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When is the best time to introduce a new language for bilingual and trilingual families?

Updated: Feb 6



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Hello everyone!


One question I hear again and again from multilingual families is this: when is the best time to start talking to my child in the target language?


That’s the topic I want to dive into today. I’ll also share with you tons of practical tips and advice to help you get started!


Want to find out more? Please keep reading, or check out my new YouTube video!


What scientists say about early language acquisition


What do scientists know about early language acquisition?


Most experts agree that the very earliest stages of language acquisition occur before a child is even bornaround week 25 or 26 of pregnancy, babies in the womb have been shown to respond to people’s voices.



Babies begin responding to people's voices around week 25 or 26 of pregnancy; raising a bilingual trilingual multilingual baby
Babies begin responding to people's voices around week 25 or 26 of pregnancy

One study clearly showed that, in the later stages of pregnancy, unborn babies could already differentiate their mother’s voice from other people’s voices; what’s more, they could also distinguish their native language from a foreign language.


So, babies begin to make sense of language and take their first baby steps towards speech and socialisation before they’re even born.



By the end of their first year, they no longer respond to phonetic elements peculiar to non-native languages.


When you think about it, this is pretty staggering – before a child can even crawl, they already have a preference for the dominant language of their environment.


Now that we know, broadly speaking, what scientists know about early language acquisition, let me tell you what our language therapist had to say to us when our son was two.


Our experience with a language specialist


From birth to the age of two, my son was raised with three languages: Cantonese from me, Russian from my husband, and English from everyone else.


My husband and I always knew we wanted to introduce Mandarin at some point, but we weren’t sure when would be a good time to do it.


When my son was two, I spoke to a speech and language therapist at my local children’s centre and put this question to her – when would be a good time to introduce Mandarin?


Would it confuse and overwhelm him?


And the therapist’s answer was very simple.


Start now!




And that’s what we did.


I started speaking to him in Mandarin and gradually phased out Cantonese, as back then, we thought that four languages would be too much.


Was he confused and overwhelmed? For the first few days, he was maybe a little confused, but he soon got used to it. The transition was actually pretty smooth.


So what do our story and the broader science mean for parents who want to raise bilingual or trilingual children?


What does it all mean for parents?


Are you expecting your first child, and dream of raising a bilingual or trilingual baby?


Is your baby already a few months old, and you’re starting to wonder if it would be a good time to start introducing a new language now? Is it too soon?


Is your child already in pre-school, and you think it’s already too late to start trying to introduce a second or third language at this stage?


Whatever your situation is, the short answer is:


START NOW!


If you’re still planning your language strategy for an unborn child or a newborn, just start speaking to your unborn or newborn baby in the target language now. And be as consistent as possible.


If your child is slightly older, and you haven’t already started using the target language with your child but want to give this whole bilingual/ trilingual thing a go, the answer is the same: start now.


Late is better than never!


One common mistake parents make is introducing the target language a bit late, when their child is already in nursery or pre-school, let’s say around age 3 or 4, and the child is already fully proficient in the majority language, say English.


Check out my video about the top five mistakes parents make if you’re interested in finding out more!





There’s no denying that introducing a new language once a child is in full-time school can be challenging, not least because the child already has a strong preference for the majority language, and the habit of using only the majority language is already fully embedded.


Of course, it is still possible to introduce the target language at this stage, but the child is likely to display considerable resistance, which is a totally understandable reaction from the child’s point of view.


If you find yourself in this situation – don’t despair!


Even though we can’t turn back time, young children are fortunately very good at learning languages and, indeed, any new skills.


Opinions vary among experts, but it is generally thought that up to the age of 10, children can acquire a new language and achieve native-like fluency and pronunciation.


So please, PLEASE, don’t assume that your child is too old.


I know plenty of people who started learning a new language as adults and became genuinely fluent, with minimal “foreign” accents. So, no, your four-year-old is really not too old.


But at the same time, remember that the older your child is when you start the process, the more resistant they will be!



Two different scenarios and some useful strategies


Let’s deal with two different scenarios.


Scenario 1


Your pre-schooler already has a good passive knowledge of the language but doesn’t speak it.


This is known as “passive bilingualism”.


I’ve made a separate video to address this issue – check it out!


But essentially, you need to start being super consistent about using the target language at all times, and you have to make your child produce output.




Scenario 2


Your pre-schooler has had zero or very negligible exposure to the target language.


In this case, I would suggest using the Time and Place approach to introduce the language in a gentle, gradual way.


Read my comprehensive guide on the three most widely used language strategies, or watch the corresponding YouTube video.





To give you an example:


Say you live in the United States, and your pre-schooler is already fluent in English, but you’d like to raise him to be bilingual in English and Spanish.


You can start speaking to him in Spanish at dinnertime and gradually build this up until you’re speaking to him in Spanish most of the time.


Once he develops good passive knowledge, start helping him produce output – in other words, help him speak the language using what I call the Bootcamp Method, which I explain in detail in my book and in my a video.


The Importance of Perseverance


Finally, I want to tell you what is most crucial for all the families out there who want to help their child become bilingual, trilingual, or multilingual.


It is this:


Do not give up!


Stick it out, even when the going gets tough.




I met a Russian mum a few years ago. Her daughter was in Year 1 at the time. The mum spoke to her in a mix of English and Russian, and the daughter understood everything she said but would only reply in English. The mum explained to me that her daughter had been fluent in Russian as a toddler, but as soon as she started full-time nursery – boom! Russian was gone! She also warned me, darkly – ‘just wait till your kids start school!’


And that’s just one example. So many people who have given up told me the same thing: “Just wait till they start school! You will see!”


But guys, let me tell you this: it is simply not true!


While being in school full-time can make it harder to maintain the minority language at home, it does not have to be the end of your bilingual journey.


Your child can become and remain bilingual/ trilingual as long as you don’t give up.


Even if you think things have gone off course, it’s never too late to do something about it.


But if you give up, if you stop talking to your child in the target language… Then, well. Of course, that’s not to say your child can’t pick it up again at a later stage in life.


Only you can decide for yourself how important this whole bilingual/ trilingual thing is for you and your family at this point in time.


There is no shame in giving up – I know first-hand how hard it is, I really do.


But if you are committed to helping your child become fluent in more than one language, then the good news is that as long as you don’t give up, you will make it work.


Please also share in the comments below if you have any questions about today’s post/ video, or if there are any particular topics you’d like me to cover.


And don't forget to comment, share and subscribe. Thank you!


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