How many languages can children learn at the same time?
How many languages can children learn at the same time? Should they master one language before we start to teach another? Is two or three languages too many for a child to learn? These are all common questions of parents who hope to raise bilingual or even multilingual children.
Well, the answers aren’t so simple. What we know is that children can learn multiple languages at once, and the benefits of being bilingual are endless. Learning multiple languages from birth is not a new phenomenon either. In fact, raising multilingual children is more common than most people think.
The thing is, all families are all different. Different language combinations, locations and circumstances mean that no family is really the same, therefore how many languages your child can learn at once depends on many factors. Here are just a few:
What languages the parents speak
The main factor when determining how many languages a child can learn at once is the languages the parents speak. Because children spend most of their daily lives with their parents these languages are usually the most influential.
Monolingual parents who speak the community language
If you are a monolingual parent and speak the community language, then teaching your child multiple languages will be more of a challenge. It doesn’t mean they can’t, it just means more effort and it may limit the amount of languages they can learn because of the lack of exposure to each.
Sending your child to a bilingual school, hiring a bilingual nanny, or enrolling your child in an immersion school are all options for introducing new languages, however they will most likely be limited to one or two languages outside the family language.
This isn’t always the case though. If parents have the means, and the budget, a child from a monolingual family can learn more languages.
Monolingual parents who don’t speak the community language
If a child speaks one language at home with their parents, and then learns a second language (using MLAH)in the community or at school, then they have a great chance of becoming bilingual quite naturally. In this situation there is a good balance of exposure to both languages.
In this situation, a child can also learn a third language in another setting. For example, if the child attends a bilingual school, language school, or has a tutor.
One Monolingual Parent, One Multilingual Parent
If each parent speaks a different language, then as long as children receive enough exposure to both languages, it should be natural for them to pick up both of languages from the start.
If those languages don’t include the community language (eg Parent A speaks Italian, Parent B speaks French, family live in the USA), there is the opportunity for the child to learn a third language quite naturally by using the two minority languages at home, and the third language in the community.
A multilingual parent, can also successfully pass on two languages to a child if there is enough exposure and consistency.
How a multilingual parent can pass on two languages
Multilingual Parents living abroad
It can sound a little complicated, but this is probably the best chance of a child learning multiple languages at once. If each parent can speak multiple languages.
Eg. Parent A speaks to child in Italian, Parent B speaks to child in French, family language is English, and they live in Germany. This would allow the child to have good exposure to all four languages and potentially become fluent in all of them.
As the child gets older there is the opportunity to add additional languages through other means.
We taught our daughter 8 languages in 6 years
The problems with children learning lots of languages at the same time
While it may seem easy for a child to learn multiple languages, exposure and consistency is important. There are many things you need to raise a multilingual child. Exposure and resources are the main ones.
If a child does not have enough exposure to the target language, they cannot become fluent. Therefore by adding too many languages at once, you risk not having enough exposure to each of them. This could mean your child can speak 3, 4, 5 or even 6 languages, but is not actually fluent in one of them.
If a child does not have the language resources necessary to help language learning, they cannot become fluent. Parents need to ensure there are enough resources in the target languages.
Introducing multiple languages at the same time
If you are considering introducing more than language to your child at the same time, make sure you take these factors all into account. A few questions to ask yourself are: How many languages can my child learn at once with the resources we have available? And: Will I be able to provide enough exposure to these languages? This should help you with your answer.