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Starting school: a turning point for bilingual children


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).

Good luck!


What is your kids’ native language, and is there a genetic memory?

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.

The case for case, or why bother about cases?

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.

Holidays – time for a boost!

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!

Can a child be fluent in a heritage language?

For starters, I will explain this common term – HERITAGE LANGUAGE. In Canada, it is usually used to refer to immigrant languages, highlighting that these are languages spoken mainly among family members – in contrast to official languages that are used everywhere. A HERITAGE SPEAKER in Canada is someone who grows up hearing a heritage language from parents and English from other people. Naturally, they spend more time speaking English than the heritage language, at least since they start school. And it often happens that they speak heritage language not so well. In scientific literature, the term HERITAGE SPEAKER usually implies incomplete knowledge of a heritage language. People who are fluent in a heritage language are simply called fluent bilinguals. I’m not quite happy about this term (though I use it) because it is not fair to these fluent speakers of a heritage language.
I’ve seen a lot of variation in children’s and adults’ skills in their heritage language, from full or near-full fluency to complete forgetting and everything in between. And the majority is in between. Learning one language in childhood is effortless. What about learning two? Some parents take it for granted that their children’s Russian doesn’t sound quite like Russian. On the other hand, I met so many Russian-Canadian parents who are more optimistic, who want their children to speak Russian well, and who make efforts to achieve this. So who is right?
It’s obvious that achieving full fluency in a heritage language is not easy. The problem is not bilingualism by itself. Children can learn two languages. The problem is that heritage speakers are at risk of not getting enough exposure to the heritage language. This usually includes lack of schooling in the heritage language. For some parts of language knowledge, it’s not a big problem; for others, it is.
People whose kids don’t have enough, for example, sun exposure give them Vitamin D. So parents who want their child to speak the heritage language well also need to give something extra to their children. I remain optimistic, especially when hearing my kids’ and some of their friends’ fluent Russian. They make occasional errors, but they know how to say it right; these are more like slips of the tongue. They don’t know some rare words that they encounter in Russian books – but, hey, we keep learning new words throughout all our lives. I believe the answer is YES. But that Vitamin D for heritage language is a very complex concoction, and figuring out its recipe is quite a journey.