Reader Q+A: How to Homeschool Multiple Foreign Languages

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In today's reader Q+A, I'm pleased to answer a question that I get asked pretty frequently, and which recently came up in my Language Learning At Home Facebook group. Over there, reader Amy posted: 

I am looking for some advice or perspectives on teaching/learning more than one foreign language simultaneously. We are currently striving to raise our children bi-lingual (English/Spanish) but I would really like to add Latin to their studies. However, I am concerned that this may be too much or too confusing for them. Ages are 7, 6, 4 & 2.

The short answer to this is: yes, you CAN study more than one language at once! And in fact, I know that many of you already are doing just that, since many of my readers study Latin and a modern language (or two!). 

If your children are learning two or more languages at home, they're in great company--many other children around the world grow up learning 3 or more languages at once. I even have a South African friend who could speak 5 languages by the time she was 10 years old! Now, my friend learned 3 of those languages outside of school--since they were spoken by various family members--and the other two she studied formally. She was lucky to be surrounded by so many different languages, but if you are trying to homeschool two or more foreign languages, you likely know that it takes some extra commitment! 

If you are interested in homeschooling more than one foreign language, here are some things that can help you plan your journey and maintain your sanity along the way. 

1. Consider carefully what your goals are for each language--and structure your time and effort accordingly.

For my own family, it is really important to my husband and I that our children grow up to be bilingual and biliterate in Spanish and English. To that end, we do everything that we can to support their Spanish language development: speaking Spanish at home, incorporating it into our bilingual homeschool, and surrounding them with as many other Spanish speakers as possible. I would also like for my children to have reading knowledge of and conversational ability in Portuguese--so we also devote some time to that, but our commitment is not nearly as time-intensive as it is to Spanish.

Perhaps your family wants to study French seriously, but also leave some time for your kids to study Latin. It's perfectly okay to devote different amounts of time and energy to those languages. You may want to invest lots of effort in creating an immersive French environment in your home, but do 30 minutes of Latin practice daily. Alternatively, you might decide that your family will study French throughout the entire course of your children's education, but only do two years of Latin. That's also a fine arrangement. While there's not a lot of research on trilingualism, the research that we have suggests that it's normal for kids to be particularly strong in one language (maybe two), and weaker in a third--and if you know that ahead of time, you can create reasonable expectations for yourself. You can use best practice guidelines to help you focus on the languages that are really important to you, and then work the other ones in as your schedule allows. 

2. Support all of your children's language learning by paying attention to HOW languages are learned. 

Whether your children studying one foreign language or three, they will learn all of them more efficiently (and effectively) if they apply the best methods for studying a foreign language. I've written about many of these before, so here's a very quick run-down of five of the most important things that you can help your child do. (with links so that you can read up on them further):

Keep in mind also that language learning is a skill that builds upon itself--and that's GREAT news for you, as a multilingual family. As children study a foreign language, they increase in their general linguistic awareness--which actually strengthens their native language skills as well as their ability to learn other languages in the future. This is something that I can attest to personally, having learned three foreign languages myself. Once I figured out my method for learning Spanish, Portuguese and French were relatively easy to pick up. Therefore, if your children are studying more than one foreign language, it is really worth helping them understand how to do so, in order to make the whole process more efficient. 

3. Don't worry if your children "mix" languages--it's completely normal. 

Mixing languages--what linguists call "interference"--is normal and natural for children who grow up learning more than one language--and adult language learners often do it as well. It's absolutely nothing to be concerned about. 

My four-year-old, for example, does this with a a few different words. For example, if he is speaking to me in English,  instead of asking me to "put" a stuffed animal on his bed, he will invariably ask me to "pon" the stuffed animal there. I know that this mistake will eventually work itself out, so I simply remind him of the correct phrasing--"You mean, put this stuffed animal on your bed?"--and move on. If you're a native speaker of the language that your children are learning, you'll likely hear their mistakes and be able to (gently) catch them. With time, they will work themselves out.  

If you're studying more than one language at home, how do you balance it all? What challenges have you encountered in your journey?