How Kids Learn Language

Children: How to help Kids Maintain their Heritage Language

One of my friends asked me, “How well do kids tend to retain non-English languages (for those going to English-speaking schools)? I was raised in a Chinese/English bilingual household, and Chinese was my first language, but after starting to read I basically became monolingual. I’m curious if quickly developing a dominant language is common, or if it varies widely.”

This is called “subtractive bilingualism” and is “a situation in which a second language is learnt at the expense of the first language, and gradually replaces the first language (e.g. immigrants to a country…)” (Baker 2014, 252). A child in such a situation may completely forget their first language and become monolingual or may lose the ability to speak the first language, while retaining the ability to understand it (this is called “passive bilingualism”) Most children from immigrant backgrounds fall somewhere in between, but rarely do any become equally proficient in speaking and writing both languages. This post will discuss ways to help the child gain “additive bilingualism.”

First off, there is no such thing as a completely balanced bilingual.

In theory, anyone can become equally competent in their languages. However, this is unlikely as you would have to be exposed to the languages in the exact same situations and contexts for that to happen. Take the example of a child raised with parents who speak different languages. The father might be strict while the mother is playful. Such a child would probably learn to joke around more in the mother’s language. So from the start of their lives, bilinguals are exposed to their languages in different situations, which condition them to use their languages differently.

Bilinguals who acquire languages later on in life also face the same constraints. Xiao-Lei Wang, an expert on multilingual acquisition and development, grew up in China and was educated there until she graduated from college and came to the U.S. to pursue graduate degrees. “Under any kind of scrutiny,” she writes, “I am probably a quite competent Chinese speaker. However if you ask me to give a lecture on the topic of child development in Chinese, I might not do it as well in Chinese as in English… because I have spent over 20 years in the USA studying, researching, and teaching that topic in English” (source). She then goes on to talk about one time she was interviewed as a guest speaker on a Chinese radio show and had to mix in English terms on childrearing, because she did not know them in Chinese. As these examples have shown, a bilingual is NOT two monolinguals in one body.

What does this mean for children from immigrant backgrounds? Basically, we should NOT assume that they will become equally proficient in both languages. Further, parents should accept that their children will in all likelihood become more proficient in the majority language than the minority language.

Fine, but can’t they become highly proficient in their heritage language?

As in proficient enough to say on their Linkedin that they have “full professional fluency” or “native or bilingual proficiency”? Sure, but it may take an enormous amount of effort on the part of the parent and the child, especially to get the child to be biliterate (i.e. able to read and write in two languages). Let’s look at how parents may help preserve and improve their child’s ability to speak and read a language:

The Home Years:

  • What happens: We usually think immigrant children lose their first language when they start school, but the process begins even earlier. Even if the family speaks in the heritage language at home, it is possible that the child may go to daycare where they are surrounded by adults and children who only speak the majority language. The child will also likely be exposed to majority language media, such as television, books, and apps, at home. They may even begin to perceive that this is a more dominant and therefore important language.
  • What parents might do: To increase the child’s exposure to the heritage language, one or both parents may want to stay at home or work from home to spend more time with the child. To diversify the contexts of exposure (and thus the child’s vocabulary and modes of expression), parents may want to read books from different genres to the child, engage in pretend play (i.e. role-play) with the child, and involve the child in different activities (e.g. grocery shopping, going to the zoo, etc). Colin Baker advises reading to kids in their heritage language before they can even read a single letter. Besides familiarizing the child with books, reading in the heritage language will also help the child read in the majority language later:

“There is a transfer of: learning to recognize that letters mean sounds, making sense of words as parts and wholes, making sensible guesses at words given the storyline, understanding the meaning of sentences from a string of words and moving left to right (or right to left) across the page”

(Baker 2014, 125).

The Preschool, Kindergarten, and Early Elementary School Years

  • What happens: This is the stage at which children are most likely to lose their heritage language, since they are unlikely to know vocabulary and sentence structures needed to talk about their experiences in school. For instance, a study found that children from Turkish families abroad were equally proficient as their counterparts in Turkey until around the age of five, when they started going to school. After this point, the Turkish children abroad fell behind their peers in Turkey and never caught up. This is understandable for two reasons:
    1. As the child will most likely have spent the whole day in the majority language, they may not want to switch back to the minority language at home. This may lead to “dilingual conversations,” whereby parents speak the minority language and the child respond in the majority language.
    2. Up to this point, the child has been speaking “contextualized language,” or talking about the hear and now (“I want to eat this candy”), and would naturally feel unprepared to use “decontextualized language,” which involves more explanation (“Today we did show-and-tell and I showed everyone my teddy bear”).
  • What parents might do:
    1. Parents must coax their kids into talking in their heritage language. One way to do this is to ask the child to draw a picture of what they did and then in discussing the picture, indirectly teach them the words to talk about it. Parents might help their children form the habit of asking when don’t know how to say something. While it may seem awkward to ask mid-conversation, Xiao-lei Wang found that her children felt no qualms about asking, probably since they had encouraged their children to do this early on. Feeling comfortable asking questions will aid the child in understanding that it is OK to not know things and to ask for help.
    2. Parents will need to help the child develop decontextualized language skills, i.e. teach them how to talk about their experiences in their heritage language. A French parent might read Le Petit Nicolas to their child and a Japanese parent might watch Chibi Maruko-chan with theirs before the child goes to school. Both series feature children in elementary school–and as a plus, both are also highly entertaining and thus likely to give kids positive memories with their heritage language. During these activities, parents might also want to use the story they’re reading or watching as a springboard for discussion; e.g. they could ask the child what they would do if they were the main character.

The Mid-Late Elementary School Years

  • What happens: If the children are still speaking their heritage language by this point they have most likely stabilized their language use patterns. For instance, Xiao-lei Wang found that the frequency with which her children mixed English (the majority language) with their heritage language more than halved between 1st-2nd grades and 3rd-5th grades (source). However at this point, children’s ability to read in the heritage language will fall behind that of the majority language, which will impede their confidence in as well as ability to speak in the heritage language.
  • What parents might do: When helping children with their homework, parents might stick to the heritage language as much as possible, even if this means looking up words in dictionaries. By doing this, they can help the children enhance their understanding of vocabulary but also show the child that it is totally normal to look things up in a dictionary, helping them form a habit of doing so. This may also be tiring for parents, so strategically only using English for terms they do not know or remember in their native tongue is fine as well, as long as the overall communication is carried out in the heritage language. Parents may also want to enroll the child in weekend language schools or bilingual schools or even teach them the language formally at home so that the child learns proper grammar and more complex sentence structures. Parents might also find ways to motivate their child to continue reading in the heritage language. For instance, Xiao-lei Wang’s kids loved Harry Potter, so having them read it in other languages was no problem at all (Wang 2006, 140).


As we can see, it takes a lot of hard work for parents to raise children bilingually, hence why it is so easy for children to simply lose the ability to speak/understand their heritage language. The scenario above also does not cover how to cultivate writing skills in the heritage language, which is much more difficult than cultivating speaking abilities but might be necessary if the child wanted to work using the language later. (I will hopefully blog about this in a future piece!) Further, the scenario is a simplification of real life, so the reality could be even harder depending on the following variables:

  • siblings (what language will they speak to each other?)
  • classmates and teachers (who may look down on the child’s heritage language)
  • the school (is it bilingual and a good school?)
  • parents (what if one parent is monolingual and feels left out?)
  • the children themselves (what if the child doesn’t want to go to language school on the weekend?).

It is common for parents to get into fights about the language education of their children with each other and the children themselves. Many will give up as a result (Wang says that she felt like giving up many times!). I’m sure no kid will curse their parent for not signing them up for Chinese school, but for those parents who persevere in helping their kids become bilingual, it is almost always the case that the children will thank them later. (Thanks mom!)

Sources referenced:

Most of the suggestions for raising children bilingually come from Xiao-Lei Wang’s book, Growing up with Three Languages, in which she describes how she (a Chinese native) and her French-speaking husband raise their children in the U.S. Colin Baker’s A Parents’ and Teachers’ Guide to Bilingualism was helpful in learning about biliteracy. If you don’t have time to read any other books, read this.


More ideas from



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s