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If you learn a language as a child then stop using it, does it lie dormant?

(29 Posts)
StMary Fri 09-Sep-16 20:22:05

We are considering a move to the French speaking part of Switzerland. We are British, DC only speak English as do we (other than rusty school French).

We don't know how long we'll be there but say we had 5 years there (DC would be 5 and 2.5 when we arrive) I'm guessing they'd be pretty fluent in French (they'll go to local schools), but would lose a lot/all of it if we then move back to the UK, or do languages lie dormant in the brain and can be reactivated with less effort than starting from scratch?

Obviously it's all hypothetical but it would be nice to keep it up so perhaps a French speaking au pair and some lessons would help.

Just would be a shame to go through the pain process of learning it just to lose it again......

noramum Fri 09-Sep-16 21:00:45

I don't think it just lies there dormant but you will get back into it easier.

I had French in school and lived near the Dutch border so we did lots of holidays in the Netherlands plus we had Dutch television. I lost a lot of my knowledge since school finished and I moved away but after a holiday there or reading something with utter concentration I can get back into it.

Your older one would keep enough to have an advantage in secondary school while your younger one will have enough to start easier.

Mamabear12 Fri 09-Sep-16 21:02:22

I would go for it. Wish I had this opportunity for my kids! You could keep it up with French au pair. And because the kids would be fluent, would be no problem for them to communicate I'm French w au pair. And have them watch friend only cartoons.

hesterton Fri 09-Sep-16 21:05:53

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

OhtoblazeswithElvira Fri 09-Sep-16 21:06:28

Yes I think it lies dormant. It takes only a little bit of exposure and practice to go back to being competent in the language.

StMary Fri 09-Sep-16 21:10:37

Thanks all.

Hoping my rusty French is dormant and could be resurrected and improved too!

(Guessing my DC would have a MUCH better foundation than my 1990s UK school-taught French...)

Vietnammark Sat 10-Sep-16 18:33:02

Can't immediately find the research, but as I recall there was some Canadian research on Chinese children that had been adopted by Candians. These children had forgotten all of their Chinese and were taught it as part of the research. The result was that they learnt the language considerably quicker than children that had never had any knowledge of the language.

StMary Sat 10-Sep-16 20:24:46

Thanks, interesting!

I wish there was a magic trick to make it all stick!

Izlet Sun 11-Sep-16 22:30:53

Mine did, I spoke a language when I was very small, then we moved away and I didn't use it anymore. In my 20s I needed to visit the country for a prolonged period so I tried to pick up some of the language. After a few weeks I found that I was coming out with sentences I didn't know I knew. Unfortunately it wasn't profound stuff, I was only 4 when we moved away so my vocabulary was at that level. I did pick up the language quite quickly in the end, after 3 months I was fairly fluent, but then it is similar to another language I know so I'm not sure if it could be ascribed to my dormant knowledge or the common root with my other language.

Vietnammark Tue 13-Sep-16 04:54:59

Not sure if this is the research that I mentioned earlier. If it is this I remembered a bit wrongly:

Evergreen17 Fri 23-Sep-16 08:35:00

It may not lie dormant as you say as the brain tries to optimise space and information not use starts to fade a bit but you can pick it up and reinforce it or you might have to get start it again. But it will make a big difference for pronunciation. There are certain sounds that you need to learn to make when you are a child and this means even if they study french again age 20 they will find it a lot easier to pronounce properly.
It also stimulates different areas of the brain so yes yes yes do it

EleanorRigby123 Fri 23-Sep-16 08:50:10

Children pick up languages quickly and forget them equally quickly if there is no further input. A child who is a fluent French speaker at 5 who receives no further French input will forget the language completely by the age of 6 or 7. If they start to learn the language again they will have no obvious advantage over a child who has bever studied French. Languages are hard wired from the age of 11 to 13 after which the child will not forget.
With a language like French, and with parents who make an effort, it is unlikely that the children will receive no further inputs. So your 10/11 year old returnee is likely to retain a high degree of fluency. Less clear for the seven year old returnee, but with decent French teaching at school, input from an au pair and regular holidays in Francophone countries some advantage will be retained.
But remember that the second language is unlikely to develop at the same pace once you leave the area in which it is spoken. Your DC will switch to the dominant language and will probably refuse to speak the second language outside a classroom setting - partly because it is embarrassing and partly because they will not have the range of vocabulary/ grammar they need to express more sophisticated ideas. Au pairs can help but you will need to insist that they use only the target language with the child. Once they show they can speak English the child may wish to use English with them. Since au pairs usually come to UK to improve their English, this may become a source of tension.

BertieBotts Fri 23-Sep-16 08:53:47

An interesting point is that once they are at French schools, they might tend to speak French with each other.

I don't think it's true languages are "hard wired" after 11 or 13. I have certainly forgotten French that I learned at school due to not using it.

EleanorRigby123 Fri 23-Sep-16 08:57:41

Just to add that we returned to UK with similarly aged DC who were fluent Spanish speakers. Coincidentally we had neighbours recently arrived from Chile whose DC spoke very little English. For the first year the DC played together in Spanish but thereafter switched to English as our DC's fluency in Spanish declined and our neighbour's DC became fluent in English.

DameDiazepamTheDramaQueen Fri 23-Sep-16 09:00:02

Yes I think it lies dormant. It takes only a little bit of exposure and practice to go back to being competent in the language.

That's my experience toosmile

PacificDogwod Fri 23-Sep-16 09:02:26

Yes, IME it kind of does.

I learnt English in the US, aged 3 to 6 - I was fluently bilingual by the time we left.
Went back to my home country, had no opportunity or need to speak English and forgot the whole lot or so I thought.

I returned to the US to visit family 5 years later, did not understand a word of what was being said (very disconcerting!), spent a few disorientating days there, then dreamt in English and the next day it was ALL back confusedgrin

V weird.
But made me raise my children bilingually (well, as best I could).

Go for it.
It will be an amazing experience for you all, and the language skills will be an asset for your children.
There is good evidence that a second language learnt in childhood makes learning another language in later life easier too.

EleanorRigby123 Fri 23-Sep-16 09:05:18

@Bertie: I was talking about languages in which a child is fluent/bilingual.

I think there is a difference between languages acquired at school as a second language and languages acquired as a child in the way that a first language is acquired. I believe they are lodged in different parts of the brain.
Students who learned languages in UK schools in the past rarely acquired any degree of fluency and I can see that what they learned could be forgotten - just as we forget the history/geography/maths we learned at school.
But a native/near native language is different.
Probably room pfor much more research here.

phoolani Fri 23-Sep-16 09:12:23

I lived abroad when I was 8, and was fluent in the language by the time we left. No follow up after and I forgot it all except a few words. But years later when I needed to use it in a panic situation, it came out almost like I'd never stopped speaking it. After the situation was resolved, I had no idea how I'd managed to do it and couldn't remember how to say most of what i'd said. It was bizarre!

DavidPuddy Fri 23-Sep-16 09:23:26

Even if your children do not retain the language, the advantages in terms of brain development during the time of being bilingual are anyway advantageous.

I get frustrated when people say there is no point doing such and such experience with a baby as they will not remember it, when the experience itself will be helping towire the brain. I think the principle here is the same.

Bilingualism is such a valuable opportunity, go for it!

BertieBotts Fri 23-Sep-16 09:35:32

Ah I see Eleanor - thanks for clarifying, that does make sense. I agree more research needed. It's a bit of a bugbear for me, language things being described as hardwired - just doesn't quite work for me as an analogy.

LifeIsGoodish Fri 23-Sep-16 09:52:54

IME it remains embedded, even if you forget it.

I was 2yo when I left the country of my birth, and never heard or spoke that language again. Yet when we went on holiday there when I was 16, I understood everything said to me if it was spoken in simple terms. I could not speak it, though.

Three languages were spoken in my childhood home. None of them the language of my birth-country. I mastered one (English, because we lived in England) was competent in the second, and never learned to speak the third. 30+y later, my dc are learning that third language at school, and I am gobsmacking both them and myself by my knowledge of it! Again, I can't speak it, but I understand masses and was even able to help them.

I stumble along in my second language, but after a week of speaking it, on a visit there, for example, or if cousins are staying with me, my fluency shoots up.

I am also able to make the correct sounds in a range of languages, probably due to my exposure to so many languages at the time that I was acquiring speech and language.

Artandco Fri 23-Sep-16 09:53:00

I think nowdays it's far easier to keep a language in use also with the Internet. So when you do move back you can use resources to maintain it, even if it's not perfect

Dh is Greek, but we don't speak Greek at home. However his family mainly only speak Greek and still live there. Our children spend a month every August with grandparents at their home. They speak only Greek with them and children play with local children.

At home they Skype with grandparents twice a week and both have around an hours conversation each time. They also have story CDs, and music at home in Greek.

They are pretty much fluent in the language. Enough they can communicate well and talk to anybody. Their grammar isn't the best, and they can't read or write it yet ( only know alphabet letters) but I think they are at a good point for children who don't actually speak that language at home. They are 5 and 6. I think when they are 10+ we will maybe start with a tutor or Greek school once a week to help with writing.

hunibuni Fri 23-Sep-16 10:06:03

I used to be fluent in Swahili but haven't used it in over 20 years. I can still understand 70% if the speaker is fast and 90% if the speaker is slower, but can't speak it (although I think that would come back too if I was back where I needed it) My sisters went to a few classes to brush up before they went to Kenya and said that it all came back but what they struggled with was the new slang so they spoke like someone who was 20 years older than them.

Ancienchateau Fri 23-Sep-16 10:06:42

At that age it won't take them long to learn French so it won't be as painful as it would be for an older child.

An au pair on your return home is a good idea. I have friends here who do that. If you are in London you could always send them to the Lycée. Here (France) the bilingual/fluent English speaking DC have the advantage of French schools with international sections. Something that should be considered in UK imo.

If nothing else it will be a good experience for them, and you.

Londonmamabychance Sun 09-Oct-16 21:36:28

You will loose the language completely unless it's maintained. But you don't have to do a lot to maintain it at a certain level (may not stay at bilingual level but keep t to a certain extent) like have a French au pair or regularly playing with French friends or going to French play groups/classes etc.

But it doesn't just lie dormant in the Brian if you don't use it. My grandmother grew up in China till she was 8 and when she came to the UK spoke mainly Chinese, as she had a Chinese wet nurse and not much close contact with her mum. But by the time she was grown up she remembered not a single word. But this was obviously before the time of Internet and other communications and from the second she set foot on British ground, she never heard Chinese again.

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