“Children’s brains are like sponges – they learn languages with no effort.”
I often hear this from linguists and laypeople alike. It is taken for granted that children learn languages with ease. But why then do so many families find it hard to raise their child in two or more languages? And what does it take for a child to become multilingual?
The issue is that this statement is only partially true. It is true that children learn languages with ease. At the same time, it is important to acknowledge that languages are never learned without any effort, not even by children.
Language is a Survival Tool
Children acquire languages quickly because their young brains are highly plastic and prepared to acquire languages very early. The reason for this is that they need language to communicate with their caregivers. It is, in essence, their tool for survival.
Infants are able to distinguish between the sounds of the language they need and those they don’t need at a very early age. This procedure helps them concentrate on the former and ignore the latter to efficiently acquire the language they need.
However, children don’t learn languages just for the fun of it. Learning a language requires the child to get out of their comfort zone. They have to memorize new words and produce new sounds, and most importantly, they will not understand everything that is being said around them. So, in order to start speaking a new language, the child needs a reason, or something that will trigger their interest in using the language. For example, a child in Germany will speak Turkish with their grandmother if Turkish is the only language Grandma speaks. If Grandma also speaks German and nobody else speaks Turkish, the child will speak German with Grandma and ignore Turkish because they have no motivation to speak it.
In a nutshell, the acquisition of a language is the result of a child’s need and motivation to communicate. If you want your child to become multilingual, ensure they have a reason to learn more than one language.
Multilingual Language Learning in School
Young children acquire language easily in interaction because their language corresponds to their still underdeveloped mental skills. A toddler’s language is straight-forward as they only talk about their immediate context, use simple and short sentences, and repeat what they hear and what they know will help them achieve their goal. They start with individual words, then they build three-word-sentences before they produce longer sentences.
As children grow older, their mental skills increase, and their language skills increase accordingly. As a result, also second-language acquisition takes more of an effort (source). Acquiring a new language just from interacting with peers gets more difficult because older children speak in complex sentences about complex content, so catching up with them is more challenging. The most effective way for a child to learn a second language in school is when they use it as the language of instruction and peer interaction. This is true immersion.
When second-language learning happens in the classroom only, then the child’s competence in their first language is crucial. Research has shown that at a later stage, particularly in school contexts, language learners will learn a second language more successfully the more competent they are in their first language because they have a better understanding of grammatical structures. This is thus one among many reasons to invest in one’s first language.
Once a child speaks a language fluently, they will use it intuitively and continue to use it as long as the need persists. When the language is no longer needed, it will fade from their memory. Also this is efficient because another language or skill will fill that space in the child’s brain.
How to go about Multilingualism
Now, what can you do to foster your child’s multilingualism? There are two things: first, make it necessary for them to speak the target language. And second, give them the resources they need to learn.
Very often, the need for a second language arises naturally. My daughters speak three languages fluently: Spanish, German, and English. Why? Because they need them. They are being raised in Spanish and travel to Spanish-speaking countries, so Spanish is indispensable. German came along when they started school. And they picked up English, their third language, because I speak English with many people and they wanted to speak with them too. Today, they speak Spanish within the family, German with their peers and in school, and English in international contexts. Other languages may follow in the future, but that will be up to them.
So, if you have a heritage language in the family, ensure your child spends time in that language. Try to only speak your heritage language with your child. If possible, add more material, like books, songs, and movies, to the pool, but the primary input and motivation for your child to speak a language is personal interaction. Converse with your child in your language about everything under the sun.
The better you speak the target language yourself, the more competent your child can become. If at some point you find it easier to switch to the dominant language, your child will do the same. Encourage your child to talk because if a child feels that their language competence is cherished, they will work on it. If a language rather arouses negative feelings, or if a child gets criticized for the way they speak, they will stop speaking the language. My older daughter once stopped speaking German for a while after she had been criticized for speaking an unpopular dialect.
If you feel that your input at home is not enough, try to create more opportunities for them to use the language. Ideally, your child also spends time in your home country. Many Moroccan residents in Spain, for example, send their children to Morocco during the summer break for them to immerse themselves in Arabic. This works out well for them because they learn the language in its cultural context.
If the language you want your child to learn is not your own heritage language, then consider sending them to a playgroup, school, or sports camp in the target language. Because remember, children will speak a language when they have the motivation and resources to speak it. If that motivation is associated with positive feelings, positive results are guaranteed.
Remove the Pressure
And then again, a personal piece of advice: relax. Do not forget that language learning is outside most people’s comfort zone, and we cannot speak all languages like literature professors. It is totally normal for many multilingual children to become so-called semi-speakers in some languages. For example, they may have an acceptable repertoire for small talk but not for professional content in their heritage language, or they may be able to use a language to talk about their professional expertise while they struggle when talking about family issues. This is entirely normal.
Take pressure away. Languages open doors and perspectives, but they also become a burden when they trigger negative emotions. If you create an environment in which the child is motivated to learn a language and has the resources to do so successfully, their multilingual skills will flourish!