Raising Multilingual Children

The world is getting smaller every day. We travel, relocate and are brought closer to a wider and more varied people. These days, I have meeting more and more children of mixed nationalities and the million-dollar question for their parents remain, ‘In what language should I speak to my child? Will having all these languages confuse her?’ And even for parents who speak the same language, the interest in promoting and multiplying their children’s language skills is extensive.

When an adult learns a new language, he has to memorise new words, learn structures and rules. His skills in reading, understanding and speaking are usually uneven, and varying among different people. Also, there is a need for a reference language, a primary language. In fact, what adults learn and do is to essentially to translate. Children, on the other hand learn languages very differently. They acquire languages. Montessori describes the child’s mind as ‘absorbent’, that she takes in everything around her as a whole. She takes in words, structures, grammar rules of languages all at the same time. It is as effortless for the child to absorb the ‘flower’ as it is for her to absorb ‘periwinkle’ or ‘gerberas’. It is from these first languages that she forms the language faculties of her mind.

If we accept this theory, we can hypothesise that it is as easy for a child to absorb 5 languages as it is for her to absorb 1. Removing any possibility of learning difficulties from the equation, what remain as contributing factors are brain development and the child’s personality.


Broca’s area is loosely described as the part of the brain that controls output of language; speaking. Wernicke’s area is a processing part, related to understanding and interpreting. The  inferior parietal lobule is the bit where all the sensory nerves pass through.- That is, when the individual hears, sees and moves, which is important for language acquisition, such as learning to read (seeing a word), watching mouth movements, writing and so on. Any language, even sign language works in a similar way.

The diagram only shows you the left hemisphere of the brain which is generally the language area. The right hemisphere of the brain is also important in language for accessing tones of speech, emotions, expressions, body language, all the things that make you sound like a human.

Most researches agree that the human brain does not fully mature before 25 years old and probably older. The inferior parietal lobe does not fully develop before 5-6 years old. In fact the development of our brain is so uneven that it is impossible to be perfectly sure when your child is ready to be exposed to what part of language or how many languages.

Every child is so unique and develops differently from one another. There are periods of time when nature awakens an awareness and sensitivity in children for languages, encouraging them to listen to the sound of voices, words and practice by talking. Spotting these sensitive periods, observing and respecting a child’s individual development timetable and monitoring our personal expectations, will allow the child to follow her interests and fulfill her language potentials.

😦 Feelings matter 🙂

Children have as wide a range of emotions as adults do, but far less experience in understanding and expressing them. Some children are more restricted by the frustration of being misunderstood. There are often very few children- friends who patiently wait for the words to come out from another child. So these children are often more reluctant to use and practise a new language and therefore they take a longer time to speak it.

Other children will make great attempts to communicate by any means, use what vocabulary they have, point and gesture and practise the language more frequently. They therefore begin to understand and speak this language sooner and more fluently. It is important therefore to respect individual personalities and provide neutral experiences when supporting language acquisition.

Having said that, baby-talking, stammering and stuttering or unclear speech beyond the ages of 4-5 years, is definitely worth checking out. That is an age where some diagnostic tests will be accessible. It could also be something purely physical, like not hearing very well and therefore not speaking very well.


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