If a bilingual child uses a second language more often than the language they first learned in their home, are they losing fluency in their first language? This is a question I actually hear a lot from parents. Generally, parents speak their home language to their infants and toddlers and the child’s language skills in that language develop well. But when the child starts school and learns English as a second language, they will sometimes begin to speak English more often than they speak their first language. This can merely be a choice they are making because they are being immersed in English for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, and they are not hearing or speaking as much of their first language. However, if your child is actually losing skills in their first language, they could instead be experiencing language loss. I refer to it as the difference between language preference and language loss.
Language preference or language shift is when a child is able to speak both languages but chooses to speak one language more than the other language, using the preferred language in the community. I’ve seen this a lot when assessing speech development in children whose first language is Spanish. The children are immersed in English all day and they don’t know I speak Spanish. So, it takes me speaking Spanish to them for quite some time before they will respond in Spanish and not English. A child might actually have a stronger preference for speaking English, the primary language spoken at school because they are constantly learning new vocabulary at school in English and not as much vocabulary at home in their first language. I have found that bilingual children will use the language that is easier for them to say what they want to say. Consequently, they may find that with certain topics they know more vocabulary in one language than in the other language. That is why it is so important to look at vocabulary in both languages when assessing for a language disorder. Another reason for language preference is that they may just have more skills in the majority language than they do in their home language at that time. This is very common. Because they are immersed in the majority language all day, they may develop higher skill levels in that language versus the home language. Basically, it’s just easier for them to speak a language in which they have more skills/vocabulary. This doesn’t mean that they will never speak their home language! But being bilingual also does not mean that are have equal skills in both languages. Most bilinguals will have a stronger language that they are more comfortable with. Indeed, it is very rare to be equally comfortable or proficient in both languages.
Language Loss, on the other hand, is when a child or adult learns a second language and begins to lose skills and fluency in their first language, (L1), if the first language is not reinforced and maintained. This is called Subtractive Bilingualism (Haynes, 2010). You will usually see it affect the child’s vocabulary and grammar in their first language. This is something that I see happen if the first language is not maintained. This can be especially detrimental to bilinguals who also have a language disorder. When a child has trouble with their first language and then that language is taken away, they can lose their language foundation. That is why it is especially important for bilingual speakers with language disorders to stay proficient in their first language. Consequently, I almost always see more success in speech therapy with bilingual children when their home language is maintained and they do not experience Language Loss.
If you have any concerns about your child's language development or wondering if your child is losing their first language, please reach out!