Will Three Languages Confuse a Young Child?

3 languages confuse a child

Dear Dr. Gupta,

I enjoyed reading some of your replies to people who asked for advice and am hoping you might be able to shed some light on our dilemma.

I grew up in Minnesota speaking only English from birth until age 13, when I took my first Spanish class in middle school, but had a chance to study in Ecuador for a year as an exchange student at age 17.  It was hard coming back to the U.S. since I had really embraced Latino culture– the importance of family and friends, deeper relationships, and living more in the present, instead of sacrificing the joy in the moment for potential gains in the future, which is how a lot of people live in this country.  Since then I have continued working on languages, becoming more fluent in Spanish, Portuguese and Italian, spending time abroad in many countries where those languages are spoken.  I got my college degree in linguistics and have worked as a medical interpreter for the last 17 years, while playing and singing music professionally in multiple languages, so speaking different languages is a way of life for me, and it is very enjoyable and lucrative too!

Here’s the tricky part: I am in a relationship with an Italian woman, and we have a 13-month-old boy together. She has been speaking to him in Italian since birth and I have been speaking to him in Spanish since he was seven months old, when I realized that I couldn’t really express myself as fully as I wanted to in Italian.  Over time though my partner has been getting more worried about me speaking Spanish with our son, and this is magnified by her monolingual Italian mother’s concern, who thinks our son will be confused with so many languages. In my studies I have seen that the societal language will always dominate the others and needs no reinforcement at home (also because it feels weird, now that I have been speaking Spanish with him consistently). There is more and more Spanish spoken in Minneapolis every year and many of my friends speak Spanish, so I am sure there will be other input in that language (hopefully over 25% of the time)

My belief is that our son will not get confused as long as there is consistency from each parent in each language, and my hope is that he will speak all 3 languages, even though I am not a native speaker (although many native Spanish speakers mistake me for an Argentine or Uruguayan, since I was fortunate enough to lose my American accent.

Even our couples therapist thinks we should wait until our son is two or three to introduce a third language, claiming that he can’t handle them all at the beginning, which was what she learned in her psychology degree.  I am guessing by her age that that was over 30 years ago, and feel like her viewpoint is outdated.  My partner doesn’t want to put our son in a Spanish immersion school later, since she feels it will pull the emphasis away from Italian, and our therapist wonders why I want to speak Spanish to our son when I am not Latino and feels I am therefore not justified to do that, unlike my partner, who was born and raised in Italy and therefore is justified in speaking Italian to our son.

We are also wondering which language to speak between the two of us, since she doesn’t speak Spanish. I feel like it should be Italian rather than English, to increase our son’s exposure to the minority language, but that takes discipline, since she is more accustomed to speaking English with me.

What do you think is the best way to proceed and is there any hard data you can offer to my partner to calm her fears (she is a scientist and argues that “a lot of the stuff on the internet is anecdotal”) and her mother’s.

Thank you so much for your time and insight – I hope to hear back from you soon!

~ Robert


Dear Robert,

As you will have seen from my other answers, I am a great believer in doing whatever seems natural. Having parents who speak many languages at a high level and enjoy speaking them puts your son in a strong position to learn languages with pleasure.  The main problem here seems to be your partner’s anxiety about you speaking Spanish with your son.

Your son will not confused even if there is NOT consistency. Children do not get confused by exposure to more than one language. Early research on bilingual children in the 1950s and 60s suggested that they did, but later research shows that children separate the languages from the beginning, even where the input is mixed. In many parts of the world that have longstanding multilingualism (such as India or Nigeria), it is common to mix languages, even in the same sentence. Even this doesn’t cause confusion.

I will tell you the reason that early studies suggested that children did not separate the languages until they were about four years old. Most children learn their different languages in different contexts. They therefore do not learn the same words in the same language. If they want to use a word that they know only in the other language, they usually just use that word in the hope that it will be understood. I am sure you have done this yourself. I know that when I am trying to speak Italian, and don’t know the word, I will try the French word with an added -o or -a (this once gave rise to a hilarious confusion involving eggs and grapes)!  Early researchers interpreted this resulting mixture of languages as meaning that the child confused the languages: later research shows that the child has always had the languages separated, but does not know the same words in both languages.

You are right to say that the societal language (English in this case) needs no support. All the evidence suggests that where there is a single strong societal language, it can be hard for parents to maintain other languages. The importance of Spanish in your community means that you have access to societal support for Spanish, and the importance of Italian in your partner’s family means that you should have plenty of support for Italian.

You ask what language you and your partner should speak between you. Presumably you have been speaking to each other in something for over two years! Don’t change. Speak whatever you want. Feel free to speak in a mixture of languages. Feel free to speak sometimes in one language and sometimes in another. Mixing languages is not wrong and will not confuse your child. It’s what people do all the time in multilingual societies, and your family is a small multilingual society. It’s your relationship, and your relationship with your son, that matters, not what languages you speak.

I can see that your wife might prefer your son to go to an Italian preschool, but is that available? I get the impression that your choice is between English and Spanish. Language is not the only thing that matters in choosing a school: you need a place that fits in with your ideas of child rearing, and location is a factor. But if we looked just at language, then I would say that sending your son to an English-only preschool would be more likely to move him away from both Italian and Spanish than would a Spanish immersion. If the choice is between Spanish and Italian, then I would tend to agree that Italian immersion would be better (all things being equal), especially given the outstanding history of liberal educational theories in Italy.

I do not know the source of the idea that languages should be added in stages, and introducing a language in the home at two or three is unlikely to succeed. And it isn’t necessary, as children do not get confused by multiple languages being used around them. I note that you have a couples therapist, so there must be some issues in your relationship that need to be sorted out. But there is no need for language use to be a part of it. Your use of Spanish does not threaten Italian in your family. You have an attachment to Spanish even though it was not your native culture: that’s fine. Your son is going to grow up with a mixed identity different from either of your own.

If you keep on doing what you are doing, your son has a good chance of being able to speak three languages as he grows up.

The best introduction to child language acquisition is Eve Clark’s book, FIRST LANGUAGE ACQUISITION. She has a section on bilingualism. You might also look at her website (http://web.stanford.edu/~eclark/). Read this in conjunction with a textbook on bilingualism. I would recommend Carol Myers-Scotton’s book: MULTIPLE VOICES (http://www.myers-scotton.com/). Both these books have reference to earlier studies and would give you plenty to follow up on. Another name to look out for is Fred Genesee (http://www.psych.mcgill.ca/faculty/genesee.html).

will 3 languages confuse my child-FB

Photo courtesy of flickr

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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.


  1. I come from Mumbai, India.

    My son speaks gujarati (language) at home because that is our mother tongue. He speaks Hindi in our aparment building because that is a common language in Mumbai.

    He learns and studies in English in school as a first language. He also learns French as a second language.

    That is four languages for you. And this is a common occurrence in this city.


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