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Lessons from Scotland: Use it or lose it!

This is just a brief post on a reflection I had while on holidays. We went to Scotland for two weeks, with English-speaking family. About 10 days into our trip, I got a call from someone in the Netherlands. Now, my Dutch is reasonable, and I can usually understand and make myself understood without too much difficulty. However, after only just over a week absence from the need to use Dutch, I really struggled! I couldn’t find my words, and I had trouble following a conversation that normally wouldn’t have given me any trouble.
The moral of this is that if we don’t use language regularly, we can actually “lose” language. Not only is input important for language development, but opportunities for *output* are also critical. If you want your child to master a language, you need to make sure that you create situations in which there is a need to use the language, on a regular basis.

6 thoughts on “Lessons from Scotland: Use it or lose it!

  1. Well, we don’t really “lose” the language if we don’t use it regularly. Our competence becomes more passive and it takes some time to “reactivate” it. I had periods in my life, where I had troubles speaking german (one of my two mothertongues!) because I didn’t use it every day. My passive competence was still a native one, but, as you said, I needed to stimulate the active, spoken use of it on a regular basis.

    1. In terms of successfully bilingual adults, I would agree that it is rare that someone actually “loses” a language. When it comes to children though, I do think that if they do not get enough input (and output), they are at risk of “losing” the ability to use the language. Mostly, I see this happening when the children decide that they no longer want to use the language – if they don’t have a strong enough base, they will not get through the years of language refusal with any level of competence. Often, kids with two or more languages go through periods of not wanting to use anything other than the dominant language (usually the school/community language). If this period lasts for years, and the parents did not ensure enough input/output in the early years, these children may not be able to regain native-like competency without studying the language as a learner.

      1. I really find this topic faszinating! – Yes, you’re right. And I guess this depends on the child too. My son refused to talk italian when we moved to the NL (he was 2.5) and I continued talking italian to him until he was almost 5. He didn’t talk italian for almost 3 years, but then, he started to read italian books and now he understands our italian-talking family and friends much better and talks italian to children (peers). He surely hasn’t a native-like competency right now, but I’m sure that if in the future for whatever reason he would need to improve his italian, this will be easier for him, even if he had mostly passive italian-training these last years. During the three years of his complete refusal, I still did read italian books to him and he heard me talking italian almost every day. So the input was there. What I want to say: if a child really doesn’t want to talk the language, I think it could be counterproductive to insist on the outcome. I really believe that passive-learning, by listening and reading (when the child is old enough), helps a lot. – But this is just what I observed with my son (and myself). I would be very interested if someone has made similar experiences.

  2. Yes, but I think part of the issue is how well the parents manage the “refusal”. You kept speaking and reading Italian to your son, and so kept up his passive skills in Italian. Some parents (especially if they also speak the other language competently) end up switching to the majority language themselves, in which case the passive competence also diminishes. I also agree that you can’t force a child to speak a language and that if you try, it often won’t end well. However, there are many strategies parents can employ to encourage use of a minority language – but that’s a post for another day!

    1. Yes, I think that is the point. If as a parent you don’t keep on providing input (and stimulate output if the child is willing to speak), it doesn’t work. I know a few strategies to encourage the use of a minority language and there are already a few blogs who talked about this, but I guess a new one would be highly appreciated. I’m looking forward to reading your post about this too!

  3. Thank you for that post. I don’t have much experience yet as my oldest daughter is only 2 years old but I notice that she uses more English words when we come back from a visit in England (we live in Germany). My main worry is that it is all too confusing for her but it’s nice to read how others are managing.

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