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Old 17.05.2012, 14:44
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Multilingual problems - can baby learn 4 languages???

Hi there,

I would like some advice from people who've experienced the same problems as we are about to experience concerning bringing up multilingual kids. My partner and I are about to have our first kid. I am Swedish-speaking (although I am from Finland) and my partner is Polish. We don't speak each others languages, so our common language is English. When the baby is born I naturally want to speak Swedish to it, and my partner Polish. However, if we are ever about to speak all three of us together, it must of course be English. I know you should always be consistent with the language you speak to the kid, but if I want my partner to understand what I say to the kid, can I first say it in Swedish, and then repeat in English? Or will this only be confusing to the kid? And when it comes to Krippe, I guess we should try and find an English-speaking Krippe (is it difficult in Zurich/Thalwil?), to make sure the kid learns English as well. (Or perhaps he/she would pick up English just from listening to me and my partner speaking with each other?) But if we stay in Switzerland (which we don't know yet), the kid has to of course learn German as well... Is it even possible to learn this many languages simultaneously?? Please give advice!
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Old 17.05.2012, 15:26
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Re: Multilingual problems - can baby learn 4 languages???

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Is it even possible to learn this many languages simultaneously?? Please give advice!
In some parts of the world where there is no single, dominant language this is not unusual in the slightest. A friend of mine from India spoke five languages before he went to school, and this was fairly common for his town.

I know a couple in a very similar situation to you (English as the only common language of the parents, living in Switzerland), and their children now speak four languages to various fluencies, especially thanks to visits from the grandparents. There are points early on where the vocabularies and grammars get a bit mixed up, but the brain has an amazing ability to separate these later on. Don't worry if at certain times one language seems to dominate the other - as long as you keep using the others in some way, the ability is still developing.

There's various competing theories on introducing new languages, the two main being "personal" (i.e. you always speak Swedish with the children, your partner Polish, but English to each other) or "situational" (you speak Swedish and Polish at home, but German/French on the street) - but neither is right or wrong, just go with what suits your circumstances.
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Old 17.05.2012, 15:38
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Re: Multilingual problems - can baby learn 4 languages???

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I am Swedish-speaking (although I am from Finland) Please give advice!
I love that accent. Advice: pass it on the next generation
On topic: Your children will have the languages in their head that they have in their lives. In other words, the most classical example of organizing languages and keep them all relevant to the child is the famous rule one person = one language. There are other ways, but the point is that your child, at any age, will only get interested and therefore learn a language if it makes sense to him/her/it to do so. Children regularly test adults and co-students by trying to avoid language shift (answering in the school-language when parents talk familly-language is a classical example). Facing that is just the definition of education. Usual parent stuff in essence.
A child will not refuse or reject a language because it's the third/fourth/fifth one and can't cope. Child will do so if he/she/it can. Like doing homework, washing behind their ears etc. If a language is avoidable, the child will avoid it, and some even do with their one an only language. There are higher chances to easily being able to avoid a language if the child has one, two or three others to use. Make each language you would like your child to learn relevant, necessary and natural in his/her/its life. The number of language is a non-problem.
Good luck.
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Old 17.05.2012, 16:04
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Re: Multilingual problems - can baby learn 4 languages???

My 3.5 years old daughter speakS and understands 5 languages. I am totally amazed of how she absorbs them, it is pretty much incredible!

I speak to her in French, hubby speaks turkish. Because hubby doesn't know French, I have to speak to him in english or Turkish to translate.

At school, she speaks Catalan and she has many friends who are from Spanish families so Spanish is mixed with Catalan.

She still doesn't have a clear speech, it does sounds a lot of mumbling for those who don't know all the languages. She also does connections between one word, one language. She started slowly to use the proper word with the proper language, but it takes time and sometimes it reach a level where she stops.

These days, she keeps speaking Catalan at home and I have to stop her and remind her mommy speaks French, daddy Turkish and teacher Catalan.

I do stress but when I see her switching languages depending of the person she talks with, I am so amazed and proud!

She'll get there! And she is going to have a very great advantage in life. I can see how she is developing, she uses ways to understand and she does connections that are not normal for her age. The teachers are very impressed about it. And one very important thing, is to have teacher who are supportive. It makes all the differences in the world.
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Old 17.05.2012, 17:24
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Re: Multilingual problems - can baby learn 4 languages???

Really interesting topic!!

Although we're still baby-free, we really value the importance of teaching languages to developing children with sponge-like brain capacity.

With us, though, it would probably only be three languages. Mum would speak strictly German, me strictly English and we would hope to raise it in a French- or Spanish-speaking environment. If we could manage to do all four, without being entirely fluent (though very proficient) in French and Spanish, that would be ideal.

And then, Arabic or Mandarin during school!

I think children are really just attempts at how we would like to recreate our own life... li'l buggers...
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Old 17.05.2012, 18:50
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Re: Multilingual problems - can baby learn 4 languages???

My next door neighbour's kids speak English, German, Swiss German, Italian and Spanish. The youngest is 6 now, I think.

What is important is that each parent speak to their child in their own native language whereever possible, otherwise there is evidence evidence that language acquisition might be impaired - especially in the area of grammar. Multilingual children tend to have smaller vocabularies than monolingual children in each language, but overall have bigger ones. They often start speaking a little later than children in a household where there is one dominant language.

There is an article on newscientist.com (you have to register, but it is free) about the benefits of multilingualism. I think it's available for another few days.
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Old 17.05.2012, 20:49
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Re: Multilingual problems - can baby learn 4 languages???

You do not have to speak your native language - but if you want your child to speak a language they have learned from you fluently and well, you need to be pretty fluent yourself.

I am mother tongue English but my son grew up with me and his (French) father speaking exclusively French. OK, so it took some effort on my part (lots of researching of French nursery rhymes, books etc) but his first language was firmly French. We lived in the UK and he picked up English from his nursery which he started attending at 1 year old.

The vital part is - you have to be consistent. We had Japanese/Swedish friends (in the UK) who had a rule where (stay at home) Mum (Japanese) spoke Japanese to child and then when Daddy was there, they all switched to Swedish. He learnt English alongside my son in nursery. Others I have known have had a home language and an outside language. It seems not to matter how strange the division is - as long as it is consistent (and sort of makes sense) then it will work.

One thing to remember - the degree to which your child becomes a young teen and an adult speaking "fluently" all of these languages will depend on many factors - not the least the child's propensity to learn languages.

All children can learn more than one language from birth (I have read several times that 5 should be the limit) but "language in equals language out" and when you start having 5 languages, one (or more) will suffer because your child simply won't get the exposure it needs to be impeccably fluent.

But this begs the question - do they need to be impeccably fluent? Give me a young adult who can understand the languges of all its various family members and who is adept at the language of his host country without necessarily being perfect anyday over a monolingual, but perfectly spoken, contemporary. I guess all I am saying is that whilst we, as parents, from the outside, are inordinately proud of our multilingual offspring (son now speaks 4 languages fluently), some of their languages may always remain "secondary" languages, notwithstanding that their prowess in these languages is vastly superior to most other non native speakers.

Or in short, there are only so many hours in one day. Expect to be delightfully surprised, but do not expect miracles.

Find a system that works for you and go with it. And enjoy!
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Old 17.05.2012, 23:19
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Re: Multilingual problems - can baby learn 4 languages???

My friends' child speaks 5 languages: the mother is Bosnian, the father is French, German speaking city, parents speak English to each other, one set of grandparents speaks Arabic. Bosnian, French and English are stronger than the other two but that is changing with German school and she might need extra lessons in Arabic at some point. The parents practice one parent one language (and the one grandparent one language lol) and it is working out fine.

I think there is an an ebb and flow- of course for the first few years Bosnian was the strongest because the mother stayed home, but the kid gets older it is evening out. My nephew speaks four languages and it is the same way, my BIL and SIL were strict about people speaking mother tongues to him (I had to speak to him in English, language number 4!) and until he started school he spoke his parents' languages than anything but now the other two are catching up fine.

One thing I have noticed in my friends and inlaws is that kids dealing with a lot of languages seem to (but not always) speak later. Like they are waiting to talk until they know exactly what language to speak to whom, lol!

So based on my anecdotal experience, I wouldn't worry. So exciting!
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Old 17.05.2012, 23:39
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Re: Multilingual problems - can baby learn 4 languages???

I'll give you an exemple:

Today, at dinner time, my daughter wanted to have bread, so she asked me:

-Maman, je veux du pain, s'il vous plait.

Her dad was in the kitchen and I told her to ask daddy, she switched right away:

- baba ekmek, Lutfen!

If I ask her in turkish how many pieces of bread she wants, she will answer me in French. She associates French with mommy. While I don't talk to her in English, she still understand everything when I talk to her dad. If I tell him about someothing to get, like let's say, butter, she understands and she goes to pick it up. My Spanish teaching speaks to her only in Spanish and she understands everything.

We have to work hard to keep our language alive because she is surround by Spanish and Catalan and she has only me and my husband for French and Turkish.

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Old 18.05.2012, 06:13
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Re: Multilingual problems - can baby learn 4 languages???

I always said that my daughter and myself share pidgin. we tend to switch seamlessly from FR to IT to EN. She also speaks DE, and is able to speak each language in full.
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Old 18.05.2012, 08:11
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Re: Multilingual problems - can baby learn 4 languages???

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In some parts of the world where there is no single, dominant language this is not unusual in the slightest. A friend of mine from India spoke five languages before he went to school, and this was fairly common for his town.

I know a couple in a very similar situation to you (English as the only common language of the parents, living in Switzerland), and their children now speak four languages to various fluencies, especially thanks to visits from the grandparents. There are points early on where the vocabularies and grammars get a bit mixed up, but the brain has an amazing ability to separate these later on. Don't worry if at certain times one language seems to dominate the other - as long as you keep using the others in some way, the ability is still developing.

There's various competing theories on introducing new languages, the two main being "personal" (i.e. you always speak Swedish with the children, your partner Polish, but English to each other) or "situational" (you speak Swedish and Polish at home, but German/French on the street) - but neither is right or wrong, just go with what suits your circumstances.
Could not agree more!

I am a professional sailor (In SUI hehe!) and I have met many kids around the world who could speak several languages! They pick it up amazingly well. I would not be concerned about your situation at all.

Languages. The more the merrier.
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Old 18.05.2012, 09:06
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Re: Multilingual problems - can baby learn 4 languages???

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I would like some advice from people who've experienced the same problems as we are about to experience concerning bringing up multilingual kids. My partner and I are about to have our first kid. I am Swedish-speaking (although I am from Finland) and my partner is Polish. We don't speak each others languages, so our common language is English. When the baby is born I naturally want to speak Swedish to it, and my partner Polish. However, if we are ever about to speak all three of us together, it must of course be English. !
The biggest crime my parents ever committed was NOT speaking their native language to their children!

I could have grown up with three languages (mother tongue Mum, mother tongue Dad, and local language).... but I grew up only with one - the local language.
Consequently, I had to learn the other 2 languages as an adult, which is much much harder.
Whilst I now am quite proficient in the other 2 languages, and I work in both of them, it is not the same as being perfect, and having learnt as a child.

My strong advice: each parent should teach their own mother tongue to the child. the local lingo happens automatically when the child plays with friends or goes to kindergarten
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Old 18.05.2012, 11:43
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Re: Multilingual problems - can baby learn 4 languages???

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My strong advice: each parent should teach their own mother tongue to the child. the local lingo happens automatically when the child plays with friends or goes to kindergarten
I don't agree with that advice entirely. I think it's a huge case of "depends". My situation is that I have a 1.5 year old daughter. I'm English and my wife is Swiss. Initially I was the only one speaking English with my daughter, and everyone else was speaking Swiss German, and therefore her vocabulary was entirely Swiss German.

So my wife decided to speak English with her aswell. Now she is picking up more English, but still her main language is Swiss German. This is what we want for her.

So maybe it's best to see what works for your child and adapt as necessary, rather than try to apply rigid rules defined by experts.
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Old 18.05.2012, 12:19
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Re: Multilingual problems - can baby learn 4 languages???

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I don't agree with that advice entirely. I think it's a huge case of "depends". My situation is that I have a 1.5 year old daughter. I'm English and my wife is Swiss. Initially I was the only one speaking English with my daughter, and everyone else was speaking Swiss German, and therefore her vocabulary was entirely Swiss German.

So my wife decided to speak English with her aswell. Now she is picking up more English, but still her main language is Swiss German. This is what we want for her.

So maybe it's best to see what works for your child and adapt as necessary, rather than try to apply rigid rules defined by experts.
DanLF, I am guessing that your child was/is spending more hours a day with her mother than with you. In that case, one would expect that the Swiss/German would be stronger if that was what she was hearing. And yes, if the mother swapped to English, that would be giving more hours of the child listening to English so one could epect that would strengthen the language.

However, at only 1.5 years, I feel it was rather early to say that she was not learning English from you. As long as you were talking with her, reading with her etc, she would have been learning.

The suggestions made by others, have been based a lot on the correct use of grammar, and sometimes on a richness of language used. If a child is learning a language ONLY from someone who does not have a fluent grasp of it ( so not your situation) then vocab may be lower and grammar mistakes may become "fossilised."

This still doesn't necessarily mean that the language should not be spoken by the nonnative speaker - to agree with an earlier post, communicative language is more important than 100% correct language.

And yes, you are totally correct - that the language(s) used must be what works for an individual and for each set of family circumstances.

Personally, I am very envious of all these little guys who are growing up with the richness of two or more languages in their lives, however fluent they become in the end. It will never be a negative in their lives.
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Old 18.05.2012, 12:29
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Re: Multilingual problems - can baby learn 4 languages???

I haven't read all of the responses for this post, but I'm currently babysitting a young girl of 1 1/2 years. Since she was a baby she was spoken to in English, French, and Spanish. Her understanding of each language varies with the amount of time we've spent speaking each one to her. But she can understand them all (i.e. if we ask her "Where is your nose?" or to "Put down your doll" in either of the three languages, she will understand).

Language acquisition is remarkable and kids can very quickly separate them. She knows to expect English (sometimes French from me), French fro her dad, and Spanish from one set of grandparents.

I watched a TED talk that described that people can only be able to distinguish or say certain similar sounds up to a very young age. But they must be taught these sounds in person, not on tv or just orally. For instance, the L and R in japanese are very similar and non-native speakers can't hear the difference. Only babies who have heard these different sounds can distinguish them.

So I encourage you to speak to your child in all languages you wish. He/she will pick them all up and be able to separate each in time. It won't retard them. In fact, studies have shown that multi-lingual people have high IQs

Good luck!
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Old 18.05.2012, 12:40
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Re: Multilingual problems - can baby learn 4 languages???

I acquired 4 languages when I was a kid. 3 of these are from separate language families. Learned 2 at home, 2 at school. None of these could be strictly called my mother tongue. I don't have a mother tongue...Oh, I'm not an orphan.

Learned French in Canada and in France, still taking classes in Zurich in parallel with German.

Definitely not a problem for kids to grow up with 4-5 languages. More so when Western Europe only has 2 major language groups. Dutch and English are essentially the same language. Likewise for Spanish and Portuguese.
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Old 21.05.2012, 15:56
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Re: Multilingual problems - can baby learn 4 languages???

Hi, I am in a very similar situation to you. I am from a Polish background but lived in Australia for 25 years, therefore speak English also. My husband is Swiss (French speaking), we are expecting our first child in 9 days (!). Immediately after finding out I was pregnant my thoughts turned to languages.

I intend to speak Polish to my daughter, as I am forever grateful that I was given the opportunity to keep up my acquisition of the language throughout my adolescent years. My only concern is that my husband speaks broken English, but it is the only language that we communicate in as I am in the process of learning French - I don't want my daughter to pick up bad grammar or use of that language. I guess I may have to be more vigilant in correcting him when he makes a mistake . My husband intends to speak French to our daughter, many members of his family do not speak any other language so her exposure to that language will be quite prominent.

I have read a couple of good books on the subject of raising bilingual children which I though I'd recommend to you. I found these very helpful;

Bilingual by Choice -Raising kids in two (or more!) languages by Virginie Raguenaud.
Language Strategies for Bilingual Families - One parent one language approach by Suzanne Barron-Hauwaert.

The most important aspect of language acquisition for children (as I've learnt from reading these), is consistency and to make the process fun. The first book gives some great examples of fun activities you can do with you child using language. One thing is certain, children have an amazing ability to acquire different languages and the earlier they are exposed to the precess the better. It is a fact that they will usually start speaking a little later than single language children, but the difference is not that drastic nor will it inhibit their learning process in the future.

Good luck and most importantly have fun along the way!
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Old 21.05.2012, 16:06
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Re: Multilingual problems - can baby learn 4 languages???

So let me be the party pooper. I have come across a lot of young people who grew up in multilingual families and they "spoke three (four, whatever) languages". Fine. Only it turned out they didn't know one of them to an extent that would have enabled them an academic career. All languages taken together and using words from another language to fill in when words failed in one - yes. But none of the languages was actually mastered to be the one used in school or generally in education. PLUS language is not only words, it's concepts of the world. I would say anything more than two is bound to fail, even though the young ones catch up words fast and easily, they will lack the word pool needed later in life.
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Old 21.05.2012, 16:16
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Re: Multilingual problems - can baby learn 4 languages???

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I don't agree with that advice entirely. I think it's a huge case of "depends". My situation is that I have a 1.5 year old daughter. I'm English and my wife is Swiss. Initially I was the only one speaking English with my daughter, and everyone else was speaking Swiss German, and therefore her vocabulary was entirely Swiss German.

So my wife decided to speak English with her aswell. Now she is picking up more English, but still her main language is Swiss German. This is what we want for her.

So maybe it's best to see what works for your child and adapt as necessary, rather than try to apply rigid rules defined by experts.
Daughter born in Paris. Mother is French, I'm British. Used to talk just in French at home, but decided to try to get into habit of speaking English to OH just before daughter was born. As there was a very strong French influence, e.g.
- French grandparents
- French nursery
- French TV
...
we decided to make home as English as possible and this meant the OH "violating" the one language one parent "rule" as the OH would try to speak and encourage English at home when I was not there.

So I agree entirely with "maybe it's best to see what works for your child and adapt as necessary, rather than try to apply rigid rules defined by experts" in addition to quark's excellent first post.

HTH, and good luck
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Old 21.05.2012, 16:18
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Re: Multilingual problems - can baby learn 4 languages???

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So let me be the party pooper. I have come across a lot of young people who grew up in multilingual families and they "spoke three (four, whatever) languages". Fine. Only it turned out they didn't know one of them to an extent that would have enabled them an academic career. All languages taken together and using words from another language to fill in when words failed in one - yes. But none of the languages was actually mastered to be the one used in school or generally in education. PLUS language is not only words, it's concepts of the world. I would say anything more than two is bound to fail, even though the young ones catch up words fast and easily, they will lack the word pool needed later in life.
You are not being a party pooper at all. It was what I was trying to allude too (not very well!) in my answer. I often feel that children who are described as being "multilinigual" are far from it - I notice it particularly in English speaking children where the parent who does the caring (usually the mother) is not English speaking. Although the child speaks relatively well, it sounds as if the language is "rusty" and underused ... because it is.

As I said, don't forget that "language in equals language out" and your point is very well made. Your child may be able to speak many languages and very well, but not all to the same standard, and sometimes not to a standard that would permit them to compete with other mother tongue speakers. To the extent that that matters depends on what the child is trying to do with the language. If they are just trying to keep in touch with a certain branch and culture of their family, then rusty English (or whatever) is just fine. If they are attempting to take A Levels, it would put them at a certain disadvantage.
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