How Many Languages Can a Child Handle?

One? Two? Three? Four?

Let me get one thing out straight away, ‘handle’ for the purpose of this particular blog means being able to use a language at a native speaker – or near native speaker – level. This is what I have in mind for our trilingual girl anyway.

The truth is, nobody seems to be sure, yet.

The general consensus is that childen have a born capability to pick up languages. Yet it seems that science still has a long way to go to figure out how exactly a language is learnt by children, and by adults for that matter.

There are (at least) two things that are happening in brain that have significant implication on language development.

1) synaptic connection.

Science tells us that the understanding of the world doesn’t really depend on the amount of brain cells, but on the amount of connections that are buit between the brain cells. These connections are called synaptic connections.  At birth babies are born with virtually all the nurons/brain cells they will ever have. However the building of synaptic connection is trigged only by new experience: every touch, smell, seeing a new color, hearing a new sound, feeling a new feeling, experiencing a new reaction all help the synaptic connection.

By the age of six, 90% of the brain growth is completed, meaning that by then a child would have formed a solid foundation of how his/her brain works. Now be careful, it doesn’t mean that brain stops growing afterwards, it just means that till then, the developing brain is highly sensitive to its surroundings, and grows and adapts in response to its environment.

In other words, the younger the child is, the more adaptable and sensitive the brain is to build connections to learn the languages, if given chance.

2) neural pruning.

Science also tells us that if a synaptic connection is not used often enough, it will be weakened and eventually disappears. This process is called neural prunning. After the magic age of six, it seems that the speed of prunning starts overtake that of connection.  By the age of 14, around adolescence, major prunning has occurred.

It seems like every type of learning,repetition is the key. With languages, it explains why simply playing songs in certain language is not sufficient for the child to learn or keep up with the language.

(this image shows the brain cell density at a few key ages during brain development as discussed above.)

A research shows that a child needs to be exposed to one language for at least 30% of his/her waking time to learn it effectively. By simple mathmatics, it seems that, if handled well, a child shall be able to handle about three languages. He/She can even decide which language to play with more during the 10% of the spare time! 🙂

My reading in the past few months suggests that there are certainly many other elements coming into play in terms of how many languages a child can handle. I will discuss more in the future blogs. By now, I’m quite content with the fact that it seems to be scientifically possible to help our girl to learn three languages from the very beginning.

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