Should parents stop speaking their language to their children when they start school, to help them focus on English?

child development language acquisition languages Apr 13, 2021

You've been speaking your home language (e.g. Lithuanian) together since they were born. Your little one is about to start school. Should you switch to the majority language, such as English in the UK? That sounds logical, right, and would surely help prepare them for schooling in English, a language they don't know (yet)? Otherwise how will the little ones learn?

Actually NO! Even though it's counterintuitive, switching languages from your normal home language to the majority language just for the sake of school is very rarely a good idea.

1 - When learning a second language (L2) after several years speaking a different first language (L1), it takes 5-9 years for age-appropriate thinking skills to develop in the new language. That's the whole of primary school. Children might have a conversational level of English within 2 years, but they *need* a lot more than that for age-appropriate cognitive development to continue. Keep speaking your home language.

2 - Children in this situation (perhaps you've just moved to the UK, or always spoken a minority language at home) really need to continue the language-rich input of a full, well-rounded, perfectly natural and normal for your family linguistic situation at home. Emotionally, cognitively, educationally...all the experts say keep speaking your home language.

3 - Continuing to speak your usual language at home SUPPORTS their linguistic development of English in school. Languages do not compete with each other. They build upon each other. Eowyn Crisfield, our bilingualism specialist, says it's like a game of Jenga, and the foundations need to stay strong in order to support the linguistic tower as it grows taller. Remove too many home language blocks and it falls down!

4 - There is evidence that progress in English can plateau at a certain point if home languages are not continued, and that continuing a rich home-language education (stories, all the usual chatter, nothing unusual) also facilitates progress in English (or whatever the school language is).

If you'd like to hear more about this, please listen to Episode 21 of The Language Revolution podcast where Cate and Eowyn discuss this topic in detail. It's perfect for parents, teachers, and anyone interested in this often-debated question!