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It's Okay—No, It's GREAT—to Talk to Your Babies in Two or Three Languages!

By Stacie N. Berdan | Published: March 5, 2019

I was having a conversation with a set of new parents recently and complimented both when I heard the father speaking to their six-month old bundle of joy in both English—their native tongues—and Arabic, a language he speaks by way of taking college classes, studying abroad and living in Egypt. Since I know that the child’s grandmother’s first language is Spanish—and a language both parents studied—I asked if they were speaking to him in Spanish as well.

A toddler examines her Language Villages passport.
Young children benefit from diverse
global experiences, like travel, global
foods, and hearing multiple languages.

I was taken aback when this smart, thoughtful young man told me that “No,” they’re not speaking to Gabriel in Spanish because they don’t want to confuse him or cause developmental delays, particularly in language acquisition. Both he and his wife are Middlebury College graduates, and words matter to them. I have been so impressed with their dedication to parenting, observing how committed they are to wanting to do what’s best for their child by exposing him early to broad and diverse experiences, homemade fresh foods, music and art, and traveling (have Baby Bjorn, will travel). They have also read all kinds of books and articles on parenting, but somewhere along the way the old adage against speaking multiple languages to one’s baby stuck.

Although I was heartened to hear that the myth had evolved from two languages to three (or more), I hastened to assure them that the belief was still a myth—and one that I and a host of teachers, academics and multi-lingual people have been actively trying to stamp out for years.

Although multilingual children develop their language skills differently from those learning only one language, bilingualism or multilingualism does not cause developmental delays or confusion.

Research shows that infants are born “pan-lingual,” i.e., with the ability to imprint and mimic the sounds of any language. By the time a baby is about 10 months old, she begins to narrow down the range of sounds to those she hears most often. The synapses in the brain that create pathways of meaning for those specific sounds strengthen, while the others atrophy.

To be sure, children learning multiple languages take in double the vocabulary, and sometimes they mix up languages using one word to fill in the blank for a word or phrase they don’t know in another language. It’s okay; they’ll learn the difference and, in fact, they may be better off because they have a word to use.

But this juggling is often misunderstood by monolingual daycare providers who tell parents of multilingual children that the child is “confused” or “silent, doesn’t speak.” This experience is common when a child starts at a new place where she speaks more than the one language being spoken in the play room. Don’t mistake this for confusion, though, because the multilingual child is usually taking things in, listening and following along—and will jump into the fray in short order.

A father reads a Norwegian picture book to his daughter.
Early childhood is a crucial window
for learners to be exposed to the sounds
of multiple languages.

I tell new parents not to give up because research shows that languages learned in the crucial window of early childhood are learned in a deep-rooted way that no later language-learning can match—and that that window begins to close as early as eight to ten months. Children who become bilingual or trilingual from birth learn naturally, absorbing the diction, grammar and cadences of the language without any academic exercises, all of which are linked indelibly to the stories, culture and lifestyle that language.

This can be observed in children who are brought up in multilingual families; they are at a significant advantage when it comes to learning multiple languages. When mom speaks one language with a child, dad another and a grandparent or caregiver a third, that child grows up with an incredible gift. The old myth that bilingualism holds back learning a primary language simply isn’t true. Instead, bilinguals appear to learn each of their two languages at a rate equal to that at which monolinguals learn only one. Any lapses which develop in learning two, three or more languages disappear by the time the child enters elementary school.

Consistent, regular early multi-language exposure is important for true multilingualism. If you’re interested in teaching your young child another language, here are some tips taken from Raising Global Children, to help you get started:

  • Have a loved one or caregiver speak to her in that language regularly;
  • Pronounce words clearly, and repeat, repeat, repeat;
  • Use statements about the here and now;
  • Use sight to complement sound;
  • Engage taste and touch in learning;
  • Use contrasts and opposites;
  • Reserve questions for vocabulary you are sure the child knows;
  • Read age-appropriate picture books;
  • Play age-appropriate games;
  • Try to find a play group of children;
  • Listen, dance and sing together to songs; and
  • Play with certain toys or puzzles.

Sounds like typical activities a parent does with a child to help them develop and grow, right? Exactly! Just do so in more than one language. And above all, have fun! If your child sees language learning as a chore, they won’t like it. Make language learning a magic key that opens a door to new worlds, not a punishment. Share things that are funny, silly and even outrageous in the language. Good luck and be sure to tell others!

About the Author

Stacie Nevadomski Berdan is a seasoned global executive and the mother of twins who spent two summers as villagers at El Lago del Bosque. She is the author of six books on the intersection of globalization and careers, including A Student Guide to Study Abroad (IIE 2013) and award-winning Raising Global Children (ACTFL 2013).

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