Q&A: How many languages can a small child learn at the same time?

by | Nov 20, 2016 | Coaches, Non-native language, Q&A The trilingual+ child | 12 comments

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




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.



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 Jaworski

Nick Jaworski


    • Rita

      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

      • Annalisa

        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.

      • Dave

        My 7 year old son already speaks and reads 4 languages, and starting to learn 5th.
        He can switch between all 4 languages.
        So ignore all those arm chair and degree ridden so called experts, go for it, these so called experts are probably jealous of your Childs achievement.

        • Linus

          Hi Dave,

          We got curious in your reply. Did you have a system? Which languages? Was it all 4 languages “at once” or a progression? We will have our baby in march and I am planing how to best immerse him in languages. I am native Swedish, my wife native Brazilian and we speak English amongst ourselves. I also want him to learn mandarin at a early age.

          All the best,

    • Carmen

      Dear expert,

      We are a Spaniard and a Dutch. We speak English between each other and we live in Belgium where our 18 month old is in kindergarten in French. Here French and Dutch are the languages of the country (In Brussels clearly French) and we are looking at staying here for life…
      If our son continues the European school he can have any European language we choose as first, but second can only be English or French (50 /50 is the model).
      We are discussing a lot what is best option: our first thought was to have Dutch as first and French as second so that he has both languages of the country and one is Germanic whilst the other Latin. Spanish would be from mummy at home and extracurricular activities. Then English would come later on education (his only exposure would be hearing us between each othet) . This way we keep it to three languages for the moment. It is a bit painful as mother that he would be most proficient in father s languages Ince he is already a father s boy. The alternative was to choose English /French model as of next year in “school” (he ll be 2.5) and then have equal footing at home. English is not a native language in the country though so he would have as first language a language that is neither any of ours nor one of the country.
      We hesitate to do French first and English second because English section on this school is better than French.
      I am also abut anxious that he doesn’t feel any language as his and reflecting who he is. We have a close friend with 5 languages that describes that feeling for her. She described it as “feeling like a foreigner in every country”. And I don t want that for him either.
      Any tips from an expert would be welcome.

      • Rita

        Dear Annalisa,
        thank you for your message and for your patience while waiting for my reply. Your son is growing up in a culturally and linguistically rich environment which will benefit him a lot in the future. I understand your anxiousness, but can read from your question that you put a lot of thought into this and therefore I trust that you will also make the best decision for your son. Is there an option to have Spanish as the first language? I am asking, as Spanish is the language that will need the most support to be maintained. Your son will no doubt learn Dutch and it will most likely become one of his strongest languages.
        With regards to the identity question, I would recommend that you read the book “Third Culture Kids” (by Pollock and Van Reken) which will help you appreciate the benefits and the richness of embracing all the cultures that your son is growing up with. It is not an “either or”, nor is it a “nowhere” – rather it is “both” and “everywhere”.
        Kind regards

  1. Julieta

    I’d like to share my experience. I speak Spanish at home with my daughter. She goes to a French immersion school, and we live in the United States. I find this article very assertive, except for one thing. You do not and should not plan anything for English. My daughter started PreK4 in a French immersion school but many kids speak o lot English. Since she only spoke Spanish at the time, she learned English to be able to play with her friends. Eventually, she continued developing her English to the point that she is completely trilingual at 8yo. If English is the community language you do not need to lay any foundation. The community will take care of it for you. She has also studying Arabic at school as a bonus.

  2. Silvia

    Dear Rita,

    My husband (Hindi-speaking Indian) and I (Brazilian Portuguese speaker) are raising our 4.5 month-old son in the USA. We each speak our own language to him, as we would like him to learn those languages to be able to communicate with grandparents, aunts, cousins, and speak English to each other. We also sometimes speak English to the baby when in the presence of the other parent, so that everyone can understand. We are both making an effort to learn the other’s language, via classes, Duolingo app, etc., but it takes time. We are in the process of hiring a nanny for about 30 hours per week. Many of the candidates speak languages other than English, with most speaking Spanish, but also German, Polish and other languages. Ideally, we were looking for a Portuguese or Hindi speaking nanny, but we are getting to the point where we need to hire someone and the ideal has not materialized. My question is, would it be too confusing for the baby to have four languages around him? My instinct is that the nanny should speak to him in the language she speaks best, rather than broken/incorrect English. Would hearing four languages cause delays? Should we insist on finding a nanny who speaks good English and ask her to use English with the baby (if we can’t find one who speaks our own languages)?

    Thanks for any advice you can provide.

    • Rita

      Dear Silvia,

      The short answer is that your baby will not be confused by being spoken to in different languages. I will give a longer answer during this week’s Q&A session during the Facebook Live Q&A session this Thursday the 7th of October at 7 pm UK time (2 pm EDT) which are aired on the Multilingual Parenting Facebook page. There is no need to register, just come to the page at the time of the broadcast. If you attend the live session you can also ask further questions through the comments. There will be a recording available for you to listen to later in case you are unable to attend the live session.
      Kind regards

      • Silvia

        Thank you! I have put it on the calendar and we will try to be there.

      • Cindy Liu

        Hi Rita,
        We are a Mandarin speaking family with an almost-2-year-old. We live in the US (California). She has been going to English speaking daycare since Month 5. Right now she is not yet verbal, although she speaks words in both English and Mandarin (slightly more English) here and there. We also go to an English speaking church on Sunday and have a lot of English speaking and mandarin speaking friends. Currently, I would say her exposure to English and Chinese is a nice 50-50.

        We are facing a challenging decision of whether to send her to a French immersion preschool at the age of around 2. We love the curriculum of the school. My husband and I do not speak French. We are considering to have her in the French immersion school for 1.5-2 years until she is old enough for preK. We plan to continue to speak mandarin with her at home, and she will continue to have English exposure in her community environment and at church – although as you said in the article, English exposure is limited when school language is French and home language is Mandarin. The elementary school we plan to send her to when she turns 3.5 or 4 is English speaking, so we won’t send her to French immersion for elementary. At that time we plan to continue offering her afterschool French classes to maintain French.

        Now the three biggest concerns around this decision are:
        1) Will she be confused? She has never been exposed to French ever by far. Will going to a new school where she understands nothing harm her confidence and makes her insecure? Will she transition to that school well?
        2) will she speak sufficient English by the time she applies to elementary school? Since it will be an English speaking school, will she be rejected by good schools if her English is not as good as other monolingual students?
        3) once she goes to an elementary school, will she be able to maintain French with afterschool enrichment classes? If so, great; but if not, is there still value in sending her to French Immersion, knowing that she will likely drop French afterwards? We do love the curriculum so much and we finally got a spot in the school, but we do not have a large French speaking community in California so I worry about wasting our investment after all.

        I really appreciate your support as we make this challenging decision… thank you so much!!!



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