Nowadays it is widely agreed that growing up multilingual is a great benefit for children. What I sometimes hear, though, is that people generally agree but then qualify the statement: multilinguals may have great advantages in many areas, they say, but in their first language they won’t reach the highest level.

It is a statement worth thinking about. A child like S. who grows up in three languages and in three cultures is necessarily less exposed to her first language than a monolingual speaker. In S.’s case for example there has been little input in Italian from the grandparents as only one of them is Italian and he lives far away. There hasn’t been any Italian input from me either so she certainly missed out on something compared to monolingual speakers.

Obviously S. has become an Italian mother-tongue speaker also without Italian grandparents and dad. She lives in Italy, goes to an Italian school and her mother speaks Italian to her. We are looking at a more specific level though. Will S.’s lack of Italian input have an influence on the quality of her Italian?

For the time being S. is in line with other Italian children. She does not stand out as being particularly eloquent, but she does not have shortcomings either. In school she has a good mark in Italian and her teachers say that she expresses herself well. Penny however sometimes points out that S.’s Italian could be more refined and often is rather colloquial.  When S. was preparing for a history test the other day, she said that “i greci avevano un sacco di colonie” (Italian for: the greek had a pile of colonies). Obviously most children use colloquial terms in the wrong context, but Penny thinks there are children of S.’s age who speak better and are more eloquent.

Those children might have had more quality input in Italian or they are simply gifted for language. S., however, is likely to catch up: Experts say that in the long term the quality of a multilingual’s first language doesn’t depend so much on the fact that he or she is multilingual, but on education, socio-economic status or the reading and writing habits. When S. was younger her language input came mainly through family members, of whom a lot didn’t speak Italian to her. It is understandable that it takes her longer to develop her language skills. The older she gets, though, the more input she gets from people outside of the family, her Italian friends for example or her Italian teachers.

The decisive factor for becoming well spoken, however, could be S. reading and writing habits. S. has started to devour books. Often she goes to the library, gets a pile of books and a couple of days later she has already finished them all. It is not yet Shakespeare’s collected works but she reads a lot of Roald Dahl for example.

In a school questionnaire S. recently said that she loves reading and writing. The other day she wrote a story with one of her favourite book characters, Geronimo Stilton. The story was well written, also using complex grammar like the passato remoto. This should all help her to improve her Italian in the future.

I wouldn’t be surprised if S.’s language skills take off in the future. When multilingual children are young their vocabulary in each language initially is smaller than that of monolingual speakers. Later on they catch up. I suppose it could be the same with their eloquence. Initially multilinguals struggle to master the different languages and later on they catch up.

Some people even say multilinguals can eventually reach better language skills than monolinguals. They are often able to transfer from one language to another. They are also likely to develop a greater sensitivity for languages. Understanding the subtleties of different languages helps them to understand their first language better.