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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!


Can a child who speaks a language forget it later?

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.