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Tuesday, October 16th, 2012

Are Four Languages Too Much?


Dear Dr. Gupta,


I am a very proud Hungarian mum of the greatest three-month old baby, Dominic, whose Dad is Albanian, but we live in Spain. However we communicate in English. As you can see there are four languages in Dominic’s life and I know that a kid’s brain is like a sponge but when is it too much? I speak to him in Hungarian, my husband in Albanian but we do talk with each other in English. Once preschool will start, Dominic will have to face Spanish as well and I started to become worried that it might be just too difficult… Do you think I should be worried? I am really looking forward to your answer!

Kind regards,




Dear Judit,


In places like Singapore it is not unusual for children to grow up with four languages. You won’t damage your baby, so in that sense you shouldn’t feel worried.


You don’t have to worry about Spanish and English at all: Spanish will certainly be developed without any problem as your baby gets out into the wider world and goes to preschool. As English is your family language, that is likely to be a strong language for him, and to stay in the picture, and English will also get reinforced when he learns it at school.


What you do have to realise, though, is that either Hungarian or Albanian, or even both, may not be acquired much by your son. He will certainly start using some words from both these languages, but he may at some point decide that English is all he needs in the home. Depending on which of you spends most time with him, he may learn very little of the language of the parent who he spends little time alone with. Most children spend more time with their mother than with their father, which would mean that Albanian is the language he is least likely to retain.


So I would say (as I always do) — keep on doing what comes naturally, and don’t worry. But be prepared that when he gets to be an opinionated two-year-old he may push you all in the direction of reducing the number of languages in the home. Holidays, visits from relatives (especially if there are cousins near his age) will all help support Hungarian and Albanian. I do not know whether there are communities of either Hungarian or Albanian speakers where you live (or not too far away). If there are, be sociable.


Dr. Gupta

© 2012 – 2013, Anthea Fraser Gupta. All rights reserved.

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Anthea Fraser Gupta is a sociolinguist with an interest in how children learn to talk. She was born into a monolingual environment in Middlesbrough, England, but enjoyed learning about languages from an early age. She gained a B.A. in English Linguistic Studies and Archaeology at the University of Newcastle, then went on to do an M.A. in Linguistics. She left Newcastle in 1975 to work in Singapore, where she encountered a society in which multilingualism is usual and expected. In Singapore nearly all children come to nursery school already able to speak 2 or 3 languages. While lecturing in the linguistics of English at the National University of Singapore, she did a doctoral degree at the University of York, looking at the language acquisition over two years of four Singaporean children who were growing up with four languages. In Singapore, she also married a man from a multilingual family from India. She returned to England in 1996 to the School of English at the University of Leeds, where she taught courses on both English language and bilingualism until her retirement in 2010. Anthea has had experience in a range of multilingual and multicultural societies and families. She has published books and articles on English, especially the language use of children in Singapore, and has also produced a novel for children set in Singapore. She is deeply interested in child development and believes that the most important thing in raising a child is to provide love and stimulation, regardless of what language or languages are learned.

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1 Comment
  1. CommentsJudit   |  Wednesday, 17 October 2012 at 1:42 am

    Dr Gupta,

    Thank you very much for your help! It has calmed me!:-) Yes, I understand that for the 2 languages (hunagrian and albanian) we will need to put some extra effort, especially if we want him to be able to write and read as well. Regarding this matter I am up for the challenge as I spend most of the time with him (exactly what you have mentioned as well), but from the albanian part we will see. It will actually all depend on Dominic what he wants-most certainly I do not want to push him to do something what he hates. Thank you very much for your opinion, it is well appriciated! Kind regards, Judit

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