How many languages can a child learn at the same time?
Thread poster: madak

madak  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 00:15
Swedish to English
+ ...
Jul 21, 2007

My son, 12 and starting year 8 after the summer holiday, and I have been informed that he, due to "his positive progress in MFL" has been "selected" to study German next year (and at the same time he is expected to continue Spanish which he only started learning about 10 months ago).

Much as I want my son to follow in his mum's footsteps and become a linguist, I am somewhat concerned about my son being asked to learn one more foreign language before he has a good grounding in the first one.

As child/youth in Sweden, I had about 3 years studying one language before being asked to add another one.

I feel that before starting to learn German, or any other language, my son should have a good knowledge of Spanish. His Spanish isn't bad, but he can still only produce one or two word answers to my Spanish colleagues.

My son's linguistic background:

Age 12, bilingual - Swedish + English. Born and brought up in the UK, but spent age 7-10 in Sweden (English speaking school). We usually speak Swedish at home, but all his schooling has been English.

I'm a bit concerned about adding another language to my son's repertoire this soon and would very much appreciate input from colleagues who teach foreign languages


Raquel Dominguez  Identity Verified
Local time: 21:15
English to Spanish
+ ...
More than enough Jul 22, 2007

[Madeleine MacRae Klintebo wrote:

My son, 12 and starting year 8 after the summer holiday, and I have been informed that he, due to "his positive progress in MFL" has been "selected" to study German next year (and at the same time he is expected to continue Spanish which he only started learning about 10 months ago].
Madeleine, I think you are right. Your child is doing well (congratulations!) but he is also struggling with a very different language for the first time. Being 12, he must be honing his vocabulary in his two languages, English and Swedish. It sounds like quite a job. What you say makes sense, he should have a better command of Spanish before tackling German. No matter how much German may ressemble English, it´s a tough language.
My background: Spanish is my native language, I learnt English as a child (starting around 9) and began French at 11. I began studying German as an adult, which perhaps accounts for my finding it so difficult.

[Edited at 2007-07-22 01:12]


Aurora Humarán (X)  Identity Verified
Local time: 21:15
English to Spanish
+ ...
Language acquisition Jul 22, 2007

I read that the most recent studies on language acquisition (mostly Chomky's) have determined that children can learn as many languages as you can imagine before 8. At 8, human beings set certain language parameters. For that reason, after 8 you can learn other languages, but: 1) you will not be able to learn them as easily/naturally 2) any process will take longer.

If I were you, I would try to read literature on language acquisition to help you understand the effect of a fourth language on a 12 year old.

Good luck!



Martin Wenzel
Local time: 01:15
English to German
+ ...
What are you worried about... Jul 22, 2007

Here is an example of what kids can do...

My friend Hans (German) is married to a lady from New Zealand. They have two kids, who grew up bilingually. At one stage in their lives they came to Morocco where the kids had to learn 3 more languages (French, Derischa (Moroccan dialect) and classical Arabic). After having lived here for nearly 7 years, the family has now moved back to Germany, because the parents believe that their kids will get better schooling there. I have witnessed that their kids are coping well in all 5 languages. As a matter of fact they are brilliant at school. I was worried when I learned that now they were going to take the Abitur in German, because I felt they weren't quite at the level they should be. I am sure they will catch up reasonably quickly...

There is always these linguistic theories and real life experience...

And even if a 100 linguistic professors came up with the same theory, that theory might not work for your kids...

I am constantly being told don't translate into English it's not your mother tongue, but then I have lived abroad longer than in my home country and I am exposed more to English and other foreign languages than I ever will be to German...

Here I am, 48 now, learning my 8th language, which is classical Arabic...So far it's been the most difficult language, and some people would tell me, you will never learn it...Yes I will...

I have tackled the local lingo (Derischa) in two years, and people are telling me, you are doing fine...

I am not sure what you are worried about. Another language at school is just another subject for your kids...


Sylvia Germroth Nordebo  Identity Verified
Local time: 01:15
Member (2006)
Swedish to German
+ ...
What does your son want? Jul 22, 2007

Dear Madelaine,

I think there is a difference between primary language learning (and your son has obviously two languages he learned as primary, English and Swedish) and secondary, for your son so far Spanish and - maybe - German.

When I went to school, I started with English in the 5th grade, Latin in 7th and French in the 9th, which makes two years until the next language came. It went fine, because I liked to learn languages and wanted to learn as many as I could in school. And I think that this is an important question for your son: does he want to learn another language now? Because if not I think I would leave him alone with another language. If yes, I don´t see a problem.

It might be a bit early to begin with another language so soon after having begun with a first one, but that does not have to so much to do with your son´s biography. It is rather the decision of the school to schedule languages like that.
When I think of my studying how language learning works, I think the risk of interferences (mixing up structures etc of languages) is a bit higher when you start with two languages nearly at the same time. But that goes over, and theoretically it is no problem.

But, I really think it depends on your son´s motivation. Ask him if he wants to, if he says yes (in a convincing way:-) give it a try.

Best regards
Sylvia (having taught a lot of German to pupils in the age between 12-16)


Marijke Singer  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 00:15
Dutch to English
+ ...
I think it all depends on your child Jul 22, 2007

Does he want to learn another language? If so, then the answer is easy. Let him. If he starts to have problems, you can always jump in. I am native in 3 languages and speak/can communicate in another 4 due to my background. I did French and German at school as well as Spanish and English. At home we only spoke Dutch. I started learning French and German at more or less the same time (at secondary). I'm not perfect in these languages but understand most of it and I can read it. My school provided all lessons in a mix of Spanish and English (from the age of 4). I can't remember finding it difficult. I just got on with it since there did not seem to be a choiceicon_smile.gif


Local time: 01:15
English to Spanish
+ ...
Lucky he is¡¡¡ Jul 22, 2007

Dearest Madeleine,
i understand you 100% because my son (age 2) listen Serbian from his father, Spanish (me) and Catalan in the day-care. We live in Barcelona and i was very worried because three languages -although Catalan and Spanish are similar- seemed to me too much. But the fact is he learned the three quite good, at least on a listening level. I think that the hardest is to master all three not only to "understand" or be able to follow a conversation. That´s why we are considering to move to other area of Spain to receive more Spanish language education at school but in your case it seems to me perfect¡¡¡ I also agree with one previous opinion: it will depend on your child, if he wants or find it as a challenge. Best regards,


Juliana Brown  Identity Verified
Local time: 19:15
Member (2007)
Spanish to English
+ ...
The more the merrier, unless Jul 22, 2007

you have seen that your son is struggling, in the sense that he is not a "language person", as indeed some people are not.
I tend towards the idea that once you have a couple of languages properly under your belt, all the rest are easier to pick up. That's how it worked with me anyhow (Hebrew, English and French from the start, then Latin, Spanish, Portuguese and a bit of Bosnian, which I would love to improve). I am fluent (truly, not just in my own mind) in 4 of these, and get on well with the others. Spanish, which is one of my everyday languages now at home, and which I work in and have taught in for years, I only learned at the age of 23, so why limit yourself?
Kids are only limited linguistically by our ideas of how much is "normal" for them. Many of our grandparents, or parents were raised speaking 4 languages as a matter of course, and no one ever questioned it.
My 2 girls (4 and almost 3) speak Hebrew and Spanish at home, English at school, and will begin French in the next 2 years, also at school. Give your son the benefit of the doubt- he's not going to be sent a translation test by an agency at his point!
Good luck!


Local time: 02:15
English to Tswana
+ ...
Your child is on a good track Jul 23, 2007

Children learn faster than us adults, as a matter of fact, my sister's son has been exposed to different languages at school at the age of 8. As you might be aware that in South Africa we have 11 official languages and our mother tongue is Tswana, and we relocated to the area which Xhosa is the area's language.

We then moved to Pretoria where people there speak Zulu and Sotho. I tell you now that the boy speaks all these languages fluently, and he learned these languages in class and on streets from friends.

Kind Regards


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