Renee of has been preoccupied lately by having a baby; having accomplished that (mazel tov!), she’s now wondering how many languages might be too many. She writes in her LJ:

The kid calms down beautifully to Fáfnismál. The moment I sing the opening lines, he stops crying, listens attentively, and eventually dozes off or settles to eat… Oren and my mom beg me not to confuse the child with Old Norse. It is true that as a potential trilingual he has enough on his plate. I am truly not sure about the mechanics of this; my intuition tells me that it will work out more than fine, but there is no evidence either way (except Sybilla’s). To appease the grown-up audience, I temporarily switched to Beethoven.

As I told her, my immediate response is “the more languages the better,” but that’s not much help. Anybody have any actual knowledge about the effects of exposing a helpless infant to multiple languages? (Oh, and Sibylla is the protagonist of this book; go buy it if you haven’t yet!)


  1. It’s been years, and I don’t recall what studies were used to arrive at this conclusion, but I recall learning in a child development course that during the early years there’s a roughly fixed possible vocabulary size, and that a bilingual child will divide that vocabulary between the two languages about evenly, but there shouldn’t be any problems with understanding grammar and usage or with expanding the vocabulary later on. I assume the same would be true for a couple more languages.
    Of course, the intellectual history of the study of human development is a real muddle, so who’s to say whether that information is still current…

  2. You could consider that children below four seem to absorb knowledge like sponges, and this does seem to shape them thereafter. My firstborn’s first self-initiated song was a joyful ‘Aiya! Aiya!’ as he sang along to the Hallelujah Chorus I was playing. It seems to have worked, he now (two decades later) has a pretty strong preference for classical music.

  3. My son has been reading my grand daughter (nine months old +) Der Herr der Ringe off and on. It will be interesting to see what impact, if any this has on her. When my son was little we put him to sleep nightly to Glenn Gould playing the Goldberg Variations and he grew up to earn a BS in math and MS in comp sci. Now he’s in law scool, but is pretty fluent in German and taught himself Japanese as well as some Arabic,Persian, Hebrew, Dutch, Norwegian, etc. It is impossible to determine what influences, however, were important.
    Doc Rock

  4. Members of my extended family that grew up travelling with a circus were routinely exposed to two or more languages during their formative years. Most of them were Spanish/English bilingual with various levels of fluency in other languages by adulthood, but one of my second cousins spoke four languages fluently by kindergarten.
    (For the record, I belong to the Campa and Gutierrez circus families.)

  5. This is kind of a derail, but (a) I second the book recommendation, and (b) speaking of language acquisition, I’ve recently heard about this trend apparently sweeping Japan of teaching kids ASL (there are JSLs, but it seems that the movement is heavily influenced by US originators), because it lets them communicate earlier. I guess it’s easier to learn to form the signs than to form verbal language sounds? Anyone have any interesting insights to share about that? I have to admit it sounds pretty tempting, not least because it’d give me an excuse to learn a signed language too. (Not that I have kids yet, but you know…)

  6. marie-lucie says

    Re “exposing a child” to multiple languages:
    It depends on what is meant by “exposing”. Listening to recorded songs in various languages does not teach those languages, since there is nothing to anchor the words in actual experience: music, yes, but language, no. What teaches children language(s) is being spoken to and eventually trying to respond in the same medium, in natural circumstances. The way you (or any person) talk to your child is part of the total way you communicate with this child. What is confusing for children (and can lead to stuttering or other language difficulties, including refusing to talk altogether) is not knowing what to expect from a person – for example if a parent sometimes addresses the child in one language and at other times another – with this sort of code-switching (OK with already bilingual adults) the child is never sure how to start an exchange with the person. It’s as if the adult kept switching unpredictably between TV channels. The keyword is consistency on the part of the adult(s). All documented cases of early multilingualism involve children who were spoken to in different languages by different people (whether adults or children) – not children who heard the same people address them indifferently in two or more languages. Based on personal experience I believe in the “one person, one language” theory when raising a child to be bilingual or even multilingual. There is apparently some research denying that this is essential, but the situation is different when only one person (usually a parent or grandparent) speaks a minority language to the child, as opposed to when the social situation itself is not unilingual – for instance if the neighbourhood is multi-ethnic and there are other people, especially other children, who speak the language of the minority parent, who then is not the only source of the language for the child.
    In the present case, my advice to the writer (based on my experience and that of other people in the same situation) is that each parent should speak to the child in their own language, in which they are completely fluent, so that they will know how to respond in any circumstances. As a horror story, a friend of mine who is Spanish-speaking and learned English – not very well but OK for normal functioning – as an adult raised her children in English (in Canada) – whenever an emergency arose she became practically speechless in English, and the children did not understand Spanish. This kind of situation would not have occurred if she had spoken Spanish to them from infancy.
    Unless the parents were totally isolated socially, the child will not fail to acquire English from playmates, babysitters, etc. Remember also that very young children may understand words that adults are speaking TO them, but not conversation BETWEEN adults, until quite a bit later, so it does not matter if the parents themselves use a third language, let’s say English, in front of the child (but not TO the child). By the time the child does understand (and is interested in) what the adults are saying to each other, the bilingual foundation will have been firmly laid as the child will be used to communicate with each parent in their own unique way. (This would preclude a “family council” – but that is irrelevant while the child is still a pre-schooler). So keep on playing those songs your child loves so much! (and do sing to your child too).

  7. marie-lucie says

    p.s. I have never heard of the “equally divided vocabulary” theory, and my own experience does not show that it has any validity.

  8. Children can forget languages as easily as they learn them (I’m just starting to relearn a language I spoke before I started English (age 4), and it’s depressing to realize just how completely I’ve forgotten everything). My parents assure me it’s all “locked in” somewhere but I doubt it. So it may be a good idea to teach languages that the child has a reasonable chance to continue using in the future.

  9. Rudyard Kipling was taken care of by Hindi-speaking servants as a small child. He was then sent to England, and did not return to India until he was an adult.
    Apparently he was able to converse in Hindi, but he couldn’t understand what he was saying. If this story is true, I presume the conversations were fairly simple and conventional ones.

  10. It is not true that children brought up bilingually have half the vocabulary in each language that they would if they were monolingual. There is evidence that bilingual children have a smaller vocabulary in each language than do their monolingual peers, but the difference is not that large and eventually disappears. One relevant paper is “Lexical knowledge of monolingual and bilingual childen” by Marianne Verhallen and Rob Schoonen in Applied Linguistics 14.4.344-63 (1993). I’m not aware of any research on children with more than two languages.

  11. I tried to start a discussion on this topic in a forum two years ago, just before my son was born ( It didn’t yield any helpful advice beyond the standard stuff about sticking to the OPOL (one parent/one language) system. Jacob is happily bilingual by now, and I’m sure will become perfectly trilingual should we move to a ‘third’ country any time soon, which is quite likely. But it’s certainly true that children can forget a language they once learned — apparently I spoke Dutch when I was three, but I haven’t the faintest inkling of a recollection of that.

  12. Current research suggests that children will acquire and retain the languages that are required for them to function in their day-to-day life. Exposure to several languages will not, in the long term (meaning the course of a lifetime), retard their ability to communicate with others in any of the languages they use.
    Remember, too, that bi-lingualism is in fact more common in the word than mono-lingualism. It’s mono-linguists who should be worried about their children’s development.

  13. Yes, I spoke Japanese when I was four and lost it pretty much immediately upon moving back to the States (and then had to relearn it when we moved back to Japan).

  14. Hiya-
    My parents spoke English, Chinese, and Portuguese. I grew up learning Portuguese and
    English simultaneously. I wish the rents had
    taught me the Shanghai dialect they spoke.

  15. I don’t remember learning less words in either
    Portuguese or English. I went to Portuguese
    schools and spoke both at home. In school I also
    learnt French pretty early on and Spanish a little later. Also learnt Macanese from my grandmother who also spoke Shanghainese and Cantonese.

  16. We are already using the one language/one parent system. I speak Russian; my husband speaks Hebrew. I have seen kids grow up perfectly trilingual with that system, and I have also seen kids who grow up totally confused (one notable example is a 2 year old who invented her own language, in which she converses). I don’t know yet whether the OPOL system will work for my son; time will tell. The question I was asking had to do with introducing songs and stories in other languages I love and know well (I cannot say that I am fluent in Old Norse, it just happens to be my favorite language). I am a linguist and a multilingual, and the temptation is great.

  17. There’s a lot of evidence that children who grow up bilingual do better on certain kinds of logic tests (especially, they’re better at distinguishing between words and concepts), but it’s not clear whether this grants any benefit that lasts into adulthood; that is, it’s not clear whether everyone eventually reaches essentially the same level of understanding, with bilingual kids reaching it sooner or progressing faster earlier, or whether bilingual kids retain this advantage permanently.
    Regarding the consistent-language comment above: I realize the danger of assuming personal experience to be representative, but even though my parents always spoke Hebrew to me growing up, I grew up mostly responding in English. (This I probably picked up from my sisters, who also mostly responded in English.)

  18. michael farris says

    On the question (which nobody’s asked) on how bi(multi)lingual children do as adult learners.
    I’ve had a few bilingual students (Polish and another language, including so far in various degrees German, Hungarian, Esperanto and French) in my English classes over the years. As young adults I perceive a definite profile:
    – They’re faster than average in picking up the basics and in utilizing what they know.
    – They’re slower than average in polishing out the rough parts.
    – They’re more liable than average to pick up frozen forms that are wrong.
    – They’re not so good at grammar, that is they’re not so good in looking at grammar in a detached, impersonal way as linguists do.
    I don’t know if that’s typical but it seems to be what I’ve noticed.

  19. Michael,
    For what it’s worth, your nb. 1 seems quite accurate for me (native Greek, educational French, and a great dose of Italian), and nb. 4 was, too (though I wouldn’t have been able to formulate it so precisely), until recently, when I decided to correct it, as far as possible.
    Maybe 2 and 3 apply to me as well, but I am probably not the one who could tell.

  20. I forgot the occasional Pontic in my background, because as a child I didn’t always distinguish it from standard Greek.

  21. They’re more liable than average to pick up frozen forms that are wrong.
    Sounds intriguing; could you give me an example of “frozen forms that are wrong”?

  22. michael farris says

    “could you give me an example of “frozen forms that are wrong”?
    That’s not maybe exactly what I meant, which is hard to describe. What happens is something like (much) stronger than average resistance to revisiting something they think they’ve “already learned” (a common pattern in Poland, but to a lesser degree).
    This might take the form of bad past tenses/past participles or misused idioms or meanings of words or might be consistently bad verb agreement. Once they think they’ve learned it, it’s much harder to get it through to them that it’s wrong and harder to get them to change. I think it probably _is_ harder for them than for the typical monolingual (in native language terms) student.
    Another thing (I forgot before) is that since they are usually bicultural in addition to bilingual) that they often seem a little out of step in terms of mainstream Polish (or their other) culture, especially in terms of what you might call ‘verbal culture’. This usually comes out in a tendency to say things at the wrong time or in the wrong way or just saying things that other students won’t.

  23. David Marjanović says

    I was bilingual (German, Serbocroatian; OPOL method) at age 2. Then my dad found a job in Paris and returned only once every 6 weeks or so. I forgot all my Serbocroatian, and I can’t remember ever having spoken it. In fact, I can’t remember ever having been 2 years old (hm… except that I can’t have been much older when I noticed my allergy against apples…). I simply didn’t have a memory yet.
    I find learning languages, and pronouncing them, easier than apparently most people, but I have plenty of peculiarities in addition to having been bilingual, so I can’t tease the reasons apart…
    BTW, why are e-mail addresses required here and then not in the least disguised upon publication? I’m getting enough spam already… :-/

  24. You can put whatever you want in the box; I just used my godlike editing powers to change your e-mail address to gibberish, and you should feel free to do the same. The box is just there because it’s part of the Movable Type system; I don’t care if people give their e-mail addresses or not.

  25. Er, by “do the same” I mean “put in gibberish,” since you don’t have my godlike editing powers.

  26. My 3-year-old Icelandic next-door neighbor is totally bilingual, and able to decide what language she should use in a given situation. Her parents spoke to her only in Icelandic from birth, figuring she’d get all the English she’d need from friends, daycare and visitors (they don’t have TV and rarely listen to radio). The result is pretty impressive; I haven’t seen her get confused yet, so I figure it’s time to start her on some French…

  27. One study done on French adults adopted as children from Korea strongly suggests that the early-acquired languages really aren’t “in there” anymore, so I would hold off on teaching languages to the very young unless there’s going to be some follow-through. As Boo said, there’s a tendency to forget as easily as learn–unfortunately, if the language gets “locked up” in the brain, it’s probably inaccessible later if it isn’t consistently used.

  28. I think children below 10 are able to pick up languages very easily. Until age 6, I lived in China could understand the local dialect, even though I wasn’t allowed to speak it, as well as speak Mandarin. I moved to England from China when I was 6 and within a school term, I’d become pretty much bilingual. I think because of this, I find learning languages much easier than most, especially with the pronounciations. I’m now almost fluent in French, can manage quite a lot of German and a bit of Italian too.
    I think exposing young children to multiple languages is a good thing because they can still tell the difference between them and not get confused.

  29. I think it depends on the kid, to a certain degree. My next-door neighbors growing up raised their daughters OPOL-style in Italian and English; I remember the girls were at our house staring at our aquarium and talking about the “pishies.” My littlest (half) sister, however, is 2 years old and being raised bilingually in Hebrew and English. She speaks Hebrew exclusively with her mother; otherwise, she speaks English, though her mother also sometimes speaks English when they’re in mixed company, so it’s nowhere near as structured an environment as the OPOL concept. Already, she has a bigger vocabulary than most children her age, and is able to distinguish between languages very well–I mean, she occasionally addresses a person in the “wrong” language, but not often, and when a recent event put her in a room full of new people–half of whom spoke Hebrew and half of whom spoke English–she chose the “correct” language almost every time. I’ve never heard her conflate languages, though she’s young, so maybe her “pishy” moment is yet to come.
    On the other hand, my Japanese teacher in high school had grown up speaking only Japanese until he hit school age, then switched to English; as a result, he was not quite fluent in either, though quite good in both. He was the first person I’d ever met who wasn’t fully fluent in any language; I’m not sure I’ve met another since.

  30. David Marjanović says

    Thanks, Hat!
    Not fully fluent in any language? That must be rare indeed.

  31. I ran into a case like that in Argentina many years ago: our plumber had immigrated from Italy and forgotten his Italian while not really learning Spanish. I was the only one who could communicate with him (Latin + Spanish + Sprachgefühl).

  32. Siganus Sutor says

    David Marjanović : Not fully fluent in any language? That must be rare indeed.
    Not so rare I would think, because you do have countries which have been intricately multilingual for generations and in which a certain number of people tend to use several languages daily, and get mixed up, especially if the varieties of languages used there influence one another. In this process, a percentage of the population can end up “speaking” several languages but lacking accuracy in all of them.
    Some countries boast about their so-called multilingualism, but if you look at it in detail, you may find that it is not up to standard (I therefore apologise for the English errors I probably make regularly). As a humouristic bank manager was saying in a book he published in 1979 and through the mouth of a character bragging that he could speak both French and English: “Français je conne, anglais je débrie”, which, with its lot of funny mistakes, would be something like “French I know, English I manage”. Jack of all trades, master of none…
    It can certainly be a good thing to live in a multilingual environment, but it can also be confusing in some cases, as it may “corrupt” the language one is supposed to know best. As usual, there may not be an all-good recipe that would fit all cases.

  33. Per Jørgensen says

    My two daughters, now four and six, both born and raised in the US, are used to me speaking mostly Norwegian with them since the moment they were born. They understand just fine but barely speak it; we’ll have conversations that are perfectly normal in but one respect — I use one language, and they respond in another. It does raise eyebrows.
    OPOL always sounded like a good idea to me, but it’s never been practical. Daily interactions too often require that others understand what I’m saying to the girls, especially when I’m correcting them. Often, I’ll use English in those cases or use Norwegian, then repeat myself in English.
    I’ve never made any effort to get them to respond in Norwegian. The last thing I want to do is make my language a chore or some kind of duty dad imposes on them. As a result of that, of their being surrounded fully by English except for their dad, or both, they don’t reach for Norwegian to speak.
    I’d like to hear them do that, but there’s one particular reason why I don’t feel the need to encourage or enforce it: After only a few days Norway, immersed fully in spoken Norwegian, they make a gradual switch and will after a full week have begun expressing whole sentences in Norwegian. The switch is so literal it almost seems like a parody — they’ll intermix Norwegian and English words with the proportion of Norwegian increasing as each day goes by (Can we kjøpe some kake). The syntax and grammar of either language tends to get contorted during the switch, and there’s some inevitable phonetic confusion (contrast English shirt and Norwegian skjørt — skirt — and you can forgive them for getting confused).
    The experience of hearing that switch as it occurs tells me that, as long as I keep speaking and reading to them in Norwegian, they will be able to adjust and express themselves in it fairly quickly when context makes it natural and necessary. With a bit of luck they’ll want to participate in exchange programs in high school or decide to study in Norway, and my prediction is they’ll have Norwegian down fluently within a month.
    Now, how long it’ll take to adjust to the dialect differences in Norway is another matter completely.

  34. My understanding of the current opinion on bilinguals is that simultaneous learning of multiple languages can only be good. Sometimes kids do get the languages confused, and yes, if tested in only one language at some stages they seem to have smaller vocabularies (they don’t just split the difference, there’s some overlap, but there are words they learn first in one language) — but all of this goes away by school age, I believe.
    Inferring from what I’ve learned, very early exposure to multiple languages is going to leave kids sensitive to a greater range of phonetic distinctions.
    On the signed language question — there’s work that suggests that children can pick up signed languages before spoken ones, possibly because of the use of iconicity, and possibly because they’re better at moving their hands that young.
    There’s also work that shows that kids use gesture to get from the one word to the two word stage, and (less-well-documented) work that suggests this happens at later stages too. So for example, between the one word stage (Ball!) and the two word stage (Give ball!) the kid might say “Ball!” and make a grabby gesture at the ball. The idea, then, is that perhaps the kid is using the gesture to piggyback the syntax on.
    How this relates to teaching hearing kids signed languages is… to the best of my knowledge a fascinating question that nobody’s ever worked on.
    If I’m wrong I would love to know.

  35. Wonder of time, from Japan
    Time is the important concept which supports our life, and it is looked upon
    as a physical quantity in learning. However, the Japanese dictionary confuses
    “time-notch” and time by a word of “instant.” English also makes time words
    (hour, minute, etc) have the meaning of time-notch. Likewise, this problem arises
    in the lexicons of all nations.
    To solve the problem, we first defined “time-notch” and time in Japanese,
    and then coined a new word, in English.
    To correct the dictionary is urgent, and becomes an international action.
    Does anyone realize this action?
    * Liken the stream of time to one line and mark notches on the line at regular
    intervals. Then, each notch means “time-notch,” and the interval between two
    notches means “time.” In addition, “instant” means ambiguous brief time.
    To define the time with length needs a time-notch without length at each ends.
    To define the time-notch without length needs the time with length lying on
    both sides. We call these relations of time-notch and time as
    * Humans see the present time-notch which is pointed out by the hand of a clock,
    recall certain some certain past time-notch pointed out by a clock hand, treat both
    together in the head, and read the time. This is >
    [Mistakes of World Scales]
    Nagaya Osamu
    General Manager of Mathematics Division
    The Society of Truth
    6-16 Hiromi, Kani-shi
    Gifu-ken, 509-0214

  36. I didn’t grow up bilingual. I learned German as a second foreign language – after English and before Italian. I moved to – and started studying in – Germany when I was 21 – 8 years ago – and presently rarely speak French. I wouldn’t say I have forgotten French since I work as a translator and interpreter, but I do notice that I actually feel more fluent in German than in French. I am now teaching myself Afrikaans and hope that I will never forget German even I have to leave Germany. So obviously, one can become fluent in a language without having learned it from birth on but it surely takes more effort.
    And as a final remark, I would like to add that every language one learns and speaks (I mean fluently) has an influence and for myself, I would say that I am a slightly different person depending on the language I’m speaking.

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