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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.