Lesson Plan: ‘How Many Languages Could a Child Speak?’

Make a guess and then find out the answer in this lesson.

This Lesson plan is from the New York Times. 

Featured Article: “How Many Languages Could a Child Speak?” by Randall Munroe. (This article is also available in Spanish.)

“If a newborn child grows up hearing people speaking in many different languages, will it later be able to speak all those languages?” This question was submitted to the Good Question column, where Randall Munroe attempts to explain, through writing and illustrations, the scientific mysteries that keep you up at night.

In this lesson, you’ll learn the answer to this question and along the way find out how and why children learn new languages. Then, we invite you to map the languages spoken in your classroom and to discuss the challenges and benefits of being multilingual.

How many languages do you speak? Did you learn them when you were young? Have you tried to learn any recently? What are the challenges of learning a new language?

The question at the center of today’s article was submitted by a Times reader in India:

If a newborn child grows up hearing people speaking in many different languages, will it later be able to speak all those languages?

What do you think? Form a hypothesis to that question based on what you know about language development or your own experiences. Do you think a child could learn to speak two, three or four languages? Dozens? Hundreds? Thousands, even? If you think there is a limit, what do you think it might be, and why?

Read the article, then answer the following questions:

1. How unusual is it for children to grow up speaking multiple languages, according to the article? Does this fact surprise you? Why or why not?

2. What are the obstacles to becoming “omnilingual,” or able to speak and understand all languages, according to the psychologist Suzy J. Styles?

3. Dr. Styles said motivation is a key factor in language development. What are some things that might motivate children to learn different languages? If you speak multiple languages, what prompted you to learn them?

4. The author writes, “If you want to encourage a child to learn a lot of languages, you need to expose them to many of them — and make those languages seem desirable, even cool.” What would make a language seem cool to you? What languages have you always wanted to learn, and why?

6. Were you surprised by the answer to the reader’s question? How close was your hypothesis from the warm-up activity? What is one new thing you learned about language development that you will take away from this article?

What are the languages spoken in your classroom?

Take a moment as a class to make a list of all the languages students in your classroom speak. How many did you come up with?

Then share with one another, as a class or in partners or small groups, how you learned these languages. Do your and your classmates’ experiences resonate with what you learned about language development in the article? For example, did you learn a new language because you thought it was cool? Did you learn one because it gave you certain social advantages, such as being able to talk to your family members, get around a new country or succeed in school?

What else would your group add to the article about what motivates children to learn new languages?

I would love to hear from you