Still Trilingual at Sixteen (Almost Quadrilingual!)

by contributor · 51 comments

Still Trilingual at Sixteen (Almost Quadrilingual!)

Livia Dewaele is still balancing gracefully among her three (almost four) languages


By Livia Dewaele

Being trilingual from birth definitely has advantages, I thought, as I received my results (A*) for my French IGCSE, sat two years early. My entire class at Palmers Green High School (London) is in agreement – they have all at one point told me and the other native French speaker in the class that they wished their parents had spoken French to them as a young child (French being the compulsory language at GCSE). I agree with them, of course.  I’m not the only multilingual, four other girls combine English with Chinese, Turkish, Gujurati and Spanish.

Multilingualism is not just handy at school. Travelling last week on the Eurostar, my dad, who is a diabetic, had a hypoglycemia (a blood sugar low), and fell into a coma as we were going through security at the Bruxelles midi terminal. Since it was just the two of us travelling together, I was the one who had to explain first to the Eurostar staff, then to the paramedics, and finally to the hospital staff what had happened. The thought struck me while there how lucky I was to be able to communicate with them properly, in French and Flemish. Obviously there is very little chance of this happening to anyone else, but in an emergency it is always a huge advantage to be able to communicate fluently, no matter where one is.

When asked if my multilingualism does not somehow have a negative effect on me, I answer (forgive me for lack of modesty) that I have consistently achieved top grades in both French and English at school, attaining the highest mark in the year in my English GCSE exam last year. Psychologically, of course, some might argue that speaking three languages is affecting my mental balance and I may someday become a psychopathic killer. Not to worry,  I have always been happy, and it seems to me, at least, that I don’t have any mental problems, or any issues in fact. If I did, I highly doubt they would spring from my multilingualism.

It frequently amazes people that I speak three languages,  but to me it is not special, definitely not an achievement. If anything, it is my parents’ achievement, for making sure I always spoke in French/Dutch to them, and stuck to the one parent/one language rule. If not properly enforced, I would have lost the ability to speak either or both of the two, especially as I became most proficient in English. This is the case in my two younger cousins who live in Brussels – they have lost their confidence in French, due to overwhelmingly hearing Flemish at school, at after school activities and from their mother. It seems a shame.

I have my end of course Spanish exams in three weeks, and I’m studying hard. A fourth language, yes, but it does not feel like that. This is the first time I have actually had to make an effort to learn a language, and I’ve come to appreciate the difficulty of learning a language later in life. That said, I definitely have an advantage in that Spanish is similar to French, making it very easy to understand what is written and said – or it would be if they didn’t all speak so fast!

So I encourage all parents to speak their native language to their child, and if it’s not English, even better!


To learn more about Livia’s trilingualism and her multilingual father, Prof. Jean-Marc Dewaele, check out the following posts:

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{ 49 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Stephanie April 29, 2013 at 3:48 am

Hi, I find this very interesting. I am French and my husband English. My son is 3 and I have been speakng French to him since he was born but find myself at weekends or out and about speaking Enligh to him so people around know what I am saying. I read books in French to him, I show him French cartoons.
Did your parents spoke French to you – only – and never English or a mix of both? It’s very hard to knowwhat to do as he my only child and I have no one around me with tht experience.

Merci d’avance pour votre reponse.


2 Jenny May 1, 2013 at 4:39 am

Hi Stephanie,
Good for you! I’ve raised four bilingual children and have encountered all of the situations in which people tell you not to speak the ‘foreign’ language to your child. Don’t listen to them! Stick to the OPOL rule and it will pay off in so many ways. Try to resist the temptation to speak English when other people are around, as your son may get the message that French shouldn’t be used then. Make sure the other people know you’re not talking about them, and make sure your son knows that it’s not appropriate to talk about other people in front of them in another language, but keep speaking French to him. Switch languages when you talk to the other people so he learns that using different languages is completely normal. One of my kids went through a period (about age 6 – 10) when he didn’t want me to speak our foreign language in front of his friends because it embarrassed him. Now, some years later, those same friends tell us they thought it was ‘cool’ when he spoke another language. Remember, these pre-school years are crucial. Establish the language and your bond. At some point soon he may start spontaneously translating things (dog is chien) and realizing that language is a game. Make sure you offer the language in many ways (songs, video, reading aloud, other people, Skype?). Good luck – and have fun! And thank you, Livia, for a really nice article!


3 Livia Dewaele May 2, 2013 at 2:50 pm

I undertand the situation, I think. It’s always difficult when there are people around who won’t understand what you’re saying. My dad always speaks French to me when there are other people around and he is not speaking directly to them, which can startle them at first, but they soon come to find it normal. We speak French to each other, that’s just the way it is. However, of course, when talking to others who will not understand, it is unavoidable to speak English. I think that as long as you and your son always speak to each other individually in French, it should be fine. (Although my dad will probably be able to tell you that more scientifically).
My dad speaks French to me, my mum speaks Dutch, although they are lenient when we are talking about something that happened at school, which would be difficult to translate. This stopped me from being resentful at having to speak a certain language, I think.
Very long-winded, apologies, hope you find it helpful!


4 Fiona April 29, 2013 at 7:44 am

Yes, this is really interesting – we hear so much from parents and hardly anything for our children. Were there moments that you wanted to rebel? Did you ever just want to be ‘normal’? How did you avoid the pull of just speaking English, like your cousins with Dutch?

Perhaps we should have more from the kids’ point of view on here!!


5 Livia Dewaele May 2, 2013 at 2:54 pm

Rebel? No, not really. I think it is just so natural to speak French/Dutch to my parents, speaking English to them would feel wrong. I think it alo helped that although English is my dominant language, we never (rarely) spoke English at home, which helped me avoid speaking English. The main problem with my cousins is that they are not confident enough in French, and do not get enough input in both languages.


6 Andrew April 29, 2013 at 8:46 am

Great write-up, Livia, and I agree. It amazes me that there are still people who think raising a child multilingual is a bad idea, I just can’t fathom that sort of ignorance. Good on your parents for doing it, and doing it right.

You should find Spanish very easy since you already speak another romance language.

Can you expand a bit on the “one parent one language rule”? How exactly does that work?



7 Livia Dewaele May 3, 2013 at 9:15 am

Thank you! I agree, I do have an advantage in Spanish, although sometimes my Spanish is ‘too French!’. The one parent one language rule is where one parent speaks only one language with the child e.g my mum only speaks Dutch to me. I’m sure a bit of looking around on here will give you more information about the practical applications – I’ve only ever been on the receiving end, so am unsure of what it would be like for a parent.


8 Andrew May 5, 2013 at 3:55 pm

Ah ok, thank you Livia.



9 Parker April 30, 2013 at 12:40 am

Great article. You share a name with my daughter, as well as her trilingual experience. I was wondering about if you have any experience with the clash of cultural mindsets that is present in each language. Belgium is an interesting case study in this. How have you reconciled these differences in yourself?


10 Livia Dewaele May 3, 2013 at 9:27 am

What a coincidence! How old is your daughter? About the clash of cultural mindsets – they haven’t been too dramatic. My parents find it hard to understand my penchant for chocolate digestive biscuits and marmite, my friends don’t understand why I don’t drink tea with milk and sugar. As to bigger issues – I don’t know how much is my personality and the way I’ve been brought up, and how much is due to different cultures. This may also be because culturally there are not as many differences between Belgium and England as there are between, say, Saudi Arabia and England.
That said, I was shocked at how forthright people in Belgium can be, which I was not used to. In that way I’m definitely English, I think!


11 Marek May 1, 2013 at 3:34 pm

It is so much easier for children to learn multiple languages the younger they are. I don’t see how it can be a hindrance for them to be multilingual, as you yourself have proven.


12 Livia Dewaele May 3, 2013 at 9:29 am

I completely agree – as long as there is sufficient, sustained input.
Let’s spread the word!


13 Jeffrey Nelson June 19, 2013 at 10:19 am

This is great. It’s refreshing to see a young person so involved and interested in their own multilingual upbringing. I hope my child is as interested in languages and proud of his multicultural heritage! Now, I just need to get him a third language… my German isn’t the best!

Congrats to you!


14 Ana Paula G. Mumy May 1, 2013 at 8:16 pm

Livia – great article! I so appreciate that you gave your parents credit for your current proficiency because as a child, you would not have “chosen” this – it was instilled, promoted, and encouraged in you by wise parents who were dedicated and consistent. The take-home point here for parents is that children will adapt to the expectations set for them.

Stephanie – the temptation to speak the community language will always be there, but this is how I reconcile not doing it, even in public – I will not sacrifice my children’s ability to maintain their minority language to satisfy or appease the monolinguals around me. In order not to be rude or insensitive, what I do is just speak to my children in our language (Portuguese) and then translate to the monolingual person(s) around if I feel the need to. Even when my kids speak to me in English (this tendency fluctuates), I ALWAYS respond in Portuguese.

In reference to the possibility of feeling “abnormal” as a bilingual or multilingual person, that’s an interesting concept because globally, bilingualism is more the norm, not the exception.

Andrew – the one parent one language (OPOL) method basically means that each parent or caregiver consistently speaks only one language to the child. In my case, I only speak in Portuguese to them, my husband only in English to them (he throws in a few Portuguese words/expressions he’s picked up every now and then), but because Portuguese is the minority language, I also attempt to give them other opportunities to be around Portuguese-speaking individuals by arranging playgroups, talking to family members via Skype, etc. For long-term results, children must feel the “need” for their minority language in their daily environment.


15 Livia Dewaele May 3, 2013 at 9:39 am

Credit should go exclusively to them, you are absolutely right. You seem to be doing a good job. Good luck!


16 Catherine Caldwell-Harris May 2, 2013 at 5:06 am

What an inspiring essay! I enjoyed the links back to early essays about Livia, also. Livia, what career directions interest you?


17 Livia Dewaele May 3, 2013 at 9:38 am

Thank you very much! At the moment, I’m not sure. I’d like to study Psychology at university, maybe, and after that I’m not sure. Maybe become a journalist, or something. We’ll see 🙂


18 Livia Dewaele May 3, 2013 at 9:33 am

Credit should go exclusively to them, you are absolutely right. You seem to be doing a good job. Good luck!


19 Craig May 5, 2013 at 9:56 pm


You can’t speak Austraaaalian but.

Well done, great article.


20 Gemma May 7, 2013 at 3:21 pm

after all the articles written by your dad (my ex-professor at Birkbeck), I am pleased to read your article. I have always been curious to listen to the other side of multilingual raising. My daughters are now 3 and 4 and a half and are becoming quadrilingual. We’ve been using the OPOL method with them since they were born. I speak Italian to them, my husband speaks Japanese to them, we used to live in England (my second one was born there, while my first one was born in Italy) and my husband and I have always spoken in English to each other, even if we do understand and speak each other’s languages. My daughters at the moment speak in Italian to each other, always, in any country they are. Half a year ago, we moved from England to Germany and my daughters have been attending a German nursery for 4 months now and a Japanese Saturday nursery for a month.
My eldest daughter is so much into languages that she keeps saying she’d like to learn all the languages of the world and recently asked us to teach her how to count in Spanish and in Chinese and she’s learned it! Out of her own interest she has already learned to read and write in Japanese (at 4 and a half!)
I am in touch with many parents raising bilingual children, but only a few are raising them trilingually and nobody I know is raising their children quadrilingually, so it’s always nice to hear about stories like yours and to see that other families are having a similar experience to ours.
I am really looking forward to see how my children’s quadrilingualism will develop, since our quadrilingual experience has only just started.
I am sorry to hear about what happened to your dad and I hope he’s feeling better now. My greetings to him.


21 Martina May 27, 2013 at 12:10 pm

Hi Gemma,
nice to hear of your 4-lingual experience!
I have 2 sons (2,5 and 4 years old), and they are beginning their cuadrilingual journey (I speak Slovak, my husband Czech, we live in Argentina and they go to a bilingual Spanish-English school).
I am happy to see how natural it is for them to speak the three (4) languages! Actually the older one could not understand how it was possible that an Australian friend who visited us once could not speak other language than English!

Would love to hear more about your experience!


22 Sana June 18, 2013 at 12:58 pm

Wow i am so pleased to finally find people in a similar situation to ours;
I am French-Moroccan, married to Americain and living in Spain. For now i speak arabic to our little boy, his dad speaks english to him, and everybody else interacts with him in spanish. The thing is that we would like to send him to a french school next year, so we are thinking about what would be the best way to do it: should I start introducing french at home so he does not get totally lost when he goes to school? what about later, would his level at school be good even if we don’t use the language at all at home?
I would like to have your input on the subject,
Thanks and once again congrats on the achievement!


23 Ana Paula G. Mumy June 20, 2013 at 8:23 pm

Sana – Could you clarify the reason for sending him to a French school? Usually the more competencies a person has in addition to speaking (i.e. reading, writing), the more internally relevant that language becomes, so you might consider literacy in one or more of the languages he already has (Spanish, English, Arabic). The immersion component of the school environment will be more than enough for him to pick up French when the need for that language arises. If you do introduce French at home and he does go to a French school with French-speaking peers, you will likely see a preference for French and probably less use of Arabic/English/Spanish. So as you consider the introduction of French, it depends on what your goals are and whether or not he needs that language in order to function in his everyday environment or to communicate with French-speaking relatives, for example.


24 David February 17, 2014 at 11:03 am

Hi Gemma,
We are raising our children quadrilingually (actually the little one is just 20 days old but we are getting there). My older son is going on 5 and he is a star. I must admit I was a little worried when we started out with all these languages but thanks to this blog, and to supportive comments we stuck to OPOL and the results are truly amazing. Our son speaks very good Basque, Spanish, English and Italian. He did not even start talking late but quite the opposite. He is a bit of a chatter box in all four languages. I find it amazing… The reason I am writing though is because he has started to read and write and whereas Basque, Italian and Spanish are similar languages (phonetically speaking), English is quite different and I was wondering if you or anyone could give us some tips, share your experiece or suggest some literature on learning how to write/read different languages at the same time.
I’d be interested to know how Livia got round to learning hers… if she found it difficult when it came down to writing or reading.

Thanks for your help.


25 Robin May 9, 2013 at 9:43 am

Very interesting post. I was brought up bilingual – born in the UK, both parents German. My parents in fact didn’t teach me English (they were worried I would speak with a German accent), I learnt that from a next door neighbour. Although I don’t really remember it, before I started school I would only speak German inside the house, and only English outside.

After I started school I would only ever speak English with my parents and that’s true to this day – many years later. They speak in German and I answer in English, must sound weird to an outsider but it works fine for us.

In my 20s I lived in Germany for a year. I could understand pretty much everything, but found it difficult to put long sentences together. No doubt that was a result if my not speaking German in the home from the age of about 5 onwards. So I guess the moral of the story is that if you’re going to bring up your kids in a multilingual environment, it’s not enough to speak a “foreign” language with them, you also have to get them to reply in that language.


26 Kasia June 12, 2013 at 6:29 am

Thanks Robin,

That really helps. I was just wondering if just speaking will be enough…. tough road ahead 😉 Thanks


27 Marta May 10, 2013 at 2:26 pm

Thanks Livia for your article, it is amazing to see the perspective of a child as opposed to a parent, as most blogs I read about multilinguism are written by parents or researchers.
I wanted to ask you if your parents also taught you to write and read in French and Dutch, or this is something you learnt at school? if your parents taught you, did they do that at the same time you were learning to write and read in English or at a later stage? Did you find it confusing?


28 Wber May 11, 2013 at 11:11 pm

Hey Livia, great article. I liked how you said that it was no big deal about speaking French/Flemish to your parents. ( Out of curiosity, why is it called Flemish?). I think that anyone who wants to raise a multilingual child should keep that in mind. Each language should be seen as a positive as equals, not one being better than the other. Always positive feedback.I’m kinda envious of you. I mean 3 languages. Wow. I wonder though how your reading/writing skills are in your main languages? Mine is practically non-existent (for now)


29 Jeanne @soultravelers3 May 13, 2013 at 8:50 am

Good for you Livia!!

My American 12 year old is also trilingual/triliterate ( Mandarin,Spanish, English) soon to be guadrilingual ( adding French). Alas, her parents are monolinguals, so it has been a stretch ( we travel the world to do it) but absolutely worth it.

She just won the Mandarin Elocution contest at her big Chinese high school in Asia ( first time a Caucasian has got that trophy in the 63 year history of the school)!!

We so agree with you!!


30 Isabel May 23, 2013 at 4:05 am

Hello! I have a question and I was wondering if anybody could help.
I am 6 1/2 month pregnant, my husband is French, I am form Argentina and we are living in England. We both speak the 3 languages and of course we want our child to speak them too, not only because it will be extremely useful in life, but out of necessity as well as my husband’s family speaks only French and in my family only my mum and brother speak English. So without this ability he will not be able to speak to anybody but 2 in his family.
My question is how to do it.
We are buying bilingual toys and we are getting family to get us books and CDs from our respective countries so as to read to the baby and toys for him to play, that way he will get familiar and I think that will help.
Our plan is that each one will speak only their own language to the baby, so far so good. The issue that my husband and I only speak in English to each other, so I am a bit confused as to what language to speak when we are with our child. Also my mum is coming from Argentina to stay with me and help for 2 month, with her I only speak Spanish, but I still speak only in English with my husband, even if the 3 of us are talking together, I switch languages all the time.
So what language should we speak to each other when we are with the baby?

Thanks for anyone who could help me out and any ideas would be appreciate it!



31 Ana Paula G. Mumy May 24, 2013 at 5:41 pm

Isabel – the general rule of thumb is that parents should speak to their children in the language they know/speak best since that is the language where you can provide quality models of language input, and it’s normally the language of bonding and affection. As far as the language you speak with your husband and others, there’s really nothing you need to change, continue doing what you normally do, in other words, whatever is natural between you. Just keep consistent the language of interaction between you and the child. For example, I only speak in Portuguese with my children, but my American husband doesn’t speak much Portuguese (understands some), so even if my children are present, I still speak to him in English, but if in that conversation I address the children, I revert right back to Portuguese with them. As early as 22-24 months of age, my daughter understood language differentiation, that I speak Portuguese to some while not others; or even further, she would address me in Portuguese, then turn to her English-speaking grandmother, for example, and repeat the same thing in English.


32 Tamara July 31, 2013 at 8:41 pm

First of all, it is very encouraging to read this post by a young lady who has grown up trilingual as we have stated raising our son with three languages.

Ana Paula, thank you for sharing your experience. We are in a similar situation living in the USA while my native language is German and my husband’s is Spanish. I am fluent in all three languages and my husband is trying to pick up German. We use the OPOL approach for our 8-month old son but are also confused about what language to use to communicate with each other. Should I mainly speak Spanish to him to provide more exposure to one of his heritage languages? I suppose he will be exposed to English automatically.
Our plan is to find German and Spanish speaking play groups so that he will be further exposed to his heritage languages. I would love to find a German-English school and then we would look for a Spanish speaking sports team (i.e. if he is interested in sports). We want to make it as much fun and as natural as possible.


33 Ana Paula G. Mumy August 1, 2013 at 1:20 am

Tamara – generally I recommend that each parent should speak to their child the language they know and speak best, or the language they are most comfortable and confident speaking for a variety of purposes (i.e., talking, playing, teaching, correcting, etc). If you’re wanting both German and Spanish to be strong languages for your son, I would say each of you should speak your native language and find opportunities for plenty of engagement in both languages so that the need for both languages is ever present in your child’s life (e.g. playgroups, outings, cultural festivals, family trips, etc.). This is especially true since you’re living in a primarily monolingual culture. Since you’re living in the U.S., don’t concern yourself one bit about his English language learning because it will come easily since you’ll not have to “create” need for it.

I discuss this and much more in my new easy-to-read parent guide entitled “Practical Bilingualism: A Concise and Simple Guide for Parents Raising Bilingual Children” – available at It is full of practical ideas, tips, and encouragement for the bilingual (or multilingual) journey! You can read the introduction and view the table of contents at the above address.


34 Lola May 23, 2013 at 7:11 pm

I love that you said it was the first time you actually had to “learn” a new language when you first were learning Spanish. I had never thought of it that way. My son is being raised trilingual at home and takes French on the weekends…so quadringual. He’s not even three yet. 🙂

I was raised in a quadringual home, but one parent didn’t speak the two languages to me consistently, so as a result I’m “only” bilingual. But boy it would’ve been nice to “just know” those languages and be challenged by a fifth!

Thanks for sharing your story. Very, very inspiring.


35 Chris May 24, 2013 at 1:36 pm

I can barely count myself bilingual! I couldn’t even imagine being (almost) quadrilingual! I do agree, though, that if the parents know more than one language, then they should share that with their children. Knowing more than one language is essential nowadays, and starting their learning off at home is a great way to help them learn!


36 Joe Mitchell June 5, 2013 at 11:35 pm

Congratulations on being (almost) quadrilingual. Becoming only bilingual takes such a big effort for most people. It’s quite interesting that you have learned languages in both ways – from birth and again later in life. I can only imagine that the more languages you already know the easier it is to learn new ones.

How anyone could argue that multilingualism could possibly affect someone’s mental balance is beyond me. Comments and ideas like that I’m sure only come from people who speak just the one language and that language only!

Cool photo at the top of the page by the way 🙂



37 Kasia June 12, 2013 at 6:24 am

Hi Livia,

Great to hear about your success. I am one of those anxious parents trying to teach my kids 3 languages as well.
We live in Australia so naturally there are no problems with English. Recently we’ve signed our daughter up in a French immersion school with 80% of subjects being in French. She seams to be coping well so far and thinks speaking French is funny (especially when she pretends and pronounces English words with a French accent). I love it that she thinks its so much fun. However, she started rebelling her Polish (yes, only 5 and already an attitude). So here comes my question.
I speak only Polish to her, but she responds in English. I just wonder how much should I force her (if at all) to respond in Polish. Is it very important or will she benefit enough from just hearing it? Not sure if forcing does more damage than benefit? I would really appreciate your point of view.


38 Ana Paula G. Mumy June 12, 2013 at 1:12 pm

Kasia – since communication is about engaging and connecting with people, I would not encourage forcing certain language use.

What I do with my 4-year-old who also tends to respond in English because we’re in a predominantly English environment is give lots of verbal encouragement for when she does use our native language (Portuguese). I’ll very excitedly say in Portuguese, “I LOVE it when you speak Portuguese with mommy!” or “I’m SOOO proud of you, you spoke in Portuguese with mommy!” Now that she’s older and understands, sometimes I also will say in Portuguese, “Can you say that for mommy (or ask that) in Portuguese?” She usually can very well…she just forgets or the “default” is English unconsciously. Sometimes I’ll jokingly say in Portuguese, “What did you say?…mommy is forgetting English!” or “Let’s pretend mommy doesn’t speak English.” I also communicate with Portuguese-speaking relatives via Skype, so I’ll tell her at times, if you don’t speak in Portuguese with mommy, you’ll forget your words and you won’t be able to talk to so-and-so (grandparents, aunts/uncles, etc)…she LOVES our Skype interactions so this is a motivator for her. Anyway, I would encourage you to find ways to encourage language use without demanding or punishment.

Also, it’s easy to give in and start responding in English as well (I have to catch myself!), so fight back the urge and continue speaking in Polish even if she is addressing you in English. 🙂


39 Jeffrey Nelson June 19, 2013 at 10:27 am

This is a great reply. I second this!



40 Kasia June 13, 2013 at 3:06 am

True that 😉 Thanks a lot. I will research more about positive encouragement. Last thing I would want is for her to associate my mother tongue (and me in a way to) with chores and something she doesn’t like. We didn’t have that problem before she started school. I didn’t think it would be that hard.
Thanks again. I feel almost silly for asking. Now when I read your response it seems so obvious.


41 Julien June 18, 2013 at 3:39 am

Hey Livia!

It’s nice of you to share your experiences of growing up in a trilingual household, and this article is of great interest for a language fanatic like myself, because I rarely find anyone who’s bilingual at birth, let alone trilingual! For someone who wished that he was born in a bilingual family just to have enhanced linguistic abilities, you have no idea how much I envy you!

As for me, I’m a quadrilingual speaker who can use Chinese, French, English and Spanish fluently. However, I was born and raised in a monolingual Chinese household with both parents speaking only Chinese, so I had to actively learn all the three languages .

It would be an extremely tough task amazing accomplishment if I was raised elsewhere, but I was fortunate enough to be raised in Montreal, a bilingual city in Canada with more than half of the people speaking both French and English.

In Montreal, French is generally the main language of teaching, but English courses are also mandatory for every single grade, all the way until university, and most English courses give out grades penalty if we speak French in an English class (a friend of mine got 15 points deducted from his final grade because he spoke French in an English class 15 times in one semester). Moreover, I was lucky enough that 3 years of Spanish was mandatory in my high school, which allowed me to get a good hang of basics in Spanish. After I finished high school, I took an extra year intense Spanish courses, which promoted me from a trilingual to a fluent quadrilingual speaker.

However, I spent 11 years in a French institution and 4 years in an English institutions, along with the fact that Montreal is a bilingual town, I received a lot of exposure from both English and French throughout my life here, so the work I have to do in order to achieve native-like fluency is quite small. It would be different if I was raised somewhere else, and that’s why I really love Montreal. As result, the only language I had to actively work for to even reach a functional level is Spanish, just like you.

If it’s your first time “actively working” to learn language, I can tell you this; learning a new language takes some patience, dedication and time. But if you’re determined to learn it, all you have to do is to be patient, put some efforts in it and you will eventually prevail. It might sound hard at first, but really, if you’re really interested in learning a new language, patience and dedication from your part is all it takes.

I wasn’t raised in a multilingual household, I did not have any Spanish friends, nor any decent amount of exposure to Spanish outside of the classroom. As result, I spent an average of 15 hours per week practicing Spanish during my entire time learning it, reading short stories/articles, reviewing the vocabulary learned, listening to Spanish songs and visiting Spanish forums to create enough exposure to the language for myself. It was a killer, and doing it on a weekly basis for an entire year was really exhausting, but it was all worth it at the very end. I plan to learn Japanese as my fifth language to become pentalingual, but I probably won’t go that far because I do have quite a few Japanese friends.

If you don’t have enough exposure to Spanish, try to create opportunities for you to be exposed to the language (although you might not need to go as far as me, because 15 hours/week for an entire year is way too tiring). With time and perseverance, you will succeed, and your linguistic capacities are without doubt, optional, so I’m positive you will have Spanish nailed down before you know it!

Good luck on pursuing your goal of becoming quadrilingual!

P.S: I’m a psychology student in university who studies psychology of language, and I can assure you, knowing many languages do not lead to any sort mental imbalance. In fact, my professor, an university researcher in the field of psychology of language states that multilingual people generally have enhanced executive functions across life span, owing it to the fact that when we use one of the languages that we have mastered, we inhibit the cognitive functions involving other languages (in simple word, we block “our other language systems” when we use one of them).


42 Nicole July 31, 2013 at 2:57 pm

I grew up German / English bilingual in the US and now am raising two boys (7 and 9 yrs) bilingual German / English in Germany. Some definite takeaways from mistakes my parents made with me include always, always insisting that the boys respond in the minority language which in this case is English. I always, always speak English to the boys in all situations – if others need to understand the boys translate themselves or I will for the adults. There is no exception to this rule! You see – when I was 13, I stopped speaking German to my parents as we were in the US and English is spoken in the US. My parents continued in German but my language skills deteriorated significantly after that “announcement” despite taking German in high school and college. Once I moved to Germany, however, it took me only about 3 months to lose most of my accent and speak fluently so if this has happened in your family, don’t worry. It does not take long for the passive language skills to become active. With my boys, however, I want to avoid this scenario if possible! The other learnings include exposing them to others growing up bilingually and taking them back to the US as much as possible. My parents were simply unable to do this while I was growing up – they tried but circumstances made it difficult. The last piece of advice that I received which has made a world of difference is that I insist that the boys speak English to each other truly making the home language English. I know that they speak German in school, with their grandparents, etc but I have been told that the boys very often continue to speak English to each other when alone. I think that is very cool – we’ll see how long I can make this last!


43 Nayr August 3, 2013 at 12:15 pm

Dear Livia
How interesting and how true! It reminds me of my son’s language journey: he started his life as a passive simultaneous bilingual, English-portuguese. English was the home language and Portuguese, the language of the community and extended family. French was added at age 5 when we moved to France and Spanish in lower secondary school as a foreign language. By the end if his schooling he was bordering on Quadrilingual. After proficiency-level courses in Spanish at Uni I would say he has become Quadrilingual. His languages for and in education have always been English and French. He has since decided to study Portuguese, to improve his literacy level and Arabic, dad’s language; this is the first time he has found learning a language difficult! Children like you, my son and so many others that I work with are living evidence that multilingualism is possible, to develop and maintain, with tender loving care, patience and persistence.


44 andre fairchild October 30, 2013 at 7:52 pm

Je suis un vieux polyglotte à Denver et j’aime les langues et les personnes multilangues. Je parle français, espagnol, hollandais, anglais et portugais – und auch ein Bisschen Deutsch.
My web site has 2,100 Links to biomedical glossaries & dictionaries in 23 languages, including Spanish, English, Portuguese, Dutch, Italian, German, French, Swedish, Finnish, Japanese, Korean, Russian, Thai & Chinese.
You can find my multilingual web pages just by Googling on “multilingual biomedical dictionary” and my name.
Je suis un américain, mais j’ai vécu dix ans en Europe, il y a très longtemps. Maintenant, j’habite à Denver, et je suis interprète.
I will reply to all email messages. Je vous remercie votre attention.


45 Rachel November 3, 2013 at 3:10 am

I loved reading this! I am seventeen myself, although raised in a household where pretty much only English was spoken, with the exception of a couple of random phrases from my father. Sometimes I think that navigating between my mother’s country Australian English and my father stiff and proper upper-class English English was hard enough, but other times I really regret my father not speaking to me in one of his three languages when I was small, because after spending the last three years at a school where bi- (or tri-)lingualism is the norm, I feel like I really missed out!

However, now I’m doing my best to make up for missed time – five years ago, I knew only a couple of phrases in other languages (“Sprechen Sie Englisch?”, “Parlez-vous anglais?”, and “Posso avare un gelato limone, por favore?”, mostly). Now my German is at a pretty advanced level, I’ve been mistaken as a native Spanish speaker (by a Korean for whom I was translating, so I don’t think that really counts), I teach at a French-language Sunday school, and I’m the youngest Gaelic-speaker in South Australia. For me, each of those languages has been a struggle, since I was monolingual until I was 13. But it’s definitely worth it, and it gets easier, and I’m totally envious of anyone who is multilingual!

I have to admit I have a bit of an edge over most Australian kids in that I spent a lot of my childhood traipsing around Europe – from a young age, I had a clear idea that there were other languages out there and not everyone speaks English, which is something I think most Australian teenagers still haven’t grasped. I’d even tried my hand at a couple of basic phrases now and then. I’m surprised at how much passive learning I did as a child (my first year or two of learning German was riddled with me surprising my teachers and myself by coming out with words or phrases which I couldn’t possible have known, mostly in dialect!). Multilingualism is about the best gift a parent can give their child.

Anyway, I loved your article – and I love this site!


46 Solo February 16, 2014 at 11:17 am

Dear Livia,

What an inspirational article, reading this just brought a grin to my face. Keep studying Spanish! You already covered French and Dutch and English! I am fluent and literate in Russian, Mongolian and English and in my third year of Japanese studies at my High School. English is my best by far after spending a decade in the states, though I still haven’t forgotten my roots. Your dedication to your native languages and studying Spanish is just awesome and makes me wanna continue studying Japanese onto college and beyond.

Cheers from Boston,


47 Livonor February 19, 2014 at 8:21 pm

I`m seeing a lot of those post and most of them are about parents and child made of money who can travel to countries just for the sake of learning the language, that`s all cool but what about the average joes?

Also, at the risk of having some criticizes I have to say that some of those parents are so full of BS, especially regarding mandarin, phases like 「oh OMG this is SOOOO hard!」 or 「that`s cuz child are magical and all comes easy for them and if you don`t learn as a child you are doomed」 comes often from their mouths, most of the time they doesn`t can speak the language they are talking about.

As a Japanese speaker\writer\learner me and my buddies often face those statements and since it`s a waste of time trying to go against all that negative mainstream we have no other option other than ignoring them and isolating yourselfs in our own little world, kinda sad now that I stop to think about it :\


48 Paul March 16, 2014 at 1:48 pm


Great about being brought up multilingual! I was brought up monolingual and started learning my 3rd (German) language when i was 22 and my 4th (Spanish) at 32 (now). There is a difference between now and then; when i was 22 i was much more playful with the new language and just tried to speak it without caring what others might think. Now, at 32 i want to do everything right from the start, it doesn’t really work like that. To learn a language you cannot be afraid to make mistakes. My cognitive abilities seem to have remained similar though. I’m planning to start learning Chinese next year!

Good luck with your 4th and perhaps 5th language! 🙂

All the best


49 Leanne December 20, 2014 at 3:36 pm

I heard that after learning one foriegn language (in your case, two at the same time) that the next language is learned much easier. Is that really true? My native language is American English but I’m trying to learn Swedish. Somewhere along the way I’ve decided to learn Finnish too. After this I want to learn Icelandic. After I become fluent (almost fluent?) in Swedish would learning Finnish and Icelandic come easier?


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