Dear Dr. Gupta,
I have a burning question. How many languages is too many? I ask because we are a trilingual family English/French/Spanish. We have decided on homeschooling this September with our two girls (two-and-a-half & turning five), in part to be able to up the time spent with Spanish, the minority language in our house, which has been falling by the wayside. But the families in our little homeschool coop we are creating may end up being more interested in Mandarin and here’s the thing. My eldest attended a bilingual English/Mandarin school for a year from ages two-and-a-half to three-and-a-half. In addition three of her closest friends are half or part Chinese and she even spends almost every other Saturday at her best friend’s house whose mum speaks Mandarin to her daughter. Finally there is a very good chance that after Bangkok, where we live now, we end up somewhere in China. And yet it seems crazy since right now as I am struggling to get enough time in Spanish but I also don’t want to miss an opportunity. I would still independently continue speaking French and get some additional outside support for French as well as Spanish but would I be crazy to join the Mandarin too?
Dear Multilingual Mama,
We do not know what is the maximum number of languages that a child can acquire in early childhood, but we do know that many children growing up in multilingual settings acquire three to six languages. Four is not too many.
Children will learn all the languages that they think they need to know. But they may refuse to use languages that they do not think are needed in the environment they are in.
Let’s look at Mandarin first. It’s likely that your children are in an environment that will foster the learning of Mandarin. Friends and playmates are the best teachers. The opportunity to acquire Mandarin is surely something to celebrate. Mandarin is a major language and it is also linguistically very different from English, French and Spanish. One of the big differences is that Mandarin, has lexical tone, which is easy to acquire in childhood and hard to learn in adulthood.
I understand that English, Spanish and French are all heritage languages in your family, and that you and your husband speak together in English. English is not going to be an issue. It is in the family and it will also be supported in school and in the international community of your social network. The languages that your children may or may not maintain are Spanish and French, and you seem to be most concerned about Spanish.
I understand that your husband speaks to the children mostly in Spanish and you speak to them in French. In most families children spend more time with their mother than with their father, so exposure to Spanish is probably lower than French. I think you already know that, if you want to keep up these two languages, you need to widen the children’s exposure. Do what you can to find other speakers of Spanish and French (especially ones with children). Skype relatives as much as possible. Have holidays in places where Spanish or French is spoken. Talk and social contexts will work better than lessons.
You may consider mixing some Spanish and French in with the English when the whole family is together. There is nothing wrong with code-mixing, and it will increase the necessity for the children to learn Spanish and French.
It may be that it is just not possible for the children to have enough social life in Spanish and/or French. Either or both of these languages could recede and other languages (English and Mandarin, probably) take over. Sometimes this just has to be accepted.
I don’t think I’m telling you anything you don’t already know. It sounds as though you are living in the kind of multilingual environments that will promote multilingualism in your children, but it is hard to tell at the moment what their best languages will be when they are older. Just go with the flow!