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Inside Out: Raising Multilingual Children

Updated: Apr 28, 2021

To raise multilingual children, we first have to understand what language is and how it works. Two questions that have captured my full attention for the good part of 15 years at this point.

Babies start building their first relationship with language as soon as their ears and brain are connected, which happens in their mother's womb about 4-5 months through pregnancy. As soon as baby's brain and ears are connected, they start to fire away forging and building baby's first language map.

Language learning has somehow made the higher priorities list of baby development. Baby is born ready to learn and equipped with the ability to learn all sounds of all languages.

This means that it doesn't really matter how many languages we speak to babies. They are prepared to learn them all.

The transformation from newborn to speaker is magnificent and babies will be speaking whichever language or languages they were regularly exposed to. Yes, they might mix them up or advance at different speeds or any number of changes between these languages, but they will map them all out and eventually speak them all.

Depending on the situation and level of exposure, sounds that baby is not used to hearing will eventually be forgotten and baby will be left with only their most practiced languages.

Does this mean that they can't learn other languages when they are older?

Of course not. humans can learn languages at any age, but the way we learn languages is different as we grow.

As we lose this natural ability to learn every sound in every language, the native phase of language learning is replaced gradually with the effort phase. This means that the older we get, the more we have to rely on effort to learn languages.

There is one more thing. Once we have a language all set up, any new language added is compared and mapped to the main language. We try to look for sentence structure, grammar, translation, and maybe even common sources of words to map the new language onto the one we already know.

Babies and young children don't do that. This effort to map a language based on another is not applicable in young children as there is no language to map yet. All languages are forming for the first time.

Listening is very powerful when learning a new language. With children under 5, songs, stories, play, and human interactions are the best way to learn languages.

Electronics and screens alone are not effective language learning tools.

Another ineffective learning tool in early childhood is learning to read and write. It is helpful in older children, based on readiness, but typically after their sixth birthday.

Because of the way that a baby's brain is wired, any number of languages can be introduced from birth. Even if it takes longer to build this multilingual foundation.

If you would like to discuss this further or set up a language learning plan for your child, please connect with me. I'd be happy to help.

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