Q&A: How many languages can a small child cope with?

by | May 15, 2016 | Coaches, Q&A The trilingual+ child, Rita R, Toddlers | 1 comment

Question 1

Dear Coaches,

First of all, thanks for what you’re doing, that’s really useful for people like me. I have two twins, boy and girl, they are 16 months old, I’m Italian and my wife is Russian, so far we are using the one parent one language approach, it seems they understand both languages but they don’t speak yet, however we are not worry about that, they are twins. What actually worry us is the fact that we live in Germany and soon they should go to the German kindergarten. Do you think expose them to a third language will be a serious problem? Could they get confused? What you suggest? Thanks in advance for the answer.

Best regards

Question 2

Thank you so much for your posts. I would like to know if there is a limit of languages for children to be exposed to as our little one is currently exposed to 3/4. I am Italian and I do speak it to her, my husband speaks Spanish, that is the language we speak at home all together as I am alone with her most of the day and we think, in this way, we balance a bit the exposure.

Also, as we leave in Barcelona, Catalan is the vehicular language (it is our ‘extra activities’ language) and the little one is also exposed to Venetian as this is the idiom I speak to my family at home (and on the phone… a lot!). We are considering to start with a preschool when she will turn 18 months (she is 9 now) and the school we like is a bilingual center (Catalan- English). Will this be too confusing? Too much? We didn’t want her to start with English yet for the already great number of idioms but I would love to hear your opinion.

Thanks again!

Question 3

Dear multilingual panel!

I and my husband are about to have our first baby in July and we are discussing a lot of topics, but one of the biggest ones is about what language to talk at home and to the baby.

About us: I am Norwegian and speak Norwegian, Danish, English and Italian. My husband is Italian, and speak little Norwegian, English and Danish. We live in Denmark where Danish is spoken. My husband and talk English to each other, even if we could speak Italian only. And this is our goal, which we agree on, that Italian should be the home language, mostly because we would like to get “rid” of English.

Our questions are: How many language can a baby/child handle? We have heard from other friends who are multilingual, that a child can handle maximum three… and in our case we have four. English (to be taken away), Italian, Norwegian and Danish. My biggest wish is that my child will learn Norwegian, at least to understand, so I can speak perfectly natural to it in my mother tongue. And the same for my husband. Then we have Danish. In less than a year our child will be exposed to Danish in daycare, playground and we understand that we can’t avoid the exposure, and most likely the child will pick up Danish first phrases etc. there.

How should our communication be with the child? How do we answer the child? Should I consequently speak and answer in Norwegian and my husband in Italian…even if we sit around the same dinner table? And I know…since I and my husband have been together for many years always spoken English, it will be a challenge to cut English out completely. But we will try our best, having started on that already now. As you see, our situation is pretty complicated, and I already have got lots of questions from family and friends about it.

Sincerely, Confused Mum-To-Be!


In today’s world it is increasingly common that children get exposed to several languages at an early age, and this is also reflected in the questions that the Family Language Coaches receive. Today I am answering three parents who all have queries about how to handle the many languages their children come in contact with. I will start with some generic comments that apply to all of the questions and will finish with some individual advice.

First things first: Children do not get confused by being exposed to several languages. There is also no limit on how many languages children can “handle”. There are several places in the world where people speak four or more languages as a standard and children in those communities have no problem in learning them. That the children can handle a lot of languages does however not mean that they necessarily become fluent in all of them.

I am not sure where the notion of three languages being the maximum for kids has come from – it may be related to the popular belief that a child must be exposed to a language for at least a third of the waking time to become fluent in the language. While this is a good exposure goal to have, there is no research to support this claim – there are far too many variables with regards to the type of exposure and family language setup to be able to give an exact figure on the amount of exposure a child needs to learn to speak a language.

What also must be kept in mind that children do not have to learn all their languages simultaneously – once a child had learnt a language, it takes less exposure to it to maintain it, leaving space for an additional language to be brought in. Sequential bilingualism is a great way to master three, four or more languages.

There is no reason to worry if a child comes in contact with several languages at home, in nursery, at school, in playgroups or in the community. What parents should consider is which languages their children will need and then think about how to arrange the optimal exposure for these languages.

Answer 1 

Dear Marco,

Sounds like your twins are well on their way to become trilingual as they understand both languages, fantastic! As per above, you do not have to be concerned about them attending a German kindergarten. The setup is actually ideal for them to become trilingual.

Your twins may well mix their languages to start with, but this is a normal phase for or children learning more than one language. Try to arrange as much varied exposure to both Italian and Russian to support your child in learning your languages.

Answer 2

Dear Elena,

What a wonderful language-rich environment your daughter is growing up in! Like I say at the start of my answer, there is no need to worry about the amount of languages your daughter encounters. She may not automatically learn all of them, but hearing them will not harm her in any way.

By what you describe, she will learn Italian and Spanish at home from you and your husband. I am not familiar with Venetian and how different it is from Italian, but if it is possible to understand Venetian if you know Italian, then your daughter will probably gain a receptive knowledge of it (she will understand it, but not speak it). This is how my daughters have learnt to understand my Finland-Swedish dialect.

Depending on how much she will be interacting with other Catalan-speakers, she may pick up this language before attending preschool, but will certainly do so if she goes to school in the language. Dual language schools are very proficient at handling several languages and do not require that children (especially toddlers) know the school languages prior to starting school. So you are right that there is no need for practicing English with her at this point. She will pick up English at a later stage.

Answer 3

Dear Iren,

Congratulations on the soon to come family addition! I am so pleased that you are thinking of the language situation ahead of time, this is the best way to get off to a good start.

You mention that your biggest wish is that your child will learn Norwegian, and this will happen if you consistently speak Norwegian to your baby. It is great that your husband also knows some Norwegian, so you do not have to worry about him not understanding when you speak the language with your child. Italian will come from your husband and will be strengthened if you manage to switch to speaking only Italian at home. As you correctly say, Danish will be added later when your little one attends daycare.

Since you have two minority languages (Norwegian and Italian) at home, it would be beneficial if you managed to start speaking Italian as your common language. I know it is not an easy change to make (I have been through the process in my family), but remember that it is just the transition period that is difficult. Stick with it and you will soon get used to speaking Italian with each other. When you are together all of you would speak Italian, but when you speak directly with your little one, I recommend that you switch to Norwegian. It may seem odd to start with, but it will soon become routine for you and it will be the best way to secure a consistent exposure to Norwegian for your child.


Thank you again for your questions, Marco, Elena and Iren – please comment below with any further questions or thoughts you have, and good luck to you all!

Kind regards



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.

1 Comment

  1. david

    our daughter is almost three and so far she’s being very good at understanding all three of them: english, french and spanish… although truth to be said the dominant language is English as that’s the language the mom speaks who’s spends the most time with our daughter. Although our daughter doesnt yet speak much french (we live in France), she understands it all as she goes to the local kindergarten where they speak french… with me it’s always in Spanish, and she does understand about 85% of what I say, but she only speaks random words…. all in all, we are happy with her progress


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