Raising a Little Polyglot

Before our daughter was born I started to look into literature on how to raise children in multilingual environment. In our house all kind of languages are spoken, but above all I wanted my daughter to be able to communicate with her grandparents who speak Russian (from my side) and Arabic (from my husband’s side). With my husband I speak English and we live in France. That gives four languages for our daughter to learn. Understanding difficulty of the task, I decided to pick up brains of the experts in the field. A quick search on Amazon showed that literature on multilingualism is not plentiful, most of the books, in fact, focus on bilingual families.

I ended up ordering Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa’s book. Having herself raised three children in a polyglot family, she gives very practical advices, which are backed up by interdisciplinary research covering linguistics, psychology, and neurology.

I found interesting her theory about “the windows of opportunity” —  timing with which a new language is introduced to a child. There are three of them:

1. Zero to nine months — during this period children acquire rather than learn language(s). Different languages are treated as a “single unit” and children learn to separate them only at a later stage.

2. Four to seven years — next window of opportunity starts only at the age of four because a child needs some time to solidify the knowledge of native language(s). Zero to three years is the time of greatest cognitive growth in human’s lifetime and there is simply not much space for learning yet another language. If you plan to introduce a new foreign language to your child, age of four is a good time to do it.

3. Eight years and older before age of 8 children don’t have their egos fully developed and take languages as a game. They don’t feel ashamed to say something wrong or mispronounce words. After the age of 8, however, children learn languages just as adults do.

The author also discusses the role of aptitude for languages, motivation, strategy, consistency, language environment and multilingual brain. I found it fascinating that when a child acquires the language (first window of opportunity) a different part of brain is involved compared to when he or she consciously learns the language.

On strategy, she argues that consistency is the most important factor. In other words if you speak English to your child don’t switch to French every now and then. She also advises to follow “one parent, one language rule”.

This is just a short sneak peek into the book, which is really great for us polyglots raising children.

Image:  ©2016 Peachtree Alley