Learning to talk in a multilingual household

Baby does a lot of amazing things in their first few years of life, like doubling in size, discovering their own feet, and going from seeing in black and white to full technicolor. But one of the most amazing things about their early growth is the way they learn language. Baby goes from having no frame of reference for the meaning behind the strange sounds people are making around them to being able to understand and make themself understood in sometimes not just one, but two or more languages, and all over the course of a few short years.

There are two competing stances on raising multilingual children: one says that exposing children to more than one language is confusing, while the other says that young children are perfectly primed to learn multiple languages and so should have an easier time learning. The truth, as it so often is, is somewhere in the middle. Babies and toddlers are better equipped to learn more than one language at once, or to pick up a second, third, or even fourth language, than they ever will be again in their lives, but unless they live in a culture that’s generally multilingual, it takes some special parental effort to make sure that each language continues to develop strongly as they grow.

That means that, like so much of Baby’s early life, the languages that grow up feeling natural and fluent to them are, in large part, up to you. Just because Baby may have geographic, cultural, or familial ties to more than one language, that doesn’t mean that they will ever necessarily speak them unless you make the decision to help multiple languages be an important part of their life.

Supply and demand

When they’re learning to speak, babies are motivated by a desire to communicate. This means that they won’t pick up languages unless they’re regularly put in situations where they feel those languages might be useful. Passive interaction with, say, a movie in the language that isn’t regularly spoken around them is much less likely to inspire Baby to process and retain that language than interacting with a much-loved relative who speaks that language with them.

Situations that might be important to you as reasons for Baby to learn a language are also good incentives to them, if they’re presented the right way. Cultural importance and connection to their heritage might sound like kind of dry concepts to try to interest an infant or toddler in, but speaking a language connected with Baby’s heritage when teaching them games and songs from that culture, or cooking foods from that culture together gives Baby positive associations with that language. Regular interactions with relatives who only speak that language with them give them a concrete reason to maintain and expand their vocabulary in that language, as well as provide a direct link to their heritage, no matter where your family lives now.

Keeping multiple languages alive in family life

A very broad rule of thumb says that for children to be fluent in multiple languages, they have to be exposed to each one for approximately 30% of their time. While every child is different, and some will need less, and others more time to maintain fluency in languages that aren’t dominant to the culture they live in, it’s always true that children need to regularly use every language they know so they don’t start to lose their abilities. While there’s no one right or wrong way to make sure this regular exposure happens, there are a few fairly common strategies that families often use to make sure their children have plenty of time for each language.

  • One Parent One Language: In the One Parent One Language method, if your child is growing up in a two-parent household where both parents have different mother languages, or one or both are fluent in a second language, one parent would speak to Baby consistently in one language, while the other would speak only in another. While it’s one of the more popular methods for keeping multiple languages in play in the house at once, the main drawback to this method is that if one parent is speaking the dominant language of the place where you live, and the other is speaking something else, the non-dominant language can start to lose out, which can injure the relationship between that parent and child.
  • One at a time: Families who know they’ll be living in an area with one dominant language, and hope their child will be able to be fluent in another, may start by introducing the non-dominant language in the home, and speaking it as a family, and assuming that the child will start to pick up the dominant language by being out in the world. The main drawback to this method is that when children start pre-school, daycare, or kindergarten, they can have a difficult learning curve before they adjust to both languages.
  • Coding languages to activities: A third way to introduce multiple languages into the home is to divide up each language by the activities you want to use it for – say Spanish over supper, Italian on the playground, French for bedtime stories.

The bottom line

Raising multilingual children can be a bit of an effort, but millions do it successfully, and if it’s important to you, so can you.

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