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…