Saturday, August 11, 2018

A 4-Year-Old Polyglot Translator

Bilingual young children are commonplace in the village where I live. They speak Spanish and Valencian. Moreover, once they go to school they start learning English, so they become trilingual though their English is far from fluent. But a four-year old child who can converse in seven languages, and read from a story book in most of them – that is a rarity. Yet it's the achievement of a bouncy little Russian girl called Bella Devyatkina. Seeing is believing, so click [HERE] or go to
to see her performing on TV.  There you will find a whole collection of videos of her.

Her languages are her native Russian plus Chinese. English, French, Italian, Spanish and – surprise – Arabic. What is most extraordinary is not the number of languages; an adult who accompanies her on one of the videos speaks ten and the eighteenth-century orientalist Sir William Jones is reputed to have learnt 28. Multilingualism is one of the universal miracles of human language evolution. Why are  we endowed with the possibility of speaking more than one language? Furthermore it's the ability not only to speak the languages correctly but also to use them appropriately. When Bella is asked a question she answers unhesitatmgly in the language in which it is asked. This is a bilingual's normal instinct. But when she is addressed by a succession of interlocutors using different languages, it requires her to change her language too. Bilinguals' apparently effortless ability to switch between their languages is yet another miracle and there's no agreement about how this is achieved. Bella's ability to do all this at such a young age and with so little exposure to her languages other than Russian supports Noam Chomsky's hypothesis that we are born with an inherited language acquisition mechanism.

There are some other interesting things to notice in Bella's performances.

1. She makes clean switches; she doesn't mix her languages. Up to the age of three, bilinguals tend to mix features of two languages in the same sentence (which the linguists call code switching). At age four, Bella is beyond this.

2. Her languages come from different language families: Slavic for Russian; Romance for French, Italian and Spanish, Germanic for English and German; Semitic for Arabic. The distance between the languages doesn't seem to matter.

3. She reads fluently in all her languages except Arabic. Reading skill is not so extraordinary, but still four years old is very young. She can also sing in them. Singing songs requires memory for melody as well as for words..

4. Bella doesn't use the foreign languages in her everyday life. Hers is not a language brokering situation. So she doesn't have the motivation that real communication need provides in language brokering. Instead, motivation is provided by accustoming her to expect a present each time she gets an interchange of conversation right. Notice that in one of the videos she begins by asking, "Where is my present?".

Is Bella an extraordinarily gifted prodigy, as the TV shows tend to suggest?  (Compared with this child I feel like an idiot," was the comment from one viewer of the Russian TV show, which is called Amazing People.) Not so, says her mother, and likewise the man who speaks ten languages and accompanies her on one of the videos. What's extraordinary is not her ability but her education. She was taught mostly by what's called the OPOL method, which means One Person One Language. It's the method used by the groundbreaking French linguist Jules Ronjat for his son Louis in the early years of the last century (see Sources below). Bella's mother too is a linguist. There's a full account of the teaching process in the Arkhangelskaya article listed below.

One question remains that's important for the Followers of this blog: Can Bella translate? The OPOL method avoids encouraging translation, so it's not surprising that there are no overt tests of it on the videos. But it has been documented since the time of Ronjat that four-year-olds can translate, and we can indeed find a proof that Bella can do it. It comes in the video where, having read fragments of stories in her range of languages, she answers questions about them in Arabic. Her answers are too summary to constitute what some people would consider translations, but we can't apply adult criteria to a child of four. She meets the fundamental characteristic of translation, which is the transfer of information from one language to another.

Thank you Bella, little darling!

Svetlana Arkhangelskaya. 4-year-old Russian girl speaks 7 languages.How did she do this? Russia Beyond, 28 October, 2016. Click [HERE] or go to

One person, one language. Wikipedia, 2016.

Jules Ronjat. Le développement du langage observé chez un enfant bilingue [Language development in a bilingual child]. In French only. Paris: Champion, 1913. 155 p. Click [HERE] or go to