From Bilingual to Multilingual

Dear LearnNow,

At what age is it appropriate for a bilingual child to begin learning a third language? Are there advantages or disadvantages to multilingualism?

Thank you,
Multilingual Mom

Dear Mom,

With knowledge of multiple languages becoming a prerequisite for success in an increasingly global world, your question is timely.

A growing body of research points to the facility of the brain in learning—and mentally organizing and differentiating between—languages. Some studies, like those by Mike Vitevich at the University of Kansas, suggest that the sound of a word provides enough information to figure out the language being spoken.

Meanwhile, it is well established in neuroscience that young children’s brains undergo rapid development that make learning during certain critical periods easier. As neuroscientist Richard Huganir, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins University, notes: “Children’s brains from very early on are making connections to sounds, words and meaning. So we know, for example, that children learn languages much better between the ages of one to five.”

LearnNow asked scientist, leading expert and LearnNow founding member Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Ph.D., director of the Infant Language Laboratory at Temple University, for her view on when it might be best developmentally to introduce a new language. Here’s what Dr. Hirsh-Pasek advises:

The answer to that question is a bit complicated, as there are not many studies on children learning three languages. What we are starting to learn is that learning more than one language is really the norm around the world. In fact, two-thirds of children around the world are bilingual.

Learning more than one language is a serious advantage for children in that they have better ‘executive function skills,’ which means they are better in attention, inhibition and control than children learning only one language.

Recent research also suggests that while children tend to learn vocabulary in each language a little more slowly, the combined vocabulary is the same as that seen for children learning one language.

So, in the end, learning more than one language is a really good thing. While it is difficult to directly answer the question about three languages, I imagine that, as with other language development, earlier is better.

In the words of Dr. Vitevitch: “Parents who speak different languages should not worry that their children will be confused or somehow harmed by learning two languages.” Multilingualism is, in fact, a real boon.

Learn More

The Bilingual Advantage: An Interview with Ellen Bialystok,” by Claudia Dreifus, The New York Times, May 2011

Bilingual Minds,” Psychological Science in the Public Interest, by Bialystok, Fergus, Craik, Green and Gollan, December 2009

Kansas University Researcher Mike Vitevitch: Bilingualism No Big Deal for the Brain,” KU Life Span Institute