Multilingual Children Can Learn Languages Effortlessly

by Corey · 10 comments

multilingual child, trilingual child, bilingual child

As we have been hearing about for many years from renowned researchers, the benefits of bilingualism abound. Even as far back as the early days of Multilingual Living Magazine, we published one article after another showing why multilingualism is the best way to go (we even discussed Prof. Bialystok’s research on Alzheimer’s patients long before it was hot in the media!).

But the truth is, there are many things that we do in our lives that benefit us and our brains. Multilingualism is just one of them. The most important way to keep our brains healthy is to focus on staying curious, inquisitive, motivated, inspired and using our heads in creative ways each and every day. A child who is cared for by loving, motivated parents will thrive, no matter the number of languages he or she speaks.

However, multilingualism will certainly help!

Why Start Young?

I think the most important reason to raise a child multilingually from birth is because it is a gift of effortless language acquisition. Children who are raised in more than one language don’t have to experience the trials and tribulations that we face later in life when trying to pick up another language. Young children don’t even know that they are learning more than one language. They simply mimic what they hear around them.

One, two, three languages or more are rarely a problem for young children. They use the words and sentences that they hear from us – it is easy, fun and the most natural thing in the world! 

For parents of multilingual children, the process may not be so effortless.

Parents may not speak each other’s languages. The community or family members may be discouraging of multilingualism. Resources may be hard to come by.

But parents can find a way to make it happen (check out posts on this website as well as Multilingual Living Magazine for more information)!  They need to remember that it is a once-in-a-lifetime gift that should not be wasted.

Start as early as you can! The earlier you start, the less your children will even notice that they are learning more than one language. And even if your children are older, then start now, right now. Make it fun and exciting and inviting.

Every little bit of language exposure has power and influence. Don’t wait for your children to learn a language in school (even if you are planning on sending your children to a dual language school). What you do at home will always have a more lasting and meaningful impact.

Growing Up Multilingually – Effortlessly!

For those of you who have been longtime readers of Multilingual Living, you will know Prof. Jean-Marc Dewaele and his lovely trilingual daughter Livia. We published an article by Prof. Dewaele about Livia’s trilingual adventure (originally in Multilingual Living Magazine), an interview about Livia when she was even younger and then an interview about his own multilingual life.

We are delighted to share the following video featuring Prof. Jean-Marc Dewaele and Livia as they discuss the differences between growing up multilingually vs learning a language in adulthood.

Livia became trilingual without feeling the effort of language learning, yet adding a fourth language (and even learning karate) is something that has taken more a more directed effort on her part. Learning Spanish doesn’t come effortlessly like French, Dutch and English did!

As Prof. Dewaele reminds us in this video, the key to children learning a language effortlessly is to offer it to them as part of their daily lives. Language learning will be taking place but it will be just another part of life. No pain needed.

But remember: don’t expect miracles! Contrary to what many say, children are not sponges who just hear a word once and know it by heart. Instead, they need language to be available to them as often as possible and in as many contexts as possible.

This is how children learn languages. And this is what will make all the difference!

Do you have children who grew up multilingually? What do they say about what it was like growing up with more than one language? Have they tried learning another language later in life? What did they say about it?

Corey Heller is the founder of Multilingual Living and the Editor-In-Chief/Publisher of Multilingual Living Magazine. Multilingual Living is the place where she shares her knowledge about raising multilingual and multicultural children. Corey, an American, and her German husband live in Seattle where they raise and homeschool their three children, ages 15, 14 and 12, in German and English.

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Natalie June 6, 2012 at 3:58 am

I want my 2 year old son to be exposed to Spanish, but I am the only person in his life that speaks it and I speak it poorly (it’s a second language learned as an adult). I sometimes speak a little around him, at which point he says, “No, mommy.” I am so envious of families who have a natural multilingual environment. Being an ESOL teacher gives me even more of a desire to give my son the gift of bilingualism from an early age. By the way, my elementary English learners start showing signs of home language loss so soon after entering school. So sad, but I do what I can to encourage parents to maintain that language.


2 Brian Barker June 6, 2012 at 6:02 am

Apparently the teaching of Esperanto, the international language, as an apprentice language, has shown that it has great propaedeutic values.

Details can be seen at


3 Charles June 6, 2012 at 2:16 pm

I have always wanted to be a linguist when I was a child but I guess it’s a but too late. What difference is there when a child learns a different language than that of an adult? Thank you very much for sharing this information



4 Ben June 8, 2012 at 5:08 am

As a multi lingual person (English, Spanish, Portuguese & Hebrew) I can’t not agree with you more! but I find it difficult to pas it to my children because my spouse is not multi lingual, so it sound strange to me to talk with my children in other languages that my spouse can’t understand.
Can you offer me an advice in this matter please?

Thank you in advance,



5 Sarita May 16, 2013 at 2:59 pm

My husband’s English is terrible, he doesn’t really understand much when I speak to my son, but I just do it regardless and my son is fully bilingual as a result (I am English and we live in Spain). Any communication you can have with your children in your chosen second language will be of benefit to them. Read their bedtime stories in the language, watch TV in your language… It shouldn’t matter whether your spouse doesn’t speak the other language. Good luck!


6 Sarita May 16, 2013 at 3:19 pm

I realise I wasn’t very clear in my reply, when we are together as a family speaking all together we speak Spanish, but when Papá isn’t in the room we speak English together. It’s never been a problem.


7 Jeffrey Nelson June 19, 2013 at 10:14 am

I am luckily married to a person who is bilingual in my same languages. That makes it easier for us in our marriage, however our extended families don’t speak the other respective language; my parents don’t speak Spanish, her’s don’t speak English. Therefore, when we are all together, it’s a little weird but we just make it work. So many roadblocks exist on the path to bilingualism that you can only deal with the really important ones!

Keep up the good work and do what’s best for your family… language is important, but the actual unity of the family is moreso.

I would speak to your son in Spanish as much as you want. It isn’t going to “hurt him.” Play games, go out, find other Spanish speakers and force him to interact with them (in a loving, go-learn-the-language type of way). Just give him opportunities to need it, learn it, and be proud of using it. It will help take care of itself. It’s not an all or nothing proposition; there is a middle ground. Teach him 10 words, 20 words, or one sentence. Tell him Spanish exists. Whatever it is, teach him something and he will be better for it!

Jeffrey Nelson


8 Mauricio November 23, 2013 at 2:18 pm

I am a Colombian, my wife is French, and our 4 year old son was born in England, where we live. Since his birth (and even before..) I have spoken only in Spanish to hifirst My wife only speaks in French to him. Obviously because we live in England, my son is embedded in the English lifestyle and language. He has been to nursery since he was 6 months old, and now he goes to school, where he talks all the time in English.
He speaks the three languages as native on each of them! Certainly he puts some English words when he speaks in French or Spanish, but that’s usually because it’s the di time he has heard them. When we repeat the word in French or Spanish he “corrects” it, and that’s it, one more word that gets added to his little super dictionary..
We rarely hear him say sentences in English at home, even though with my wife we speak English to each other…
For him the normal thing to do is to switch languages constantly…..
The only opportunity to hear him say things in English at home is when he plays with his imaginary friends, I guess practicing what he has learnt that day at school.
The funny bit is that if we try to say or read something to him in English he gets abbotedaa he prefers us to stick to our own native language!


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