Vocabulary is the Achilles heel of multilingualism. This does not mean, of course, that multilinguals cannot have a wide vocabulary. Rather, it simply means that vocabulary building is not automatic, but is usually the result of conscious effort. What is reassuring, however, is that while there is a more sensitive period for pronunciation and the accurate acquisition of a grammatical system, we have the whole of our lives to acquire and expand our vocabulary. We are constantly learning new words and phrases, not only as multilinguals but also as monolinguals, because our environment is constantly changing, even if we live in the same place.
In theory, therefore, children have unlimited opportunities to expand their vocabulary, but of course this doesn’t happen overnight. An important factor, although not the only one, is the amount of time a child spends learning each language.
It is natural that there will be variations, with more or less time spent on different languages, but even if there is only a small amount of time available, it is still worth making the most of it. Stories and books can help language learning enormously.
But is it necessary to have the same books in several languages at the same time? In order for a child to get to know a story, it doesn’t matter which language he or she hears or reads it in. The younger the child, the more likely he or she is to want to listen to the same story over and over again, so there is even more opportunity to tell the same story in multiple languages. However, as children get older, it becomes less and less possible to get them to do this. Their thirst for knowledge is so great that they always want something new, and that’s fine. At this stage, it is better to make sure that the scales do not tip in the direction of one language and that they continue to read books in all their languages.
An enormous advantage of books and the written word in general is that they are less harmful for children than visual expression. If a book contains a story or situation that is inappropriate for a child of a particular age, he or she may not take it in, whereas if the child sees aggressive or sexual content in a film, for example, they may be disturbed by it. However, if they hear or read about such things, they can turn away from them or only process the parts they are ready to cope with. It’s the same as when they do not fully understand a new word and so they guess at its meaning. And if a child finds too many things in a story that are difficult for them to understand, they simply ignore them. So they can protect themselves from anything inappropriate.
Coming back to the time factor, if we really have very little time left to use a particular language and we notice that, for example, a child’s heritage language skills have weakened a lot, we can look for materials in that language that cover the same topics as their school projects. This is because if they have already had an insight into the topic in school, they will easily understand a related text in another language. Of course, it’s okay to choose a book that has nothing to do with the subjects they are studying at school, but is of much greater interest to them. A positive attitude facilitates learning just as much as objective factors.
In fact, the question of whether we read the same book in different languages, or whether we divide different parts of the same series between languages, which is an excellent method, or whether we introduce a child to completely different books in one language or another, is of secondary importance. The most important thing is to have stories, storytelling and reading in our children’s lives. Because if they themselves enjoy reading, then they will not only have access to the vocabulary that we give them directly, but they will also be able to expand it themselves. This is the real defence against their Achilles’ heel.