How many languages are too many?


Have you ever wondered how many languages a child can learn at once or if there is a ‘window’ of opportunity?

Can it ever be “too late” to learn another language?

Can we learn multiple languages at any time?

And what are the cognitive benefits of learning more than one language?


You can find some answers in an interview with research psychologists and a language teacher about how kids acquire second, third or fourth languages and how it helps to feel even more strived to bring up multilingual children.

We don’t need to hear more reasons in favour of bringing up children with multiple languages.

There is no reason to doubt or to fear that it could confuse or overwhelm children. 


1) When should a child begin to “learn” or acquire a second/third etc. language?

This question hasn’t been asked in the interview which in 2024 is, alas, no longer available, but Laura-Ann Pettitto (Professor at the University of Toronto) points out that in early years, when children are still in the acquiring phase of the first language, they will use the same brain tissue for all the other languages they are exposed to. – This has been confirmed by many studies since.

If children are exposed to languages later in life, it seems that different parts of the brain are involved (3:00 sq) because “the part of the brain that is responsible for processing language is on a maturational timetable and we know very clearly what that timetable is, when the periods are most sensitive” (4:00).

Interestingly, this is not the case for all the parts of language. Some parts “remain open for life, like vocabulary and there are other parts of language, which are on a maturational timetable. Our brain reaches a stable processing capacity and then stops because it’s achieved it’s stable state” (4:20). – Now, it’s quite hard to determine when this happens because the different parts of language are affected differently by maturation.

What is important to know is that early exposure is ideal for good phonological competence and good syntactic competence (4:44). – I am always sceptic when someone says "good" or "native" language competence. It is not clear what is meant with that.

Young children have the advantage to articulate sounds easier because of their palate not being hardened yet, but they do need several years to be able to articulate more complex sounds because of the motor skills of their apparato fonatorio, the coordiation of their mouth, lips, tongue, air etc.  

Peter Gazzellone, teacher at the Ryerson Community School, presents the Integrated language program at his school. This program offers Arabic, Mandarin, Spanish and African heritage language lessons.

“The students get to choose from one of these languages and it’s usually the language that they speak at home” (5:29). The children also learn French (from grade 4) and then from kindergarten up to grade 8 all the children at school learn another language. – In Europe we have several immersion programs and know that this program benefits the children.

We all know that the task of acquiring a language later in life, when we’ve already acquired our first language (and learned it at school) is a different, much harder task.


2) Can adults learn new languages as “good” as children?

There is a very clear answer: yes, they can.

If adults want to make it possible and have the time for it, they will succeed.

Ellen Bialystock, Professor at the University of York, points out that “children are given the opportunity to learn languages in a way that supports every part of this very difficult task (…) everyone they interact with interacts with them for the purpose of helping them learn language”.

If adults had this opportunity and would “quit [their] job for five years, use a mentor who will speak to [them] at exactly the level [they] need (…) [they] will be very successful” (2:00 ssq).

Life, usually doesn’t give us that chance and “the main difference about learning languages as a child and as an adult is life“.

If adults want to learn a language, total immersion and the passion to learn it are the most important premisses to succeed.

Ellen Bialystock suggestion is meant for people who want to learn a new language “at home”, who don’t have the opportunity to learn it in loco.

But if we have to learn the language because we move to the country, it’s more probable that we will attain a very good fluency in a very short time due to our full immersion.

If total immersion is not possible, there are many other possibilities to create a monolingual exposure in the target language in real life or online etc. 


3) How much exposure?

There have been published many articles about the quantity of time someone should talk a language – or more than one – per day. For many years, parents were told that 20% of waking time is what we should aim for if we want our children to acquire and learn our language.

But the amount of exposure per day or week depends on our  language goals, our capacities to support our languages. Do we want our children to be able to understand and speak the language, or also to read and write? How much time can we invest? Who else can help us with this?

Laura-Ann Petitto points out that “systematical exposure is more important than the amount of time of the exposure. The human brain doesn’t work on quantity but on quality. Therefore, regular systematic exposure “with stable users across different contexts which are rich and varied” is what will help children reach fluency.

This means that immersion exposure at school only is not enough to become utterly fluent. It has to be enriched by “cultural material, linguistic material, movies etc” also outside the context at school.


4) Do all children have the same ability?

This is like with everything in life: some are more prone to learn languages, others are better in other sectors. Ellen Bialystock points out that “what our minds are prepared to do is make everybody a competent speaker of a language that is in the environment without additional effort” (11.00 ssq.). And to answer the question: “some [children or adults!] will find this fun and exciting and some will find it more effortful”.


5) Will children always have one dominant language?

We all know that there are differences even among multilingual siblings about their language preferences. And Laura-Ann Petitto confirms that “children have preferences for languages and the preferences are set by various things outside of our biology” (12:45 sq).

It depends on the language their friends, their family are speaking. Children are also very economic in their language choice.

About the concept of economy:  "a tenet or tendency shared by all living organisms – may be referred to as “the principle of least effort”, which consists in tending towards the minimum amount of effort that is necessary to achieve the maximum result, so that nothing is wasted.” cfr. Alessandra Vicentini, Università di Milano, The Economy Principle in Language. Notes and Observations from Early Modern English Grammars).

If children know that their parents understand all the languages they’re supposed to speak, they will probably prefer one of the dominant languages in their social context (the host country, school etc.), using the “minimum amount of effort to achieve the maximum result”.

The human biology enables us to extract patterns from one and the other language and to compare and fit them, but language acquisition is more about the need to speak this language.


6) Do multilinguals know less vocabulary than monolinguals?

Don’t worry about the vocabulary children have in one of the languages they are acquiring. Multilingual children seem to be “behind” their monolingual peers, but when we add all the words they understand and use in all their languages, they usually are at the same level if not above the norm. "We know from many studies that a multilingual child knows at least as many words and probably more and at least as many concepts and probably more as monolinguals". (15:20 ssq). – And we should never forget that these are all averages!

If you look at the distribution of the data, “most children are in the normal part of the curve where it could go either way. The bilingual could have a higher English (or other language) vocabulary than the monolingual” (15:50).

If you take the vocabulary tests that are used to assess vocabulary – and the interesting part is, that they’re usually given out only in one language! – “and you divide the words up into words they are likely to encounter at home and words they are likely to encounter at school there is no difference!” (16:20 ssq).

There is definitely no academic risk or compromise to the main purpose for learning many languages (from an early stage on!).

Two final, very encouraging quotes for every multilingual from Laura-Ann Petitto:

The human vocabulary stays open to work for life.

The brain is not biologically set to learn only one language.


Please watch the interview I had with Prof. Ellen Bialystok in our series Raising Multilinguals LIVE on youtube:


Posted in Blog, Family Language Planning, Heritage Language Maintenance, Language Development, Language learning, Maintaining Multiple Languages, Multilingual, Multilingual Families, Multilingual Parenting Tips, Raising Multilinguals, Research and Insights on Multilingualism, Terminology and tagged , , , , .

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