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Multilingual Language Learning Plan

Language learning plan for a traveling child I realize that I am standing at the apex of a great experiment as I watch my one year and three month old daughter, Petra, learning Spanish and English as simultaneous first languages. Each day, she uses new words, all the time she is learning new word meanings. [...]

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Language learning plan for a traveling child

I realize that I am standing at the apex of a great experiment as I watch my one year and three month old daughter, Petra, learning Spanish and English as simultaneous first languages. Each day, she uses new words, all the time she is learning new word meanings. I must wonder how many languages she could learn as she grows up traveling the world.

It has become clear to me that I need to develop a language learning plan for her to successfully learn not only Spanish and English, but a few other languages as well on our continuous path around the world.

Read the previous entries on this topic: Bilingual Child Language Development | Top Languages to Learn for World Travel

Bilingualism really isn’t something that simply happens. Raising children to be successful in more than one language requires some careful planning and learning about bilingual language development. Success appears to depend on whether a “language plan” has been worked out in advance. Families who take the time to consider how their children will develop two languages, and who make the necessary commitments to bilingual language development, tend to be more successful in raising bilingual children. -Bilingual children

The opportunity to learn multiple foreign languages is part of the inherent benefits of world travel. If you set out to girdle the globe, you need to be able to communicate with people: you must study foreign languages. For myself, I can communicate decently in Spanish and Chinese Mandarin. For my wife, she speaks Spanish with near fluency. As for my daughter, she seems more prone to learning Spanish, the language of where she has been traveling for the bulk of her life, rather than the native tongue of her parents. My entire family all stands to learn many more languages as our world travels continue, and Petra is at age when she can absorb and learn a language simply from exposure.

Petra in Mexico learning Spanish

Up until the age of adolescents, a child has the super capacity for learning language — they are programed to absorb them like sponges. Simply put, it seems to me as if young children do not yet know enough to realize that they cannot understand the foreign languages beings spoken around them, and they can listen without the walls that adults inherently put up. It is unmeasurable how many languages a child can learn up until the time they hit puberty, and I intend to take full advantage of this special ability that my daughter currently has, and make way for her to learn as many languages as possible.

Very few adults can learn a foreign language simply from exposure as children can. No matter how long you spend in a foreign country you will not learn dick of the language unless you study, practice, and bust your balls. One of the great myths of travel is that it teaches you language. This is not true, travel does not teach foreign language, but travel does provide the best opportunities for language learning.

But what languages should we learn?

For a traveler, learning a foreign language means two things:

1. being in a region that speaks a desired language long enough to absorb it.

2. Putting in the time and leg work to learn the language.

I have a strong desire to continue learning Chinese, but if I don’t spend years traveling in China, my knowledge of it will not grow. On the contrary, I have very little interest in learning Hungarian, and no matter how many years I spend in Hungary I would not learn the language.

Exposure and passion are the two major factors that drive a traveler to learn foreign languages.

As for the language learning plan for my daughter, I must take into account the fact that it is not my intention to stay in any country for much longer than a few months at a time. This means that I want to aim my family towards regions that speak world languages that can be used in many different countries. In my opinion, the world languages are English, Spanish, French, Chinese, Arabic, and Russian — and I list these languages in accordance to my impression of their importance for a traveler to acquire.

English is mine and my wife’s native tongue, and I am sure Petra is going to learn it as one of her first languages. But my daughter is also showing signs of taking on Spanish as another first language, and I must plot my travels accordingly.

Petra with friends learning Spanish

Travel plan for Petra’s Spanish acquisition

As I have previously stated, my daughter, Petra, has already made great leaps towards acquiring Spanish as one of her first languages. She has been in Spanish speaking countries for most of her life, and her first spoken words came out in Spanish. The years between birth and three is the best time to learn a language natively, and I do not wish to cut Petra short of the opportunity to fully absorb Spanish during these crucial years. So it is my travel plan to primarily stay in Spanish speaking countries at least up until the time that Petra turns three years of age.

To travel away from Hispanic countries at this point would be to brick wall my daughter’s Spanish acquisition. A dick move, for sure.

It is important for Petra to stay in Spanish speaking countries until she has firm grip on on her first two languages, and only then should we branch out to other parts of the world and take on other languages. So it is looking like my family will continue traveling in Mexico, Central and South America, as well as Spain for the next couple of years.

Bilingual language learning plan

The “experts” say that it is important to have a bilingual language learning plan. They say that otherwise children could be in danger of learning a “hybrid” language.

. . . separating the languages to make language acquisition easier for kids.

Consistency is key in early language learning. If you mix languages in the same conversation, young kids experience difficulty separating vocabulary and grammar into the appropriate language. The child may learn the “mixed” language as one hybrid language. -Rosenberg Bilingual education

In all my travels, I have never met an adult hybrid language speaker — someone who terminally mixes two languages without knowledge of which is which. This simply does not happen. It is very common in this world for children to be brought up learning multiple languages — especially in Africa, parts of Europe, the Caribbean, and for people in “indigenous” communities throughout the world. Learning two, or even three, languages at once is an odd scenario for people in the USA to grasp, but so much of the world is raised this way. It is not odd for a South African to grow up speaking three or four languages, this is normal.

Multiply language learning in childhood is a normal process for much of the world.

Which is why I am not too worried when I read the musings of “experts” which inform me that Petra may become confused by learning two languages at once, that the presence of multiple tongues in her life may cause her developmental delays in terms of speech and comprehension. I will also not follow the advice of experts who say that a strict plan of language separation should be instituted from the start. No, I will let Petra learn as much of both languages as she can, and then later sort them out at her own pace.

I have learned from observation that multi-lingual children eventually learn how to properly separate languages on their own. Somehow.

My friend Craig at Travelvice.com married a Peruvian woman and they are currently raising their son, Aidric, bilingually. They do not seem to follow any pre-programed, western medical-esque, planned out, and overtly constructed way of teaching him two languages at once — they just help him to learn naturally.

From an email that Craig sent to me about Aidric’s language acquisition:

It’s just very natural that things have two different words to describe them. When he’s not making himself clear with one (or he’s being pushy), he’ll switch to the other. Or he’ll just call it whatever he feels like using at that time. So, what a bilingual child will initially lack in vocabulary breadth he’ll gain in depth regarding the ability to express or clarification a specific object or whatnot.

Early on there was certainly a preference for English words, as they’re often times easier to pronounce or have fewer syllables. Tatiana speaks to him in Spanish 85% of the time. I speak to him in English 85% of the time. We always speak to each other in English. Aidric’s videos are in English (he’d scream at them in any other language). So, a lot of his vocab ended up being English-orientated.

But I do remember him coming back from being with Tatiana and her mom in Miami and Lima (age 12-15 months) speaking some really basic Spanish, with less English. Then it flipped… and now it has sorta flopped back to some extent (now that we’re here in Peru and he’s going to school and everyone but Tatiana and me are speaking Spanish).

But the cool thing’s that he’ll interchange the words he knows at random, not for anyone or anything special… just whatever his mood is. Some words he can only say (or knows) in one of the languages, but it’s really funny when he counts and mixes it up: …seven eight nueve diez!

Tatiana thinks that Spanish is much harder than English, so it’s good that you’re exposing Petra to it. Embrace it as much as possible, and support it by teaching her words in English for the objects she’s already picked a name out for in Spanish. We’re always doing that with Aidric. He says ‘arroz’ to me, I say “mhmm – arroz, muy bien… rice.” He says ‘rice’ I say “mhmm – rice, very good. arroz.”

Pretty neat. I’m learning a lot, too. Like why the hell would I have known what the Spanish word for fingernail is? Just not something I ever thought of asking. But Aidric knows it, and he taught it to me.

I read this short email as an instruction guide for promoting bilingualism in a child, and what Craig covered above is what my wife and I are doing to assist Petra with learning Spanish and English concurrently. Global observation shows me that a bilingual child will eventually separate out their languages of their own volition and be able to speak them both with native finesse.

This is what I want for my daughter.

Language is something that my lifestyle can provide for Petra, and I want to set our travels up so that she can make the most of this time in her life when she is able to absorb foreign languages so smoothly. Ultimately, I would like to help my daughter learn Chinese Mandarin, French, and Swahili while she is young and her linguistic mind supple — but this is planning for the long term.

I would be proud to call myself a father if Petra could speak four or five languages with fluency by the time she slips out from under my wing and embarks upon her own travels.


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Filed under: Language, Mexico, North America, Petra Hendele Adara Shepard, Travel With Family

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3723 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

8 comments… add one

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  • Mack November 19, 2010, 12:36 am

    You’re a badass father.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com November 19, 2010, 11:10 am

      Thanks Mack, much appreciated. I try my best haha. But I must wonder if Petra is going to think so when she is 16 and looks through this website to find all sorts of funny pictures of her haha.

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  • enchy December 3, 2010, 8:22 am

    Sad that we only have Chinese Mandarin in China, if we don’t count all those dialects.
    Petra is so lucky!~

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com December 3, 2010, 5:16 pm

      Very right on. It is rare that you hear other languages in much of China outside of minority regions. But there are some pretty good foreign language programs at many of the universities.



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  • Bob L December 13, 2010, 12:37 pm

    It will be interesting to see how Petra’s accent develops. People tend to speak words how they learned them, at least adults do. I stayed at a couple’s house once, where both were multi-lingual. But the woman’s English was a riot. She actually never lived in England, but she learned her english at home and at various schools in different parts of the world including south africa. When she talked, different words and phrases had different accents, depending on when she learned the word. Talking with her was like talking to at least four different people. Everything from proper upper class british to a south afrikaner kind of sound to lower crust british. Petra will be growing up, at least for the next few years, in countries where the spanish sounds very different from one to another. Will she retain the accents she hears, or will they disapear once you leave the area? Only time will tell.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com December 13, 2010, 2:39 pm

      This is going to be funny. I can only hope she does not pick up the accents of her parents when speaking Spanish!

      Though another interesting point to mention here is that Petra is going to be the subject of a case study for the doctorate research of a speech pathologist.

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  • Stevie May 28, 2013, 12:53 pm

    Awesome! My husband Tree and I left the U.S over three years ago to travel the world, starting with the Pan-American highway. We gave birth to our daughter, Soleil, in Lima seven and a half months ago, and we’re now raising her on the road with the intention of being bilingual. I love hearing about Petra’s development, as she is just a hair older than Sol, and being raised with a similarly sui-generis lifestyle. Perhaps someday our girls will meet! It sounds like both your family and ours will be in Latin America for the next few years. You can find us at http://www.sprinterlife.com. Stay in touch!

    Suerte amigos! No veo la hora de conocerlos!

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  • VagabondJourney May 29, 2013, 1:31 am

    Thanks for getting in touch. Our daughter is now three and a half years old and we have been in China for the past 14 months. Here’s her latest multilingual update: http://www.vagabondjourney.com/chinese-english-bilingualism/. We are considering a return to Latin American soon though. Probably Mexico. We are always looking for traveling families to meet up with, so lets keep tabs on each other.

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