Being multilingual

How many languages can a child learn?

Have you ever wondered how many languages a child can learn at once or if there is a ‘window’ of opportunity? Can it ever be “too late” to learn another language? Can we learn multiple languages at any time? And what are the cognitive benefits of learning more than one language?

You can find some answers in this interview with research psychologists and a language teacher about how kids acquire second, third or fourth languages and how it helps to feel even more strived to bring up multilingual children.


To be honest, I’m feeling a bit bored about all the discussions about what bilingualism is (I think there have been enough publications and discussions about this in the last century…). And we don’t need to hear more reasons why bringing up bilingual or multilingual children is “good” or beneficial for our children and ourselves. We already know this. We should all move on and concentrate on the next steps.

I know for my own experience, that a child can grow up learning 3-4 languages from a very early childhood on (0-5) and not being “confused”.

1) When should a child begin to “learn” or acquire a second/third etc. language?

This question hasn’t been asked in this interview, but Laura-Ann Pettitto (Professor at the University of Toronto) did point out that in early life, when the child is still in the acquiring phase of the first language, he will use the same “brain tissue” for all the languages. Whereas, if children are exposed to languages later in life, different parts of the brain are involved (3:00 sq) because “the part of the brain that is responsible for processing language is on a maturational timetable and we know very clearly what that timetable is, when the periods are most sensitive” (4:00). Interestingly, this is not the case for all the parts of language. Some parts “remain open for life, like vocabulary and there are other parts of language, which are on a maturational timetable. Our brain reaches a stable processing capacity and then stops because it’s acheaved it’s stable state” (4:20). – Now, it’s quite hard to determine when this happens because the different parts of language are affected differently by maturation.

Early exposure is necessary for good syntactic competence, for really good phonological competence, early exposure is ideal (4:44).

Peter Gazzellone, teacher at the Ryerson Community School, presents the Integrated language programm at his school. This programm offers Arabic, Mandarin, Spanish and African heritage programm. “The students get to choose from one of these languages and it’s usually the language that they speak at home” (5:29). The children also learn French (from grade 4) and then from Kindergarden up to grade 8 all the children at school learn another language. – In Europe we have several immersion programm school systems  and know that this programm really benefits the children.

We all know that the task of acquiring a language later in life, when we’ve already acquired our first language (and learned it at school) is a different, much harder task.

2) Can adults learn new languages as “good” as children?

There is a very clear answer: yes, they can. If the adult wants to make it possible and has the time, he will succeed. Ellen Bialystock, Professor at the University of York, points out that “children are given the opportunity to learn languages in a way that supports every part of this very difficult task (…) everyone they interact with interacts with them for the purpose of helping them learn language”. If adults had this opportunity and would “quit [their] job for five years, use a mentor who will speak to [them] at exactly the level [they] need (…) [they] will be very successful” (2:00 ssq). Life, usually doesn’t give us that chance and “the main difference about learning languages as a child and as an adult is life“.

If an adult really wants to learn a language, total immersion and the passion to learn it are the most important premisses to succeed. The suggestion made by Ellen Bialystock is meant for people who want to learn a new language “at home”, who don’t have the opportunity to learn it in loco. But if we have to learn the language because we move to the country, it’s more probable that we will attain a very good fluency in a very short time. If total immersion is not possible, there are many other possibilities to create a monolingual exposure in the language we want to learn in real life or online or via skype etc.

3) How much exposure?

There have been published many articles lately about the quantity of time someone should talk a language – or more than one – per day. Probably the number 20% sounds familiar? The amount of exposure per day or week depends on your goal: do you want your child to be perfectly fluent or would it be enogh for him to understand a conversation?

Laura-Ann Petitto points out that “systematical exposure is more important than  the amount of time  of the exposure.  The human brain doesn’t work on quantity but on quality. Therefor, regular systematic exposure  “with stable users across different contexts which are rich and varied” will help a child to reach fluency. This means that immersion exposure at school only is not enough to become utterly fluent. It has to be enriched by “cultural material, linguistic material, movies etc” also outside the schoolday.

4) Do all children have the same ability?

This is like with everything in life: some are more prone to learn languages, others are better in other sectors. Ellen Bialystock points out that “our minds are prepared to do is make everybody a competent speaker of a language that is in the environment without additional effort” (11.00 ssq.). And to answer the question: “some [children or adults!] will find this fun and exciting and some will find it more effortful”.

5) Will children always have one dominant language?

We all know that there are differences even among multilingual siblings about their language preferences. And Laura-Ann Petitto confirms that “children have preferences for languages and the preferences are set by various things outside of our biology” (12:45 sq). It depends on the language their friends, their family are speaking. Children are also very economic in their language choice ( The concept of economy – a tenet or tendency shared by all living organisms – may be referred to as “the principle of least effort”, which consists in tending towards the minimum amount of effort that is necessary to achieve the maximum result, so that nothing is wasted.” cfr. Alessandra Vicentini, Università di Milano, The Economy Principle in Language. Notes and Observations from Early Modern English Grammars). If the children know that their parents understand all the languages they’re supposed to talk, they will probably prefer one of the dominant languages in their social context (the host country, school etc.), using the “minimum amount of effort to achieve the maximum result”.

The human biology enables us to extract patterns from one and the other language and to compare and fit them, but language acquisition is more about the need to speak this language.

6) Do multilinguals know less vocabulary than monolinguals?

Don’t worry about the vocabulary a child has in one of the languages he is acquiring. Usually, multilingual children are a bit “behind” their monolingual peers, but this doesn’t mean that they’ll never catch up. We know from many studies that a bilingual (or multilingual) child knows at least as many words and probably more and at least as many concepts and probably more as monolinguals. (15:20 ssq). – And we should never forget that these are all averages!

If you look at the distribution of the data, “most children are in the normal part of the curve where it could go either way. The bilingual could have a higher English (or other language) vocabulary than the monolingual” (15:50).

If you take the vocabulary tests that are used to assess vocabulary – and the intersting part is, that they’re usually given out only in one language! –  “and you devide the words up into words they are likely to encounter at home and  words they are likely to encounter at school there is no difference!” (16:20 ssq).

There is definitely no accademic risk or compromise to the main purpose for learning many languages (from an early stage on!).

Two final, very encouraging quotes for every multilingual from Laura-Ann Petitto:

The human vocabulary  stays open to work for life.

The brain is not biologically set to learn only one language.

Rosetta Stone detail at the British Museum


31 replies »

  1. Extremely interesting post/op-piece, and thanks for linking to our family blog. As you may be aware, I’m totally fascinated [and always on the lookout for new opportunities/discussions on the topic] by the multilingual/multicultural scenario. Thank you very much for sharing this, and greetings from La Paz, Bolivia, from our ‘multilingual household’… 😮

  2. Thank you for your reply, 3rdCultureChildren! I was so glad to find some responses from experts about these “myths” about this topic and found also the neurological aspect pretty interesting. – Greetings from Switzerland 😉

  3. I enjoyed this post a lot. There is a lot of pressure on the parents to get their children started early on everything: reading, languages, maths, you name it, and there are only so many hours in the day. I believe that the human brain can learn a lot, even in adults. So your post really made me realize that not all is lost even when you’re not a child anymore… I believe this theory only puts additional pressure on the parents and children.

  4. Thanks, Olga, for your comment. I think our parents didn’t have – or feel? – all this pressure when they raised us and, I think, we’re doing pretty well 😉 I had a student who started to learn Italian at the age of 65 and ten years later he was perfectly able to read Dante and Petrarca. He didn’t learn it in “total immersion” but with once-a-week lessons with me. It was amazing to see what passion and perseverance can do! I may add that he loved to read a lot! And this helped him to build a huge vocabulary. – There’s hope for everyone at any stage, believe me. – In the ’60 there was a television programm in Italy called “Non è mai troppo tardi” (It’s never too late) with the goal to teach reading and writing to the audience (mainly to combat the analphabetism): it had a huge success! It was their first language, but it also helped so many foreigners (including my mother!) to learn Italian 😉

  5. Really enjoyed reading this post. My wife and I are bringing up our son (who is currently four month old) using English and Welsh. I’m also fluent in French and trying to decide if an when trying to teach him a bit of it.

    • Thanks, Jonathan, for your comment. You already have two languages in your family then. You could introduce French by singing songs to him, reading rhymes and stories. You can find many blogs with tips about how to teach French to kids. I can recommend this one: It’s a blog of a non-native French mum. Hope this helps 😉 Je vous souhaite en tout cas bonne chance et beaucoup de plaisir avec le français! – Let me know how you’ll do it. 😉

  6. Jonathan, I don’t think that you will confuse him by simply reading to him in another language or letting him listen to songs. But you can start it very smoothly by letting him listen to French songs over CD’s or, if you have the opportunity, to listen to you while you talk French to some friends. You can start whenever you want or you and your wife feel that it’s ok. Don’t rush anything, I just found that the blog I mentioned may be inspiring for you.

  7. I took Spanish in high school in 1972-1973. Never had a real need to use it until 2001. In 2003 I attempted to re-learn Spanish. Didn’t take. Miserable failure was I. Now I have Google Translator……

    • Yes, I guess there wasn’t still a real need to use it in 2003? I wouldn’t define it a failure as you did attempt it twice. I would say that the context wasn’t the right one. If you have the need to talk a language, to use it regularly, then you’ll learn it. But, as you say, Google Translator can help in the meantime 😉

    • Thank you, Maria, I think it’s a bit different than the film and article we both commented on facebook yesterday and today. Acquiring a language, i.e. in the most natural way, is still possible later on in life.

  8. Thank you for your elaborate explanation on raising children to be multilingual, Ute! May I copy some excerpts of this post (with full credit to you and your blog) to an article I’m doing on raising trilingual children for a website – I am raising a trilingual daughter, based on an advise given to me by an expat that the parents should speak one language each, and another language from another person. Thus, your in-depth research will be a sound basis for my article.

    Thank you and keep up your great work!

    • Of course, Amanda! I’m really glad you found this article useful. I’m looking forward to reading your article too! And as for parents raising multilingual children: there are many possibilities you can “fit in” more than one language per person… But it also depends on the time, resources and your very personal family situation (and the child! – some children don’t like their parents talk more than one language with them 😉 ).

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