An example is parents with different mother tongues living in a foreign country, teaching those three languages and also English.

How and when should this language be taught?

Can all be taught in early age or only when the others are firmly embedded?

What languages should be taught first? The similar ones or the local language?

  • 2
    Why four--why that particular number? How old are the children in question? How often would they have occasion to communicate in each of the target languages? How similar are the target languages to each other? Are you talking about learning each language in turn or learning two or more of them simultaneously? If you're not talking about learning all four simultaneously, how similar are the target languages to the first language(s)? I'm sure there are other issues that I've missed here, but I think that you should refine your question a bit. Commented Jul 6, 2012 at 7:30
  • DK39, include the details James underlined in your question, it would help you get better answers! :)
    – Alenanno
    Commented Jul 6, 2012 at 10:40
  • James, most of your questions are in the question itself. Why four? Parent languages, local language and English. How old? That's the reason of the question, when and how can they learn. How often? The parents should know 3 of the languages, so everyday. Learn in turn or simultaneously? Again, that's purpose of the question, how to teach them. Similarity? That's a question I can add. Should similar languages be taught first?
    – DK39
    Commented Jul 8, 2012 at 10:14
  • 2
    I think you need to distinguish languages that children learn naturally by being exposed to them at an early age and languages that are taught to them, usually at a slightly older age. Small children are generally extremely good at learning languages, and if there are several languages used in their environment they will learn them all to a greater or lesser degree: teaching is not required.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Jul 8, 2012 at 15:42
  • 1
    The Habsburgs spoke 7 languages at home. Each day another nurse with another language.
    – snuki
    Commented Oct 6, 2012 at 18:33

5 Answers 5


Our daughter (29 months old) is currently learning 4 languages. I am a native speaker of Swedish and Greek, while my wife is a native speaker of Turkish. We live in Sweden, so our little one is exposed to Swedish when she's at kindergarden or in contact with relatives. I talk explicitly Greek with her, while her mother speaks only Turkish. Her grandmother speaks only Swedish with her. Me and my wife have been speaking mainly English, so she has snapped up that as well. The result:

  • She understands all 4 languages

  • She addresses each one of us explicitly in the language we talk to her.

  • Grammar works well: a) She uses articles in Greek, b) definite/indefinite in Swedish, c) agglutination works fine in Turkish (i think)

  • In interaction with locals she uses local words to address us e.g. pappa instead of baba, mamma instead of anne.

  • She knows how to change language context e.g. you asked her to count in all 4 languages separately and she does that without being confused

  • She is a late talker, but that is expected. Besides, my friend's monolingual child is a late talker too.

The most important rule however is one and only: Do not mix up the languages when addressing the child. The language you use to communicate with your child should be your native tongue. If you talk half English, half Spanish at the same time, the child will probably end up not speaking well the language it doesn't hear from its environment. While making a sentence it will be like 5 words in Spanish 3 in English, then 3 Spanish 2 English and so on.

  • I can relate with the mixed up language thing in children of some Indian families who stay in different city than their native. So much so that the native speakers couldn't understand some of their words and vice versa. In effect they create a local version of the original language. Commented Sep 5, 2016 at 20:35

In parts of the world very dense in languages (e.g. Nigeria, India, Papua New Guinea), a common scenario is this: a child's mother speaks language A, the father speaks language B, a vehicular language C is frequently used for interactions between people from different villages, especially in cities, and language D is an official language which is the medium of instruction in government schools. In such places it is not at all uncommon for a young adult to be fluent in four languages.

For concreteness, imagine an Indian child whose mother is Tamil and whose father is Telugu. The child speaks these languages within his/her extended family. Hindi is used when going out into town to do business, and English is used in school.

  • 1
    Yes, I imagine situations where four languages is a possibility. In Europe parents from different countries can work in a third country and there's also the need to know English. But the question itself was more directed to what is the best way to do it in early ages.
    – DK39
    Commented Jul 8, 2012 at 10:24
  • I see, it's more of an issue of parenting advice. The first point of advice will be for the child to have multilingual playmates. If the playmates are monolingual, the child will strive to conform.
    – user483
    Commented Jul 8, 2012 at 13:49
  • 5
    For what it's worth, I'm an example: my mother's family speaks (a dialect of) Telugu, my father's (a dialect of) Tamil, we live in a Kannada-speaking region and speak primarily Kannada at home and out in town, I learnt Hindi at school and watching TV/movies, and English is the language of my education and most reading, and the one I'm most comfortable with. (And know other languages to varying degrees.) In my experience (observing children of relatives etc), it is not difficult for children to pick up multiple languages, and those who speak them earlier in childhood tend to learn better. Commented Dec 11, 2012 at 8:53
  • Thanks for giving some concreteness to my example, @ShreevatsaR !
    – user483
    Commented Dec 11, 2012 at 23:44
  • @ShreevatsaR Bangalore Telugu? :) Commented Sep 5, 2016 at 20:37

From a purely cognitive point of view, it doesn't really matter how many languages you introduce, or in which order so long as:

  1. the child gets consistent and sufficient exposure to each language starting at some point before age 4-5.
  2. your own use of language makes the child understand that different social situations call for different languages.

Example: mom's native language is Arabic, dad's native language is Japanese, family is living in Hungary. Each parent is fluent is the other's native language as well as Hungarian. The ideal environment in this household is one in which, when the child is present, the mother speaks exclusively Arabic, the father speaks exclusively Japanese, and they speak exclusively Hungarian when interacting with locals. Here, chances are the child will end up acquiring all three languages simultaneously.

Obviously, this is an idealized situation. More common are situations where the parents are not totally fluent in each other's native languages and/or the local language. In these cases, you'll need to adjust a bit, but you'll be fine so long as you keep points 1. and 2. in mind.


In malaysia, malaysian chinese might speak malay, english, their chinese dialect and mandarin.

In India, marriage among different linguistic groups is very rare. Majority of the Indians generally tend to be monolingual, especially in villages. some of them might be bilingual or trilingual. A tamilian might speak tamil alone, sometimes english too. A malayalee might speak malayalam alone, or english. Most of them speak their respective state language alone. If they happen to live in borders, they might speak an additional language. Less than 10 % of indians might speak four or five languages. A majority of these multilinguals are bad at writing in languages other than mothertongue.

Learning four languages is very difficult. If all the languages are in same linguistic family, it is comparatively easy to learn. If all of them belong to different families, (father- chinese, mother - tamil, country- japan, foreign language - english) it is very difficult.

Generally, the parents' mothertongues are ignored. Reasons: 1. Both of them tend to speak a neutral language to the child. (may be the country's language) 2. The parents language doesnot have much to do with the culture of the country or it doesn't have anything to do with jobs.

The local language has to be taught first, since it helps to mingle with the society. Even if more than three languages are taught, it is very difficult to learn with high fluency.

However. in places like Bangalore, most people happen to speak 3+ languages due to the interaction with other communities living in the surroundings.


Our child speaks 3 languages fluently for her age (almost 4). We live in the U.S. and father speaks exclusively English. Mom (me) spoke Cantonese (heritage language) and French (non-native/non-heritage) almost exclusively from birth to age 4. I really disagree with the conventional advice to only speak a native language to a child. I think you can really foster a language you are not native in if you commit to practicing that language. In our case, I committed to being able to play/scold/sing etc. in French and I built proficiency up from ground zero. That said, I had help as my child went to immersion daycare in French and so I was not the only source of input.

That said, regarding a fourth language, we tried to have our child speak 4 languages by splitting daycare between french and mandarin (yes, there are schools in the U.S. who do both languages). I do not speak Mandarin and find it very hard (it's not a dialect of Chinese, it is actually a different language from Cantonese just like Italian and French are offshoots of latin languages but not mutually intelligible). In any case, we were not able to get our child to do Mandarin as a fourth language--probably because learning 3 is already a lot AND because neither parent speaks Mandarin. However, under different circumstances (including your child's personality) I think it's possible, but probably very difficult. Good luck!

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