Can My Child Learn 3 or More Languages at a Time?

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Recently, I spoke with someone who had been raising her child in Spanish only, for fear of confusing her child. She lives in the U.S. and knows that the child will learn English once she enters school. She, like many people still do, believes in the myth that introducing multiple languages at a young age will cause confusion and language delays.  

 

There are many people who strategically choose to raise their child with the minority language at home, knowing that they will learn the majority language at school and in the community. It’s a method that generally works well for many families. In this case, however, the issue is that the father doesn’t speak Spanish, he speaks Haitian Creole. And they have finally begun to introduce English so that the child can start communicating with Dad, but do not want to confuse the child even further by introducing a third language (namely Creole).  

 

I point this case out not to criticize or shame these parents (and after discussing with Mom and presenting her with research based evidence, I have had permission to write about it), but to give a real scenario about the dangers of such myths in the world of multilingualism. A child is not only missing the opportunity to learn three languages from an early age, but she was missing out on the very crucial bonding and communication she needed with her father.  

 

It is 100% a myth that learning multiple languages will cause language delays. If your multilingual child experiences a language delay, that delay would most likely exists even if the child was monolingual, and it’s crucial that you reach out for intervention as early as possible.  On the contrary, the research has shown that children are able to learn 2, 3 or even more languages. In fact, children in nations such as South Africa, Aruba, Luxembourg and Surinam children regularly grow up speaking 3 and 4 languages.  

 

As a teacher, I see examples of multilingual children every day. But my favorite example is out of an autobiographical account from a book that greatly impacted me in college, Kaffir Boy, in which the author recalls his life growing up in South Africa, where he grew up speaking 5 languages: English and Aafrikans (the two official languages), his mother’s tribal language, his father’s tribal language, and a third tribal language with which he spoke to his friends. His case was not unique or special, but common to life in that part of the world.  

 

Not only can we simply look to the experiences of other children with learning language, but thorough research has also shown that learning several languages causes no language delay or confusion. When it comes to how many languages a child learns, it’s not really about a child’s intellectual capacity, but about parents’ ability to provide enough interaction in all the languages a child is being exposed to. So, when parents are asking “can my child learn 3 or more languages?” what they really should be asking is “Can I provide my child enough exposure to 3 or more languages so that he or she will speak them fluently?”   

 

But even if you can’t provide them with “sufficient” exposure in all the languages, you won’t cause confusion. Being exposed to diverse languages really never hurt anybody.  

How about you? Are you teaching your child 3 or more languages? How does it look in your household? We would love to hear your stories!

About the Author

Keli Garcia Allen is a certified Spanish teacher and currently works as a Preschool teacher in a bilingual classroom. She is the Head of Content for Learn Safari and is currently working on Spanish Safari,  a Spanish Learning game for children 4-10 years old. You can follow her and the rest of the team on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

Keli Garcia Allen