Multilingual children

“How many languages are too many for a child?” (InCultureParent)

Have you ever wondered about what is the maximum of languages a child can take? A mother did raise this question on InCultureParent and you can find the answer of Dr. Gupta here.

The most important aspects to consider are: is your child going to need all these languages on a daily (or at least weekly!) basis? And: do you have enough time to guarantee a regular input in those languages?

Independently on how old the children are, it’s very important to find peers for them who talk the same languages. What exactly are the reasons for children to “have” to acquire more than two or three languages? First there are the languages of their parents or care givers and then the one of their social environment. Adding a fourth, fifth or sixth on a regular basis is often not very natural (and spontaneous) if there is not a social, emotional need.

Parents who want their children to acquire some more languages have to be aware of the fact that not only it is really hard work, but the child will always reach the point of questioning the utility of these languages in his life. Parents need to consider if there is a group of persons (their child likes!) who will talk these languages to their child on a very regular basis. And they have to realize that not all of those languages will be acquired equally. The children will always have one, two or three languages that they “prefer” for several reasons and the other languages will be less dominant.

But the very interesting thing is, that as soon as the linguistic situation changes – for example due to a moving or due to new friends speaking the language – a former receding language can become dominant.

I would like to add another aspect to this question: does the degree of relationship between the languages influence the number of languages a child can/should be exposed to? For example, if the languages are related like French-Italian-Spanish (and other romance languages): does this ease the multilingualism in a child ? And would this make it easier for the child to add other languages, in this example, like German, Dutch, English? Is it easier for a child to acquire many imparented languages ?

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21 replies »

  1. I’m happy to see you reblogged my recent piece on raising multilingual children. Thank you for doing that. And your site is such a rich resource. I see my writings overlap with every corner you’re covering, so you can expect I’ll be back often. Best of luck–M.

  2. Melissa, I recently discovered your blog and like all the topics you’re writing about! It’s really very inspiring! Thank you for the lovely wishes 🙂 (I’m looking forward to reading your new book soon! )

  3. Hello, Ute! An interesting set of opinions, and the links are also useful. Well, I’m not myself in your situation, but I do have my best friends in a multilingual family. I see them very often and have a very good relationship with the 22-month-old son of theirs. Whereas he is exposed to his mother’s Mandarin and also to her friends, his exposure to his father’s Dutch is less obvious, so I put in my own, though not perfect Dutch to help this language. I and the parents sometimes talk English among each other because that’s the strongest common language with all of us, but that won’t have much effect on the kid for quite a while. I have to avoid exposing him to my mother tongue (Hungarian), because I’m sure it won’t do at all. In spite of my very good connection to him, he’ll never find this an important language. Besides, we can’t help noticing how slow the development of oral production is with the boy. At almost two years of age, he’s just started to repeat and say a handful of basic words, a couple of which are common in the two major languages: mama, baba/papa, and a couple of words with high emotional content (for example ‘gougou’ for ‘hond’, important for the barking). Although he is already able to understand a lot of what anyone tells him, he’s very low and late on production. The fact that the development of language use requires such a long time and that there are so many free variables with each family anyway, leads to a situation where we can almost exclusively be left to our own beliefs and preferences. But this is also why your efforts, coupled with those of similar families, at sharing is so very important.

    One piece more out of my experiences I may share with your. I had a friend with a small child earlier, who, because the father was a German, lived in Germany for a year with the family when the child was about three. She was exposed to German in the kindergarten for a year, but the family talked English at home, because the mother didn’t speak German and the father didn’t speak Hungarian, the mother tongue. The family left Germany after a year for Hungary, but went back for a holiday a year later, where the girl met her old friends at kindergarten. She was completely put out seeing that she was unable to communicate with her former peers – she completely forgot German in one year. This very strongly points to the need for regular exposure of any language the child may use. Young children forget a language they don’t use almost as fast as they pick it up. In the long run, it must work out though, with help from parents: this particular child, as far as I know, has become a happy and very intelligent teenager with complete fluency in three languages since then.

    Best wishes to your efforts and to your blog from Peter

    • Peter, thank you very much for these very interesting examples and your very kind wishes!
      I reall can understand that you’re worried about your friend’s child, but every child has his own, very personal rythm to acquire languages. Some talk very early – independently if monolinguals bilinguals or multilinguals – others a bit later (around 2 years). You don’t mention his motoric skills. Or if he has any problems with articulating sounds or maybe hearing. I guess that’s no problem at all? Anyway, theory about bilingual or multilingual children sais that there is no connection between the amount of languages a child is exposed to in early ages and the moment they will start to talk. In my own experience I can say that some children need more time and input in those languages than others before they start to talk. And it depends on the parents or care givers too. If they think that the languages the child talks are responsable for the delay (if delay it is! we have to be very careful with these definitions!) they may influence the child… I’m not really entitled to give any professional advice, I can only recommend to observe his development. Try to write down the words he can say at which stage etc. And for all multilinguals: don’t compare them to monolinguals! It’s the most common mistake many parents do. But if the parents feel insecure about anything concerning his linguistic development, they could do an assessment with a speech therapist who is specialised in the languages you mention. I don’t want to scare you, not at all, but in my experience, it’s better to check early than to worry. It’s more relaxing for all those who are concerned.

      About the girl: it sounds very familiar to me. I was an adult and had spent years talking and writing in German, but after I’ve spent 5 years talking and writing almost exclusively in Italian and French, I lost a lot of my vocabulary that you wouldn’t have thought that I am German! It was incredible. I wasn’t able to say one sentence in a gramatically correct German. When I realized this, I started to increase my “German input” (really looking also for German talking friends!) and managed to reactivate my German. The same happens to all the other languages I know: if I don’t talk them on a regular basis (i.e. every week, better: every day!), I observe that my vocabulary decreases. – It’s very common for multilinguals, but really interesting! Being a bilingual or multilingual is really hard work. You not only have to provide yourself a regular input of the languages (by listening or reading) but you also need to have social contacts with people who talks those languages (preferably mothertongues).
      Best wishes to you and your friends (and the child!) too. 😉

      • Hi, Ute, thanks a zillion for your very interesting and precious reaction. It’s a pleasure to communicate with you.

        As to the kid, I don’t have to worry about him at all. Zero problems. A second one is on the way, we’ll see how that one’s going to develop. Interesting to watch from the sidelines.

        As to losing languages as adults, I have some strange feelings sometimes, but with a lot of reading, blogging and some translation work, I manage to keep it up. I don’t seem to be losing my mother tongue, though, in spite of not being there most of the time during the last ten years. I may be fortunate that a little bit of occasional connections is enough.

        Best wishes to you too!

      • Hi Peter, I’m happy to hear that you don’t have to worry about your friend’s child. And what a great news that he will soon have a brother or sister!
        And about loosing languages as adults: it’s great that you can keep it up so well! The loosing process was very slow in my case and I realized how much I lost when I had to prepare a speech and was really struggling.
        Have a nice day! 😉

  4. I really enjoy your posts but you already know that. I’m glad to see that you are keeping your word of posting less and going more out. How is the weather over there? Here is horrible… extremely hot, we can’t even go out because it is dangerous for the baby.

    A big hug

    • Hi Madrexilio! Yes, I’m posting less and “living” a bit more. It’s really a very tough time of the year for me. The weather wasn’t nice this weekend. We had two outdoor events and got soaked… so, the opposite to where you live. I could try to send some fresh air and clouds to you? The extremes are the more difficult to handle. Is it also humid? I remember a very hot summer in the year my son was born. Somehow he did not suffer as much as we adults did. Maybe you can keep your baby in the shade outside early in the morning and before bed time? I always did avoid the “hot hours” (between 11 and 16 o’clock). And keep his feet and had fresh. At least one thing I observe: during warm/hot periods, children seem to grow faster. Maybe it’s because they don’t need to many clothes, but babies often make huge progresses in their motor skills during the summer periods. – I hope you have enough water to refresh. – A big “fresh” hug 😉

  5. Can I add that the children will question the utility of the language _immediately_? I think teaching them a bunch of language is great, but recognizing that they will resist is a dose of reality – unless the necessity of the languages are brutally clear.

    • Hi, there, Loving Language, I think you’ve noticed resistance in school circumstances, but here the point is what languages the life of a family makes brutally clear. Different mother tongue, father tongue and surroundings are brutal enough for a start. Changed surroundings later will do the rest.

      • Hi Loving Language and ZJShen-PSimson. I think it’s a fact in both circumstances, school and family and surroundings. Children choose the most economic way to communicate and if they know that one language is spoken only by a parent (or only one person in their surroundings) which, very often, speaks also other languages, they will choose the language that is spoken by more people around them. It’s a very natural process. I observed this in very young children (2-4 years old) and in children who already attended school. – But it would be interesting to see how all these children react if they’re exposed to the language they “reject” at one point, later in their lives, when they need it again.

      • Actually, Ute, I’m not interested so much in that, rather in why a child may take the risk to ‘reject’ a father’s language, if at all. Not wanting to communicate with a parent must feel very risky for a toddler or a young child, there must be very harsh reasons behind choosing another language in preference to that. I don’t find it a natural choice of economy at all. It must be an exception, and I’m not in the position to want to investigate what happens 20 or so years afterwards. It must then also be very personal I suppose. So first I’d like to challenge Loving Language to support what he suggested as normal, and also to know what you’ve observed. That may be worth a post, the rest is shrouded in the myths of the future for me.

      • When I lived in Madison, Wisconsin, I saw Russian family after Russian family worry about why their children–many of whom were monolingual Russian until 5 years old–started losing their Russian after they started going to school.

        Somalis in Minnesota see how their children are unable to speak decent Somali, even those born in Somalia, and they talk of the Somali language disappearing from Minnesota.

        When I was teaching my kids Russian, I would set aside time every day when we would speak only Russian. They would cry and resist the entire time.

        I have a friend in the US from Egypt, and her kids’ father lives in Egypt. Even though she speaks Arabic to them at home, the kids have a difficult time having a conversation with their father and grandparents in Egypt.

        Maybe US children are an exception; Americans are exceptional in their monolinguality. I observe, thought, that children will genrally seek to speak the fewest languages necessary. If they _cannot_ communicate with a parent in a particular language, then it’s a different story. But if there’s wiggle-room, the child will notice and react accordingly.

        I’m interested in how my kids’ Russian sticks. They bring up Russian stuff, and they claim they can understand the Russian neighbors to some extent. We’ll see what happens down the road. Maybe the language doesn’t disappear but goes dormant.

      • Thank you LL, these are very interesting experiences, thanks for sharing. I’m personally sorry for kids losing their parents’ languages, but actively doing so bogs my European mind.

        On the other hand, we couldn’t talk about multilingual children in such cases. While a lot of people out in the world strive for bi-lingualism, such kids see a good reason coming from their surroundings to resist even the bright possibilities. I have a good American friend who grew up in Spanish neighbourhoods and now talks Japanese and Chinese fluently above that – he actively sought the possibilities to widen his horizon. So there are examples to everything in such a big country. But perhaps variations of reasons have something to do with the origins. On the one hand, kids of refugee-like people, on the other, intelligent Americans who grow up to want more than monolingualism. Also, age may be a huge reason, the youngest ones wanting to communicate with all and sundry, then later choosing the easiest ways, then growing up to be multis. Have you also got a perspective over time on those families?

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