Meet Nina, the eight-year-old who speaks four languages

While most primary school students are juggling two languages, Nina has mastered four. Nina, aged eight, is currently a Year 4 student at ISL. But unlike most children in her class, she speaks and writes four languages fluently – English, French, Italian, and Russian – and she even knows a few words in Portuguese.

Nina was born and raised in Switzerland to an Italian father, Livio, and a Ukrainian mother, Masha. She started showing an affinity for languages from a very early age. She learned Italian and Russian from her parents and soon picked up French from her daycare and Portuguese from her nanny. And just like most Gen Z digital natives, she started learning English from cartoons and YouTube videos. By age four, she was alternating between five languages, and was perfectly unfazed by her life as a multilingual child.

It wasn’t until Nina started at ISL in Reception 4 that she became fully fluent in English. As I sit across from her and her family on our virtual video chat, I’m impressed by how flawless her English is as she makes witty jokes and teases her parents in an ever-so-charming, Italian– American accent.

Nina’s parents encourage her language development with private tutoring and immersive activities. She’s attended Russian language classes since the age of two and has private Italian lessons twice a week. She brushes up on her French by joining in after-school activities in her local neighbourhood and playing with friends.

At home, she switches back and forth between languages with confidence and ease. With her mom and four-year-old sister, Alessandra, she speaks French and Russian. With her dad she speaks Italian, and with her older brother, Pietro, she speaks Italian and English.

To Nina, languages are a gateway to social connections: “When I go to Ukraine and Italy, I can speak with my family – my aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. But I love the idea that I can also travel to new places like France and talk to the locals and make new friends.”

But learning a new language isn’t always easy. The most challenging thing for Nina is how language learning advances in phases: “First, you learn how to speak a few words, and then you learn how to write. It’s difficult to get the accent right. But when you can say a full sentence, and also write it, then it all comes together. And that’s a beautiful moment.”

Nine has started ISL’s new bilingual programme in August. She passed the entrance exam with flying colours and is excited to be part of this new adventure. One day, Nina hopes to also learn Mandarin, Spanish, and Ukrainian – and we have no doubt that she will master them with as much ease and confidence as she did the rest.

Gradient Issue #2: The magazine of the International School of Lausanne

In this edition, we explore how our community has coped during this special year to make the best of it. We also have a special section on multilingualism and how it can both benefit and challenge our students.