When Is a Child Ready to Learn a Third Language?

by expert · 3 comments

Dear Madalena,

I’m from the US and I live in Chile with my husband who is Chilean.  I speak English with our son who just turned three and my husband speaks Spanish with him (we speak Spanish between the two of us).

We want to put our son in a German-speaking playgroup, but the speech therapists (fonoaudiologos) here tell us he’s not ready.  We are not sure that this assessment is accurate since they tested him only in Spanish.

When can we introduce a third language to our son?  Do you know of anyone who can help us here in Chile?

Many thanks,
Leah

Dear Leah,

The answer to your question about when children should be introduced to a new language is: when that language is needed. Languages are there to be used, and using them means having a need for them. Acquiring languages has nothing to do with timing and all to do with necessity. Your son will learn German, or any other language, whenever he finds it useful to learn it, just like he’s found it useful to learn both English and Spanish. Acquiring his new language through peers, in a playgroup, is certainly a powerful motivation.

You say that your son is being seen by speech therapists, but you don’t say why. I was also curious about the statement that you son is “not ready”. There is a belief that new languages should be introduced when one language is “in place”, to use a popular expression, but I am not sure what being “ready” for a new language in this sense might mean, for two reasons. First, language acquisition in fact goes on throughout the whole of one’s life; and second, many children, like your son, acquire several languages at the same time, not just one.

Testing one of the languages of a multilingual and assuming that doing so gives an accurate picture of multilingual language ability is another common belief that finds no support in what we know about multilingualism. You may want to have a look at my discussion of these matters in a recent guest post for ASHA (American Speech-Language-Hearing-Association), at http://blog.asha.org/2010/12/16/multilingual-typicality-vs-speech-language-disorder/.

Unfortunately, I have no answer to your last question, about getting help where you live. Whether you mean clinical help, in case your son has a clinical diagnosis, or you mean help nurturing his languages, the Multilingual Living website might be the perfect place to look for assistance from other mixed families like yours living in Chile.

Do feel free to contact me privately, if you wish to discuss these matters in greater detail.

Madalena

Madalena Cruz-Ferreira, PhD, University of Manchester, UK, is a multilingual parent, educator and scholar, and the author of Multilinguals are...?, a book on myths and misconceptions about multilingualism. Her blog Being Multilingual deals with multilingualism at home, in school and in clinic. Her contact, and details on her work, are at: beingmultilingual.com. You can also find a long list of her Ask An Expert answers in Multilingual Living Magazine.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Lyndsey May 21, 2013 at 1:49 pm

I was excited to read this as I have been asking myself this very same question for a while now! The only problem is this didn’t actually help…..Unlike Leah, my son is 5 and a half and goes to a Portuguese (Brazilian) school, his society language is Portugese and we speak only English in the home. Our son have been asking consistently for quite a while now for him to learn spanish…..I was concerned in the beginning about him not being able to read and write in either language yet (He’s started this in both languages but …) And I really didn’t want to put him in private classes, as I am an English teacher myself and I believe that younger children learn better in groups of children their own age. The city I live in, in Brazil, doesn’t offer that many options with regards to other languages, except English as a second language, and I am finding it difficult to find a school/language centre that takes on children as young in Spanish. I am excited by the fact that my son is “in love” with languages (I quite often find him watching youtube videos in various other languages or switching the language on a DVD to one that he doesn’t know) BUT in a world where bi/multilingualism isn’t very well understood I am starting to wonder if I am doing the right thing encouraging a third language until he is older.

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2 Tina May 22, 2013 at 4:55 am

Thank you, thank you, thank you for this post and especially your answer Madalena! We are a danish family currently living in Switzerland, and we are going through very similar issues with our son. He will be 5 in august, after more than 2 years going to a german speaking daycare 3 days a week, he still doesn’t speak german. His danish is also miserably behind, I took him for an assesment with a local (swiss) speech therapist and suddenly, I hear her suggesting that we need to consider which language is most important for him and we should consider putting him in a special school for kids (monolingual) with severe language disorders…….. (Sprachheilschule) That was very unexpected and overwhelming news. He does have a language in both danish and english, though, the vocabulary is very limited and he will use the few german words he knows. However, it is not our believe that he needs a specialized school. So here I am like you Leah, desperate for a second opinion. He will start school in August. It´s a bilingual school english-german, hopefully they will have the tools to give him the little “push” or should I say, motivation he needs. We have lived abroad for many years, our sons were both born in Belgium. Our little girl was born here in Switzerland. I don´t know were we live in 5 years. For our children danish, english and german are equally important, choosing one language over the other is simply NOT an option.

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3 Lola May 23, 2013 at 7:00 pm

We live in the U.S. and are a multilingual family (parents and grandparents included.)

My son speaks Spanish with me (mother) and Serbian with his father. One day per week, he attends a two-hour class at a preschool where they use English. We go to French classes once per week. His grandfather speaks Hungarian only to him. He’s not even three, but FLUENTLY speaks both mother’s and father’s languages. He sings and talks to himself in English.

Follow your gut feeling, and do what YOU value as a parent. You have time on your side insofar as language learning.

My personal concern is maintaining all of the languages at home once he goes to Kindergarten and starts socializing in English. :)

Oh and the other challenge-deciding which other language we want to introduce!

Best of luck! I love hearing everyone’s stories.

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