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How many languages can children learn at once?
This is the question often asked within multilingual families when trying to decide which languages to pass onto their children. Many families raise their children to be bilingual, or even trilingual, and though there are challenges, the children can usually handle them all quite well. But is adding a fourth language into the dynamic for children so young a good idea? Can children learn and become fluent in all four languages equally? And if so, how do they achieve it?
I spoke to Agnieszka who is a mother of 3 children, an 8 year old girl and 4 year old girl/boy twins. She and her family speak four languages on a daily basis.
Agnieszka is Polish, her husband is Portuguese. They speak English between them having met in England, and are raising their multilingual family in France. After hearing her story you will see it is definitely doable with the right approach.
A Multilingual, Multicultural Family
We are all multilingual. I grew up in Poland, Polish is my mother tongue but I was educated in English and now work as an English Foreign Language Teacher in Paris. Having moved to France 13 years ago, I had to learn French to survive, so now I’m quite fluent. I chose to learn Portuguese to be able to communicate with our Portuguese family.
My husband’s mother tongue is Portuguese, he is also bilingual having grown up with English. He has very high level of French and can speak conversational Spanish. He can understand Polish, but he doesn’t speak it. We live in Paris, France, however we met in London and lived there for some time, so we have always felt a very strong link with the English culture.
We have 3 children who we raise speaking 4 languages – Polish, Portuguese, English and French (the community language). Their level of all four languages is quite good. They’re able to survive in the community, talk to their relatives and make friends in all 4 of them. Their level of fluency changes with the amount of exposure they get.”
The Multilingual Family Adventure
When our first daughter was born, we thought it would be quite natural if we spoke in our respective mother tongues to her, and between us continue to speak English. At a certain point we realised that she was interested in our English conversations and she started to pick up words. We found DVDs in English which she loved and by the age of 18 months was able to count, say a list of words and spell out the entire alphabet.
I made a lot of effort to find English-speaking activities/playgroups to give her more exposure to the language. At the same time we continued to speak our mother tongues directly to her. She quickly started to understand the differences and naturally started to separate the languages.
Until the age of 3.5 she had very little exposure to French. She started a playgroup at 18 months old (half a day twice a week). Then at 3.5 years old she started a full-time French preschool. At the beginning she didn’t speak at all, however within six months, she was already quite at ease with the language although not as fluent as her monolingual peers.
We continued to use our mother tongues at home and invested in an English-speaking babysitter which gave her more exposure. This helped to develop her fluency enough that she was accepted into the bilingual primary school and has now finished year 2 with flying colours.
In the meantime, the twins were born and we followed the same pattern. However, they got earlier exposure to the French language as they started at a French playgroup just before they turned one, and started full-time creche when they were nearly 2. When they started kindergarten the year after they were already used to the French language. We continue with English-speaking babysitters and hope that they will follow their sister’s steps in the primary school.
Our eldest attends a bilingual French/English school here in Paris, so these are her languages of education, she learned to read and write in those first. She tries to read in Polish and Portuguese and is improving, however they are the weakest simply due to the lack of practice. She doesn’t have any formal training, what she knows she has learned mainly from us.
The twins are in a French only pre-school and at the moment and French is becoming their favourite language of play. With me though they all switch to Polish, with the father around it’s always Portuguese.
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Multilingual Family Strategy
Each of us sticks to our own language. Although our children know very well that we speak all of the four languages well, we always use our mother tongues to talk to them. Indeed, sometimes we end up having a conversation on 3 languages at dinner. Funny enough, nobody has ever felt stressed or confused about it.
We do try and get outside help to reinforce each language. It is difficult to do it alone. Hiring nannies, travelling to the countries where the languages are spoken, playgroups, and summer camps to name just a few. We watch dvds in English but we practically banned French from home as it’s the language of work/school. Of course, when we have our French-speaking friends over, we are flexible with that rule. Books also take a lot of our shelf-space and we read a lot to them and with them.”
Our children are enjoying growing up in many languages. That said, I can say they have their preferences. At the moment, our eldest is the most at ease in English then in French (speaking/reading /writing). Her Portuguese is improving immensely now that we are in Portugal and her Polish is good, although she sometimes lacks vocabulary and makes grammar mistakes. Polish is still the language of play at home.
When the three of them play together, they play in Polish. The twins on the other hand, when they’re alone, they like playing in French. I think their preferences are strictly connected with the amount of exposure to each language.”
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I must say we’ve mostly had very positive reactions about our linguistic situation – a bit of a mix of disbelief and admiration. I’ve never been criticised for our language choice, never told off for not speaking French in public.
I remember our eldest daughter’s first teacher initially doubted that she would ever learn French and said 4 languages was too much, but by the end of the school year she admitted that she was wrong.
We have never regretted our decision. It always makes the grandparents proud that their grandchildren can talk to them on the phone, and spend holidays with them.
Advice to Other Parents Raising Bilingual or Multilingual Children
We’re still at the beginning of our linguistic journey but what I can already say now is if you want your child to be multilingual, you need to be consistent. Be positive about your children’s achievements, show them why we speak different languages. Love the languages and the cultures, show them how proud you are of them. Raising multilingual kids is a long journey with many obstacles, but the rewards are priceless!