Multiple languages and your child's brain

Parentree-editors 2008-12-08 10:30:29

Language is a gift that helps us to think, imagine and express ourselves. India has a rich bounty of over 25 languages and hundreds of dialects. Many families and children have regular exposure to at least 2 or even 3 languages. Many parents also have questions about whether they should teach their children multiple languages and if so how.

How do we help your young ones make the best of these gifts and understand and talk different languages fluently? Some pointers and considerations are given below.

Please note that most of the scientific research cited in this article considered bilingual children who learnt English and another language.

Why learn multiple languages?

  • Social benefit
    • Your child will be able to communicate with different people and situations.
    • Your child will be able to relate to so many different people at a deeper level.
  • Cognitive benefit
    • Research shows that children exposed to two languages score higher in cognitive verbal functions like thinking more flexibly about language like understanding verbally nuanced jokes better 1,2.
    • Research also shows that children who learn multiple languages are better able to interconnect various ideas to form a concept, resulting in better creativity1.
    • Research also shows that children who learn multiple languages are better at organizing, planning, setting goals, and anticipating various outcomes. This usually shows itself during adolescence3.
  • Communication proficiency
    • Many believe that multilingual people understand any language in general at a deeper level since they think about it in more than one perspective and can intuitively grasp the structure of language.
  • Lifelong benefit
    • Research shows that bilingual adults have greater ability to concentrate and improved memory recall, thus combating the effects of aging4.
  • Of course, if you know many languages, you would enjoy communicating to your child in these languages as well.
  • Better understanding of their heritage and culture (if they speak their native tongue as well).

Introduce multiple languages early on

The earlier belief was to help the child first get a firm grasp of their primary language and then introduce another language. But this is now outdated.

It is a well-known and well-documented fact, that there is a window of opportunity or a critical period when the child’s brain is best able to learn different languages. That window starts right from when the child is a baby and can hear to typically 12 years of age. In fact, the earlier the child has regular exposure to a language, the higher are the chances of the child understanding and talking the language fluently and with the accent of a native speaker. Though maturity in the language may only come anywhere from 7 to 12 years of age5, there is no reason to delay the start of multiple language exposure.

It is best to introduce them to different languages early on and not wait. Right from when they are babies if possible. But, you can introduce different languages at any time in the critical period of birth to puberty. It is not too late and their brain is still ripe to pick up languages.

How does the brain handle languages?

The brain is made of millions of cells and there are millions of connections or synapses among these cells. These connections are reinforced by the everyday experiences and what the child hears on a regular basis.  So the more regularly and consistently the child hears a language, the more the connection for that language will get reinforced. The neural connections are what enable an intuitive feel for language, fostering faster and easier learning of language.

A child's brain can handle what all languages that are thrown at it regularly. For example, if the child hears Hindi from Mama and English from Papa on a regular basis right from the start, there are high chances that the child will be fluent in both languages.

If the brain does not hear a language, then those neural connections for that language will not get stimulated and the brain will slowly retire these connections. That is why after 10-12 years of age, it is more difficult to learn a particular language. After that age, the brain becomes rigid and the neural connections, that encourage fast and easy language development, get discarded.

Regular exposure to languages determines fluency

The more you talk to your child in a particular language, the more will the neural connections for language development will get reinforced. If there are two or more languages that a young child has regular exposure to, then there’s a high chance that she will get fluent in those languages. With time, the brain might self-select a primary language or primary languages based on which language or languages the child gets more exposure to.

India abounds with many languages and also prevalence of English because of our colonial history and most of us can even have 2 or more primary languages. For example, most of us might equally fluent in our mother tongue and English. The usage might depend on the situation and the context.

Interestingly, there is a saying that many educated middle class Indians think in English and feel in their native tongue. We have also creatively mixed words in native languages  and English to create our own colloquial tongues.

Multiple languages: Confusing?

For a child who is developing normally, it is a very good idea to foster regular exposure them to multiple languages simultaneously. Children's brains can absorb both languages and their capacity is not limited.

Children might get a little confused and mix up the languages. But typically by 2 or 3 years they will be sorting out the differences (which words belong to which language), and usually by age 7 they are able to cope with different languages that they are exposed to on a regular basis with ease and be able to talk fluently in both.

Early in childhood, children will mix and match grammatical structures and words between the multiple languages they are learning, especially when they express themselves (verbally or in writing). This is to be expected when teaching children multiple languages. This will not persist over time as children learn to distinguish between both languages over time and will become proficient at both of them. it is possible that a bilingual child (less than 6 or 7  years) who is tested only on one of the languages may show lesser proficiency than a monolingual child but this difference disappears over time6. But their brains are easily absorbing and understand the two languages (receptive language).

Are multiple languages a good idea for a slow talker?

Children, attain different milestones at different times and have their own personalities.  If you really feel, that your child is delayed in talking, you should first talk to your paediatrician. Based on the paediatrician’s feedback, you might need to get a hearing evaluation or see a speech therapist.

But if your paeditrician assures you that your child is not medically delayed in speech, but just taking her time talking, and to proceed as normal, then do not hesitate to talk to your child in different languages. Different children attain different milestones are different times and they will soon process multiple languages and sort it out and will have the lifelong benefit of languages. Again, bring this up with your paediatrician as well.

Tips: Fast and easy fluency in multiple languages

Learning multiple languages can be a little confusing for a toddler  and in the beginning and they might mix languages. Basically, the more consistent the exposure to multiple languages, the easier it might be for the child. For example:
  • One parent can talk to the child in one language and the other in a different language7.
  • If you talk 2 different languages to your child, you could use one language at home and the other outside. For example, your native tongue at home and English outside7.
  • Relax. Be patient and do not give up. Even if you find it tough to be consistent, continue with both languages. As we discussed earlier, your child’s brain is an amazing muscle and can process anything thrown to it on a regular basis.  Languages are great gift you can pass to your child.

Help! Our child can only speak our mother tongue and very broken English...

You could try using both languages. This way your child will not feel ‘out of it’ socially at school initially. But if you find it difficult to talk in English with your child, do not fret. It is a great life-long gift that your child talks in your mother tongue. Also, do not switch to only English because of this pressure. She will learn English anyway when she starts school and from TV etc. But she might have only you to learn her mother tongue from.

Help! I keep talking to my child in my native tongue but he keeps replying in English...

  • Keep talking to your child in your native language. It is a great life-long gift you can give them. You just have to persevere and keep talking. If they understand it well, it is a good sign. It means that they grasp the receptive language (the ability of the brain to listen and understand language) of your native tongue. And that is very important. Once they are fluent in the receptive language part, they will always have the potential of expressive language (the ability of the brain to express and react. Example: speech) for the future.
  • Also, it will help if you give your child opportunity to interact with other people fluent in that language - friends, family, maid / nanny.  In fact, it might coax them to blabber out your mother tongue in front on people who might know only your mother tongue and no other language. Many parents are surprised to overhear their child speaking their mother tongue fluently or with a slight accent with a maid or a grandma who might not be very conversant in English. Encourage this interaction and be discreet so that your child does not get too conscious.
  • You could also use age-appropriate DVDs or movies, audio CDs, computer games in your mother tongue, of course, within appropriate limits. But remember that there is nothing like real, active human interaction to foster language development.
  • Relax. Language learning is desirable and you should try your best but not at the cost of your relationship with your child. So, try your best, but try and not take it out on the child.

And of course, if you know many languages, your child will too, if she get regular exposure to these languages. It is natural. And it is a great life-long gift you can give them by passing on this heritage to them.

Also see


1. Diaz, R. M "The impact of bilingualism on cognitive development" In E. W. Gordon (Ed.), Review of research in education, 1983, Vol. 10, pp. 23-54, American Educational Research Association.

2. Hakuta, Kenji "Cognitive Development of Bilingual Children", Center for Language Education and Research

3. Stephanie M. Carlson and Andrew N. Meltzoff, "Bilingual experience and executive functioning in young children", Dev Sci, 2008 March, 11(2): 282-298

4. Bialystok, Ellen; Craik, Fergus I. M.; Klein, Raymond; Viswanathan, Mythili, "Bilingualism, Aging, and Cognitive Control: Evidence From the Simon Task", Psychol Aging. 2004 Jun;19(2):290-303.

5. Collier, V. P. "The effect of age on acquisition of a second language for school" Forum, no. 2, Winter 1987/1988 via Hakuta.

6. Kester, Ellen Stubbe & Elizabeth D. Pena (2002), "Language ability assessment of spanish-english bilinguals: future directions" Practical Assessment, Research & Evaluation, 8(4). (Retrieved December 7, 2008 from

7. Dufresne, Therese and Masny, Diana, "Multiple literacies: Linking the research on bilingualism and biliteracies to the practical", Paediatr Child Health. 2006 November; 11(9): 577–579


2013-01-29 20:51:15


Nice Article our house has many languages spoken as a result My Daughter now 4 years can speak understand all five Marathi/Bengali /Hindi/English and Tamil.

2012-04-06 09:52:07


very good write up. Would definitely like more parents to understand how important learning languages is. A German trainer by profession, I have been trying to start language classes for children in the age group 7-12 years. I see that parents are more and more reluctant in giving language exposure to children. They simply do not understand the importance. Hoping this article would be an eye opener for all of them. As a parent of 6 yr old, i personally feel that children learn more through linguistic abilities. My son is exposed to English(as we speak english at home), Tamil (due to his surrounding), Hindi (as his second language in school) and German(as i constantly give him tidbits of vocab from the language). And this has remarkable difference in the way he thinks. He relates same words of different languages and gives the different meanings.

2011-03-28 19:14:25


Many thanks for this article. I'm at ease with myself now! I have a 14 month old and we are a multi lingual family. I am a Tamilian married to a Punjabi and we have at least 2-3 languages being spoken all the time! I admit I was very confused as to which language to adopt while speaking to my little one. Finally, I had to settle on English because I wasn't comfortable talking in Hindi (lack of fluency having been brought up in the South). My husband talks to him in Hindi and he gets to hear some Tamil from my parents. As of now, he seems to understand what I say and follows simple instructions and manages to say a few words..


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