by: Gelsey Brio
How to stay Bilingual: A Crash Course in Language Retention
After your child learns a second language, using Smart Coos or otherwise, parents are faced with a new challenge: How do you get your child to retain the language they have learned? It can be difficult to learn a new language but it is far easier to lose it, especially while growing up. So how can you prevent this second language attrition? Well, studies conducted by John S. Hedgcock and his team have shown that when learning a language, those things that we learned best will usually never fade from our memory.
However, the things that fall outside that category are constantly in danger of being forgotten if not constantly refreshed. Of course, other factors of second language attrition that contribute to its degree of severity include the duration, success and intensity of the learning.
From my own experience with being bilingual, I can attest to the troubles of language retention as I grew up. I might have spoken Spanish at home for the first few years of my life, but as soon as I attended an English-speaking school my Spanish fluency took a hard hit. It wasn’t until high school that I realized just how badly my Spanish had been hurt over the years as I was immersed in a primarily English education. With the help of some research and my own personal experience, I’ve compiled a short list of ways to help you and your child retain the languages you’ve learned.
1. Attitude, Attitude, Attitude – Motivate them to want to retain it
One of the biggest reasons I lost so much of my Spanish fluency when I first entered school, was because all of my friends spoke English, not Spanish. So, I wasn’t motivated to speak Spanish unless I really needed to, like when I spoke to my grandparents. Research conducted by Robert C. Gardner into the factors of language attrition, identified learner motivation and social factors as reasons for language attrition. This basically means that if the learner is not motivated to retain the language, than language attrition will occur. In addition, if the social circles they’re in look down upon the language ,or puts no value in the second language, then the learner will be less likely to want to retain it. You have to give your children, as well as yourselves, a positive outlook on whatever language they are learning and trying to preserve. Even if their friends don’t speak it, you have to find a way to motivate them to keep at it and give it importance. My mother would always tell me that if I didn’t keep speaking Spanish, at least at home, that I would forget it and wouldn’t be able to talk to my grandparents anymore and that would make them very sad. As a kid, that was a real motivator for me because I loved my grandparents and would never want to make them sad or be unable to communicate with them. Simple things like that can help motivate you and your children to continue strengthening your second language and prevent it from deteriorating.
2. Immerse them in the Language
I was lucky to come from a home where Spanish was always spoken, so even if I didn’t speak or hear it in school, I would at least get to hear it at home. I know that a lot of people don’t have that advantage, so finding other ways to keep your child immersed in the language is very important. Smart Coos is a good way to build up their language foundation as they grow up, but you also have to supplement that with further language immersion. Playing music in the second language helps get your kids accustomed to the sound of the other language, and even if they’re not speaking it, they’re listening to it which still helps to reinforce it in their minds. Enrolling them in language classes at school also helps. A lot of language programs offered at school aren’t very effective, but this still provides your child another opportunity during the day to listen to the language and maybe even get a chance to speak it. As they get older, afterschool language programs, like clubs, can also be a good resource that parents can use to immerse their child in the second language. Any opportunity you can give them to be able to hear and speak the second language, will strengthen their ability to retain it.
As I mentioned earlier, it wasn’t until high school that I noticed how sub-par my Spanish skills had become, and that was because I was enrolled in an AP Spanish class my sophomore year. Being bilingual, I wasn’t intimidated at all by the advanced level of the class. I thought it would be a walk in the park because I came from a Spanish-speaking home. Oh, how wrong I was. You never realize how good or bad you are at something until you’re compared to someone who is actually good at it. That was me in my AP Spanish class. Compared to a lot of the other students, I noticed how weak my Spanish skills really were. The teacher didn’t even think I was Hispanic. It was definitely a wake-up call that I had to take Spanish far more seriously than I had been. My AP Spanish class was the chance I needed to re-learn the things I had forgotten and strengthen my level of Spanish retention. I passed my AP exam with flying colors and I’ve worked very hard ever since to retain what I have worked so hard to learn. Don’t get cocky, if you don’t practice, there’s no way you’ll remember what you’ve learned.
3. Reading and Writing – Make it Exciting!
Another great way to strengthen language retention is reading and writing in the second language. Studies have shown that students who read and write in their second language show higher levels of retention than those who do not. Because we use different parts of the brain to speak, read and write, even though they all correspond to language centers in the brain, it strengthens a broader section of our language center when we exercise all our pathways, not just one. There are plenty of online resources where you can find children’s literature in many different languages. Amazon even has an entire section dedicated to best foreign kid’s books where you’ll surely be able to find a book in your child’s second language. In addition, there are fun creative writing prompts online that you can use to make writing fun for your child. They’ll get to unleash their imagination and strengthen their second language retention all at once. And, if you’re having trouble picking books, going for something familiar like a fairy tale, might help. I remember when I was a kid my favorite Spanish book to read was Rapunzel. My family had an entire collection of fairy tales all in Spanish and those were definitely my favorites. This all ties back into immersing your kids in the second language. They will probably speak and hear English all day long, but you have to make sure their second language also plays a prominent role in their everyday lives.
I hope that these suggestions will be able to help you and your child on the road to learning a second language and keeping it. Don’t let second language attrition ruin the hard work you put into learning a new language, or the care you put into exposing your child to a second language at an early age in order to give them more opportunities in life. Don’t let your second language slip away, fight to keep it!
About the Author:
Gelsey Brizo. A senior at the University of Florida pursuing a degree in English. Born and raised in Miami, Florida she speaks both English and Spanish fluently and loves to watch and play soccer. A book fanatic who enjoys to read and write, she can’t go a day without a cup of coffee, a good read or her favorite music.
Hedgcock, John S. “Foreign Language Retention and Attrition: A Study of Regression Models” Foreign Language Annals 25.1 (1991): 43-55.
Gardner, Robert C. Social factors in language retention. Research Bulletin No. 514. University of Western Ontario, London. (1979). Department of Psychology. 1–34.