turn in our linguistic journey. Reactivating a family language is actually much easier than some expect. I think the most important point is the mutual commitment between the child(ren) and the parents (or caregivers). We actually re-defined our family languages during these summer holidays and discussed everyone’s language preferences (I’ll write about this soon).
      I’m very glad you like my blog and would love to know more about you.

  3. I am also familiar with the problem to decide which language to choose (my siblings and I were raised with five languages). Every language with which I was raised is to some extent an essential part of me. It is a tough decision to chose one dominant language (I prefer OPOL) and thereby to feel as if one decides against the other languages. My kids have a different set of languages than I had as a child but it feels really nice that we share some languages from early on.

    • Thank you very much for your very interesting comment! May I ask which languages you were raised with? And which one(s) you chose to talk to your children, and why? I’m really very interested in knowing how other multilingual parents solve this OPOL “problem”. We now agreed to talk different languages in different situations and days per week, which works quite well so far. I know that consistency should be one of the priorities while raising multilingual children, but in our case, I find it quite interesting to observe that my children develop different language preferences and if I can meet their needs, I’m very glad to do so. – I would really love to know more about your language situation with your children!

      • My father was Lithuanian, my mother Estonian, their lingua franca was French. I am Swedish citizen, born in Sweden (where my siblings still live now) but I grew up in Germany. My mother only used Estonian with me, my father Lithuanian, my siblings speak Swedish among themselves – but I use with them a mix based on Estonian-Swedish-German. Lately, Swedish has become a passive language rather than an active one; I am only using it for administrative purposes or with a few acquaintances.
        I remember that my sisters had a hard time when they were pregnant for the first time – they felt that they would like to speak Estonian and Lithuanian with their kids but couldn’t decide between the two languages and finally chose Swedish. And now their children are quite upset about having grown up with only one language.
        My husband is French (actually of Catalan origin, born in Brazil), we speak English with each other (happened to be the way we got introduced in an expat surrounding and we kept the language) and our two oldest children were born in the Netherlands, the younger one in Germany. So, my kids are raised with (1) French (Dad), )2) Estonian (although I’m already almost the second generation raised outside of Estonia, my mother was teenager when she had to leave the country), (3) formerly Dutch changed to German and (4) they hear English every day (without having formally learned it, the older ones are able to answer & demand things in English).
        I never tried to introduce my kids to Swedish or Lithuanian. I partly regret it. I never thought it possible to speak more than one language with the children (considering that I have “rare” languages, not spoken by lots of people, it is more demanding to keep them up if you do no longer have a strong and large network of people speaking the language) – and it’s the way I grew up: one person one language.

        I think OPOL was the right choice regarding my expectations: I wanted them to learn reading, writing. I had those really classical ideas about “pure” language use, to expand their language domains and vocabulary – but in the end there is no way to measure how well someone speaks a language and they have to work later with developing their language skills, if interested. I am still in favour of a basis of OPOL, which later may be enlarged to other languages, once that they are out of their typical toddlers’ and preschool phase of mixing languages. I was afraid I might be freaking out if they would not answer me in Estonian and drop the language, something I observed with other people. Although I am still allergic to typical utterances from my oldest daughter who thinks it is cool to mix Estonian, French, German and even English into one sentence when talking with me (- because I know that she speaks all languages and would be capable of expressing herself in just one language, which she did previously before getting into that pre-teenage age), I am getting a little more tolerant and allow myself to answer sometimes in only English or only German to her – which I still do not do with my younger ones (strictly Estonian). I guess I became more confident when I realised that my older children speak, understand, write and read in Estonian, so the basis is created, and I can help them to become more fluent in other languages as well…

        I really like your blog and also the fact that you point out that there are European “TCK”, for whom TCK is not the right term. But except for multilingual, multicultural and (maybe) multinational, I have not come up with a better term.

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