Dear Dr. Turner,
Given your knowledge on how the brain works and your interest in education, I wonder if you could give me some guidance.
My wife and I speak Portuguese as a first language. We have two babies, aged 9 and 24 months old. We are currently living in a French speaking country, but soon we'll move to an English speaking country. At the moment, our babies have contact with 3 languages: Portuguese (we only speak Portuguese with them), French (at the nursery) and some English (our maid). Our oldest one (2 yrs) doesn't speak yet, but understands Portuguese and French perfectly.
We plan to keep them in a French school after moving to this English speaking country, so we're quite convinced they'll master and keep those 3 languages without any problem.
Now, on the top of all of this, we are considering hiring someone to come play with them in Chinese. Giving that Chinese is a very different language for us (in grammar, phonemes, vocabulary), we think that early contact with the language can: (a) make possible for them to learn such a difficult (and important) language without much effort, in future; (b) facilitate their general ability with foreign languages; (c) provide them an extra mental stimulus.
Is there anything wrong with it? Can they be confused in any sense? Could this, at the end, hinder their general development? Should we wait a little longer to start another language? If so, until when? Wouldn't their window for learning languages close (or at least, narrow down) if we don't do it sooner than later?
Thanks a lot,
There is nothing wrong at all with your plan to have your children be multi-lingual. The brain has a lot of plasticity at any time and especially at the early ages of your children. There should be no confusion as they will have context to guide them in each language and when it is used (i.e. it will be used when it is spoken to them). Research suggests that it will actually improve their general development. I teach multi-lingual students and they have no problems that are not age appropriate ( I work with ages 13 - 18 years old). Start as soon as possible in the new language. Chinese is more than just grammatically different it is a tonal based language and the way a word is said can change the meaning. Every thing you do with children at this age and older provides mental stimulus for them. If you are electronically oriented I would suggest something like Rosetta Stone or other language software that has sound, pictures, and writing. Make sure the language is taught with visual, written, and oral components.
As far as confusion goes there may be some crossover in language usage to express ideas that they do not have the current language to express. In California, we have Spanglish a mixture of English and Spanish used by some students. As they mature and increase their vocabulary it tends to fade away. So, do not be surprised if you get say, an English sentence with some Chinese, Portuguese, and Swiss in it. Just try to figure out what they are trying to say and add that vocabulary to their knowledge base in the language they are speaking at the time.
I apologize for my tardiness but I wanted to think this through and do a bit more research before I gave you my answer.
Dr. James Turner