My wife’s cousin Anna, from Mexico, married a Dutchman, Ruudek (Ruud) and they now live in West Africa with their two children Elea and Ulysse. The children, ages 5 (Ulysse) and 9 (Elea) both speak 4 languages fluently: French, English, Spanish and Dutch. They even speak a smattering of an African language. Both children learned Spanish and the other languages without making any particular effort – just as children and many adults do all over the world. I’m amazed when I watch them switch easily from one language to another. Yet, they acquired those languages through the natural language acquisition abilities that all we humans have.
How did they do it?
They both have attended schools where they received some formal language instruction, so they also learned French and English as well as acquiring it. Here’s how they are able to speak 4 languages today. Their parents met and eventually married in Paris where both were studying. Since neither spoke the other’s native language at the time (i.e. Dutch and Spanish), they spoke French and continue to speak French with each other to this day. When Elea was born they decided that it would be good if she could speak Spanish and Dutch, too. So Anna spoke to Elea in Spanish and Ruud communicated with her in Dutch.
When Ulysse was born a few years later, his parents continued the same pattern of speaking Spanish and Dutch with him. Of course, both children have also been hearing French in their home ever since they were born because their parents speak that language with each other. The family spent several years in an English-speaking West African country and both children picked up English from daily exposure to it from the nanny, from school and from playmates.
If you are reading this blog, most likely you are an adult. How can you or I learn from the example of Ulysse and Elea? Many people assume that children learn languages faster than adults, but it’s not clear that children really do have such an advantage – in fact the opposite may be true. However, t’s pretty obvious that Elea and Ulysse have the right conditions to learn languages.