My husband and I are monolingual but our 5-year-old is fluent in German thanks to a German immersion school. If she no longer attends the school, so her German exposure decreases from 40 hours/week to 3-5 hours a week, is she in danger of “losing” her German?
I heard that if a child can keep a language until they are 10, they can pick it back up later in life. Is that true? If she switches to a school that teaches Mandarin or Arabic, will that harm her German retention without the regular exposure?
Thank you for your question, which is a very interesting one!
Research has shown that you never completely lose a language that you have once been fluent in. If you do not use a language for a long time, you do start to forget words, phrases and even grammatical forms, but the longer you have spoken the language, the better you can retain it. Even adopted babies who have not heard their first language since the age of one, can later on in life pronounce language-specific sounds better than those who have not have any exposure to the language.
If young children completely lose the exposure to a language they have been speaking, they will most likely forget it. If there is no need, nor opportunity to speak a language a child will not retain a language. (You can read about a young boy who had learnt and forgot how to speak two languages under the age of six in this article by Professor François Grosjean. For further reading on this topic, I recommend The Bilingual Brain by Professor Arturo E. Hernandez.)
As your daughter is five years old, and she will not lose ALL the exposure to German, there is a good chance that she can maintain a fairly good level of German. Three to five hours a week will probably not be enough to improve her German skills, but may well keep the language going. Should she decide to pick up German later on, she will relearn it quicker than those who start from scratch. She will also sound more native-like than other learners.
I doubt it is possible to determine a “critical age” after which you will be sure to retain the ability to pick up a language easily, even after years of not speaking it, as this may depend on so many different factors: how well you spoke it in the first place; do you continue to read in it; how emotionally connected to the language you are; how motivated you are to retain the language; and so on. From my own family, I know that my daughter, who was 13 when we moved from Finland, has retained her Finnish, even if she only occasionally gets the chance to use it nowadays, 18 years after we moved to the UK (we speak Swedish together).
Learning an additional language does not directly impact the retention of a previous language, i.e. if your daughter starts learning Mandarin or Arabic, that will not “push” German out of her brain. When it comes to languages, the brain is not like a glass that you fill with water and which runs over if you pour too much into it – it is more like an expanding vessel that gets bigger as and when needed. However, if the learning of an additional language takes away from the exposure time to a previously learnt language, then this can have an effect on how well that language is retained.
Maybe you could introduce some German time together as a family to help your daughter retain it? Even if you or your husband do not know any German, maybe you could learn the basics to be able to play with her in German? Your daughter will be more than happy to “teach” and support you!
Wishing you all the best on your family’s language journey – please feel free to ask any follow-up questions below and do let us know how you get on!