Yes, absolutely. There's nothing stopping a 3-year-old or any toddler from learning more than one language.
Children around the age of 3 are still building their vocabularies and would continue to be extremely receptive up until the age of 8.
Younger children also have a better chance compared to adults of becoming fluent in a second language. With this article, we aim to target language development in infants, toddlers, and preschoolers along with how you can introduce a second language at these different stages.
Its never too late
When people ask the question, can my 3-year-old learn a second language? The true answer is that language learning is independent of age and a second language can be introduced at any point in a child's life. It comes down to the motivations of the individual, the parents, how strong the curriculum is, and the language exposure (quantity of input, teaching methods, etc.). It is, however, true that a child's brain is far more receptive than that of an adult, and the earlier they are introduced to a language, the more comfortable they will be and have a higher likelihood of being fluent in the second language, barring any language disorders during that process.
Earlier the better
We have repeated across blogs and twice within this one, that children are more likely to be fluent in a language compared to adults if they learn a second language. This is said simply because their minds are still developing, where children have 50% of learning pathways in place by the age of 3 and up to 80% by the age of 8. This doesn't mean that they have almost learned everything there is to learn by the age of 8, but rather they have defined how to learn anything. If started early, with the basics of language, color, or math, they will have stronger learning pathways. A strong base sets them up for building strong concepts in the future.
Infants and language acquisition
An infant? Really? Yes, infants are extremely receptive to their surroundings and everything they see, hear, see and smell leaves a mark on their brains. At this time they are hearing the words that are often repeated around them. It is because of this that they speak Mama or Dada as their first words, usually in the native language that they hear around the house often.
This is a tender age and it may seem like infants have little understanding of the world, which is true, but this also means they are learning new things every day. At this stage, your focus should be talking to them in two languages. No complex sentences, just a couple of words here and there. This can be the mother tongue and a foreign language or the mother tongues of both parents in bilingual families. The goal is that there is no goal. Enriching the exposure is the only loose objective here.
If you are already a bilingual family, this will be relatively easy. If you are from a monolingual family, you can try to learn a language, if you do choose to do this, make sure that your pronunciation is perfect. Children learn using sounds and phonetics, so make sure they are hearing the right things. Alternatively, you can hire nannies and caregivers who are bilingual and speak the target language. This kind of exposure can also be beneficial before you move to a more formalized learning setting as they grow up.
What about toddlers?
This is an exciting stage. This is when your child is likely to start speaking their first words between the ages of 1 and 1.5 (18 months). If they were exposed to two languages as a toddler, you are likely to see them apply their language skills in both the first and second languages. These aren't advanced skills and they will not likely be using phrases. They will use words often using both languages in some form or another.
If you decide on this stage to introduce them to a new language at this stage, however, the approach will be slightly different. You can continue with the same foreign language learning strategies that can be used with an infant. In addition to those, you should start considering some tv shows and books meant for toddlers like our Language Learning Bilingual Book. TV shows and books help toddlers to see everyday objects in action, often where parallels are drawn between their first language and their second language. This can be cardinal to language learning because children are known to follow the path of least resistance, which means they are more likely to learn in a fun and interactive way.
It is at this stage that you should also look out for a speech impediment or a language disorder. This may present itself in consistent wrong pronunciation or general confusion when referring to objects. They are still very young, and it could be due to a lack of understanding, but you should see a speech therapist nonetheless.
Read Bilingualism, language, and cognition in children with disabilities
3-year-old toddlers and preschoolers
Coming from either of the previous stages, the child must be adept at making small phrases. Based on the location and language exposure, they should be equally proficient in both languages. Pre-schoolers will be ahead in their language learning journey since they may be switching between two languages constantly. At this, they are a native speaker while sitting to a majority language at school. Most bilingual kids at this age would have a vocabulary of 100-200 words consisting of words from both their first language and second language.
They will also be code-mixing, which is using words from two languages in the same sentence, which is completely normal at this age. The use of different languages will become clearer to them with context and the audience.
From an introduction perspective, this is a great age too. If you wish to teach your young child another language, this is still an early age to do so. This would involve providing inputs in the other language which is in line with infants and young toddlers. In addition to that, they will need to learn by reading through books and watching videos, in a manner where the relationship between their current and new language.
It is imperative that these input sources are used for both monolingual and bilingual children. Older learners will need a rocker level of input both in terms of vocabulary and basic sentence structure. If your child is successfully bilingual, focus on further improving input with children's literature, and don't push them to learn a third language, they can do so at a later stage.
Children learning a new language is an exciting endeavor, you will be able to observe them learn new words and use and respond to them in different ways. Anyone at any age can learn a second language and your 3-year-old toddler certainly can. 3 years old is still a young age and toddlers can learn a language effectively. Make sure that as a parent, you make this language-learning journey convenient and free of difficulty. This means exploring alternate learning methods and not overwhelm with literature. With the right type of input and effective teaching methods, anything is possible. To learn more about raising bilingual children read Raising a Bilingual Child.