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Recommended reading Having more than one language

Just like any other skill, language skills develop best when they’re practised regularly and consistently, and are learned from real live humans (instead of learning from audio or video recordings).

Becoming fluent in a second or third language is easier the earlier the exposure to the other language/s start. The older a person gets, the harder it becomes to learn a new language.

During their second year, a child’s language development still relies on the quality and quantity of language they hear.

Learning second and third languages

When a baby is consistently spoken to in a second language from birth, it’s called ‘simultaneous acquisition’ — learning two languages at the same time.

When a second language is learned after the first is already established, it’s called ‘sequential acquisition’. This could happen if a family moved to a new country with a different language, or if a child raised exclusively with one language enters early childhood education (ECE) where a different language is used.

A second or third language develops in the same way that a first language does, with the child needing to:

  • consistently have it spoken directly to them
  • hear it used around them
  • hear it used in connection to the people and the world they live in.

Language and culture are closely linked

Bilingual individuals can connect better with both sides of their family and cultures than those who have only learned one of their parent’s languages.

Literature on raising bilingual children refers to different systems for learning more than one language. ‘OPOL’ is the ‘one person one language’ system, whereas ‘MLH’ refers to ‘minority language at home’. Either system is appropriate for helping a child during this stage of their language development.

One person one language system

OPOL is where a parent or whānau member speaks and responds to the child in one language exclusively. This offers a reliable and consistent model of the language, and is a natural way of learning language. Children will learn who to speak to, in which language.

The challenge of one person one language

The challenge with OPOL is when a child spends much more time with one of the language speakers than with the other. For example, a full-time caregiver at home versus a parent who works full-time away from home.

However, it can work out if the working partner speaks a ‘majority’ language — one that’s spoken in the wider community. If not, and they’re the child’s only model of the language, it will make progress slower.

Similarly, if a child attends ECE full-time, where a majority language is spoken, they’ll have limited access to the minority language of their home caregiver. Whānau may look for other opportunities for reinforcing the use of the home language — for example, through cultural links, church or language playgroups.

Minority language at home

MLH is natural for immigrant families and when all family members speak the same language at home — one that differs to that spoken in public outside the home. If these children attend a monolingual ECE environment, they can still absorb that second language, even when their home language differs.


Whatever system is used, the key is that the child uses each one regularly. Having a system helps ensure that each language has a place, and one language doesn’t dominate, or reduce or stop the other one being used or learned.

Follow the link for information on 2 other systems for learning a second language (‘time and place’ and ‘mixed language’):

Further information

  • Connecticut’s guidelines for the development of infant and toddler early learning


  • Harvard University’s Centre on the Developing Child: Serve and return interaction shapes brain circuitry


  • Patricia Kuhl’s TED Talk The linguistic genius of babies

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