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trilingual household

Written by Rachel Hand, 6 years ago, 5 Comments
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Rachel Hand speaks three languages in her house, subconsciously mixing them to suit the situation or topic being discussed. This is how her trilingual household developed. 

When I met my husband Jarwo, I had been living in Indonesia for six months, having visited this amazing South East Asian country several times before and taken a course in Indonesian language at the United Kingdom University. As a result of this, I already spoke reasonably fluent Indonesian, which was just as well, because Jarwo’s English was extremely limited.

Speaking Indonesian

In the beginning of our relationship, we used a hundred percent Indonesian. As our wedding was approaching, it became apparent that Jarwo needed to know some English, not to speak to me or for his profession, but simply so that he could form relationships with my family and friends in the UK.

In the same way, I knew his large extended family did not speak English and I felt that he should connect with my family who did not speak Indonesian. I wanted him to create his own relationships with my British family and friends, forming his opinions of people, topics of conversation or shared interests, without relying on an interpreter.

READ MORE: This is not an English Speaking World

Teaching my husband to speak English

So I taught him. We started with weekly lessons, perhaps a little formal, but it worked, using a textbook and with homework. He studied and practiced. You might ask, why we didn’t just use English at home all the time to make him learn, but it is difficult to purposefully change the language you use to communicate with a particular person.

Six months later, we traveled to the United Kingdom and he put his learning to good use, building a lovely friendship with his mother-in-law, getting to know many of my friends, and finding his way around London.

Back in Indonesia, our weekly lessons had subsided and I worried that his English would slip, but it didn’t. In fact when we returned to the United Kingdom eighteen months later, everyone commented that his English has improved. How had this happened?

At home our use of language had evolved naturally to incorporate English into our daily lives, much of it instigated unintentionally by my husband, who would throw some English words into the mix.

The third language, Javanese 

A trilingual household incorporates not two, but three languages. Indonesian is the national language of Indonesia, but throughout the archipelago, many regional languages are spoken.

Where we live, in Central Java, Javanese is the regional language that my husband grew up speaking and is commonly used for communication.

The older generation, my grandmother-in-law for example, only speaks Javanese. And so I continued to learn Javanese, and it has worked its way into the patchwork of languages spoken in our house.

Take away from a trilingual household

Every day in my household is an opportunity to enrich our linguistic experience, and my husband agrees that he often picks up new English words around the house, while I pick up Javanese or Indonesian.

Knowing each other’s languages not only enables us to become close to our in-laws, but also means we can communicate with each other at a whole new level. Where one language doesn’t have a suitable word to express something, we can substitute another language. We often mix languages within a single sentence, unintentionally. 

Impact with having children

And our children? We don’t have any yet, but if we do, they will be inducted to the linguistic medley that chimes around our house.

Do you also have a multi-lingual household? What languages do you speak with family and friends? Let us know in the comments below. 

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About Rachel Hand

A native Londoner, Rachel has been captivated by Southeast Asia since her first visit back in 2000. She lived in Indonesia for four years before moving to Singapore where she is studying for a PhD in Southeast Asian Studies. Rachel loves travelling in the region, indulging in music, culture and spicy food. Check out her blog at

  1. Kate CarolineApril 3, 2012, 5:06 pm

    Hi Rachel,
    When you wrote, ” it is difficult to purposefully change the language you use to communicate with a particular person,” that totally hits home with me. My boyfriend is Colombian, so his native language is Spanish, but he speaks perfect English, and when we met, because I spoke very little Spanish, we only spoke in English. Now that my Spanish has improved a lot, I always tell him, “Speak in Spanish with me so I can practice!” but it’s really hard for him to switch because he’s so used to speaking with me in English. And even though we communicate mainly in English, I agree with you about how nice it is to be able to use words from different languages when one language doesn’t have exactly what you’re looking for. Great article, thanks!

  2. RachelApril 4, 2012, 7:58 am

    Glad you like the article! I know someone who made her husband speak to her in his native language (that she was learning) every day until 6pm, when they would relax and use whatever languages they felt like. We tried having Indonesian and English days of the week but it’s so difficult to stick to, especially when you’re excited (or angry!) and want to speak your mind.

    • LorenaApril 4, 2012, 6:02 pm

      Hi Kate and Rachel!

      I too, find myself speaking to my husband in English, because that was what we spoke to each other when we met, since he could not speak Spanish, nor could I speak German. So our communicating language is English. Our sons speak fluent English and German, and know a few words in Spanish too, but not enough to communicate, not quite yet. But it gets interesting sometimes, doesn’t it? I thought your article was really interesting, Rachel! Thanks! :)

  3. Marie TeatherApril 16, 2012, 3:03 am

    I loved this article! When I was in Japan and had a Japanese boyfriend we would switch between English and Japanese but eventually made a dialogue exchange based no our own language capabilities – it wasn’t grammatically perfect in either language but we understood each other just fine.

    I also noticed that when there is a language barrier to overcome you really do *listen* to each other so much more than if you are both native speakers – no assuming that the other person knows what you are saying (as we all know what miscommunications this can lead to)…

  4. FrancesApril 16, 2012, 4:46 am

    I love the fact that great relationships, whether they are romantic or not, can transcend language barriers. I’ve been a native speaker of English and started learning Spanish because my boyfriend used to speak it a lot. He spoke English as well, but he would teach me the basics of Spanish. Right now we converse in both English and Spanish, and at times when I don’t know how to fully express myself, I speak in grammatically incorrect Spanglish which both he and I find awkward.


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