Wednesday, May 16, 2007

How to raise a child multilingual

"Please teach Lil General (LG) how to talk in Tamil" was numero uno in the list of advice on child rearing given by the old and wise at home. Just a little background the lingual environment that LG will be exposed to:


  1. My mother tongue : Tamil

  2. LG's dad's (The Seniol) mother tongue : Bengali

  3. LG's dad speaks with his dad in : Punjabi (as he grew up in Punjab)

  4. I talk with LG's dad in : English and Hindi

  5. Language of the environment : Marathi (we live in Pune)



That makes it 6 languages which I think is too much for a kid and am scared he would end up conversing fluently in none, let alone mastering the language. The problem gets compounded as LG's parents can't both talk in either of the their mother tongues. It would have been much simpler then to say one language at home. I am intimidated by thoughts of he talking with me in Marathi, Bengali and Tamil all in one sentence or what if he asks "Pa's language or ma's?".

Close to five months, his cooing is slowly giving way to imitating sounds. Whoever sees him comments that the boy would learn how to talk faster, of course, that's one thing he ought to have got from his dad who talks non-stop and when there's an opportunity chance his momma is quick to jump in too.

"Multilingual environment affects a child's IQ."
"He will not learn how talk properly even in one language and get confused all the time".
"He is going to make a khichdi of all the languages".
"Talk to him in just one language".

Enough unsolicited advice from neighbors and friends alike has put me on a war footing to find the facts associated with raising children in a multilingual environment. The only fact I know is "Kids learn fast and you can train them like a doggy." This has put me further on a edge and instead of confusing the child anymore by talking in umpteen languages at home, I decided to do a little research on how cognitive abilities are affected or improved when they grow up in a bilingual and multilingual environment.

My idea was to draw up an action plan and stick to it that will help LG learn and converse with his parents and other family members comfortably.


  1. One person, one language. From the day LG was born, I've been talking to him in Tamil. So that leaves The Seniol to decide which one he would opt for - Hindi, Punjabi or Bengali. Since LG's exposure to Punjabi is going to be very limited and a language cannot be learnt unless and until it is spoken to the kid at least 30% of his waking time, Hindi becomes an imminent choice as The Seniol's lingual skills in Bengali can be contested :). His paternal grandparents will speak to him only in Bengali. Family agreement is the essential ingredient as one language becomes the secret language for the other and fear of exclusion in certain circumstances sets in. You are left wondering if you are being discussed. That will never happen in our case so we'll do what's beneficial for the child.

  2. Language of his vacation : LG's exposure to Tamil will be only through me. So it becomes imperative that I use other mediums to teach him the language such as videos, audios, books, rhymes etc etc. This will also be a language that he will get to hear a lot during his vacation.

  3. Minority language: I'm not too concerned about if and when he learns Marathi for that is an involuntary process that will happen with his exposure to the outside world - when friends and neighbors talk in the languages, kids will pick it up. And that's going to happen when he is at least 2-3 years old. Who knows if we would still be around in Pune?

  4. Language his ma/pa talk in : Kids observe and correlate in what language their parents talk. So it is important for The Seniol and I to decide that we always talk in Hindi. Mixing English and Hindi in the initial years will not do any good, is my opinion. That way the languages he will get exposed to the most will be Tamil, Hindi and Bengali in that order.

  5. English comes naturally to kids and should not be matter of concern.

  6. No more gibberish and kunju stuff for him. Only words that make sense until I feel totally invulnerable when he smiles sweetly at me or paints his cerelac all over his face and still smiles as if he doesn't know a thing. That's when I can't control calling him kunju and talking words that make absolutely no sense.



Multilingual households in today's times is not an uncommon phenomenon. I would like to hear of your success stories that will help me teach LG better.

Related resources:
Bilingual and Multilingual Children
Bilingual Children: The Secret of Their Intelligence

10 comments:

itchingtowrite said...

hi! came here thru boo's indian mommies. Extremely interesting & importanting fir me as we talk hindi, tamil, english, . I have known that multilingual children start speaking late as they r initially confused becoz no of repetition for them is limited becoz they r exposed to multiple languages thru out the day. but when they pick up, they do it brilliantly. i know a kid who knows atleast 5 languages. and she switches effortlessly from 1 to another and no probs with her content & quality of launguage. so i take heart and seeing ur thorough plan i am sure u will be succesful in your objective..

Manchus said...

As I posted on Indianmommies, children learn easily and that stays forever. As a child I learnt Gujrati,Malyalam,Hindi, lil bit of Bengali, Kannada (we were in Bangalore)and Tamil(my mother tongue) and of course the universal English. My hubby is from Kanpur so most of the time my daugther is exposed to Hindi (Thanks to my MIL who stays with me), but I talk to her in Tamil.
She will pick up Spanish or Chinese as we live in California along with English. I am actually excited about this.

Anonymous said...

true, speaking/understanding is one thing, reading is another.. I have undergone such a situation, and I am angoota-chaap in my monther toungue (telugu).. how bad is that.. culture diluting? towards a global language? tamil+telugu+kannada+gujarathi+hindi doesnt equate to english in any way..

The Mad Momma said...

I come from a multicultural background and personally as a child in that situation, I feel its highly over rated. in the attempt for everyone to get a piece of the pie and teach the child 'their own mother tongue' the child gets the worst of it. not to say that it confuses because i am told i started speaking tamil at 10 months. but i just felt quite irritated as i grew, at everyone's insistence that i learn their language. same with my brother. so though we both speak and understand hindi, english, tamil and bengali, we refuse to speak tamil and bengali most of the time. i guess its a personal thing - the two of us just didnt like it. what made most sense was hindi because we were growing up in U.P.

now my kids have konkani added to the mess and the husband and I just speak english and hindi to them. the other relatives speak in their own languages and now my son at two understands close to 6 languages while he speaks in two. I dont think multilingual kids speak late. if a child is a late speaker he or she will speak late even if you teach them only one language so have no fears!

alkyron said...

being a multilingual kid (once) i managed okay ... i cant write very well in two of the languages but i can hold converse sensibly enough...

i have an acquaintance who has a child of 10 who learnt Marathi Japanese and English (he started learning Japanese since he was 6).

all the best for everything :)

Anonymous said...

I think that the abiility of a child to grasp and understand things is vastly underestimated. In my case, i did'nt do too badly in a multilingual environment. Dad's mother tongue was Marathi and mom's was Kannada. Neighbours spoke in Tamil and my Dad conversed with me in English. As far back as I can remember, I have been speaking and understanding all four languages fluently. So don't worry and let your kid get exposed to all the languages. In fact it is well known that it is difficult to learn a new language as an adult. Good luck.

Santhi said...

Hi Lakshmi,

I can very well identify with your predicament, since I have a child who is now 2 years and it is a similar situation.

I am a tamil iyer from kerala, so me and my mom converse in both tamil and malayalam. My husband is from the north, so he speaks hindi predominantly at home.
when we both converse, it is mostly a mix of english and hindi. And since we stay in mumbai, there is marathi ( which the maid speaks ) and of course hindi.
When our lil one was born, we wanted to expose her to as many languages as possible, becoz it is true that the more children get exposed to languages, the better cognitive power they have. And they pick up languages faster than us.
Now my child understands english, hindi, tamil, malayalam, hindi and marathi, as well as speaks in hindi, tamil, and english. right now it sounds a little like a mixture of all the three at times, though predominantly she speaks in hindi ( thats becoz both of us are out most of the day, and she listens to hindi all day) , but dont worry abt the child speaking late or anything...its not becoz of many languages !
i would strongly advise you to speak as freely as possible in as many languages, it is infact to the child's advantage !

Lakshmi said...

Thanks everyone for sharing your experiences and the advise will definitely be handy.

I am sure as in everything for kids, this is also overrated and everyone has an opinion about how to go about it. I guess kids grow up just fine as you all have stated if we are not fussy about anything.

Pradeep said...

I have a 14-year old son. He too was exposed to a variety of languages. There's no need for any panic. All this talk of a child getting confused is out of place... This is from my observation of my child and many others. Children have a wonderful ability to taken in what they need, irrespective of what they are exposed to. Largely applies to many of us adults too.

What is of paramount importance is to let the child pick what is comfortable to him or her. All the rest will follow.

Language is just a tool, to communicate and gain knowledge.

ctrlalteredmind said...

hi, I reached your blog through desipundit.com. kudos on having a really interesting blog! I just thought I'd mention that my professor (who taught artificial neural networks) raved about the advantages of that infants have growing up in a multilingual family. Each language is processed by a different region of the brain as the infant grows, and therefore a multilingual environment definitely helps (as long as the child is accustomed to understanding the context of the spoken word). Either way, I can imagine it must be a delightful experience!