Will My Bilingual Child Lose a Language?

by expert · 5 comments

It is often the case that the strengths of a person’s two languages tend to vary across time.  As there is more or less exposure to one language, as different people such as brothers and sisters enter the family situation, as schooling starts and peer-group relationships grow, so does the language dominance and preference of children for one of their two languages.  A child may find it easier to speak English in some circumstances, Spanish in others and this may vary as practice and experience change.  Sometimes the shift will be large.  A child may stop speaking one of their languages while still being able to understand that language.  This is a naturally worrying event for many parents.

It is often impossible and unwise to compel a child to speak a language.  Sometimes, bilingual parents try to achieve conformity without conviction.  For example, a parent may say to their children that they do not understand them speaking the majority language.  Unless this is handled tactfully and skillfully, the result is that children learn that language is an imposition, a part of authoritarian power.  It is unwise to control dogmatically children’s language preference.  This is not to say that one shouldn’t try to influence it tactfully and more latently.  Manipulation rather than domination tends to achieve more in the long term.

When children are younger, one possible solution is to extend the range of language experiences in their less preferred language, for example, staying with grandparents or cousins, visits to enjoyable cultural festivals, a renewal in the language materials and other language stimuli in the home for that weaker language (e.g. videos, pop records, the visits of cousins).  If both parents read to, or listen to the child reading before bedtime, or if the language of family conversation at the meal table is manipulated to advantage, then subtly the language balance of the home may be readjusted.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Ludivine May 13, 2010 at 8:58 am

I have spoken French (we live in the US) to my children as babies and young toddlers. With each of them, they were bilingual for the first couple of years, then English became dominant. They also did not want to speak French. My fourth child is not 16 months, I have spoken only French to him. He says as many words in French as in English. The best part is that now my oldest children (7 and 8) are amazing me by saying things in French to the baby, and actually wanting to speak French. I promised them a summer of French immersion at home, and they seem excietd about it. All along they saved their French somewhere in their brain and are now reading to use it.


2 soultravelers3 May 13, 2010 at 4:22 pm

It takes many years of hard work and commitment to raise a truly fluent multi-lingual & multi-literate child. I’ve known TONS of parents who despite being native speakers in a minority language, fail to raise bilingual children.

This happened to my niece, despite their good intentions, regularly going over seas to visit the grandparents who only spoke the minor language etc.

Languages are live things, so must be used regularly. Young kids can learn languages quickly, but they can forget them just as quickly.

The work goes on for years. I knew a wise mother who was an expert in bilingual education and raised her children as bilinguals. But even in high school, she would have them talk to her about what they were learning in the first language in school , in the 2nd language at home, so that they would have all of the vocabulary in both languages.

We are monolinguals raising a very fluent trilingual /tri-literate from birth, which has been so very rewarding, but lots of work! 😉


3 Kulam May 13, 2010 at 5:01 pm

It is interesting to learn the efforts the parents and children make to maintain the mulitilingual ability. We are of Tamil language speaking background. We migrated to Australia before 10 years, our daughter was 12, elder son was 8 and younger son was 7. My all children have attended the Saturday School run by the Tamil community in association with the Dept. of Education, New South Wales. My daughter has been able to take Tamil language for her HSC examination. The elder son manages speaking and listening Tamil in order to maintain communication. The younger son tries hard to speak or listen Tamil. We , parents always talk to them in Tamil. They all are at uni now. I can see that they now feel it is important to have the ability to communicate in Tamil with the friends and family members. We are trying our level best to give them exposure to Tamil language.


4 Corey May 15, 2010 at 1:07 am

Thank you for your comments! What fabulous wisdom you have shared with all of us. It can be so frightening when our children start to resist one of their languages but so very reassuring to read about others who have hit this stage and are finding creative ways to overcome it. Thank you so much for sharing!


5 Isabelle July 2, 2010 at 6:42 am

Speaking from experience, I grew up with two languages (Italian and English), and literally stopped USING Italian for about 8 years. Then I had to reuse Italian for work purposes and it all came back. I thought I had LOST it. Infact after a week or so on holiday in Italy, it came back. So, I think a child doesn’t necessarily have to speak it to have a working knowledge of it. Just
listening to it may be enough. Like Ludivine said, they saved the French somewhere in their head and now are ready to use it.


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