If a child loses a language are all the benefits of bilingualism gone?

 

Question

Hei!

I am a German single mom to a soon 4-year-old boy. He was born in Finland and we’ve been living here all the time. At home I only speak German to him. He started to attend Finnish daycare at age 1.5 (part time), full time from age 2.5. Although his language development is naturally a bit behind his monolingual peers, he speaks both languages with ease and can switch between them depending on who he is talking to.

As he spends approximately 45 hours a week in daycare, Finnish seems to become his stronger language. I’m considering moving back to Germany within the next year or so, and I am now concerned about a couple of things.

  1. He will likely lose his Finnish, but what can I do to keep it? We can of course read some books (although my pronunciation is not the best), I have DVDs that can be switched to Finnish, and maybe once a month or so we could have a Skype call to one of my Finnish friends (I’m just not sure how interested he’d be in that). At his age, they haven’t developed that deep friendships that I’d say he’d be keen in skyping with peers (his closest friends are also bilingual)
  2. One reads a lot how being bilingual benefits brain development. If he were to lose his Finnish, what about these benefits. Would they still exist because he spent the first 4-5 years of his life bilingual, or will they disappear?
  3. As I’m rather fluent in English, I could imagine switching our home language to English once we are in Germany and German would become his main language. He has so far not really been exposed to English, other than through a toy with English sound and hearing me speaking English to friends. Would you consider it a good idea to switch home language, and how could this best be accomplished considering his age – how to get him on board and get through the beginning phase where he wouldn’t understand what I’m saying?

I appreciate your response.
Diana

Answer

Dear Diana

Thank you for your question about your son’s bilingualism and how it will be affected by the move from Finland to Germany. It is fantastic that your son can easily switch between German and Finnish, depending on who he is speaking to, what a great skill to have at such a young age!

Just a little note – children vary greatly in the pace of their language development, independent of whether they are monolingual or speak more than one language. Bilingualism does not mean that a child will ‘naturally’ be behind his or her monolingual peers when it comes to language development.

With regards to your specific questions:

  1. If you want to maintain your son’s Finnish, reading books, watching DVDs and doing occasional Skype calls will only take you so far. These things will of course be beneficial, but he will need more interaction in Finnish to be able to develop his Finnish skills. In several countries, including Germany, there are Finnish weekend classes aimed at children from a Finnish-speaking background. Look for a ‘Suomi-koulu’ in the area you will be living in to find if there is one close to you. Another option is to look for other Finnish-speaking families and try to arrange regular play dates with them. When he is a bit older you can also consider tutoring, which is also available online.
  2. The research into the benefits of bilingualism is still very much ongoing. While there is a consensus that speaking more than one language is beneficial to you in several ways, many of the finer details are still to be researched.When a bilingual person speaks, all the languages are on “high alert” and ready to jump in when necessary. You can notice this for example when you are trying to find a word for something in one language, and suddenly you remember it in every other language you know, but not the one you are speaking just then. There are indications that the continuous “fending off” of the other language(s) strengthens the brain area which is in charge of it: the executive control centre, which is also responsible for many of our other vital day-to-day brain functions. Another process which has the same effect of “training” this part of the brain is the switching between different languages.If you think of the brain as a muscle, which needs to be used to be kept strong – similarly, to retain the benefits of bilingualism, the expectation is that you keep your languages going throughout your life. But as mentioned, there is still a lot of research to be done in this area. And, it is not easy to arrange a long-term comparative study for this.
  3. Switching the home language to English is one way of making him learn another language early in life. It is however a big decision to make and you need to consider all the pros and cons with this approach. Keep in mind that the move itself will be a big disruption for your son and it is important that his relationship with you is on solid ground. If the communication between the two of you would be negatively affected due to your language choice, this would add to your son’s challenges. If I were you, I would wait with introducing English until you are both settled. By all means, you can bring in a bit of English through songs, games and children’s programs, but I wouldn’t change to speaking it with him all the time until later (if this is what you want to do). Another option would be that you look for a dual-language English-German school he could attend. This would be a great way to introduce English.

Wishing you a successful bilingual family journey!

Kind regards
Rita

Rita Rosenback

  Rita Rosenback Rita is an author, Family Language Coach, blogger and speaker, who was born into a bilingual family on the Swedish-speaking west coast of Finland. After studying languages in Finland and Germany she worked as a university teacher, translator, interpreter and manager of multinational teams. Rita is now a full-time writer and coach and has been living in the U.K. since 1998. Rita is the mother of two grown-up multilingual daughters, who are the inspiration for her book: “Bringing up a Bilingual Child”, an easy-to-read guide for parents, where she navigates the reader across the “Seven Cs of Multilingual Parenting: Communication, Confidence, Commitment, Consistency, Creativity, Culture and Celebration”. Currently English and Swedish are Rita’s main languages, but she instantly switches to Finnish or German or to her Finland-Swedish dialect when the opportunity presents itself (and when push comes to shove, she can communicate in a very basic Punjabi). Rita is the creator and driving force of this website, and she gives talks and holds workshops for parents and teachers on the topic of bilingual children. She also coaches families on how to make the most of their languages and raise their children to become confident speakers of the chosen languages. Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedin