A: This is a tricky question to answer, because parents ask it for different reasons. Some parents ask this question because they have multiple languages in their family/community and are trying to formulate an effective language plan. Other parents ask this because they believe the “children are sponges” myth and want to try and pack in as many languages as possible. Here is a framework to come to your own decisions.
- Start with the languages that are a part of your nuclear family. The language(s) of mum and dad are of primary importance to your child. Even if you feel they are less useful, or less valuable, you should use these languages anyway. Choosing not to pass on a parent’s language is choosing to isolate a child from a part of their history and culture, and can have long-term effects on a child’s identity and life choices. So these are where we start.
- The language of the school and community. If you are lucky, these languages are one and the same, so it’s only adding in one language. If they are not one and the same then you need to make a 2a and 2b choice. Which should take precedence depends on how long you will live within the community, and why the community and school language are not the same. This is often the case for families living abroad temporarily, who choose for English-language schooling over community language schooling. You can read more about that decision making process in my last post Local Language vs. English Education.
- Other languages related to the family culture/history. Some families have very complex language situations, with multiple languages/dialects represented within the extended family. If there are grandparents who speak another language, or if you visit family who live somewhere where a language other than the mother’s/father’s languages are spoken, you may want to try and build some ability in this language as well
- “For fun” languages. If you’ve gotten this far and you still only have 1-2 languages to work on, you may decide to add in another by choosing immersion schooling, or through outside sources. Try and choose based on who you are and what your life is like rather than the global economy. If you love going to Italy every summer, Italian is more valuable (and more likely to develop well) than a language that has no connection to your life.
The bottom line is that yes, children have the ability to develop well in multiple languages. But each of those languages requires time (years of time), and commitment to providing extended, extensive, high-quality input to develop properly. Each additional language makes this harder to achieve with the hours we have in a day or a week. It’s better to focus on building the languages your child needs first, and adding in the ones you want later. Fragmented language development across four or five languages is not better for a child than solid, age-appropriate development in 2-3 necessary languages while they are young, with others added later.