Ask François Grosjean: What Happens When Bilingual Children Start Going to School in the Community Language?

by Corey · 3 comments

While Prof. Emeritus François Grosjean was working on his wonderful book Bilingual: Life and Reality, he asked me to send him a list of questions that I felt weighed the heaviest on the minds of parents raising multilingual children. It is my honor to present both my questions and Prof. Grosjean’s answers here at Multilingual Living over the course of the next few weeks.

This the ninth of the eleven Q & A which originally appeared in The Bilingual Family Newsletter, one of my favorite publications for families raising children in more than one language (in addition to our own Multilingual Living Magazine, of course)! After each of of Prof. Grosjean’s answers you will find a list of the specific chapters from Bilingual: Life and Reality in which he addresses each question.

What will happen to our children’s bilingualism when they start going to school in the community language?

If one of the children’s languages is already the community/school language then it will be given an incredible burst when they start attending school.

Several reasons explain this: it will be used much more than before and its domains of use will expand; it will be used by peers and the teachers (new and important people in the children’s lives); and it will be the language in which the first steps in literacy are undertaken.

Within only a few months, it may well become the children’s dominant language which they will use increasingly and bring home with them (with their home work, friends, etc.). They may even try to use it exclusively with their parents so as not to be different from other children.

It is well known that between ages six and the early teens, many children will give the school or majority language their priority to the detriment of the weaker, home, language. Some may even refuse to speak the latter to their parents and other family members.

Hence, parents will want to develop various stratagems to reinforce the weaker language. If they can find ways of “holding on” until the teenage years, there is every chance that the weaker language will find its niche and the bilingualism of their children will be stabilized, even if they become dominant in the majority language.

Relevant chapter in Bilingual: Life and Reality which addresses this question: chapter 3, 14 & 17.

Past Ask François Grosjean Q&A in the series:

  1. The first in the series is Ask François Grosjean: Are My Bilingual Children Getting Enough Exposure?
  2. The second in the series is Ask François Grosjean: What is the best method for helping children become bilingual?
  3. The third in the series is Ask François Grosjean: Can I Change From One Language Or Method To Another?
  4. The fourth in the series is Ask François Grosjean: What Does Research Say About the Benefits of Multilingualism?
  5. The fifth in the series is Ask François Grosjean: Is It OK for Parents to Raise Bilingual Children in a Non-Native Language?
  6. The sixth in the series is Ask François Grosjean: What are the golden rules that bilingual families should follow?
  7. The seventh in the series is Ask François Grosjean: Is just a little bit of language exposure with a bilingual child worth it?
  8. The eighth in the series is Ask François Grosjean: What About More Than Two Languages in a Multilingual Family?

François Grosjean, the author of Bilingual: Life and Reality, received his degrees up to the Doctorat d'Etat from the University of Paris, France. He started his academic career at the University of Paris 8 and then left for the United-States in 1974 where he taught and did research in psycholinguistics at Northeastern University, Boston. While at Northeastern he was also a Research Affiliate at the Speech Communication Laboratory at MIT. In 1987, he was appointed professor at Neuchâtel University, Switzerland, where he founded the Language and Speech Processing Laboratory. He has lectured occasionally at the Universities of Basel, Zurich and Oxford. In 1998, he cofounded Bilingualism: Language and Cognition (Cambridge University Press). Visit his website at: and his Psychology Today blog, Life as a bilingual, at:

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Rebecca July 27, 2010 at 1:34 am

I find this question extremely interesting since my daughter just finished her first year of school. What I noticed is not only did her French (community language and spoken by father at home) get stronger, but so did her English (spoken only by me at home) in many ways. Of course, she began using more French vocabulary with me and even sprinkles our discussion with ready-made French sentences. But I noticed that as her French grammar got better and her sentence structure got more complex, my daughter tried to do the same in English. So, so far, school has not been a detriment to her English which spoken only by me at home.


2 Corey July 30, 2010 at 10:27 pm

Thank you so much for this comment, Rebecca! This is exactly what researchers have been reporting for years – having you share your experiences first hand is so fabulous! Whether our kids decide there is no need to speak our home language or not, they are still benefiting from the whole learning *about* language. So neat that your daughter is trying to do the same in English! I love it!


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