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Dropping a language: Is it ever the right choice?

People often presume that if a bilingual child is struggling, the best thing to do is “drop” a language. I’ve worked with parents who have had this advice from doctors, teachers, speech therapists, family and on and on. It sounds fairly logical – if your child is struggling with two (or more) languages, just drop one, and they will get better. But is it actually true?
The bottom line is that it is not true that dropping one language will help the other become stronger. Children who are struggling with bilingual language acquisition would also be struggling if they were learning only one language. And generally, children who are being raised bilingual have a true need for both languages, so it would do them no favours to drop one language. In addition, it isn’t always obvious which language would be the best candidate for “dropping”. A child who has heard two languages consistently and in amounts that are substantial (over 30% of input) may not be obviously dominant in one language or another, or they may have mixed dominance. If the choice is made to drop a language and the wrong one is chosen, the consequences can be severe and long-lasting. With young children, parents often can not really tell which language they are most mature in, in terms of cognitive development. If the strongest language, in terms of cognitive development, is removed, you are left with a child who is at a cognitive disadvantage, and that can be hard to recover from, and can have permanent effects on their learning.
I was presenting with Annick De Houwer recently, and she used a very good analogy. Imagine your child is learning to play the guitar and the piano. They are better at the guitar, although you’d like them to be better at the piano. Will having them stop playing the guitar improve their piano playing? The answer is, of course, absolutely not. Only more practice or better teaching will improve your child’s piano skills. In addition, the skills learned from playing the guitar (such as reading music) are useful to apply to learning piano as well.
I thought this illustrates very well the lack of relationship between dropping one language and improving the other. If your child is struggling, you need to consider giving them better input to learn from, or looking for outside resources (professional help etc.) that will improve their language skills.
There is one situation in which I feel that dropping a language could be the right thing to do, and that is in cases where one language has been artificially introduced. For example, parents who decide to put their children in preschool or school in a new language may sometimes find out that their child has a language or learning difficulty. If the second language is obviously (from age of introduction) not dominant, and the language is not “necessary”, but was chosen for enrichment purposes, then there may be an argument for letting the second language go. But that is another post for another day…

6 thoughts on “Dropping a language: Is it ever the right choice?

  1. Ok, this is going to be a long answer, sorry for that. Thanks for bringing up this topic. I agree with you that giving up one language when your child is struggling with more languages, doesn’t mean that the one you maintain is going to improve. As a multilingual myself, dropping a language it the last thing I would do. – At least, this is what I always thought. But in our case the things were different (see: http://expatsincebirth.com/2012/08/23/secret-language-among-my-twins/) and we decided to narrow down the languages my twin-daughters were exposed to at home from 3 (Swissgerman, German and Italian) to 1 (German); they still had also Dutch at daycare. They were very young when we took this decision and there were more reasons to do so. The result? Well, today they’re 6.5 years old, talk three languages (English, Dutch, German) and understand Swissgerman and Italian (as our extended families talk these two languages too). Do I regret our decision? As someone who has studied bilingualism and linguistics: of course. I would have liked to continue talking italian to them and that they would grow up Italian-German-Swissgerman-Dutch-English… 😉 – Seriously, when we had to take this decision, it was very hard for me and my husband, but it was the right decision for our daughters and our son. And this decision wasn’t taken to “optimize” their German. It was to make them actually speak one language and not “hide” in their secret-language-world where nobody else had access to. I think this topic deserves to be discussed more in detail.

    1. Hi Ute, Yes, in your situation things were different – there wasn’t enough time for adequate input in so many languages, so they would not master any language fully (possibly). In your case, you knew which was the strongest language, and which the kids needed “the most” and made a plan to make sure that they could use those languages fully, which required more time (input) that you could give them if they were exposed to three separate languages at home! I do tell parents that it is very hard for two parents to be responsible for input in more that two languages – there just isn’t enough time for adequate and good quality input.

      1. Yes, I think enough time and providing good quality input from others than family is the main problem for parents who want to raise their children multilingually. And if they think that they can’t provide their child with one of them, they tend to prefer dropping a language if the child is already “struggling”. The most difficult thing is, for parents, to find out if the struggling is seriously leading the child to even reject the language or if it’s only a temporary phase during the acquisition of the language. Some parents just need to be reassured.

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