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My question is about the appropriate number of languages for a child to learn at home. I'm Finnish and me and my husband recently moved to Finland after living in Spain a few years. My husband's first language is Arabic but we communicate in Spanish. In a nutshell, our child would be exposed to 3 languages at home. Also, I'm an English teacher in an international school and would like to get my child started early with the English language as well.

Is it too much for a child to be exposed to 4 languages from an early age? Can the quantity affect the quality of learning all these languages at the same time? Would it be better to leave English out until my child goes to e.g. an international day care?

Thank you very much in advance for your answer.

Best regards.

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    Ling.SE has had very few questions of that sort, and such questions are either ignored or receive poor answers. In contrast, parenting.stackexchange.com has had many questions about languages, multi-lingual homes, etc. You might want to look/ask there instead. – prash Aug 13 '14 at 16:52
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    Definitely pro. As long as there is a contextual difference between the languages (for two languages, a mommy language and a daddy language is a common successful method, for instance), there's no limit to the number of languages a kid can pick up. It will take longer -- but each additional language just adds a bit, and the bits get smaller with more languages, as the kid gets used to parallel thinking. In your case, I'd recommend you speak English to your child, and your husband speak Arabic. You can communicate in Spanish with each other, and Finnish will come naturally from where you live. – jlawler Aug 13 '14 at 18:42
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There is no hardwired 'limit' on the number of languages a child can learn. In fact, a scenario where a child learns one language for each parent, a language of the community they live in, and a language used in school, is not that uncommon.

However, you must understand that learning a language is not an on/off proposition. People learn different languages in different contexts, for different purposes. So you cannot simply expect somebody who simply grows up will be able to become a professional translator or even use all languages in all contexts with the same facility. This will be particularly obvious for literacy contexts. For example, unless you give them practice and some instructions, your children may struggle with writing in reading in the languages that they only know from spoken contexts. It may sound obvious but many people assume that writing is just writing speech down. It's much more.

You also need to be prepared that there will be a developmental time during which the child will appear to mix the languages and this mixing will to some extent continue as code switching into adulthood. There's nothing wrong with that but you might get negative feedback from people who only experience monolingual contexts.

Another thing that often happens is that children themselves end up resisting using some of their languages because they don't want to stand out from others. Some children are reluctant to speak back to their parents in the language of the parent (even though they understand) if that is the only context they ever hear the language (and if the parent speaks the language of the community in which they live).

But the key thing to remember is that there's no harm to learning multiple languages from early childhood. There are also some benefits to multilingualism (although I suspect that people overgeneralize from the available research).

On the other hand, it's also not uncommon for children not to be able speak the native language of one or both of their parents. There are people who cannot even pronounce the name of one of their parents (or even their own) in the 'native pronunciation'. While many people decry it as a missed opportunity, it's important to remember that this is as natural as multilingualism and need not be stigmatized any more than teaching children multiple languages used to be.

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There is a lot of research and many books written on this, and many online resources (as another comment mentions), If you haven't already, try to do some research. From my own experience this has been very positive. My children speak 2 languages (mine and my wife's) fluently, and my daughter has gone to an immersion school in a third language for about a year now with great results. We do a lot to expose them to the languages that are not native to the country we live in, and my wife even does some formal study with my daughter in her mother language (also not native to the country we now live in). Our priority has always been to keep language exposure enjoyable for them - well, at least not a troublesome experience that they resent.

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In terms of linguistics and psycholinguistics, there is no limit for a normally developing child on the number of languages he/she is able to learn. Neural plasticity (the neurons in the brain) is very flexible at a young age, so young children are proven to learn easier, quicker, and better than older ones , not to mention adults. So, it might be better if children are exposed to all the possible languages of their environment as soon as possible.

Obviously, the amount of exposure to each language and the way of teaching plays an important role to the actual results and rate of learning. In other words, empirical learning (through practice and continuous exposure to authentic material, eg. everyday conversations, TV and so on) facilitates language learning at a young age, as opposed to classroom-based learning (formal education), where different practices are followed and focus is given on different aspects of language (such as grammar use, syntax and so on). In terms of native-like pronunciation, starting speaking a language at a very early age improves pronunciation as well, compared to starting at a later age. There is a linguistic theory, called the Critical period Hypothesis, according to which native-like learning of a foreign language (I believe in your case this would be a second language or any language treated as a foreign either at school or in the child's surroundings) is not possible if an individual starts learning it after a certain age (around 12-14 years old).

Of course, there are some disadvantages to being exposed to several languages at the same time. Code-switching (changing from one language to the other) is inevitable I guess (this could be seen both as an advantage and a disadvantage). Also, there is a slight delay on the first time the child produces some kind of meaningful speech. If the typical age for a normally developing child to produce speech is at around 6 months for words such as "mama", "nana" etc. and 18-24 months for sequences of 2-4 words at the same time, multilingual children are observed to produce such sequences later than monolingual ones.

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