I’m taking this story with a liberal dose of salt, but even if it’s only half true, it’s still pretty amazing:

Four-year-old Tanish Shelar passes a surprised look at his six-year-old cousin when he pronounces Belgium as ‘Bel-jim’. He corrects his cousin promptly, “It’s ‘Belgium’.”

Shelar, a junior kindergarten student at St Jude’s in Panvel, can speak in seven languages — Sanskrit, German, Kannada, Gujarati, Marathi, Hindi and English. It all started when Tanish was eight-months-old when his mother, Dr Vedika Shelar, then living in Sholapur with her in-laws, heard through a friend about Siddha Samadhi Yoga (SSY). Founded by Rushi Prabhakar Guruji, their Infant Siddha Programme helps the overall development of a child. The programme specified that a child can be taught up to 20 languages by the age of six.

“I started speaking to him in English when he was just eight months. Then I proceeded to read and identify words with him in various languages,” says the dentist who has a clinic at Khandeshwar.

Via Chris’s Linguistics Blog.


  1. Living in Mysore some years ago I knew many Indians who spoke 4 languages: English form school (usually church schools),Hindi from school,Tamil from the household servants and Kannada from their parents.

  2. Let’s not forget that this is a four-year-old. Granted, that’s after the point when production of strings of unbounded length is acquired. But there is a great many discoursive structures, a lot of semantics and pragmatics, that are not learned until much later, even in monolinguals.
    Also, how is this learning managed? The original article says, “Then I proceeded to read and identify words with him in various languages.” Whatever does that accomplish? Where is the syntax coming from? The phonology?
    I would understand this in a multilingual environment, where children have extensive opportunity to be surrounded by native speakers of multiple languages speaking in natural ways. But even then there are certain developmental delays, and one language usually dominates.

  3. Yeah, that’s why I take it with a lot of salt. But I’ve been told I was bilingual in English and Japanese at the age of four (though of course I have no way of verifying that either), and I suppose it’s possible he’s equally fluent (as fluent as one can be at four) in a number of languages. But it’s possible the whole thing is a crock. I don’t trust sensationalist news stories.

  4. As an aside, how does one pronounce Belgium if not as ‘Bel-jim’?

  5. Yeah LH, I think the real question here is how one defines fluency. I can’t imagine anyone could become truly fluent in a language simply by having word-lists read to them.

  6. I’m in the pass-the-salt camp. I defer to the linguists on technical matters, but I’m getting a pretty strong return on the Clueless Reporter radar.

  7. Clueless Reporter or Status-Conscious Reporter? The ability to speak multiple languages carries connotations of prestige in many places. Though the kid’s achievement is dubious and even, let’s face it, unremarkable in the long run, the treatment of the topic reveals a lot about its social context.

  8. Andrew Dunbar says

    As an aside, how does one pronounce Belgium if not as ‘Bel-jim’?
    ‘Bel-jim’: bĕl’jĭm
    ‘Belgium’: bĕl’jəm

  9. Ah, thanks Andrew. I don’t make any distinction between short i and schwa, and always find it hard to imagine that there could be minimal pairs.

  10. I wouldn’t think there would be in most English dialects, but these are Indians, who are quite used to pronouncing unstressed short vowels.

  11. Andrew Dunbar says

    I don’t make any distinction between short i and schwa
    I think Australian, New Zealander, American, and Canadian speakers would make the distinction I give.
    British RP pronounces all or most final schwas as /ĭ/ even if they are spelled as “e”. “Chicken” /chĭkĭn/ is an example. I think Indian speakers of English follow the old British example possibly with the support of how vowels are pronounced in Indic languages.
    I’m not sure about speakers of Esturary English or other British accents, or even South Africans for that matter.
    Sorry for going so off-topic.

  12. Not off-topic at all, since the distinction was part of the news story, and even if it had been, we have no objection to straying from the topic here at Casa Languagehat.

  13. Australians certainly distinguish short i and schwa, but NZers don’t: we have a similar merger to RP, except that instead of [chĭkĭn], it would be [chəkən].

  14. I think how the unstressed vowels work (guessing, going by their distribution) is that former unstressed front [I], [e], and [eI] (as in livid, chicken, palace respectively) collapsed to [I] in something pre-RP, and others, such as unstressed [O] in button, [æ] in fatal, [V] in circus, collapsed to [@]. In most accents, including the ancestors of Australian and American, the [I] then collapsed into [@], but it was preserved in RP until recently.

  15. It doesn’t seem too farfetched to me and may even be rather common. Certainly growing up with two languages happens a lot.
    Here’s an item claiming that is is “very common” in Britain for children to be READING three languages (using three different scripts) by the age of five (PDF):

  16. Michael Farris says

    Since they mention that one of the languages this kid supposedly knows is Kannada, this isn’t too terribly off topic. The city of Bangalore is officially being renamed (in English) to the Kannada name, Bengaluru. I expect Mr. Hat to be thrilled.

  17. Yes, you can imagine my delight.
    Actually, that one I don’t mind as much, since at least it bears a recognizable relationship to the anglicized version; one could, in fact, go on saying “Bangalore” while writing Bengaluru without too much cognitive dissonance.

  18. I’ve posted some more information in response to several comments on the Siddha Samadhi Yoga program in my 12/29/05 blog post if anyone is interested.

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