Some bilingual children become bilingual before school; however, many others become bilingual at school. Many children in immigrant families stay in a mainly family language environment until it’s time for school, because either parents hope that it will help the child to learn the family language better, or it just happens this way. And there are all kinds of “in-between”, when the child knows the majority language to some extent (I’ll say English, because I live in Canada, but it applies to any majority language).
So the moment comes when your child starts school. This is a turning point in the child’s language development. The child starts spending most of his/her day in an English-speaking school environment, showered with new information, very busy learning English. It might be difficult at first, but in a few months, the child becomes able to communicate in English. If the child already spoke English before school, she will still learn lots of new words.
What happens at this time to your child’s first language – the family language?
It depends a lot on what you, as a parent, do. There are two possibilities: additive bilingualism and subtractive bilingualism.
Subtractive bilingualism is the replacement of the family language by English. This happens when a child’s language environment changes from mainly the family language to mainly English. The basics of a language are mastered before school, but language development is not yet complete – you know that kindergarteners don’t speak like adults. When a child does not have an opportunity to keep hearing and speaking the family language, its development stops, and later, the child even forgets what she already learned – first forgetting words, and then losing the ability to build proper sentences. The younger the child, the faster this happens.
Additive bilingualism, obviously, means adding a new language to the one the child already knows, rather than replacing the old one by it. While learning the new language, the child continues to use the old one regularly and frequently. Which means every day, for several hours, about a variety of topics. In this situation, the child has a chance to grow up truly bilingual, able to communicate in both languages. This happens if the child’s parents continue to find time to speak with the child in the family language, watch cartoons and movies in it with the child, read books in it, teach the child to read in it, take the child to places where the family language is spoken, and so on.
Often, children, after a day at school, continue speaking English after school to their parents, and reply in English even when the parent is speaking to them in the family language. They do it because they were doing it all day, and now it seems easy to continue rather than to switch.
This is the turning point. And it repeats every day, for many days.
If you accept that your child is answering in English, and you either ignore it or switch to English too – the child will always do it, and will end up with subtractive bilingualism.
If you insist that the child answers in the family language, you will likely meet resistance at first, but if you keep insisting, the child will switch, and each day when you win will be a step towards additive bilingualism.
This is especially important when the child just recently became fluent in English. If your goal is additive bilingualism, your newly bilingual child has to learn to switch from one language to another, depending on the situation. If you miss this moment and let your child speak English to you, later it will be more difficult to get him to switch to the family language, because he might already experienced some language loss. On the other hand, when your child learns to switch from early on, you won’t have to fight for this any more (although it might happen occasionally).
So how to get your child to switch when you pick her up from school?
First, make it a rule, something like: “in our family, you speak to me in the family language, unless we are around people who don’t speak our language or doing English homework”.
If the child does not switch, gently remind her. A good idea is to provide a clue, a prompt to switch. For my children, this was the sound of the car engine starting (I drive them home from the school). Now when they are experienced switchers, we switch to Russian when we leave the school (unless we are with somebody who doesn’t understand Russian).
If this does not help, you can deliberately ignore what your child says unless the child speaks in the family language. Or you can try, like I did, replying to English in a language that your child doesn’t understand. I have a friend who does not speak other languages, so she makes up some unintelligible combination of sounds for this purpose. Sometimes I just said, “Look, I’m tired, I can’t listen to you in English any more” (but be careful with this one, because you – hopefully – are your child’s role model as a fluent bilingual).
A discussion on one social network prompted me to write this post. Some parents of Russian-English bilingual children in Canada referred to Russian as their children’s native (first) language (Russian “родной язык”). Others countered that, in fact, these children’s native language is English. The arguments on both sides are obvious: on one hand, the children are born to Russian parents; on the other hand, they are growing up in an English-speaking country. There is a lot of emotions in the discussion (which started with a question whether these children need to learn Russian language, literature, culture, history, etc.). Some even referred to “genetic memory” of Russian that can be awakened. But who is right?
I will give a technical, scientific answer, without any sentiments. For each child, the answer depends on the age when he or she started learning each language. The definition of a native, or a first, language accepted by most specialists in language acquisition today is that it is a language that the child was exposed to within the first 3 (some say 4) years of life. If he or she was exposed to two languages before age 3, both languages are considered native. That’s it. If a child did not speak English before school, then English is the second language for him/her. To define which language is native for you, it does not matter where your parents are from, or whether they are Russian, Jewish, Irish, French, or Chukchi. It only matters what language(s) they spoke to you in those early years. There is no scientific evidence of any “genetic memory” (but I have heard a lot of anecdotal counterevidence – stories about Russians who made better progress in learning Hebrew than their Jewish spouses in the same class). The memory of the ancestral language (Russian “язык предков”) that can be awakened is really only the memory of hearing that language in the earlier times (this one is real: people who had completely forgotten their first language and started re-learning it as adults had better pronunciation in it than people who never learned it before). If you have never heard the language of your ancestors, there is no knowledge of that language in your memory, no matter what you do to awaken it.
However, the traditional definition of a native language also included sufficient exposure to it, its full development, and continuing proficiency in it. That is, native and fluent (people sometimes conflate or confuse these). Parents of bilinguals know too well that sometimes it does not happen to one of the languages. This is where it gets less clear. Linguists came up with the term “heritage language” for such cases. A heritage language is a first/native language that has not fully developed and/or has been forgotten. So if someone started with both Russian and English and then forgot Russian, we can say that English is his/her native language, and Russian is his/her heritage language (where ‘heritage’ is really a special case of a native language). But what about a person who started with Russian, learned English after the cutoff age 3-4, and lost some skills in Russian? No native language in the traditional (native+fluent) sense? Sad but true. The good news are that there is a difference between child second language (when learning starts between ages 3-4 and 9-10) and adult second language (starting any time after age 9-10). Child second language learners typically end up with much better proficiency than adult second language learners, and may pass for a native speaker – but there are subtle differences in the way they process that language. So, even if these children speak English better than Russian, English is not their native language, but Russian is.
So the only way Russian can be a non-native language for a child who has one or both Russian parents is when nobody spoke Russian to the child before the age of 3. And the status of English as a native or non-native language depends on when the child started to be regularly exposed to it (rather than just to hear it occasionally). Not to be confused with fluency, dominance, or sociopolitical status of each language.
Cases. These little endings on nouns in languages like Russian, Inuktitut, and …lots of others, in fact. Children don’t always get them right, even if they are monolingual. Some cases are trickier than others. But when a child spends only part of his/her day learning a language with cases, it gets even trickier. Let’s take Russian in Canada. Parents often hear case errors in their children’s Russian. Some parents take their children to Russian schools or hire a teacher. Some go through workbooks with exercises on cases. Some keep correcting case errors in children’s speech. And some say: Why bother?
Here is a real story that I witnessed. Two Russian-Canadian girls (let’s call them Tanya and Lena), aged 4 and 5, are playing outside, speaking Russian. Suddenly Lena runs to their mothers, crying.
Lena: Tanya govorit plohie slova pro menya! (“Tanya is saying bad words about me!”)
Lena’s mother: Chto ona govorit? (“What is she saying?”)
Lena: Ona govorit mne “kysh” (“She tells me “go away”)
Tanya’s mother: Tanya, chto ty skazala Lene? (“Tanya, what did you say to Lena?”)
Tanya: Ya ne ey. Ya skazala komarikam “Kysh ot Leny”. (“Not to her. I said to mosquitoes “Go away from Lena””).
It takes a while to comfort Lena and to explain to her the difference between “Kysh, Lena” (“Go away, Lena”, with the Nominative case ending -a) and “Kysh ot Leny” (“Go away from Lena”, with the preposition ot “from” and the Genitive ending -y). The grammatical difference translates into the difference between seeing another child as someone who doesn’t want to be with you and someone who cares for you and wants to protect you.
I am nominated for the Prestige Toronto Award for my research on Russian-English child bilingualism and development of Russian as a heritage language! This award is given to Russian-speaking politics, businessmen, scientists, artists, writers, teachers, etc., who made a significant contribution to the development of the Russian community in Toronto.
Teaching children to speak Russian and be literate in it is a hot topic in the Toronto Russian community. Most parents work hard on it. I’d like to thank them for nominating me because I am trying to help them at least by trying to figure out what’s going on in their children’s bilingual minds.
For the first time in my academic career, I published an article on child bilingualism in a non-academic publication and in Russian.
Novy Svet (both ‘New World’ and ‘New Light’ in Russian) is a Canadian Russian literary and art magazine, in Russian language, born in 2013.
I finished testing children for my study on cross-language influence in Russian-English bilingual children! I have data from 24 bilingual children (age 5-8) and 24 Russian monolingual children of the same age. Thank you everyone who helped me! First of all, thanks to all the parents of children who participated in Toronto, Canada and in Samara, Russia, and very special thanks to those parents who spread the word to other parents. Also, thank you to staff at two Russian schools in Toronto, Pochemuchka and Student Alliance, as well as to staff at Secondary School #42 and Erudit Childcare Centre in Samara, for help with finding participants. Last but not least, very special thanks to my research assistant in Russia, Evgenia Champalova.
Holidays! A great opportunity to spend more time with your children. And a great opportunity to give a boost to your children’s heritage language development! Just because you spend more time with them, speaking the family language, will help a lot. But to make it more effective, there are two things to remember.
First, keep speaking your family language! I mean, 100% your family language! You guys don’t even notice how easily many of you switch to English when your kids address you in English. But I notice it all the time. That’s because you are bilingual too, and it’s natural, but we are trying to help our kids learn the family language, right? You might switch for a part of a sentence or even for just one word, repeating it after your child. Even in the latter case, you ruin your child’s opportunity to recall the word that she forgot – or maybe even learn the word she didn’t know. Does she know the words for holiday decorations? Or for winter weather?
Second, get your kids to speak the family language! I’ll keep saying this: if they listen, they learn to understand; if you want them to be able to speak, they have to speak. I already told you what happens if they listen but don’t speak. Ask them to tell stories: what was it like at their latest playdate? what gifts they liked best and why? what was their favourite day during the break so far, and why?
Good luck, and happy New Year to everyone!
The short answer is – unfortunately – yes, if the child starts using it less, be it a first, a second, or a third language. “But he speaks it so well, how can he forget it?” Yes, such cases have been described in the literature. And there is an abundance of anecdotal evidence. The degree of forgetting varies a lot.
“I spoke Russian better when I was younger”
“I spoke only Inuktitut until I started school. Now [as an adult] I understand it, but when I try to say something, the words just don’t come out right. So I switch to English”
“My parents say I spoke only French till I was three. I don’t remember that. Then we moved to the U.S., I learned English, and could not speak French until I started taking French classes later.”
“We always spoke Russian to my daughter. When we lived in Israel, she learned Hebrew at the daycare. She was fluent. When we moved to Canada, she went to Senior Kindergarten. We concentrated on her English, continued to speak Russian at home, and there was no place where she could speak Hebrew. And she lost her Hebrew in a few months! I wish I knew it could happen so fast!”
And the most dramatic language loss was found in Korean adoptees in France (studies by C. Pallier, V. Ventureyra and their colleagues). These children lived in Korea until their adoption at age 1-8 – some of them even went to school in Korea, – haven’t heard any Korean since adoption, and completely forgotten it.
Some children go through several periods of forgetting and re-learning when their language situation changes. An Inuit girl who has to spend long periods in hospital outside of her community forgets Inuktitut by the end of each hospital stay, and then re-learns it when coming back home. Children in a mixed German-Russian marriage in Germany forget Russian by the end of the school year, re-learn it during summer in Russia with grandparents, but forget German by the end of the summer, go back to Germany, re-learn German, but forget Russian, and so on.
Modern studies suggest that the age until which a complete language loss or dramatic forgetting can happen is somewhere at 8-10 years old. Although the basic first language knowledge is already in place by about age four, 8-10 is the age when the first language knowledge stabilizes, and also the age when a new language is learned in the same way as by adults. This does not mean that forgetting cannot happen after this age, only that there will be much less forgetting.
Question from a parent: What to do if my child keeps responding in English when though I speak to him in our family language? He understands, but keeps answering in English.
First, why is the child answering in English?
It may depend where you are. If, for example, school is a place to speak English for your child, that’s what the child is supposed to do.
It may depend on what the child did before. The child may keep speaking English right after school. As long as this is temporary (the first few minutes), there’s nothing to worry about.
What if the child always (or most of the time) answers in English? Intuitively, parents say, “Because it’s easier for him”. And they are right. A fluent bilingual switches to the language in which people talk to him. If he uses another language, this is a red flag – it means difficulties with expressing himself in the language in which he was addressed. The difficulties include both word knowledge and grammar, and grammar is more of a problem. The child might not know some words, but in this case, he might switch to English just for those words and say the rest in the family language. But if the child finds it difficult to build a sentence, supplying all the necessary pieces (like the correct case and gender endings in Russian), he might abandon attempts to express his ideas in the family language. This is especially true for children who are afraid to be embarrassed by their mistakes.
So, before we get to the direct solutions to this problem, create an environment to help your child learn more of the family language. Make sure that your child hears enough of the family language every day: in conversations with various adults and children on various topics, in books that you read aloud or he reads with you, in cartoons, in language lessons. If you are the only (or the main) source of the family language for him, spend with him as much time as you can and talk only in the family language as much as you can.
Now, how to get the child to speak in the family language?
When he speaks, you might be disappointed (that’s exactly why he didn’t want to speak). He will likely speak slowly, make grammatical errors, choose wrong words, get stuck in the middle of the sentence – any or all of the above.
So, first, create a safe environment, preferably when there are no people who can make the child feel uncomfortable. Be patient and encouraging. Do not correct the child at first, as long as you understand his message. Never let anybody laugh at the child’s errors or otherwise make the child feel ashamed. As one of receptive bilinguals in my Labrador Inuktitut study said, “The worst you can do when a person makes a mistake is to laugh at them”. Never force the child to speak in the family language. You want to motivate him, not the opposite.
Create situations in which the child has to respond in the family language. It’s great if there are people who speak only the family language to him. What works for me (though we only had this issue temporarily) is simply pretending to be too tired to understand English and keeping asking “What?” in Russian until I get an answer in Russian. If that alone does not work, I answer in French, which my children don’t yet understand enough. You can try role play with a toy who speaks and understands only the family language, or the toy who wants to learn the family language. And, yes, my children did get a child-friendly version of a lecture on language forgetting, with some scary but real stories (but that will be a separate post).
Most importantly, keep speaking your language to the child anyway. Learning is still going in even when he is only listening. But keep trying: to learn to speak, the child needs to speak.
I am reading a bedtime story in Russian to the kids. They are interested, they are following, they seem to understand. And, all of a sudden, my eight-year-old fluent Russian-English bilingual asks, in Russian, “Что значит ‘материя’?” (“What does ‘fabric’ mean?”). This happens a couple more times while I am reading. Some of the words she does not know may also be new to children of her age in Russia. As for other of those words, kids in Russia would be surprised to learn that someone their age does not know such words. This is normal. And this is why I keep reading in Russian to my kids, and insist that they should read in Russian on their own.
This also happens during reading in English. This is normal. And this is why reading is English is necessary too.
We master the sounds and the grammar of our language in the first few years of life, but we keep learning new words throughout our childhood and even throughout our whole life. I recently added a few dozens of new words to my mental lexicon when I started learning to sail. New words are learned with new experiences, with new concepts. Bilingual children tend to have smaller vocabularies in each language than monolingual children. This is because they divide their time between languages. They have different experiences in each language. They might know, for example, science terminology only in English, but names of the plants in their backyard, only in Russian.
But whatever experience they have, books have an enormous potential to expand it. Books contain a lot of words that we rarely use in everyday life – and yet a lot of them are words that every educated speaker knows. The more limited the child’s experience with a language, the more important it is to read books in that language.