Petit Bibi talking to baby Adi

How to raise a multilingual baby

Petit Bibi is more than two years old now, and he’s starting to speak in the languages we teach him. That is French, Spanish, German and a bit of English. So here’s a little article to let you know how it’s going.

Before we even start, it might be a good idea to bring up some facts about the world, this being an article in English and all: Most of the world’s citizens are bilingual, a sizable fraction of them having more than one mother tongue (the others just having a second language). Need examples? Well, to start with, most countries have more than one official language. And not just ex European colonies like Nigeria that hosts 350 languages (not all of them official, mind you). Switzerland, Belgium, Spain… Several official languages. China, India… Same same. And you might be more familiar with places like Canada or the UK.

So you see, marriages between parents that don’t have the same mother tongue is not that uncommon around the world. And, unless the parents decide to suppress a language (don’t do that!) the resulting children are likely to have both languages as their mother tongues, plus eventually an extra one that the parents might use to communicate between each other. A pretty common combination in India where two people that don’t share a mother tongue will typically converse in English.

So the process of raising multilingual kids is a tried and true, night-of-the-age practice.

The advantages of raising a multilingual baby

Teaching a baby two languages (bilingual baby) or more (multilingual) have a pretty clear advantage: the baby will grow up knowing two or more languages. Goes without saying, right? I guess I said it anyways… Nevermind, let’s switch to listing the drawbacks. So you know what you’re getting yourself into:

The drawbacks of raising a multilingual baby

Let me think harder…

OK, let’s start with what people told us the drawbacks were, I guess.

  • He’ll speak later.

This one we didn’t mind so much. I mean, even if he stayed mute for 6 months longer than other kids, that’s a very acceptable trade-off for having a whole bunch of mother-tongues, right? But, as it turned out, Petit Bibi started speaking well within the averages. Granted, he might have been precocious if we had stuck to one language. But he’s learning 4 languages at once, see. If each additional languages delayed speech, we’d have noticed something, right? So this one has to be bogus.

  • He’ll mix languages.

This one was another trade-off I was totally expecting and thought was worth it. But it didn’t actually happen… much. Obviously when we’re in the middle of talking French and he wants to tell me about something he only knows in Spanish, he’ll uses the Spanish word. But he knows he’s using the wrong language. After I tell him the French word, he starts using that. I have no idea how he does this. Total mystery-magic to me, but it works.

  • He won’t be good at any.

At the daycare, the workers are pretty impressed by his German level. Get this: he hears no German at home. His only source of German is the playground and the daycare. It’s quite likely that the effect is reversed here. That teaching more languages might make him better at each. That statement is totally not scientific, but it works for him. More data needed! Send it our way.

  • It will confuse his little brain and the cerebral matter will leak out of his ears.

Some people really want multiligualism to be bad…

Didn’t happen so far. Will keep you posted.

The method: One person, one language

We gathered our method from parents of successful multilingual children. They don’t know each other, but they seem to all have come to the same conclusion: one person, one language.

That’s pretty cool when you’re a multicultural couple. Each speaks his own language to the kid. In our case, I’m native in French, Cranky is in Spanish. So I always speak to Petit Bibi in French, and Cranky always speaks to Petit Bibi in Spanish. We threw English in the lot as the language we always use with each other, so Petit Bibi can hear us speaking it.

When a friend asks us which language they should speak with Petit Bibi, we tell them: “Doesn’t matter. Pick one and stick to it.” If the friend is fluent in an exotic language we usually ask them to speak that with Petit Bibi. Why? Well because of the spectrum field of course.

The spectrum field

(I just made up that term. It sounds so cool!)

Every language has a certain set of sounds. Thousands and thousands of them. Most sounds that the human mouth can make are in every language. I dare you to find one that doesn’t have the sound “a” (in “lalala”). But some sounds exist only in some languages. If you don’t get to hear them a lot in your childhood, your brain will just lose the ability of recognizing them. And when, one day, you try to say something that includes one of those forgotten sounds, well… good luck. You can’t even hear it! As a French native, I’m struggling so bad to differentiate “I ate” and “I hate”. Which leads to hilarious misunderstandings. And I bet you can’t say “Au revoir” correctly. (Try in the comments!)

By exposing a baby to lots of sounds that don’t necessarily exist in their language(s), it’ll make it easier for them to hear and speak more foreign languages when they’re grown up. Or so goes the theory. In any case, it can’t hurt.

How many languages is too many?

Well, we’re hard at work trying to crack this one. We hired a Russian babysitter for a few month. She wasn’t even babysitting. I was there in the background for all the baby tasks. Her job was to play with Petit Bibi and speak in Russian the whole time. That’s probably not enough for him to start speaking Russian, but we figure if he wants to learn a slavic language later, he’ll be able to hear it better. The daycare he’s in is a Chinese daycare. They have language assistants that are native Chinese speakers and that basically hang out there all day and speak Chinese to the kids. That, one the other hand, might be enough that he picks up the language. Fingers crossed, that’d make him native in five languages. Let’s see who can top that!

But we know one thing for sure already: three-and-a-half languages is not too many. Yeah, his English is a bit behind. We’re not worried. It’s a language that’s easy to practice.

—— 4 YEAR OLD UPDATE ——

Petit Bibi spent six months in Mexico when he was 3, and then we moved to Berlin, which is an American colony. The lack of German input is starting to show. We now consider him fully native in French, Spanish and English, with just a pretty fluent German. Still no brain matter leaking out of his ears.

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Petit Bibi

Petit Bibi

I started this trip when I was 5 month old. By the time it ends, I'll have spent more than half my life on the road.

3 thoughts on “How to raise a multilingual baby”

  1. Hi Julien,
    As a confirmed TBB fan, I ordered his book when a prompt appeared online. i think I paid about $6.00. But they did not ask for my mailing address.
    ?
    Love,
    maud in Los Gatos

    1. That’s because it’s an ebook! And for good reason, with all the video content in it. Would be a pain to fit on printed paper. Let me know if that’s a problem.

  2. Great article. I was not very good at sticking to one language with Petit Bibi as my reflex was to speak to him in the language he was last using in front of me. As for the “spectrum field”, I’d call it “phoneme spectrum”, as the processes you are referring to are called phoneme learning and phoneme discrimination.

    Typo — > That, on the other hand

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