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 | 7 comments

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

Nick Jaworski

7 Comments

    • Avatar

      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

      Reply
      • Avatar

        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.

        Reply
      • Avatar

        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.

        Reply
    • Avatar

      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.

      Reply
      • Avatar

        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
        Rita

        Reply
  1. Avatar

    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.

    Reply

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