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Will learning too many languages confuse my child?!

(27 Posts)
flaurenoko Mon 03-Jan-11 19:25:05

I have a 5 week old baby boy.. His father is Portuguese and obviously wants him to speak Portuguese.. So is talking to him only in Portuguese.. I am English, so am talking to him in English (as are my family) and my brothers fiancée is Mexican, so wants him to speak Spanish so he can communicate with his Mexican family.. She is mainly talking to him in English at the moment, but as he learns to speak will be speaking to him in Spanish..

Im worried with 3 languages being spoken he will get confused and not speak any properly!

Has anyone experienced a similar thing and can offer any comments / advice?

Thanks in advance x

belgo Mon 03-Jan-11 19:29:52

Stop worrying! He will have two home languages Portuguese and English and I assume you live in england so English will properly take a slight dominance over portuguese. His father will have to be very strict about speaking Portuguese to him and try and make sure he gets as much portugeuse as possible from other sources.

Don't worry about the spanish, if it's not an dominant language in his life then it will not confuse him.

I do know of one situation where a child had two many languages to learn, but that was different, there was no dominant language in her life and she did not get enough input from any of the languages she was exposed to.

belgo Mon 03-Jan-11 19:30:38

Oh and if your sister in law wants him to learn spanish, she needs to start talking to him in spanish now as languisher habits are very hard to break.

allnightlong Mon 03-Jan-11 19:45:43

First of all he's your baby you and your DH make decisions on his upbringing not your SIL so if you don't want him learning all 3 then dont!
I'm a bit confused if she's your SIL why on earth would your DS be communicating with her family?


I was a nanny in a family, I spoke English, Mum Spoke French and Dad spoke Swedish.

Their 7 year old DD, could speak all 3 fluently and could read and write in English and Swedish.

Althought out of all 3 adults she spent the least time with her dad, she had from a toddler books, music CDs and Videos/DVDs in Swedish and was fairly surrounded by it more so than French. She lived in the UK so spoke English at school and with me but had been born in Paris and spent her toddler years the city.

Her 3 year old brother, could speak good English and Swedish (his sister would speak to him a lot in Swedish at home just for fun) but didn't speak much french.
Sometimes he would get a bit confused over all 3 languages but nothing serious that wouldn't improve in time.

I'm considering introducing a second lanuage to my children and would do the lanuage immersion technique of having dvds, music cds and books.

GoldFrakkincenseAndMyrrh Wed 05-Jan-11 08:50:49

Learning from native speakers is the best way to go. If she speaks to him in Spanish and only in Spanish he might be slightly hmm at her but will pick it up and respond as time goes by. It's clear who talks what and which the most important languages are.

I wouldn't worry. Instead focus on giving a good and thorough base in the 2 home languages and let your SIL develop her own relationship with him. It may be that she's more comfortable speaking Spanish to children - I know I find it easier to speak English and frequently play with very young children of friends in English/coo at babies in English! Slightly different as the children there aren't bilingual and English is seen as A Good Thing so parents are very proud when small child says 'hello' to me of 'bye bye' when I leave. Spanish with your SIL won't make him fluent but it won't hurt unless she's spending more than a couple of hours a week with him.

I know children with 3 or 4 languages who cope just fine because it's separated out e.g. Mummy speaks English, Daddy speaks Arabic, French at school and in the community (and a mix of English and French between the parents) or Nanny speaks English, French at school and a 3rd language at home. The only time I've seen a child struggle is 2 home languages and a bilingual school in neither but even then that was ironed out after a term. The problems start setting in when everyone speaks everything indiscriminately. A degree of separation is necessary for the first couple of years even if both parents are equally comfortable in the other language and language mixing is going to be acceptable later (although some would disagree with me there).

In some countries trilingualism is virtually the 'norm' or at least inescapable for 'foreign' families living in a bilingual country or bilingual families living in a third country.

Bonsoir Wed 05-Jan-11 08:58:24

IME, most children can just about manage three languages (though often one of those languages is at a much lower level than the other two) but four challenges even very able children.

AussieCelt Wed 05-Jan-11 09:01:22

A pre-5 child who has problems learning 2, 3 or more languages will have problems learning 1. Language and speech problems are organic issues, bilingualism and multilingualism by themselves don't cause problems (unless taken to a huge extreme).

Charles Berlitz spoke 8 languages by the time he was a teenager, his father had requested that each member of the family and staff speak to him in a different language. He became, unsurprisingly, one of the world's greatest linguists.

Bonsoir Wed 05-Jan-11 09:06:20

AussieCelt - I really don't think you can be as categorical as that. I went to a multi-lingual school and my DD does too, and I have nearly always lived in multi-lingual environments. There are small children who master their mother tongue with no difficulty but just cannot get to grips with a second language.

GoldFrakkincenseAndMyrrh Wed 05-Jan-11 10:02:51

I think the problem with 4 languages comes from the greatly reduced exposure time. Not to say that all children will be perfectly quadrilingual - it's fairly inevitable that one or more of those languages will be weaker - but they can usually get by. In the OPs case there are 2 main languages and potentially a 3rd which is a nice extra but not exactly crucial. It's not as critical as, say, school in a non-home language.

I'd agree that it's not as simple as if you're monolingual you can be perfectly bilingual though, especially if the two languages are very different or one is established earlier/spoken more frequently.

But then IMO it's okay to speak another language to a not great standard or be exposed to another language very young with no intention of becoming fluent as long as the main language(s) are consistently well modelled.

AussieCelt Wed 05-Jan-11 10:36:35

Bonsoir, that may be true but I'd be interested to look at whether it was the pure fact of being exposed to a second language or whether there was some other environmental factor playing a part (poor immersion techniques, sociological factors) etc.

From research done to date (and I've been through a lot of it) language acquisition in pre-5s is consistent whether mono- or multilingual. Things which impede linguistic ability tend to be other issues such as cognitive issues (speech acquisition, autism etc), poor teaching methods, incomplete immersion, bullying, hearing and sight issues etc. I'd be interested whether there's an empirical data in that age group that points to an organic issue in acquiring a second language independent of other organic or societal factors. But the research seems to be telling the same story, absent any other factor, a child who struggles with a second language also struggles with its first.

GFM - you're right in the OPs case. If Spanish is just the sister-in-law exposing the child to it from time to time, there will be little acquisition and greater potential for loss.

However, if you have a structured existence, it can work well. My daughter gets 2 languages at home, one outside the home and a fourth at school. Whilst she doesn't have equal ability in all languages, she can still comfortably hold a conversation and reads in all 4 languages - I'm a native speaker of 2 of the languages and have near-native competence in the other 2 so I can keep tabs on her language skills in each one. However, we have created an environment where we're very aware of her developmental needs, so books/TV/DVDs at home are split mostly between the 3 non-societal languages, extra-curricular activities are in 3 of the languages: societal (swimming), school (music) and mum's (cooking). It's certainly not a 'set and forget' process, especially in a monolingual society - we have to work very hard to provide a rich enough environment for her. If we lived in a multilingual societal environment like several of my friends, it would be a different story - it basically happens by osmosis due to it being a by-product of socialisation.

Bonsoir Wed 05-Jan-11 11:56:37

I think there are quite easily identifiable personality traits involved - some children like playing on their own with construction games, numbers etc for hours on end and others like doing constant role play with others. Guess which ones find the second language easier?

AussieCelt Wed 05-Jan-11 12:30:00

Maybe you might be talking about older kids? When you're 2, it's not a second language. It's just language. It's not until later that that brain starts differentiating between languages (and we're not just talking at a cognitive level, we're talking about organic brain formation). The plasticity in the brain remains until sometime between 5 and 7. So the entire concept of 'second language' doesn't even exist to a 2 or 3-year old. To a 5-year, yes, it's starting to get into the second language neighbourhood although a kid will still acquire a new language natively from scratch at that age (and can do so up to about 7, but not always).

I would still argue that a (say 4-year old) child who is struggling acquiring a 'second' language due to poor interpersonal skills/socialisation would also display below-peer primary language skill for exactly the same reason. I cannot see any neurological reason as to why a child who had superior language skills compared to peers would struggle acquiring a new language.

Bonsoir Wed 05-Jan-11 12:43:47

I am talking about tiny children - 2 years+.

Bonsoir Wed 05-Jan-11 12:44:23

Oh - and at two, if you haven't previously been exposed, it is a second language.

AussieCelt Wed 05-Jan-11 13:04:39

There's some really interesting reading in neuroscience: pdf/pnas01485-0491.pdf 016F63800FD712C30FA42DD/EB0E63F19FC732B9B11A287C0F FA68F3/file/BB_bilingual_brain_web.pdf 1.full.pdf

There's also some good stuff that's been done in psychology and speech pathology. Basically, at 2 yes as a social construct it's a second language, to the brain, it's language. If a child does not suffer from any pathology which would hinder language acquisition, the child has the inherent potential to acquire a second language equal to its first. It's an inherent capacity (and evidence indicates more than 2). The one thing we don't know yet are the limits.

So if that 2 year-old is struggling to acquire a second language when it acquired its first language with alacrity, the science is telling us it's not the child's ability, it's the method that is failing for whatever reason (and there are many).

Bonsoir Wed 05-Jan-11 13:15:47

Interesting, but all that I have heard/read on the subject says that true bilinguals who have no notion of which of their languages is their mother-tongue are incredibly unusual - that the natural state is to have a first, second, third etc language.

cory Wed 05-Jan-11 14:50:11

Bonsoir, might this not simply be because the situation of one language at home+ other languages added later is, statistically speaking, more common? In which case, it wouldn't really tell us a lot about what the human brain is capable of.

My own children have been exposed to two languages from birth and have gone through various periods of showing slight preference for one over the other, but it would be hard for them to tell which language is their mother tongue. Certainly it would have been impossible when they were toddlers, as their exposure was about equal to both languages. The language which has, arguably, gained ground since is not their mother tongue (my language) but the language they speak with their mates.

My adopted brother has totally lost his original mother tongue, but is clearly a native speaker of the language he started acquiring as a 2yo; there is no difference between his linguistic ability and that of his siblings who were exposed to the language from birth. In his case, sadly his first language was lost as there was no means of maintaining it.

belgo Wed 05-Jan-11 16:05:48

My children have been exposed to two languages from birth but flemish has quickly taken preference as it's the language so f their friends and cousins.

DD1 in particular clearly has felmish as her first language.

With dd2 she was nearly five years old before she finally started speaking English and now her english is beautiful (she is now five and a bit)

belgo Wed 05-Jan-11 16:08:12

I don't know any children who have had equal input of two languages from birth. They all have a slightly dominant language as far as I can tell.

cory Wed 05-Jan-11 16:22:24

That may be, belgo, but the dominant language is not necessarily the same throughout life.

When mine were little, they spent about equal time in Swedish-speaking and English-speaking environments (two languages spoken at home by parents who shared childcare) and it was very hard to tell which language was dominant.

Then, when ds was 4, he went through a phase when he refused to speak English (the majority language) at all for about 6 months, so at that time one could hardly say that was his dominant language (though he obviously knew it). Six years later, English probably is his dominant language most of the time, but there are plenty of things he finds easier to do in Swedish (minority language). His mates speak English, but almost all his relatives speak Swedish. Towards the end of the holidays, when he has been spending 5 or 6 weeks in minority country, he is definitely in "minority language mode" and finds it more difficult to get back into speaking majority language.

GoldFrakkincenseAndMyrrh Wed 05-Jan-11 17:22:55

I think that in rare cases language dominance can change as an adult. I'm loath to say it but for some (many) things English is now DH's dominant language having been educated mostly through that language and spoken it as a home language with me for the last few years. That's despite the fact he speaks French with his family, works in French and will be forced to speak French with our DC (so he has until April to buck up his ideas a bit). But if you give him the choice he prefers to watch the news in English, read the English version of EU/UN documents and socialise with anglophones.

He didn't speak it at all until the age of 11 and not fluently until about 17. I've read his IB coursework and in 10 years his English has improved to the point where it's as good as, if not better than, mine and we argue about the relative merits of 'his hair needs cutting' and 'his hair needs to be cut'.

His second (now third) language is noticeably weaker not in a sense that he speaks it worse but that he's less comfortable in it.

frenchfancy Wed 05-Jan-11 17:31:24

I'm sitting here trying to work out which is my DCs dominant language. For DD3 it is English, though French is catching up, but for the other 2 I would say French is probably dominant. But it does change. At the end of the summer holidays English is dominant, after several weeks of school and activities all in French then French dominates. It also depends on which TV they are watching. they can go for weeks watching only UK TV then suddenly change onto French and watch nothing but French for the next month. If they watch lots of TV in one language then we notice that they tend to play together in that language.

As for the OP I think the English and Portuguese are a given (provided Dad keeps up talking in Portuguese) but unless the SIL is very involved in the childs care it is unlikely that they will pick up spanish as a fluent language.

GoldFrakkincenseAndMyrrh Wed 05-Jan-11 18:48:27

Bonsoir EAB advice needed!

cory Thu 06-Jan-11 09:47:40

It's not just about language dominance: it's also about different areas of language use.

I have never made love in my mother tongue, have not used it for work for the last 20 years, and have not given birth in it. So quite big important areas of my life where I would not feel at all confident in my mother tongue.

Otoh anything to do with sailing or fishing (quite a big part of my life, too, if less important than the above) is definitely mother tongue and never, ever English.

And I don't think it is at all unusual for language dominance to change in adulthood. A lot of immigrants end up getting less and less confident in their original language. I am hoping it won't happen to me.

AussieCelt Thu 06-Jan-11 10:58:18

Language dominance is an interesting issue, and isn't related to nativism in a language. I am natively bilingual in 2 languages, have natively level proficiency in a third and near-native in a fourth. However, my language 'ease' at the moment is my two native languages first and last, with the non-native languages in between. However, my native languages still have a different depth of meaning that my non-native languages because it's understanding with your heart rather than just your head.

Immigration can do odd things. People with poor language abilities can struggle to learn a language despite being immersed in a language for 30 years. In the same time if they've not had any exposure to their native language, they can loose that and effectively be unable to communicate much at all. You can get so rusty in your native language that you virtually loose it (although you can't permanently loose a native language like you can a learnt one, it can always come back with exposure)

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