Ask Amma

Raising a multilingual baby

In How on 5 September 2012 at 10:17 pm
Since babies learn languages easily, I want to fill my home with languages.  My husband and I speak three languages, and I thought we could add one more, and find a friend to come over and speak a fifth one – probably Chinese since that is so important globally.  Do you think learning 5 languages will be too confusing?

  ~ expectant mother in Cambridge

Babies learn easily because they learn by doing.  They will learn language from someone who is speaking the language, over one who is teaching it.  After all, if it were useful, would it need to be taught?  Remember that babies also make up language from scratch as if no one had ever done it before, and this bushwhacking through the jungle of sound and sense is an adventure of a lifetime.  
If the baby’s environment comprises people using various languages then just as with any other interesting object, baby will pick them up and put them in her mouth.  Since English is everywhere, I would urge you to speak your other native language(s) at home.  
Little multilingual speakers seem to know which language is which.  My parents tell a story about me translating English for Telugu visitors, not realizing that they too were multilingual. 
In our family we spoke only Telugu when my daughter was young.  Once she learned to read, English leapt ahead.  Why?  Children’s books with simple words in large print, and computer fonts in all sizes were abundant in English but not in Telugu.  All that has changed today.  All the languages you speak can go with you when you enter the written world.

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