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Jun 152017
 

How many languages can/should parents introduce to a baby?

 

Question

Hello

My wife and I are expecting and starting to think about how many languages we want teach our kids. Basically, our question boils down to, is it unrealistic to try for Bulgarian, English, Spanish, & Mandarin fluency, or should we just try for Bulgarian/English/Spanish?

Our circumstances are as follows:
1. We live in the USA.
2. My wife is a native Bulgarian and wants the kids to speak her heritage language which I very much support. In addition to Bulgarian and English she speaks advanced-intermediate Russian, and Spanish/German to a lesser extent.
3. I am a native English speaker and am advanced-intermediate in Spanish. My wife makes me look bad!
4. My parents will likely babysit often (2-3 days/week) for the first 1-2 years and only speak English.
5. Her family lives in Bulgaria and we plan to visit them regularly which will help reinforce Bulgarian.
6. I have numerous cousins that live in Latin America and we plan to visit them periodically and to vacation in Latin America which will help reinforce Spanish.
7. My wife and I both work full time and we are fortunate that time is a bigger constraint than cost.

We are happy to pay for a language nanny in Spanish or Mandarin or both. In terms of school options, there is a Spanish 50/50 immersion elementary school nearby we are considering, and a Spanish immersion pre-school option. There are some formal options for Mandarin, but they are far more limited in scope. We are willing to pursue more informal options, but we still need to learn more about what options are out there. Any advice? Thoughts?

We would love to add Mandarin to our language plan, but as you can see it will take significant extra effort relative to the first three. We are willing to put in effort, but don’t want it to be in vain. We’re also curious about timing the introduction of the languages, i.e. start with all 3 or 4 immediately at birth, or add them over time as the infant grows from baby to toddler to young child.

Thanks so much in advance.
Best, Reid

Answer

Dear Reid,

Thank you for your question about raising your little one to become fluent in several languages: Bulgarian, English, Spanish and Mandarin. Thank you also for giving detailed background information about your family’s language situation.

It is true that children can acquire many languages simultaneously while growing up – however, there are certain things that should be considered when planning a child’s multilingualism. While it is great for children to learn many languages, the process should not incur additional strain on the child and the rest of the family.

Creating an optimal but natural environment in which the child gets exposed to the different languages is the best way forward. Parents should be flexible and adjust the plan to support the child’s learning whenever necessary and not set unrealistic expectation on the level of fluency a child can reach with limited opportunities to interact in a language.

Next, I will comment separately on each language:

Bulgarian

Bulgarian is your wife’s mother tongue and you both agree that this is the language your wife should speak with your child. If you want your little one to learn Bulgarian, there needs to be enough varied exposure to the language. You mention that your wife works full-time, so she will need to maximise the interactive time with your child by speaking Bulgarian as much as possible. I would also try to find other families where Bulgarian is one of the family languages and look for playdate opportunities.

It is not easy to be the only language source, so it is important that you prepare by gathering Bulgarian resources, making sure you know songs and children’s rhymes etc. Ask relatives from Bulgaria to help you with this, and during visits, shop along and bring back books, games and other Bulgarian related resources.

Visits to Bulgaria will be even more important in a few years as it will be the best booster for your child’s Bulgarian skill. As reported by many parents of multilingual children, being fully immersed in a language, seeing other people, especially children, speak it as their main language, hearing it in the community and on media is very effective as a motivator.

Spanish

Spanish is spoken by extended family and it is also your second language. You do not mention whether you have considered speaking Spanish with your little one. If you do, read my post about considerations with regards to speaking a non-native language with your child. You should feel totally comfortable about the idea before you decide to go for that option.

Hiring a Spanish-speaking full-time nanny would give your child enough exposure to Spanish to pick up the language at an early age. Being able visit family in Latin America is again an excellent booster and will help him/her to maintain the language when growing up. If you decide to speak English with your child, then to maintain Spanish the best option would be to choose either a dual-language or immersion school for your child. However, only choose one which also meets your expectations with regards to the standard of teaching and other criteria.

English

Since you live in the US and your English-speaking parents will be caring for their grandchild many days a week, your little one will learn English – independent of which language you decide to speak. Even if your child was to become fluent in Bulgarian and Spanish first, English will soon follow and before long become his/her dominant language.

Mandarin

You do not mention the reasons why you would like your child to become fluent in Mandarin. As I understand it, it is not a family language, nor one that neither you nor your wife have any experience of, so I presume your preference for it comes from the fact that it is indeed a very useful language in today’s world. Keeping in mind that you are already committed to supporting two minority languages, Bulgarian and Spanish, you have to be very realistic with what you are capable of coping with as a family unit.

My recommendation would be to start with Bulgarian, Spanish and English and see how it goes for a few years. Hiring a Mandarin-speaking nanny from the start would compete with the exposure time for Spanish, so my thought would be to look for a Spanish-speaking nanny. Presuming you manage to create an environment where your child picks up the first three languages – which is perfectly doable – then you can consider whether you want to add Mandarin to the mix.

Obviously, you will need external help for this, so you should see which playful tuition options are available at that point. I would try it out and see if your child enjoys learning an additional language, and only continue with the tuition if the answer to that question is yes. Learning the basics will not take that long, but if you are looking for fluency in the language, this is a long-term commitment to an increasing amount of time spent on continued learning and maintaining the language.

Whichever languages you decide to choose, keep an eye on the progress and don’t hesitate to change strategy if you find that the languages you find more important need more support. With a trilingual base, your child will be in an excellent place to learn more languages, should he or she want to.

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

  One Response to “Q&A: How many languages can/should parents introduce to a baby?”

  1. Totally agree with Rita’s advice. Wait for the first three languages to settle in and then look at Mandarin. My children learned by emersion. My eldest daughter started with English until she was 4, then German from 4 until 7, then French until the age of 12. She is trilingual now at 19. My youngest daughter had English and (some) German from birth until 3, then French. She is bilingual having forgotten the German. The juggling act will come when you try to keep them all current. Friends in each country to keep in touch with will be a great help. Good luck!

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