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Oct 302016
 

Can a child become fluent in a language after the age of six or seven?

Question

Hi Rita

We’re a monolingual (Spanish) couple living in Spain. Nevertheless, we’re are raising our 4-year-old daughter multilingual. I always speak English to her and to my husband. But I speak French to her one hour a day. My husband speaks Spanish to her and to me, and one hour a day, he speaks German to her. Our daughter is home-schooled and I’m a housewife (I used to be a journalist before she was born).

Nowadays, her first language is English, although Spanish is getting stronger by weeks. She understands some French and German and enjoys our sessions – she’s starting to say some words and simple sentences in both languages. We know, each language is on a quite different level, with English and Spanish the strongest ones.

My questions are:

  1. Can a child keep improving their skills on a language they haven’t got to be fluent before 6/7 years afterwards? (Obviously, the sessions would go on)
  2. Is there any technique to keep “working” on a language with children who has been exposed to it but are not fluent in after six or seven years old?
  3. We know children can learn more than one language. Could you give us some advice as to how to keep it going once they are pre-adolescents?

Thank you very much. We’re looking forward to seeing the answers.

Regard,
Maribel

Answer

Dear Marbel,

Thank you for your question – it is an impressive set of languages that you are teaching your little girl and I admire your commitment! Lovely to hear that she is enjoying her extra language sessions of French and German in addition to acquiring English from you and Spanish from her dad as well as from others in the community.

With regards to your questions:

  1. It is never too late to learn, improve or even become fluent in a language. The age of six or seven is in no way a limit after which you stop learning. That age is usually mentioned in the context of accents – if a child learns a language from a native speaker before that age, they usually have no accent in their pronunciation. Having an accent does however not stop you from speaking a language fluently!
  2. A lot of exposure to the language and opportunities to interact in the language is the most effective way to continue with the language learning. If you can arrange to stay in a place where the language is spoken and your daughter can spend time with children who are native speakers of the language, this would be a great boost to her language skills. However, you can also arrange more exposure at home by doing activities your daughter likes in the target language. This can be anything from playing games, to singing to watching cartoons together (and talking about them afterwards). Reading to your daughter in the target language is important for increasing her vocabulary and varying the type of language she hears (we tend to speak in similar sentences in our everyday lives). Whichever activity you choose to do, make it fun and engaging for your daughter – she should not lose the enjoyment of learning languages which she is experiencing now. 
  3. The older your daughter is, the more important it is that she not only enjoys but also feels motivated to learn more of the language. There should be a reason for her to learn, and the reason needs to make sense to her – so you have to look at the situation from her point of view. Keep in mind that what makes sense to an adult is often not what a child or, even more so, a teenager thinks is the best. For teenagers, I would also consider supplementing with language classes and I would also use more language learning applications (these can be more attractive to a teenager than traditional learning). Again, spending time in place where the language is spoken in the community is always recommended. 

Ask yourself: What can you do to make the languages attractive for her? What will make her want to keep on improving her language skills? You know your daughter best, so only you are able to answer those questions, both now and in the future.

Wishing you a successful multilingual family journey!

Kind regards
Rita

Rita Rosenback

  Rita Rosenback Rita is an author, Family Language Coach, blogger and speaker, who was born into a bilingual family on the Swedish-speaking west coast of Finland. After studying languages in Finland and Germany she worked as a university teacher, translator, interpreter and manager of multinational teams. Rita is now a full-time writer and coach and has been living in the U.K. since 1998. Rita is the mother of two grown-up multilingual daughters, who are the inspiration for her book: “Bringing up a Bilingual Child”, an easy-to-read guide for parents, where she navigates the reader across the “Seven Cs of Multilingual Parenting: Communication, Confidence, Commitment, Consistency, Creativity, Culture and Celebration”. Currently English and Swedish are Rita’s main languages, but she instantly switches to Finnish or German or to her Finland-Swedish dialect when the opportunity presents itself (and when push comes to shove, she can communicate in a very basic Punjabi). Rita is the creator and driving force of this website, and she gives talks and holds workshops for parents and teachers on the topic of bilingual children. She also coaches families on how to make the most of their languages and raise their children to become confident speakers of the chosen languages. Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedin

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