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Nov 202016
 

How many languages can a small child learn at the same time?

 

Question

Hello,

I am a native Hindi-speaker and so is my husband. We live in USA and are fluent in English, too. Our nanny is Romanian but speaks (non-native) Spanish. Our 7-month-old daughter spends majority of time with the nanny and my parents, who speak Hindi with her.

I am trying to also teach her French and Mandarin if possible. The plan is to send her to a French immersion school and weekend classes + playgroups in Mandarin.

Do you think my kid can learn these different languages around same time? I want her to be fluent in languages and read/write in Mandarin/Hindi/English if possible.

Thanks,
Aparajita

Answer

Hi Aparajita,

That is a lot of languages! It is, of course, possible to learn that many languages, but you need a very clear plan and I would recommend stretching it out over the first 7-12 years of your child’s life. The rule of thumb is that about 30% of a child’s waking hours needs to be spent in a language to obtain conversational fluency, so, realistically, you’re looking at a max of three languages. Once you have those three languages at a decent level, it would make sense to add another one.

Now, there is no harm in adding additional languages at a young age and it can actually be extremely beneficial to be exposed very young if they want to learn the language later on in life. You just need to understand that there is a trade-off between the number of languages and the level of fluency in each. You could try for conversational fluency in three, or just basic levels of ability in more than three.

It’s also important to understand that there is a tremendous difference between conversational fluency and academic ability, including writing. To obtain academic ability in a language requires additional years of study and focus. With Mandarin writing, you’re looking at far more than you would need for English or Hindi based on the complexity of the written language.

Your daughter will not gain any serious level of ability in Mandarin by going to weekend classes and playgroups. She will simply gain exposure, familiarity with the sounds and patterns, and ability to speak in only very basic sentences.

The French will be easy to pick up due to the extensive time she will spend in the language and the academic nature of the program. For Hindi, your daughter should naturally pick it up at home assuming you do not begin to answer her in English or French at any point. She should understand the house rule that only Hindi is spoken at home or, at least, with mom. However, she will not pick up academic language or writing unless you have a systematic plan to teach her them at home. It requires a lot of time, so you should plan for that in your daily routine.

Your daughter should naturally pick up English from her environment assuming she is exposed to it enough. However, if Hindi is spoken at home and she goes to a French immersion school, she will not pick up much English. You may therefore want to look at setting a foundation of English by sending her to an English preschool or daycare or hiring an English-speaking nanny. You could also look at dad speaking only English and you speaking only Hindi, but I’d strongly recommend keeping the home language entirely in Hindi if dad speaks that as well.

To make it all work, it sounds like you need to come up with a clear plan as to how your daughter will learn English and then how you would like her to pick up academic and literacy abilities in Hindi. The French will come naturally from school. The Mandarin I would just leave as a side project and be happy with whatever level she picks up through the limited exposure.

Good luck!

Nick


Nick Jaworski

NickNick Jaworski has been in the field of language teaching and early childhood education for over 10 years. He has trained teachers internationally in six different countries and helped build foreign language schools in Turkey, China, and now the US. His expertise lies in helping schools build multicultural teams, design and deliver extremely effective language learning programming, and establish clear communication channels in today's quickly evolving technological landscape. He and his wife are currently working to raise their daughter to be quadri-lingual in Chinese, Turkish, English, and Spanish. He feels there is simply no greater gift that you can give to your child than the gift of language, and very much enjoys helping other families on their multilingual journeys. You can follow their multilingual journey on Nick's blog Where are We Going, Dad?  Nick also owns and operates a digital marketing agency, Circle Social Inc., focused on delivering results for social impact and educational organizations.
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  3 Responses to “Q&A: How many languages can a small child learn at the same time?”

  1. Some inspiration:
    4-year old (7 languages) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4faZx2TWsL4
    and
    8-year old (8 languages + 8 musical instruments) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2996a4gXjw8
    and
    teenager (20 languages) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Km9-DiFaxpU

    • Hi Annalisa,

      thank you for these links – as you say, they are very inspirational! At the same time, these are all exceptional cases and not something you would aim for in a normal family, with all the challenges and time pressure that comes with juggling children, school, work and other activities.

      When choosing additional languages for kids, it is also important to think long term – how will the children be able to maintain and improve their language skills beyond the initial years? Will they have a need and an opportunity to use the languages in the future?

      Kind regards
      Rita

      • It does, and it really depends on the family. The first girl has native language tutors for every language. (It’s not in that video, I don’t think, but you can find it in others.) And it appears that she has pretty much one topic for each language. Perhaps in the future, she’ll branch out to more topics, or perhaps she’ll drop some languages. Either way, as you often say, what she has already learned is quite useful for her future development!

        The second girl is homeschooled, and I’m assuming that she has a lot of tutors as well in the various languages (and instruments).

        The last boy, well, he’s completely self-driven, and as he talks about in the video, living in New York (if I recall correctly) has given him lots of opportunities to use, develop, and maintain his language skills.

        I think the important thing to gain from the videos is that in at least the last two cases, the language-learning is dictated by the child, and that it is the child who will have to continue looking for opportunities to use his/her languages as he/she grows. Regardless, 6 languages at childhood is not an impossibility, but it does depend a lot on the time, effort, and money that parents are willing to put in, and at least some willingness on the part of the child even if he or she decides to not continue with all of those languages later in life.

        Love your blog, Rita. Keep it up. It gives me a lot to think about as we plan to have children.

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