Linguist Jürgen Meisel encourages parents to take advantage of children’s innate language ability from birth. Talking to your child is the best way to foster language acquisition.
Caroline Smrstik Gentner: Multilingualism is becoming the norm around the world, it seems. Would you agree?
Jürgen Meisel: It’s a matter of definition: as linguists, we used to be very strict and say bilinguals are those who have two native competences. But the most generally adopted definition is from UNESCO, which says that if you use more than one language regularly, then you’re bilingual. Under this definition, most of the world’s population is and has been for some time bilingual or multilingual.
CSG: In your latest book, Bilingual Children: A Guide for Parents, which definition do you use?
JM: I talk about bilingualism as if the child should speak two first languages, or three – that’s native competence. But I don’t say that’s the only goal. If parents just want their children to be able to communicate with their grandparents who speak another language, that’s okay too. So I adopted the UNESCO definition, but I treat the issue as if you wanted to become a fully competent native speaker in two or more languages.
CSG: Why do you think it’s important that children are raised multilingually?
JM: When children are exposed to two or more languages from birth, they can acquire more than one first (native) language. Starting later in life, this becomes much more difficult if not impossible, so why not do it right from the start? It doesn’t cost much effort. And if you’re in a situation where it’s useful, like a multicultural family or living in a multilingual country, go ahead. There are no disadvantages: in all the research done, there’s no evidence that by exposing children to more than one language, their ‘first’ language will suffer.
“In all the research done, there’s no evidence that by exposing children to more than one language, their ‘first’ language will suffer.”
CSG: What do you think are the most important factors for early multiple language acquisition?
JM: The most important factor is exposure to language. In other words: Talk to your children. This may seem trivial, but we’ve seen that the amount of speech directed at children within monolingual families can vary by a factor of ten! It’s not enough for children to hear a language around them, they must be spoken to and engaged in order to learn even one language.
There used to be an assumption that children being raised bilingually couldn’t learn as quickly since there are only 24 hours in a day that have to be divided between two languages. But it depends on how much you talk to your kids. If parents in a bilingual setting make sure to address their children regularly, these children get more input in each of the two languages than some monolingual children get in one language.
CSG: When does the window of opportunity for multiple language acquisition close, and is this the same for everyone, regardless of ability?
JM: We are all born with an innate language faculty which develops over time. By age 3 or so, children have acquired most of the grammar of the language, easily and just through exposure. This ability starts to deteriorate, though. There are signs that children’s brains start to process a new language differently after the age of 4, and between 5 and 7 there are massive changes. After that, children are definitely learning a second language.
Interestingly, bilinguals tend to learn an additional language easier than monolinguals. There is some linguistic and neurolinguistics research from Basel, Switzerland, which claims that bilinguals develop certain brain connections early on which can be used for these networks later.
“If parents in a bilingual setting make sure to address their children regularly, these children get more input in each of the two languages than some monolingual children get in one language.”
When you compare brain activity in people who are bilingual from birth, you find the same areas of the brain are activated in exactly the same pattern for both languages. Looking at second language learners, the same brain areas are also activated, but there are some additional ones.
CSG: Is there a limit to how many languages a child can learn?
JM: This is currently one of the most interesting questions for research – which means we don’t have a good answer. Looking at the brain as a cognitive system, as far as we know there is no limit.
However, you need a certain amount of exposure to achieve native competence. We have a rough idea, but no one can tell you exactly what the minimum is. Looking at case studies, the minimum seems to be between 20 and 30% of the daily language exposure. And exposure, remember, is not just hearing a language but having someone speak to the child.
In Europe, it’s not uncommon now for parents to come to me for counselling with three or more languages in the family: a Russian mother, a Turkish father, living in Germany, and the grandparents speak Kurdish. While it’s certainly possible for a child to acquire three ‘first’ languages, it’s important to think about the child’s current and future life, schooling, social contacts and then decide which is the most important language. And then make sure that the child gets enough exposure in that language.
The linguist Jürgen Meisel is Professor Emeritus at the University of Hamburg, where he led the Center for Multilingualism, and Adjunct Professor at the University of Calgary in Canada. For more than 30 years, he has counselled parents who want to raise their children bilingually. His most recent book Bilingual Children: A Guide for Parents was published in June 2019.