There are different ways for a person to become multilingual.
I would like to look at them by looking at the real life examples – our amazing Multicultural Kid Blogs members. They not only write fabulous content, but also speak several languages! In fact, many of our members speak more than two languages and there are even a few super polyglots!
Here is how the multiple languages acquisition started for them.
BILINGUAL FROM BIRTH
Some of us are lucky to learn to speak several languages right from birth from parents and the community. I am raising trilingual children myself and I see how easily they absorb the parents’ languages ( Russian, Italian and English). One might think this is too much for a little brain. – Absolutely not! The babies, on contrary to adults, can distinguishing several languages they hear.
I will start with truly multilingual Ute Limacher-Riebold (blog – Exspatsincebirth)! She learned German and Italian, as she says, “naturally” from birth. She communicated in German with her parents and also studied it at European School in Italy. Italian was the community language. At the age of 6 she started studying French, and at the age of 10 – English, first at school and then at University. She also speaks Swiss German, which she learned by watching Swiss German TV as a child (in Italy) and then while living in German part of Switzerland for 16 years. She speaks Dutch (note: it is her sixth language!). Ute started learning it as a child while playing with her Dutch peers at school and while spending her holidays in Netherlands. It was enough for her to start using the language from the day one when she moved to Netherlands to live with her family in 2005. She learned Dutch and now she has been learning Spanish autodidactically. Her 8th language is Old French (Ancien Français and Ancien Provençal), which Ute learned at University while studying old french texts. “Occitan” is still spoken in some parts of Southern France, so she is able to practice times to times with some native speakers.
Cordelia Newlin de Rojas (blog -Multilingual Mama) is bilingual from birth in French and English. She learned French from her mother, mastered it at French school and practiced it during summers in France. She learned English from her father and by growing up in NY. Cordelia also speaks Spanish with her husband. She learned it by taking Spanish classes and from her mother-in-law. She also has been studying Thai.
Rita Rosenback (blog – Multilingual Parenting) learned Swedish from her father and Finnish from her mother while living in a Swedish-speaking part of Finland. Later she learned English at school, German – at college and by practicing it during her stays in Germany. She also speaks some basic Punjabi, which she picked up from her spouse. Some French, that she learned at school and University and a little Spanish and Dutch.
Olena Centeno’s (blog- Bilingual Kids Rock) mother tongues are Ukrainian and Russian. She says: “Growing up Soviet Union Ukraine I used these two languages interchangeably. My academic studies though were all done in Ukrainian. I started to learn English in grade school, but was not able to communicate in it when I met my future husband (I was 20 at that time). My English greatly improved when I had a need to understand him. Now living in USA my English improves every day.”
Diana Limongi Gabriele (blog Ladydeelg) speaks Spanish, English and French. She learned Spanish at home with her parents, and English in kindergarten. She says: “I consider English to be my “first language” now (the language I use the most, feel most comfortable in). I started learning French in middle school and then lived in France. It helps that my husband is French so I can keep up with it now! “
Maria Babin (blog – Trilingual Mama) was born in Southern California to a Peruvian father and a Mexican mother. She says: “I grew up bilingual: English, Spanish with an early curiosity about French that eventually became a passion. I learned French in high school and at BYU where I met my Frenchman! We quickly fell in love, married a year later, had two children in Provo, Utah and then moved to Paris, France where we had two more children. Our children are being raised trilingual, following an adaptation of OPOL, with a two week rotation system.“
PASSIVE LANGUAGE EXPOSURE FROM BIRTH
Children can start learning a second language early in life by being exposed to them passively. One should not underestimate the positive impact of this kind of learning. Passive learning provided a very good base for further language learning.
Annika Bourgogne (blog – Be Bilingual) native language is Finnish. She was exposed to Swedish passively from birth. It was her mother’s language. However, she really learned it as a teen at school. During school time Annika also started learning English (from 9 years old) and French (at high school). She practiced English abroad by spending a summer in the UK and a year in the US as a teen. Later she studied it at the college as well. To enhance her French Annika went to France as an au-pair for 6 months. She also studied French at the University. Her rendez-vous with French language did not end there. Annika has been married to a French man for almost 20 years now and raises bilingual in Finnish and French children. She also tells us: “I can manage in Spanish and understand (at times) German and Italian. I love Spanish as I have many great Spanish friends, but haven’t really been able to practice since my 20’s when I took some classes at the University and traveled there a lot. “
LEARNING LANGUAGE FROM PEERS:
Children acquire new skills fast especially if they learn them from each other. They do it with languages too! Peer–to–peer interaction is often used in classroom settings for second language learners, but it does not have to be limited to the walls of the classroom.
Ute, who is also bilingual from birth (see her full story above), picked some Dutch from her school friends.
Amanda Hsiung Blodgett (blog- Miss Panda Chinese), whose mother tongue is Mandarin Chinese, speaks some Taiwanese. She learned it from playing with neighborhood kids and watching puppet show on TV. She learned English at school. French – at University and practiced speaking it in Morocco and Montreal, Canada. She also speaks very basic Spanish.
STARTING IN EARLY CHILDHOOD:
It is well known that children who receive language instructions in early childhood can master pronunciation better and have native like proficiency in the language. Learning a second language earlier in life also opens the doors to more language acquisition.
Olga Mecking (blog- European Mama) was born in Poland, her parents spoke Polish to her. When she was 3 years old, her mother started teaching her English. Later she took some English language classes. Olga speaks German. She went to a German kindergarten, spoke the language at home, at school and at University. She speaks French (extended family and later language classes) and Dutch (language classes, talking to people).
LEARNING LANGUAGE AT SCHOOL:
The overall statistic for language learning at schools is not very good. But there are exceptions. One can be lucky and get a very good language teacher, attend a school specialize in a particular language, have a possibility to support the studies with even short language immersion trips. In any case some of our MKB group members not only were able to learn a foreign language at school, but also learn many more languages after it.
Ilze Levina (blog -Let the Journey Begin) says: “I speak Latvian (my native tongue), English (school and international NGO since the age of 11, later did my MA and PhD studies in English), German (first school and now living in Germany), Russian (TV as a child, later some formal instruction to learn to read & some basic grammar), French (high school).”
Anna Watt (blog – Russian step by step) speaks Russian, English, French, Spanish, German, Japanese and Italian. She was born in Russia and Russian is her mother tongue. She started learning English at school at the age of 9 and continued studying it throughout the college. She lives in the US now and speaks the language everyday. She studied French at the French Cultural center in Moscow, had multiple trips to France and did her Master’s degree in Lille. This is what she tells us about how she learned other languages: “Spanish – at the University and many trips to Spain, now practice with people in California (lots of Spanish speakers here), German was my second language at the University but as I do not get to practice at all in the US, the most degraded, still can follow a conversation in High German and survive on the streets when visiting. Japanese – studied for 3 years in my late twenties with a goal of visiting Japan, until my first kid was born, then the second, so that trip is still in my plans. Italian – studied for about 6 months total throughout my life, visited Italy and can understand a lot (thanks to Latin, French and Spanish) and communicate the basics.”
Valerie and Alex Melzer (blog- Glittering Muffins) learn English at school. They also speak each other’s mother tongues: French and German respectfully. Valerie learned German in Germany, from Alex and with online courses.
Anna Vinogradova (blog – Multicultural Kitchen), whose native language is Russian, also speaks fluent English that she learned at school. She speaks “Spanish (upper intermediate) – self-taught with extensive summer course, Mandarin Chinese (basic) – at language academy”.
Eolia Scarlett Disler’s ( blog- La Cite des Vents) native language is French. At school she learned English and German. She says: “Let’s just say that I pick up English better than German. Listening to songs and watching movies in VO helped me a lot. But the best way for me to improve my English comes from my Church: I speak to american and english people every week and I read a lot of articles and spiritual talks! Since my husband found a new job near Frankfurt, Germany, I learn (again) German. I have studied Latin at school, so it helps me to understand a bit (just a tiny bit) Italian and Spanish.”
Varya Sanina-Garmroud’s (blog – Creative World of Varya) native language is Russian. She started studying French at school at the age of 9, and majored in it at the university. Knowledge of French helps her to understand written Spanish and Italian. Back at the University she also learned English, which she speaks on native-like level. She has been studying Mandarin Chinese – “Intermediate in speaking and elementary in writing, self – taught in the environment (been living in China for 13 years).” Back at school Varya was very passionate about India and its art of dance and music that she self-taught Hindi and can read and write in it.
Yzabeau On (blogs – Multilingual Education Café and Expat Lang) was born in France. She learned to speak English, German and Dutch at school and college. She says: “I have travelled a lot and lived in the various countries where those languages are spoken (Britain, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, Ireland…) I can also understand Italian and wrote a website to learn Afrikaans. Planning to learn some other languages. I do not live in my home country at the moment.”
Analia Capurro (blog – A Teachable Year) is from Argentina. Her mother tongue is Spanish. She learned to speak English though languages courses, tutor and self-studying.
FULL LANGUAGE IMMERSION:
This is probably the best method to learn any language both for children and adults. It keeps the language exposure to maximum and, thus, provides maximum result. With this method one can start speaking the language in less than 6 months! One does not have to move to the country, its language she or he studies, to live in order to receive all the benefits of full immersion. Making short trips also dramatically helps to master the language.
Full immersion is the way I learned all the four languages I speak. I was born in Russia and studied French at school. When I moved to the US, I did not speak a word of English. I learned it there through immersion and language classes on site. After 6 month I was already working and supporting myself. I started studying Italian back in the US and when I was finally speaking it, I moved to Germany, where I studied German. Thus, I speak four languages: Russian, English, Italian and German, unfortunately not French.
MaryAnne’s (blog – Mama Smiles) first language is English. When she was 9 years old, she moved with her English speaking parents to France. There she learned to speak French by attending a public school. After leaving the country (MaryAnne lived there for 3 years), she continued to read and study the language. She lived in Guatemala (1,5 years) and Bolivia (2 years in Bolivia) and became fluent in Spanish. MaryAnne speaks intermediate German. She writes about her experience living in Austria: “I lived in Austria for four years but went to school in English and didn’t have close German-speaking friends (well, I did, but their English was much better than my German).” MaryAnne speaks basic Russian (studied for two years in college) and Serbo-Croatian (self-taught in order to complete grad school research in Bosnia and Herzegovina).
Leanna (blog – All Done Monkey) speaks English (from growing up in the US) and Spanish. She studied Spanish starting in junior high, but really learned it when she spent 8 months living in Bolivia, when she was 20. Leanna also speaks functional Portuguese from taking a semester in college (and because it’s so similar to Spanish).
Adriana Kröller (blog – Changing Plate) is from Costa Rica and Spanish is her mother tongue. When she was 6 years old she moved to Guam, where she learn English by attending an American school. Now Adriana lives in Germany and has been learning German.
Stephen Greene (Head of the Heard) is on his way to be fully bilingual in English and Portuguese . He currently lives in Brazil and is immersed in Portuguese.
Becky Mladic Morales (Kid World Citizen) grew up speaking English. She learned Spanish in Spain and Ecuador, and by spending summers in Mexico with her husband. She also speaks some Portuguese. She says: “a couple of my best friends are Brazilian and I am always trying to practice with them, even though it sounds more like “Portuñol” as they say :)”
Elisabeth Edwards Alvarado (blog – Spanish Mama) shares her story of learning Spanish through immersion: “English is my native language and I learned Spanish from living in the Peruvian jungle for two years while teaching English. I also married a Peruvian and we speak mostly Spanish in our home. It was definitely immersion that did the trick for me!”
I hope this article on how one can become a multilingual gives a good overview and serves as an encouragement to parents and language learners. As you can see from the real life examples above, you do not have to be born into a multilingual family to learn to speak several languages. That said, an early start in language learning would be advisable. Learning more about other cultures can trigger child’s true interest in languages learning.
Galina Nikitina – author of Raising a Trilingual Child
Galina Nikitina is a multilingual mother, who is successfully raising trilingual children in Italian, Russian and English. She is passionate about helping other parents, who are bringing up their children in more than one language. Galina blogs at Raising a Trilingual Child. Connect with her : Facebook – Pinterest – Twitter – Blogloving - Google+