In her younger years, my best friend taught ballet to preschoolers. Her precious little students would frolic through the studio in their tutus and spin around obliviously to whatever music Bettie turned on. All of her students but one, that is.

This student was the dark-haired little girl of a mother from Italy and a father from Greece. Cristina was a beautiful four-year-old, but with a personality that could only be described as feisty. While her classmates were flailing around pretending to be fairies, Cristina was determined to do “real ballet” and would get incredibly frustrated at the others in her class. In the middle of everything she would stomp her tiny foot and start screaming alternately in Italian and Greek. Bettie would stare hopelessly at the child and try to convince her to speak English, which, of course, she didn’t understand.

I thought that she was exaggerating until I saw one of these multilingual meltdowns in the middle of the dance recital. I was stunned. While most little ones her age were having trouble getting the hang of one language, Cristina was speaking three. How did this happen? How could parents possibly teach their babies so many languages at once?

The language-learning capability of babies is truly astonishing. In the earliest moments of life, babies are able to differentiate between the phonetics of different languages and will respond most to phonetics heard in utero. This also primes babies for easy acquisition of languages. Because they are able to identify the different sound patterns of separate languages, babies who are exposed consistently to two or more languages will be able to learn these languages simultaneously with and independently of one another. This ability, however, declines sharply after 6 months of age if not adequately stimulated; therefore, if you wish to develop an amazing multilingual baby, you need to begin nurturing language acquisition as early as possible.

Numerous studies have been done into the most effective means of language learning. The most notable factor is the ability of children to differentiate between and identify with phonetics of different languages in the earliest stages of language acquisition. Babies exposed to prerecorded speech in different languages were nowhere near as capable of internalizing these languages as babies exposed to the language through interaction with adults speaking that language. Hearing the natural usage of a language and connecting it with affection, nurturing and play from another person is vital for babies learning that language due to the emotional and psychological connections that are made.

It seems little Cristina was able to pick up her parents’ native languages so easily because of the frequency with which those languages were used to express emotion both positive and negative- which is also why those languages emerged when she was feeling frustrated, angry and overwhelmed.

Source: Kuhl Patricia. Foreign-language experience in infancy: Effects of short-term exposure and social interaction on phonetic learning. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Volume 100, Issue 15, July 22, 2003.