Moscow Innovative Language Centre
Bilingual and Multilingual Children
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Question: Can my new baby learn two or more languages at home?
Similar questions: Can my toddler learn a second language at home before starting school?

My spouse speaks language X and I speak language Y, can we teach our children both languages?
My infant is a year old and has not learned to talk, why not?
Will I confuse my child if I mix languages?

Answer provided by Deborah D.K. Ruuskanen, Professor of English Linguistics, University of Vaasa, Finland.

Mother of three bilingual children.
Yes. It is entirely possible to teach an infant two or even three languages, and four is not unheard of. In Europe, a great many toddlers learn four languages with little or no difficulty. The main requirements for this learning are: the parents speak only their mother-tongue to the child; the child has some reason to learn the languages (motivation); and there is reinforcement of some kind for these languages, preferably outside the home. If the language of the environment is a third language, then the child will easily learn the third language once they start playing with neighbourhood children.
There appears to be a 'window' of learning language that 'opens' at about the age of ten months. Infants can hear much earlier, of course, and there is some evidence that they can even hear in the womb. It is clear that they will begin to imitate the 'noises' they hear, and when there is a reaction from their caregivers, they begin to associate meanings with the sounds. Over the next two years, infants acquire language at an astonishing rate. By the age of three, they have acquired basic syntax (sentence structure), basic grammar (the 'rules' of the language), and a large vocabulary of basic words necessary to their physical and emotional survival. Their motivation to talk with their caregivers is high: asking for something usually results in being given the thing they need. Similarly, when the infant begins to play outside, with other children, then the motivation to talk to these children is high, and the infant will try to learn the language of play. Later on, at school, the language of the school will be important, too.
THE IMPORTANT THING TO REMEMBER IS THAT EACH CHILD IS AN INDIVIDUAL, and that each child will learn when they are ready to learn. If you think your child is 'late' learning to talk, be sure you have ruled out all possible physical causes, including possible deafness, and then just wait. Especially if there is more than one language in the baby's home environment, then the baby will be learning first to process and separate the different languages, before talking begins. This 'separating the languages process' is why it is important that each parent speaks only their mother-tongue to the baby. They can speak a third language among themselves if they want the baby to hear and become familiar with that language as well, but it is important that the baby hears native-speaker sounds if you want the baby to make native-speaker sounds.
There is considerable debate among linguists as to when the 'language learning window' closes, if it closes at all. However, there does seem to be an 'optimal' age for language learning, when the child's mind is still open and flexible, and not cluttered with all sorts of other learning, not to mention the society's views on which languages are 'prestige' languages, and which ones are regarded by the society as of little or no importance. The latter affects motivation: children will be admired for speaking a 'prestige' language, and teased and bullied for speaking a 'non-prestige' language. When the mind is being taught many many other things than language, there is less 'processing space' left for language learning. At the moment, the 'optimal' time for learning a second language appears to be 'at the same time as the first language', i.e. in the home beginning at birth to three years (providing the parents speak these two languages as their mother tongue). The next best time for learning a second, third, and even a fourth language, appears to be between the ages of two to seven years. A third period for learning a second language is from about ten to thirteen years of age, this is in cases when the second language is not the language of either the parents or the environment. This is the reason behind the push to introduce 'foreign' language learning into the curriculum of elementary schools, in the grade when the child is about ten-eleven years old.
Parents who want their children to learn their mother-tongue must realise that it will take work, beyond simply speaking their mother-tongue all the time to the child. Especially if the spouse speaks another language, which is the language of the environment, the parent speaking the 'minority' language will have to be sure that there is sufficient input for the child to learn and reinforce what has been learned. This means things like reading out loud (this should go on until the child learns to read on their own, and for a few years afterwards until the child says stop), singing to them and teaching them songs and nursery rhymes, showing video films in the parent's language (radio is not as good as there are no visual clues), and having other adults or children talk to the child in this language (grandparents are invaluable here). Taking the child to visit in a country where the parent's language is the language of the environment is also a good idea, if it is practical: sending the child to spend time with grandparents at about the age of eleven or twelve is also a good idea, for many reasons. This is probably a good place to remind parents that a multilingual environment is also a multicultural environment, and that it is very difficult if not impossible to separate language from culture. Without a context (culture) for the language, the child will have difficulty making sense of the meanings underlying the words.
Parents should make sure the child has a firm grounding in the parents' own languages before trying to teach a third language. This should if possible include learning to read and write in at least one of those two languages. Some countries in Europe offer children in the early grades of elementary school the possibility to learn to read and write in their 'home' language: parents should check if this is possible in their local schools. Parents who want to teach their child to read at home should remember that linguists think it is impossible to teach a child to read before they have learned to talk: first the child learns a system of sounds that have meaning, and how to put these 'meaning' sounds together in a larger system; then the child learns a system of symbols (letters or ideograms) that have the same meanings as the sounds and/or combinations of sounds. A phonetic system of learning to read is preferred by many linguists, for languages that have alphabets. Teach the child the sounds of the letters first, then teach 'sounding out' the words from the letters. Simply reading aloud to a child while holding the child in your lap and putting your fingers under the big letters in a picture book, or under the words in a storybook, is one method of teaching a young child to read. It is rare that a child learns to read under the age of four. Writing can be taught at the same time as reading, or after the child has learned to read: begin with making separate letters, and the first written word taught is usually the child's own name.
Problems will arise when the child starts playing with neighbourhood children who do not speak the language the parent is trying to teach them. This is the stage when a lot of parents give up. The child does not want to be 'different' from their playmates, and speaking a 'foreign' language certainly makes you different. If the parent refuses to answer the child, or to give them what they want until they ask for it in the parent's 'own' language, the process of learning the language will continue. Some parents make an agreement to talk to the child in the language of the playmates when the playmates are around, and the 'home' language when only family is 'home': personally I think this does not work well. The problems will increase when the child starts kindergarten. The parent must keep speaking only their 'own' language with the child, or the child will lose the language.
At this point, the question of putting the child in a 'foreign' language school comes up. This is a hard decision to make, especially if the child is already 'different' because their mother or father is a 'foreigner', because taking a child away from neighbourhood playmates and putting then in a different school will make them even more different, and more likely to be teased and bullied by the neighbourhood children. Having said that, putting a child in a 'foreign' language school will certainly ensure that they learn that language. For example, a child living in Sweden, whose father speaks only Portuguese to them, and whose mother speaks only Finnish to them, and who is put in an English school, will learn Swedish, Portuguese, Finnish, and English. However, if this child grows up and goes to university in England, and has little or no contact with Finnish relatives, then the Finnish will almost certainly be lost. Languages need to be spoken, or they will be lost.
Teaching a child a language that is not the mother-tongue of either parent is usually not a good idea. Unless the parents are completely bilingual themselves, that is, they speak two languages as native languages, then the sounds that are produced for the child to imitate will be tinged with a strong 'foreign accent'. Similarly, unless the parent speaks the non-native language exceptionally well, then the child will learn the mistakes that parent makes in that language. Finally, and perhaps more important, teaching a third language that the parent does not know well will confuse the child unnecessarily. Wait until the baby has mastered the native languages of both parents well enough to be able to have long, meaningful conversations (about five years old) and has begun to play with other children, before deciding about introducing a language that the parents do not speak well. Remember that the child will learn the language of the environment and the school even without input from the parents. Trying to teach the child an artificial language, such as Klingon or Elvish, for example, can be done only if both parents speak it well enough to converse in it daily where the child can hear them. Again, this must be considered a 'third' language, and teaching it is best done only after the child has learned the parents' languages well. Children who do not use this 'artificial' language in their teen years will almost certainly lose it, since as said above, languages need to be spoken or they will be lost.

For those of you who want more information on this subject, a list of books with a comment or two on their content is presented below. This is by no means an exhaustive list, just those books I have read.

A Parents' and Teachers' Guide to Bilingualism, by Colin Baker. 2nd Edition, 2000.

ISBN: 1853594555
Probably the most useful of all the books on this list. The style is that of a FAQ sheet, i.e. questions people have actually asked, followed by Colin Baker's answers. Written in clear, straightforward, plain English. Includes identity problems multilingual children might have, language 'mixing' (you speak one language, the child speaks another, and you converse this way), the influence of the Internet on bilingualism, benefits for children who have a second language that is not as strong as their first language, language strategies to use with adopted children, employment and bilingualism, etc. You might want to actually buy this one if you can find it.
The Bilingual Family: A Handbook for Parents, by Edith Harding and Philip Riley. Cambridge University Press, 1986.

ISBN: 0521311942 (still in print)
This is primarily a book for parents who are trying to decide whether or not to bring up their children as bilingual, and there is not much concrete advice on how to do this. In that sense, the book is definitely not a 'handbook'. The book presents the stories (case histories) of sixteen bilingual families (Indo-European languages), with the different ways they handled the problem of bilingualism. There is also a chapter on linguistic theory regarding bilingualism. As a university lecturer, I have to say this book reads like a university lecture, but if you are still debating on whether or not to raise your (unborn?) children as bilinguals, you'd probably benefit from reading it.
Encyclopedia of Bilingualism and Bilingual Education, edited by Colin Baker and Sylvia Prys Jones. 1998

ISBN: 1853593621
Lots and lots and lots and lots of fascinating data. A very expensive reference book you should try to get your local library to buy. A good book to raise awareness about the diversity of language in the world. Points out, for example, that nearly two-thirds of all the inhabitants of the world are bilingual. Four sections: individual bilingualism; languages in society; languages in contact; and bilingual education.
Growing Up with Two Languages: A Practical Guide, by Una Cunningham-Andersson and Staffan Andersson. 1999

ISBN: 041521257X
Case history of Swedish-English family living in Sweden, where English is a prestige language understood by large numbers of Swedes. Not much use for parents who speak a minority language in a country where they are not going to get outside reinforcement for that language, although it does emphasise being consistent in sticking to the family's system of who speaks what language to whom in which situation. Includes a list of internet resources which may be out of date already.
Raising Multilingual Children: Foreign Language Acquisition and Children, by Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa.

ISBN: 0897897501
Written by a bilingual (English-Spanish) who has taught in international schools in Japan, Ecuador and France, and who gives workshops on raising multilingual children to schools and families in Switzerland and France. She evaluates some of the research in linguistics and education, and reinterprets the findings in her own way. The best part of the book is the case studies, and a list of ten 'key-factors' (most of them given above in the 'Answer' part of this entry) for raising children to be multilingual. Strong emphasis on parents and teachers finding their own answers for their own situations. Includes a description of various stages in a child's linguistic development, with indicators to help you identify the stage your child is in.
The Care and Education of Young Bilinguals: An Introduction for Professionals, by Colin Baker and Anne Sienkewicz.

ISBN: 1853594652
Primarily for teachers with bilingual children in their classrooms, or teachers of foreign language to young children. Parents interested in the schooling their children receive might want to read it.

If you are really interested in the debate about bilingual education (particularly in the USA), you might also be interested in the following titles:

Language, Power, and Pedagogy: Bilingual Children in the Crossfire: Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 23. by Jim Cummins. April 2001. ISBN: 1853594733

At War with Diversity: US Language Policy in an Age of Anxiety : Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 25. by James Crawford. May 2001
The entire Bilingual Education and Bilingualism series of publications contains lots of interesting studies.
Under Attack: The Case Against Bilingual Education, by Stephen D. Krashen. 1996

ISBN: 0965280829
Krashen replies to the critics and discusses: Does the research show that bilingual education doesn't work? (No.) Is English in trouble in the USA? (No.) Are most parents and teachers against bilingual education? (No.) Will bilingual education work for languages other than Spanish? (A most emphatic Yes.) Is bilingual education actually good for English? (Yes!) Can bilingual education be improved? (Yes!)
Lots of good stuff if you have to argue for bilingual education in your school system. See also Condemned Without a Trial: Bogus Arguments against Bilingual Education, by Stephen F. Krashen. 1999. ISBN: 0325001294.
One Child, Two Languages: A Guide for Preschool Educators of Children Learning English As a Second Language, by Patton O. Taboors. 1997

ISBN: 155766272X
Mirror of Language: The Debate on Bilingualism, by Kenji Hakuta. 1987 (still in print)

ISBN: 0465046371
Educating Second Language Children: The Whole Child, the Whole Curriculum, the Whole Community, edited by Fred Genesee 1994 (still in print)

ISBN: 0521457971
Goes beyond teaching methodology to look at - as the title says the school, the family, and the community, in a discussion of academic and social success of children who speak a minority language.

Those of you interested in the process of acquiring a second language, and research into bilingualism, might find the following of interest:

Language Processing in Bilingual Children, edited by Ellen Bialystok.1991

ISBN: 0521379180
Essays in linguistics, psychology, and education, on how bilingual children cope with two language systems. Includes thoughts on how to develop educational curriculums when the school has a lot of bilingual children.
In Other Words: The Science and Psychology of Second-Language Acquisition, by Ellen Bialystok, Kenji Hakuta. 1995

ISBN: 0465032818
In addition to research into second language acquisition, also presents thoughts of sociological issues of cultural diversity and multilingualism. Lots of interesting information on how concepts of mind and self and culture affect language learning. Also points out that the globalisation of the world means that no country (including the USA) can afford a policy of monolingualism (English Only). Some discussions of what policy could be adopted to make societies stronger through taken advantage of their linguistic diversity. Interesting, but not much advice on raising multilingual children.
One Mind, Two Languages, edited by Janet Nicol. 2000

ISBN: 0631220984
Modern research in language processing, in persons (mostly adults) who speak more than one language. Includes research on ASL signers. Linguistic and psycholinguistic research. Probably only of interest to persons actually doing research in linguistics, psycholinguistics, applied linguistics, language teaching, cognitive science, and/or psychology.
Input, Interaction, and the Second Language Learner, by Susan M. Gass. 1997 (still in print)

ISBN: 0805822097

There is also an International Journal of Bilingualism, and several online discussion groups for parents of bilingual children, as well as closed email lists you can get on by going through the chat groups.