Click to Look Inside: MAXIMIZE YOUR CHILD'S BILINGUAL ABILITY

Help! My Bilingual Children Are Losing Their Ability in the Minority Language!

December 10, 2013

Boy-cryingIn Do Your Bilingual Children Go to School in the Majority Language?, I discuss how important it is to remain proactive in supporting a child’s minority language when the child attends a majority language school. The truth is, even when parents have had significant success fostering active ability in the minority language through the child’s first few years—the crucial “first stage” of bilingual development—when the “second stage” begins and the child goes off to school, that earlier progress can stall, or even backslide, much to the parents’ surprise and dismay.

It’s not hard to see why. Prior to that point, the child was likely with the main caregiver for much of the day—engaging in the minority language—but then the circumstances shift dramatically, with many more hours spent in a majority language environment, and this change can’t help but impact the child’s bilingual development.

Combine this spike in exposure to the majority language with the fact that the child may now recognize that the minority language parent is also proficient in the majority language—which naturally diminishes his need to use the minority language with that parent—and such conditions can create a scenario where the child starts to “lose” his ability in the second language.

Reactivating language ability

When a family is faced with this dilemma, the answer, as always, involves addressing the two key areas of need and exposure. In What to Do When Your Bilingual Child Won’t Speak Your Language, I looked at this difficulty from the perspective of parents who have struggled, from early on, to establish a firm foundation for active communication in the minority language. In this case, the difficulty is linked to the “first stage” of bilingual development—those first formative years—and the challenge usually involves activating passive language ability.

The challenge is naturally different for parents who have been able to foster active communication in the minority language through the child’s early years, but then encounter difficulty maintaining that mode of communication in the “second stage,” once the child enters a majority language school. Here, it’s more a question of reactivating latent language ability, which is generally an easier task since the child has already demonstrated some active use of the language.

The remedy, though, is very much the same: you must redouble your efforts to strengthen the child’s need to use the second language and expand his daily exposure to it.

Trips abroad

In many cases, the number one way to reactivate a child’s ability in the minority language is through a visit to a place where that language is widely used. In other words, if English is the minority language, the family visits the United States, England, or another English-speaking part of the world.

I realize, of course, that this may not be possible for some families (we rarely travel outside of Japan ourselves), but if a trip can somehow be managed, the results are often “miraculous.”

Time and again, I’ve known parents who have struggled to continue communicating with their children in the minority tongue, but a trip abroad (often a visit with relatives in the home country) serves to reactivate the children’s latent language ability and gets them chattering once more.

The reason, of course, is that the immersion of this experience directly addresses our two key ingredients of need and exposure: the child now genuinely needs to use the language to communicate and is bathed in a flood of exposure to this language from the environment.

A few weeks abroad can do wonders, but it’s still true that backsliding could reappear when the child returns to school. To counteract this, regular trips—regular “booster shots” in the minority language—would be ideal.

Efforts at home

Whether or not travel is an option for your family, you should be making greater efforts right there at home by vigorously addressing the lack of need and exposure in your child’s life.

Need
Even if your child now tends to speak the majority language to you, I would persist in using the minority language in your communication. The more you speak the majority language, the less need the child will feel to use the other tongue. When you maintain your use of the minority language, your efforts will continue to feed the child’s language development and steadily nurture his ability, until the time is ripe for more active use.

I would also encourage you to be proactive and creative about pursuing monolingual settings and situations where your children will have no choice but to communicate in the target language: schools, clubs, tutors, family members, babysitters, other children, homestay guests, etc. The more you’re able to build this real need into their lives, the more they’ll start using the minority language—with you, too.

On a related note, definitely explore opportunities where your children can help others by using their minority language ability. As I’ve detailed in A Powerful Way to Inspire a Positive Attitude in Your Bilingual Child and The Power of Using the Minority Language to Help Others, the chance to serve other people through the use of the second language can have a very positive impact on a child’s attitude and motivation.

Exposure
Meanwhile, it’s vital that you make your best effort to boost the child’s daily exposure to the minority language. In How Many Hours Per Week Are Your Children Exposed to the Minority Language?, I suggest that a good benchmark would be about 25 hours a week (or more!) of meaningful exposure.

Remember, when children attend school in the majority language, they’re being exposed to that language for hours and hours each day, around 200 days a year. I understand, personally, how difficult it can be to offset this tidal wave of exposure, but we have to do what we can, day after day. Along with making more time for them, for conversation and play, I highly advise an enthusiastic approach to literacy: read aloud to your children every day, without fail; build up a large home library of suitable books; and incorporate the practice of captive reading into your daily lifestyle.

In general, work toward enriching your whole home environment with more resources in the minority language: more music, more games, more toys, more media. I know (painfully so) that resources require some investment, but the richer your home life is in this language, the more success you’ll likely have in reactivating, and then sustaining, your children’s bilingual ability.

Monitoring the situation

My own children are now in third grade (Lulu) and first grade (Roy) at our local Japanese elementary school. (And prior to this, they attended a Japanese preschool/kindergarten for three years.) Although I’ve managed to maintain their active ability in our minority language (English) throughout this time, it’s nevertheless true that I’m encountering my own challenges in this “second stage” of their bilingual development. Most noticeably, they now communicate with each other more often in Japanese than they do in English, while it used to be the reverse. And occasionally, when I’m talking to them, they stop and draw a blank on certain words in English, even some basic words.

I’m not concerned, really, or even surprised, since they now spend so much of their lives using the Japanese side of their bilingual ability. But you can bet that I’m monitoring the situation closely for bigger signs of backsliding, and I’ll take action, as appropriate, to maintain their need and their exposure when it comes to our minority language.

How about you? Have you encountered any difficulties during the “second stage” of your children’s bilingual development? How have you responded?

1 emilia December 11, 2013 at 7:28 pm

Very interesting post, as usual, dear Adam! I have been thinking about this possibility of backsliding, and I actually see some backsliding every day in the school weeks (when compared with holiday periods), as my baby goes to the kindergarten where Italian is the only spoken language. She does not yet speak fluently, but all the words and the things she says are most of the time in Italian!

This is a crucial moment as we have to decide what will be the school for my baby next year: I’m in a doubt… Should she go to the only Spanish school in Rome or to a much (much much) simpler Italian school? mumble mumble… In the meantime, thanks for your useful suggestion!!!

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2 Adam December 12, 2013 at 8:03 am

Emilia, thank you for your comment. Yes, this issue of “backsliding” is an important one for many parents. The first step to addressing it effectively is simply being alert to the problem, and it sounds like you’re considering your options carefully as you make a decision on schooling for next year. Good for you, and I wish you all the best as your bilingual journey continues!

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3 Dora Georgaklis December 16, 2013 at 9:13 am

Thanks Adam yet again for an interesting post.

Will be sharing your article yet again with the guys over at Octopus Kids :)

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4 Adam December 16, 2013 at 9:24 am

Dora, thanks! Best wishes to the whole pod at Octopus Kids! :mrgreen:

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5 Reina December 16, 2013 at 9:29 am

Thanks for your interesting post Adam :)

I just wanted to add a comment regarding the cost of the resources. A few months before I visited my family in Spain this summer, I asked family and friends with older kids to take a look at their cupboards and collect for me all those books and games in Spanish that their kids were not using anymore. When I visited I had more than 50kg in books, games…that I just sent with a package. The sending costs were not cheap but if I consider how many new books and games we got and that they were for free, the sending costs seem peanuts and the overall cost much cheaper than buying them new and sending. Also for my kids has an extra dimension as they were the books from that or that niece and they love that. Just an idea that maybe would be useful for anybody. :)

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6 Adam December 16, 2013 at 9:45 am

Reina, thanks so much for this suggestion! It’s a very, very good idea and I would strongly encourage others traveling to the home country to make the same request of loved ones in advance of your trip. I bet, like Reina’s kids, your own children would be really excited to get a big boxful of new books and games from family and friends! (I know mine would!)

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7 Amanda Miss Panda December 17, 2013 at 1:38 pm

It is great to see how you approach the challenge. It made me laugh when I read the “booster shot.” I personally love the “booster shots” and they are definitely needed and very helpful for the kids. My kids are older (8 and 9) and I have been challenging the second phase and I have also been challenged. When the environment changes the strategy changes. Consistency is still the key and I am glad to come here for an energizer shot.

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8 Adam December 18, 2013 at 6:53 am

Amanda, thanks for your comment. I wish travel could be a bigger part of our current lifestyle, but I’ve come to accept the fact that I need to give my kids smaller, and continuous, “booster shots” at home in order for their English to roughly keep pace with their Japanese.

And what you say is exactly right: “When the environment changes, the strategy changes.” The great challenge, of course, is that our circumstances are continually evolving, and so our efforts must continually evolve, too.

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9 Estelle January 15, 2014 at 11:31 pm

Just found your blog! I will definitely subscribe! I am French, living in the UK with my British husband and we have a two year old. We follow the OPOL, and so far Louis understands everything I say in French but his vocabulary is 90% English, which is quite normal I guess as he goes 4 days per week to an English nursery.

He just turned two but over the last few weeks his speech has dramatically improved. We are close to getting proper sentences! He seems to use French words when they are easier than the English translation or when it is a word that he might not use at nursery and therefore not know in English. When he wants to watch TV, I try to have a French cartoon on and we read a lot of French books, I never read in English to him.

I was wondering when I should start “refusing” to listen to him if he speaks in English to me. I think he is a bit young, but I don’t want to miss the window of opportunity!! I know that he knows lots of French words but English is what comes out of his mouth and I think I have managed to understand that English will always be his first language unless we change environment.

Anyway, thanks again for your great blog!

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10 Adam January 16, 2014 at 11:47 am

Estelle, welcome! Thank you for the warm feedback.

It sounds like you and your son are off to a good start with his minority language! Concerning your question, I would suggest being as playfully firm about him using “Mommy’s language” as possible. When he’s older, he will grasp, intellectually, that you’re proficient in English, too, but in the meantime, you’ll probably have better success “conditioning” him to use French if you continually encourage his use of the language in your communication. This is a challenge, I know—and the fact that he goes to an English nursery four days a week is working against you, I’m afraid—but a combination of rich exposure to French each day, and his perceived need to use French with you, should pay off in active ability as time goes by.

I also recommend a close look at the post What Language Should I Speak in Public with My Bilingual Child? (both the article and the many comments) for more useful food for thought.

Best of luck, Estelle! I’m cheering for you!

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11 Michelle August 4, 2015 at 8:50 pm

Would delaying school be helpful? We are mastering Stage 1 quite well but Stage 2 worries me. Most kids in Germany start Preschool at age 3 but I’m really considering not sending him yet. But eventually he will have to go to school, the year he turns six at the latest. Having his non German speaking cousins in the US should help some, as I would set up for them to skype on a regular basis.

I know when we moved back to Germany as kids, our English did get worse. As teens our English definitely was not up to par compared to our German. It was just harder to make time for it with school, work, activities, friends etc. But then I found fan fiction sites online and realized that writing in English would give me a much wider audience and within a year of doing that, my English vocabulary, writing skills and such just exploded. I still have those writings and seeing the differences between chapters written just weeks apart is amazing. I created a need myself and it served me well. However since I have now finished school and don’t have to write much in German as a stay at home mom, it has been somewhat detrimental to my German writing skills. I can read every German book and know all the words, but I am much more confident writing in English and find it to be more effortless. But then again, German capitalization rules will do you in.

Now my sister also did backslide a lot and she did not find a need, she just spoke English to dad and had her advanced English class at school. Now that sister moved to the US in her early 20s and she regained all her skills and more very fast. So at least in some cases, skills that are “forgotten” or buried somewhere in one’s brain can be reactivated when there is a need and a personal desire. And I know it would have been so much harder for her if she had learned English only at school.

I think that the benefit of the minority language being English in stage 2 is that it is easier to create a need with a teen and preteen. It is the most common language on the Internet, used by native and non native speakers. So many popular books and movies are originally English – and why would you want to watch or read a mediocre dub with so much lost in translation if you can have the original?

Out of my siblings I’m the only one who is concerned with keeping her German and English on the same level. But when my father died we could all be there and say goodbye in the language he grew up speaking and it still brings tears to my eyes. I know a man who is a psychiatrist from Iran, and his kids know only German, English and some French from school. He never spoke Persian to them at all and now his 16 year old complained because she would have liked to know. I know that at least my son can never say, “Why didn’t you teach me?” Because I did. I would be very sad if he ended up like either of my sisters honestly but there is only so much you can do and eventually, the gift of two languages you gave them is theirs to nurture.

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12 Adam August 5, 2015 at 3:32 pm

Michelle, these are wise and well-written thoughts. (If you haven’t already seen it, you might enjoy Your Child Wants to Be Bilingual!)

I think it’s very true that “in some cases, skills that are ‘forgotten’ or buried somewhere in one’s brain can be reactivated when there is a need and a personal desire.” At the same time, since we don’t know what will become of our children when they’re older, the most “control” over this situation we’ll ever have is now, while they’re young. And the more playfully proactive we can be during these early years, the more we’ll be able to foster their language ability through childhood and put them in a stronger position to successfully carry on their bilingual life as teens and adults (as you have so admirably).

As for delaying your son’s entry into school, this could well be to your advantage in terms of strengthening his English side before he begins his intensive daily exposure to German.

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