When Should Multilingual Families “Drop” a Language?
One of the first things that people advise when a bilingual or multilingual child is struggling to speak, is to “drop the language”. It may be advice from family members, friends, the child’s teacher, or even their doctor.
It sounds like it makes sense. Drop one language, and the child will speak the other language better.
But is it really the best solution?
Not always – Especially if it means giving up the home language.
Below we will go through the following different situations where parents may consider dropping a language and the reasons why you shouldn’t:
- Speech delay
- Language confusion / Mixing languages
- Learning disabilities
- Too many languages
- No longer a need
- Change of family circumstances
- Loss of interest
Reasons NOT to drop a language
Below you can find some reasons where you should not drop a language.
My child has a speech delay
Bilingualism does not cause a speech delay. In many cases, if a child has a speech delay and is struggling to speak, they will have issues whether they speak one language or two. You can read all about this in more detail in our post on Bilingual Kids and Speech Delay.
If your child has a speech delay, dropping a language won’t make much difference. They will still most likely have the delay in one language. So, if there is a need to speak both languages, speak with a speech therapist who specialises in bilingualism, and they can give you advice on how you can work with your child to keep both languages.
My child seems confused with multiple languages
Almost half of the world is bilingual, and in many countries, it is the norm to grow up with multiple languages.
Studies show that children are able to learn multiple languages from birth. They are able to continue learning those languages simultaneously through childhood.
Most kids will mix languages initially for the first few years, and some children may take more time figuring things out than others. Some parents may mistake this as confusion and think that dropping one language and concentrating on one, will make things easier.
This will only delay bilingualism.
Dropping a language because you think a child is confused is not the answer. It will be more difficult picking up a second language later on.
If there is enough exposure and the need to speak the language, kids will work it out.
My child has a learning disability
Having a learning disability or developmental delay doesn’t automatically mean you need to drop a language. Whether they learn one or two languages, they will still have the same difficulties. It is all about the need to use the language.
Take a read of our article on Raising bilingual kids with special needs written by a speech therapist specialising in bilingualism.
I think we have too many languages
It depends what you mean when you say “too many languages”. As long as there is a need for each of the languages, then there isn’t “too many”. Children can easily learn 2-3 languages from birth, and if there is enough exposure, even 4-5 languages are attainable.
It always depends on the exposure, and the need.
Many families raise their kids with 2 languages, either with OPOL (one person one language) where each parent speaks one language to the child, or with MLAH (Minority language at home) and the community language outside.
It is not uncommon for families raise their kids with 3 languages using OPOL at home, one language with each parent, and the third language in the community.
Then there are also families who speak four languages on a daily basis. Using OPOL at home with 2 languages, the third language in the community, and then a forth language. This could be a language that the parents speak to each other and would be heard passively initially. Or it could be another language used by friends or family members.
More than four languages isn’t so common, although there are some families who make it work. Perhaps the kids don’t become fluent in each one, but speak some of them fluently, and some of them fluent enough to get by.
Again, if there is the need to speak it, and the child gets enough exposure and practice, they will speak as many languages as they need to.
Is there any circumstance where dropping a language IS a good idea?
I would never recommend dropping the native language of the parents unless it is absolutely necessary.
These languages are family languages with a connection to the child’s history, and should be held on to for as long as possible.
If it is a language which has been introduced in other circumstances with no family or community connection, then there may be reasons to drop it. Examples could be:
No longer a need
One reason may be that you have introduced a language to your child through preschool or day care and they have learned some of the language there.
When they eventually leave, you will need to find another method of exposure to the language. If you can’t find this exposure, and there is nowhere for your child to keep learning or practicing, you may choose to drop it.
Change of circumstances
Another reason could be that your family circumstances have changed. Perhaps you have moved countries, where the community language has changed and there is no longer a “need” for the language as your kids will need to learn a new one.
If you do not wish to find other ways of exposure, you may choose to “drop” the language.
Loss of interest
Sometimes parents want their kids to learn a language, but the kids are just not that interested. This usually happens when the kids are older. Introducing a language when children are younger is much easier, as they don’t really notice so much as it is done in a more natural way.
Once kids get older and you need to start “teaching” the language, they may refuse to do lessons, or go to class.
You can’t really force kids to do language lessons if they don’t want to do them. It can be stressful for them, and you as a parent.
All you can do is try your best, find other ways to help your child connect with the language.
If you have no connection to the language, and it was just introduced as another skill to learn, then there could be arguments to drop it if the child is no longer interested and there is no “need” to use it.
What to do when you are advised to drop a language?
Everyone will have an opinion. I have heard over and over in our Bilingual Parenting Community how parents have been advised to drop a language in different circumstances.
If you are being told to drop a language, please find out what experience this person has with bilingual children.
If you are seeing a speech therapist or a doctor, ensure it is one who specialises in bilingualism. You will find the advice will be very different.
If it is your child’s teacher telling you to drop your home language so your child can learn the school language quicker, ask them how many bilingual kids they have worked with, and if they have any proof that this is the answer.
While I empathise with the teacher as he/she may feel it is extra work for them, studies show, that children are very quick to catch up at school in their second language, (and in some cases overtake their peers according to this research).
You will tend to find, that anyone who has bilingual kids, or has worked with bilingual kids, would never usually tell a parent to drop a language unless absolutely necessary.