If a newborn child grows up hearing people speaking in many different languages, will he later be able to speak all those languages?
† Puneesh T., India
Children learn languages from the people around them. If exposed to multiple languages, they may grow up bilingual or multilingual. These kinds of environments are not uncommon; the consensus among linguists is that a majority of the world’s children grow up hearing multiple languages.
So, what if a child has grown up in an environment where they are exposed to tens or hundreds of languages? We can imagine an Oliver Twist-esque character growing up in a sort of hypothetical global train station, interacting with a rotating cast of station workers and visitors from all over the world. Could such a child become multilingual?
Probably not, says Suzy J. Styles, a developmental psychologist at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University who studies language acquisition. One obstacle is time: the more languages you come into contact with, the less you are exposed to each language. If you learn 365 languages in a year, you can’t be exposed to each language for more than one full day.
Our scenario also omits something fundamental, said Dr. Styles: what the child wants. Children are not just sponges absorbing everything around them. (If they did, meals would be a lot easier.) They pay attention to the world and develop feelings and opinions about it, and that plays a big part in how they learn.
“Children are motivated by seeing how others use their language together,” says Dr. style. “And they’re generally motivated to use those languages that they see have the greatest social impact.” If an inconspicuous traveler wanders through the station speaking an unfamiliar language and no one pays attention to him, the child probably won’t either. But if someone really cool shows up speaking Icelandic or old Minoan and everyone turns to look, the kid will notice.
If people seem excited to talk to the newcomer, the child may get the impression that the language is cool and desirable to know. Children pay more attention to the speech of people they are interested in and the people they want to imitate.
In other words, to learn many languages, children not only need exposure, they also need motivation. “One place best known for its language density is the highlands of Papua New Guinea,” said Dr. Styles, “where it is a great social advantage to be able to communicate in several neighboring languages.” In such situations, she said, children can learn to communicate fluently in a wide variety of languages.
So if you want to encourage a child to learn many languages, you have to expose them to many of those languages - and make those languages desirable and even cool.
How do you do that? Well, I honestly may not be the best person to ask. Despite my best efforts, “How to make something cool for kids at school” is a skill I’ve never mastered.