Q: Can my child learn multiple languages without being formally educated, and if so, how?
A: Yes. Children’s ability to learn languages is innate and tremendous, and remains strong until the onset of puberty. There is evidence of prenatal voice recognition, and studies have shown that babies can discriminate between languages as early as the first month after birth. Children learn an average of one word every ninety waking minutes between the ages of 18 months and 17 years. Children can learn multiple languages the same way they learn a single one: by using them and hearing them used on a daily basis.
Q: I am an immigrant. Should I speak to my child in the local language or in my native language?
A: If you want your child to be multilingual, then speak to your child in your native language, and encourage your child to speak to you in your native language.
Q: What if my spouse speaks yet another language?
A: You and your spouse should speak to your child in your respective native languages, and encourage your child to speak to you in your respective native languages. Your child will pick up both languages.
Q: Won’t my child be confused?
A: No. Children quickly learn which language—and within a single language, which accent—to use with which listener. They quickly learn to translate between languages and accents for smooth communication.
Q: If I speak to my child in my native language, will my child have difficulty learning the local language?
A: A child who is exposed to the local language from the media and in school will learn it in the course of normal social interactions, with little or no difficulty. Indeed, local children may also begin to learn your native language via exposure to your child.
Q: Will my child suffer psychological harm from being raised multilingual?
A: Children are sometimes ridiculed by adults and children for mispronouncing words, mixing languages in daily speech, for being intelligent enough to speak multiple languages, and for various practices exclusive to foreign cultures. Children may suffer psychological harm from such ridicule. However, there is neither anecdotal nor scientific evidence that children suffer psychological harm merely from learning and being exposed to multiple languages. Indeed, there is anecdotal evidence that multilingual children can learn new languages faster and more easily than their monolingual peers.
Q: My child understands my native language, but only speaks to me in the local language. What can I do?
A: Insist that your child speak in your native language. If your child is asking for something, your insistence will have leverage. Praise and reward your child lavishly for correct usage of your native language. Patiently correct any misuse of your native language without ridicule or punishment.
Q: My child confuses languages while speaking with me. What should I do?
A: You will find that your child is using words from multiple languages within the grammar of a single language. This is not confusion, but simply expediency—to communicate, the child is using any “available” words and phrases. Although your child may sound funny, try not to laugh. Instead, teach your child the words necessary to speak without drawing from multiple languages.
Q: How can you be so sure of all this?
A: My knowledge of this subject comes from a variety of sources: I am a child of immigrants. Because of my parents’ patience, persistence and commitment, I learned to read, write, and speak Marathi at home. I learned English primarily from the media, my schoolmates, and my teachers. I do not remember learning English, much less having any difficulty with it. I had some formal education in Spanish, Sanskrit, and Japanese. I have had countless conversations with multilingual children and their parents, and I studied cognitive science and natural language processing in graduate school. I have observed my own daughter learn Marathi fluently at age three, and then effortlessly become fluent in English when she started school.
A great book summarizing the scientific evidence for language acquisition is Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language, published in 1995 by HarperPerennial. Pinker is a professor of linguistics at MIT and has written easy-to-read books on linguistics and cognitive science.
- Milind Pandit
Copyright 2003 Scott Hanselman
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