What resources are available for parents?

You can point them to the parents section of our website, and also share the Advice for Parents leaflet, “Is your baby going to hear more than one language?” Many of the resources on the resources section of our website are also suitable for parents.

Is there a particular age when it becomes harder to learn another language?

This is a much debated question! Overall, the evidence suggests that, for many possible reasons, it does become harder to learn a language to the same level as someone who grew up speaking that language as you get older (into adulthood). This may be because of changes in the brain, changes in environment and motivation, changes in the way we learn languages, or all of these. Young children, however, are able to learn second (or third) languages well, even if they haven’t heard them from birth. And in general, the message is: it’s never too late to start! (But you might need to adjust your expectations). Read more here.

Is there a number of languages which is too many for a baby to learn?

In principle, no. However, remember that learning a language does depend on hearing the language, and hearing a wide variety of words and grammatical constructions. The more languages a baby hears, the less time they will be hearing any one language, and so the less likely they are to become fully proficient in the language. One likely scenario in a family where there are, say, four languages (perhaps one both parents share, another from the mother, another from the father, and another in the community), is that one or two of those languages will become dominant (such as the shared family language and the community language) and the child will become fluent in those; they may not learn the other two languages to the same level, but they could still play an important cultural and emotional role in the family. Remember that there are many parts of the world where using 3, 4 or 5 languages in daily life is the norm! Read more about this and the advantages of speaking more than one language here.

A long review of lots of factors involved in learning language, including multilingualism is: Hoff, E. (2006). How social contexts support and shape language development. Developmental review, 26(1), 55-88.

If the parents would like to raise the child as bilingual as one parent is bilingual would you encourage the other parent to be learning the language as well?

It’s always great to have a go at language learning. In this case, for the monolingual parent to learn the language could also mean that they feel more included in family relationships, which could have a positive effect. However, it’s not essential, and many families do follow a strategy where each parent speaks one language to their children (and may not understand the other language). You can read more about this strategy, and the ways that children creatively use all their languages here.

What advice is there for families with children with a developmental disorder (e.g. autism, ADHD, Down’s syndrome?

Research to date suggests that for many developmental disorders, there is no evidence for a negative effect of continuing to speak more than one language, and there may even be a positive effect. The Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists now advises keeping up both languages in most circumstances. Imagine a family where everyone speaks, say, Spanish at home, but because one child is autistic, the parents now only speak English to her: this actually deprives the child of some social input, and much linguistic input, and might mean she is excluded from many family conversations, which might have emotional as well as developmental consequences. You can find a review of the evidence here:

Uljarević, M., Katsos, N., Hudry, K., & Gibson, J.L. (2016). Multilingualism and neurodevelopmental disorders – an overview of recent research and discussion of clinical implications. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 57(11): 1205-1217

And some newspaper-style articles from the same research group here and here:

What about sign languages?

A sign language is a language – a full linguistic system, which happens to be in a different modality. This means that children learning sign language can be multilingual – if they are exposed to more than one sign language (for instance, British Sign Language and American Sign Language are actually completely different, or they might learn BSL and Turkish sign language) – and/or multilingual and multimodal, if they learn a sign language and a spoken language (for instance, if they have deaf parents but are hearing themselves).

How can you address growing up multilingually in a class where only a couple of parents have another language?

A natural point to mention growing up multilingually is when you talk about brain development and the importance of communicating with your baby, even while they’re still in the womb. You could simply throw out a question like, ‘is anyone thinking of speaking more than one language with their baby?’, affirm this as a great idea, and point them to further resources, like this website. It doesn’t have to take long. Another point where it can be brought in is thinking about the impact of a baby on the relationship between the parents, and with the wider family.

I feel like I already don’t have enough time in my classes – how can I add in this topic without it taking up more time?

Just a quick mention could be enough – and make a big difference for some parents. Also, we can make the idea of being multilingual normal in the language we use. For instance, when we talk about the importance of communicating with your baby, you can talk about languages, rather than language. Pointing parents to resources is also a great way you can support them, without taking up lots of time.