Children and foreign languages/cultures - inform me!
December 11, 2012 2:46 PM   Subscribe

If a child is immersed in a particular language on a medium-term basis (say, a year of preschool, or maybe two or three), and becomes fluent in it, but then the exposure is taken away, how much does this language stick? Can the child still understand the basics of the language a decade later? Or does it make the language easier to relearn later in life? ALSO: What does early exposure to a foreign culture do for a child, if anything? Is cultural uprooting and rerooting of this nature disorienting and/or destructive for a child?

(If the specifics matter, the totally hypothetical situation I was imagining was due to postdoc appointments I was looking at in Europe - completely hypothetical at this point, as I have not finished my doctorate, am not married, and do not have a child. But because of the potential timescale that I'm working on, if I do have children, their preschool years will very possibly coincide with any postdoc(s) that I do, and I started to wonder:

What would happen if I were to take a postdoc on the European continent (probably Germany but with the possibility of Austria, France, or Hungary)? If I and my husband were to speak English at home, but the child(ren) were immersed in French/German/etc. in school, would that be enough for them to become fluent? In one year? Several? If we moved back to an English-speaking country and they had no contact with the language until a middle-school or high-school language classroom, would they remember any of it? If not, would the language be easier for them to learn later? And would their accent be better than someone who hadn't had early exposure?

Also, what does early exposure to a foreign culture do for/to a child? Is it disorienting for a child to be exposed to one culture at home and another from school/peers, and then for the latter one to disappear? What impact would all of this have on a child's sense of personal identity as he/she moves through life? What if all of this included multiple cultures and languages (say, 18 months in Germany and 18 months in France, or something like that)? Would it be very difficult for a preschooler to make friends at school, moving to a new country and not yet knowing the language?

Data, personal experience, research, or speculation welcome!)
posted by UniversityNomad to Writing & Language (31 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
In my experience very small children become fluent when immersed outside the home in far less than a year. But they do not necessarily retain anything if the experience is not reinforced after leaving the environment.

The younger the child, the easier the transition. But you may want to read up on Third Culture Kids for a perspective on how multiple moves may affect children.
posted by bq at 2:54 PM on December 11, 2012

When I was ten, we lived in France for just under a year, and England for about six months. In Paris, I went to a French-speaking school (I spoke no French). I learned French. I ate French food. I navigated the Parisian transit system. We spoke English at home.

Ditto England, minus the language issues - although I remember the cultural issues as being more difficult to navigate, probably because we all spoke the same language (kind of!) and assumed more similarities than actually existed.

Returning to the States, I took French in school beginning in 7th grade and carried on through high school and college. My accent was excellent, but I still needed just as much grammatical education as anyone. I lived in France for a while after college and functioned mostly in French. I haven't spoken it regularly in years; I have some remnants of comprehension (spoken and reading) remaining.

Is it disorienting for a child to be exposed to one culture at home and another from school/peers, and then for the latter one to disappear?

For me it was. But it was short-lived and didn't ruin me or anything. I got a fair amount of shit from American classmates when we came back to the U.S., but we came back to a fairly provincial place where few people had ever left the island, let alone the state. And I returned to a new school, not the one I'd left when we moved to Europe, so I was The New Kid, with all the attendant difficulties.

Kids, generally speaking, are really adaptable and resilient. And I wouldn't trade the experiences I had for anything.
posted by rtha at 2:58 PM on December 11, 2012

A search term that may provide you more insight into your latter questions might be "third culture kids."

Kids are pretty adaptable. I was reasonably fluent in two languages when I was younger(Malay, and two Chinese dialects.), but started losing vocabulary as I got older and was no longer exposed to the language. I cannot speak either language now beyond short phrases, however, I understand how to structure sentences in those languages(basic grammar) and my accent is much better than most. When visiting those countries, I regain vocabulary quickly enough to manage very basic tasks like ordering food, and I assume that I would have a much easier time than expected relearning in an immersive environment.

As with all children, how your child takes to it is "it depends," but from my experience and observation of my "third culture kid" friends, we've all turned out to be very well rounded and adaptable adults.
posted by sawdustbear at 2:58 PM on December 11, 2012

what does early exposure to a foreign culture do for/to a child?

Prepare them to be president, maybe.
posted by empath at 2:59 PM on December 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

Annecdote time!

I spoke language A with my parents and grandparents (no exposure to english as a pre-schooler), I got put into esl classes in pre k, and picked up spanish instead of english. (easier to talk to the other kids- made playing more fun).

After my parents decided that esl was pointless for me, I then had no further exposure to spanish until I went on a trip to Chile/Argentina last year, and was able to understand everything going on around me within a day, and by the end of 2 weeks was able to (somewhat gramtically) converse and find words for things that I have no idea how I knew.

I'm terrible at all languages I've attempted to pick up since, so it seems that that one year of learning spanish instead of english as a 4 yr old stuck. I was not allowed to speak in English to my (american born and raised) parents until I graduated High School and I turned out more or less fine. Granted, I'm in the metropolitan NY area where it is not unusual for people to speak a second language at home. I am fluent in language A(which is nothing like Spanish) and English.

On preview, I'm not special. Apparently short term immersion as a small child sticks. carry on.
posted by larthegreat at 3:00 PM on December 11, 2012

I agree with many others in that upon returning to the States, your kids will most likely lose all active command of it, but it can make it easier to relearn later.

Personal anecdote: I'm Chinese-American. Grew up basically only speaking Mandarin to my parents, to the point where I had to take a ESL evaluation in kindergarten. There are videos of me at five years old where I am speaking flawless Mandarin (well, as flawless as any five-year-old is able to be.) Then I started school, learned English so rapidly you couldn't believe, and now my Mandarin is just OK, despite constant exposure to my parents speaking it for the first 18 years of my life. (And my English is great! Or at least the SAT and GRE tell me ;) )

I remember reading somewhere that children will pick up the language of school incredibly quickly. If you sent your kids to French/German school I've no doubt that they'd be fluent in a year's time. It'd be analogous to my situation, where English for you = Mandarin for me, and French/German for you = English for me.

But if you move back to the States, without further exposure to the language at all, I have to say the odds are pretty high your kids will lose all active command of the language. Even with my parents speaking Mandarin to me my whole childhood, growing up in an Asian-American enclave (so I didn't feel "ashamed" of being Asian, etc.) and attending Saturday Chinese schools it was still pretty difficult for me to keep it up. If I had hadn't any exposure to Mandarin at all I doubt I would have retained it. There's just an incredible pressure to fit in with your peers, to be understood, and at 6 or 7 or 8 you don't understand the value of keeping a second language.

This isn't to say that your kids couldn't pick it up again when they're older. But I think the odds of them successfully maintaining fluency in the foreign language with no supporting external environment are pretty low. After all, it's hard enough for many heritage-language speakers like me to keep up our heritage language despite ample opportunities/resources to do so.
posted by andrewesque at 3:15 PM on December 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you don't maintain it, you don't retain it. I'd say so in my preschool/kindergarten/first-grade immersion German but ich habe alles vergessen.
posted by headnsouth at 3:18 PM on December 11, 2012

I was raised billingual until I was about four. It did not go well. My grandmother spoke fluent spanish, my parents did not. I started biting the kids in preschool, and the school director (my other grandmother) chalked it up to the fact that I was conflating my languages and frustrated my peers couldn't understand me. So we switched to English Only, which seemed to fix the problem.

Not only does my accent drive my spanish speaking family members up a wall, I have no knack for languages, Spanish included.
posted by politikitty at 3:27 PM on December 11, 2012

It depends, but the general outcome is that unless there is frequent re-exposure, the familiarity and acumen will drop, although affinity may remain.

I spoke and read German until I was around 6 - fluently enough to remember some children's books as having been in English when they were actually in German. Once my exposure points dropped and it was mostly in my head, it evaporated. While I have a bit more ease with syntax than other folks, I still have to learn it the hard way, with perhaps a fraction more vocabulary than the average person.

Most of the people I've known with similar language exposure have had the same experience.

Still, it can set up an interest in the language and maybe ease an element or two, and language acquisition is good for the brain in general.
posted by batmonkey at 3:37 PM on December 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Well I have some anecdata for you.

I went to a Spanish school from 1st thru 3rd, then an Italian school for 4th thru 6th (having before that taken Japanese and French in an English preschool, of which I remember none). I would say it took about a year to become truly comfortable in both situations, and that was with a lot of tutoring. I by no means pick up languages quickly. However I was eventually fluent, spoke with an native accent, and dreamed some in those languages.

I then went to middle school in the states, took Latin, learned nothing. I also had an Italian tutor during these years, to practice. In high school I switched back to Spanish. Discovered that I had an extremely hard time not mixing up the two languages, but still managed to score highly on the AP test, etc.

Now that I'm in college, I have not taken either language for several years, but still understand both. I can't write or speak either with confidence (by which I mean, I can still converse, but not with fluency), but have no trouble translating. My accent is still quite good. Part of the problem is that I vastly prefer Italian; if possible I would have kept taking it in high school and forgotten Spanish entirely (which I essentially had forgotten Spanish, in Italy, because I never practiced it there). I am now trying to take Italian again to get back in practice.

To conclude: immersion makes all the difference. I would have struggled through foreign language classes if I hadn't moved overseas, and it was still exhausting. In terms of culture it wasn't too taxing, as my languages had 'spaces'--home for English, school for Spanish/Italian--but it also made me very shy and there were definitely some traumatic moments. I also felt at times that I wasn't really an American, because I at one point had lived here less than half my life. I don't feel that now, but I would move back to Europe in a heartbeat.
posted by tooloudinhere at 3:46 PM on December 11, 2012

The only people who qualified as "heritage speakers" (i.e., got to take different classes than us) in my Russian program were ones who'd been speaking it actively at least through age 10 or so. The vast majority had at least a live-in native speaker - almost always a grandparent or parent - through the high school years, and had been in primary school the USSR/Eastern Europe for a few years.

The main benefit the weaker heritage speakers had was their command of nuance - they picked up the subtle stuff much faster than the rest of us. Also, they all knew a ton of swear words and slang (more slang, actually, than proper vocabulary.) Their grammar was pretty awful; it seemed to me like it was actually harder for them to learn the grammar, probably because they'd been practicing things wrong for ages.

It was hard to tell about their accents - most academic programs pick a region or city to focus their instruction on, as far as I know. My Russian program was St. Petersburg-focused, my sister's German classes were based on someplace in Austria. I doubt the accent you have as a kid from living in RandomCountry helps much in your performance in SpecificAcademicProgram. My personal accent-acquisition ease comes from having lived in a gazillion places, and I basically just start sounding like whatever I hear within a few hours of exposure. It's very entertaining if I watch 30 episodes of Doctor Who, or listen to the entire Bible on MP3, in a short period of time.

They didn't offer any special classes to heritage speakers after the end of the introductory sequence (for majors, which includes two upper-level courses) which indicates to me that the occasional/informal use of a language that you've never studied basically gets you to a 7th or maybe 8th grade level in terms of ability (and way less than that in terms of vocabulary range.) After 1.334 years (the end of the first set of classes,) they wanted us at Intermediate-Low on the ACTFL chart (they were thrilled when I scored Intermediate-Medium, and -High on the oral.) I'd guess that the heritage speakers got to skip about 150-200 hours of instruction, at most, and "advanced" is more like 700 hours of instruction.

I suspect that if you keep providing German (or whatever) language materials, especially TV and age-appropriate reading, their retention will be far stronger. I know that kids with foreign language penpals do better with language retention - we had to do activities like that in elementary school, and that, plus some "fun Spanish songs" tapes my mom bought, is why I still know any Spanish. Also, I have a friend in the Netherlands who learned English (before he got to the grade where English classes were mandatory) almost entirely via Star Wars novels and writing fanfiction. His grammar/vocabulary was better than almost anyone else in our fanfic group, actually.

Oh... and your child could be a freak of nature when it comes to language acquisition. My grandfather was - his parents, per the 1920 census & grandpa's autobiography, spoke only Russian, Yiddish, some Lithuanian, some Hebrew and (great-grandpa only) very little English. But by 1936, Grandpa was fully fluent in English & Yiddish, really good at Hebrew, and at least decentish in the main European Fascist languages (Spanish, German, Italian.) He was the unofficial translator when he, some Americans, some Brits, and a bunch of Spaniards were captured by Italians in the Spanish Civil War. And though he said he wasn't particularly qualified, he was good enough to translate song lyrics/poetry, and to write letters in Spanish, forty years later. He had the dialect/accent knack that I do - striking up conversations with Basques and sounding like one of them (he convinced them to teach him the language while they were in prison,) then moving to a group of guys from Madrid and sounding like one of them. He also had about a tenth of the New York accent that his brothers did. None of his brothers had the accent thing at all - they all sounded exactly like they came from the Lower East Side, even the one who spent thirty years in Florida.
posted by SMPA at 3:57 PM on December 11, 2012

Interesting question. We have two kids, 10 and 3. We moved from Japan to Canada when the 10yo was maybe 2 (and before our second child was born). We have spent at least two months a year (usually more) in Japan for the past 6 years, since our eldest was 5.

Our eldest has attended Japanese school when in Japan for the past 6 years, usually for 1 to 3 months at a time. In Canada, he attends a Japanese language school on Friday evenings. I speak Japanese, write using Chinese characters, and read Japanese, and most of the many many many books in our house are Japanese.

Anyway, we just returned from a trip to Japan, where our eldest attended 4th grade for two and a half months. This time around (compared to last year, when he attended 3rd grade), he performed basically as a regular student. His Japanese, notably his use of age-appropriate idiom, really shot up, and he was able to complete writing assignments etc, usually above the median results in the class (ie, he scored better on tests than the kids sitting next to him).

Our youngest son (turning 4 in March) attended preschool for the first time in Japan. His own Japanese language skills also increased dramatically.

Anyway, I would assume that if our kids did not have support in the home, with books and reading and a demonstrated interest by both parents in Japanese, it would not "stick" past childhood.

But it's not such a big deal. I learned Japanese the hard way, starting at age 23, when I first went to Japan. If you have the time and the motivation, language acquistion can be done at any age. The idea that younger brains are more malleable is just a myth. It's all about having the time to do it.
posted by KokuRyu at 4:00 PM on December 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

I was four when I moved from Germany to the US. My family spoke Persian at home, and I was in preschool in Germany, so I knew German too, but as soon as I learned English in kindergarten in the US, I forgot all of my German. I don't remember it as a difficult or traumatic process at all. On a visit to the US when I was three, I have a distinct memory of thinking in German. Less than a year later, it was like I'd never learned German at all and learned English in pre-K. I later took French in high school and college instead of German, but I don't think I would have had an edge in German. I can recognize basic words my German relatives use, but otherwise I'm at a loss.

Switching cultures wasn't disorienting to me at all, but it wasn't as if I ever had much of a connection to German or Germany. In my experience, preschool-aged kids are really adaptable when it comes to languages/cultures. They might swap some words for a while: I have a baby cousin who liked using "nein" instead of "no" after some stays in Germany.

In general, I've had no real problems being bilingual in Persian and English, though I guess I have a somewhat weird accent in Persian thanks to a family that's half Kabuli and half Herati. The key is maintaining exposure. My Persian would have gone to shit if I didn't make an active effort at continuing to speak it with my parents. I have cousins who can only manage the basics in Persian and mangle their grammar because they just switched to speaking English with their families.
posted by yasaman at 4:05 PM on December 11, 2012

When I was in college, I knew a guy who had been born in Germany. He lived there until grade school, and then his family emigrated to the US. His family spoke English at home after that, to help everyone learn it.

By the time he was 20, he had lost his German. He only spoke English.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 4:10 PM on December 11, 2012

My American parents and I moved to France when I was 4. I picked up French within weeks, by osmosis, by playing with the neighborhood kids. My parents didn't speak it. I went to French schools in France and in various other countries until I was 18. I haven't spoken much French since, but it's still there, many many decades later, and I'm told that my accent is still perfectly Parisian.

We spent two or three summers in Italy when I was in elementary school and I spoke Italian for those months because all of my playmates were Italian. I don't remember it at all now. From the age of 10 to 13 I went to a French school in Austria. By the time I left I was fluent in German, but never spoke it again. I could probably translate easy stuff with a dictionary, still remember some syntax.

My sense is that only sustained use of a language over a period of several years will allow a child to retain it.

Frankly, I hated all the moving around, the constant disruptions. It's hard making friends and then leaving them behind knowing you'll probably never see them again. It's hard always being the new kid in school. And it's hard coming back to the US and being culturally/socially an outsider, but not an immigrant.
posted by mareli at 4:15 PM on December 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

(As an aside, all of this is making me feel far better about the fact that I used to be fluent in my grandparent's native language, due both to periodic but long-term childhood exposure [in America] and personal study as an adolescent and young adult, and have lost it over the past few years to the extent that I can't speak it at all, really - I can sort of understand it, when it's slow and reasonably simple, and I can't speak it grammatically. It sounds like this is fairly normal! I just assumed that it was some big lapse on my memory's part...)
posted by UniversityNomad at 4:18 PM on December 11, 2012

Generally speaking, a child who learns two languages simultaneously, that is, both before the age of 3, will learn them at more or less the same rate. That means about 5 words a day at that age if they are having daily exposure in both, plus picking up syntax and whatnot in stride. A lot of the language processes are still forming at that age, and they'll pick up a second language without much struggle at all. Take something like syntax, for example. When young children, ~1 year to ~5 years old, are learning to talk, adults rarely have to teach them syntax - kids will just pick it up. While older children and adults certainly do this, generally they require a bit more of a formalized structure in learning second languages.

If they already know their native language and are starting the second after about 3 years old, it starts getting harder and the length of time to become fluent and to "think," so to speak, in the second language increases - generally to between 5 and 7 years of immersion. They would, however, have the basics down of the second language and be able to more or less communicate, if they are over about 3, in 2 or so years of consistent use and practice.

Naturally, everyone is different. These are averages. With young kids it's a very complex process because they are still learning how to speak their first language.

The idea that younger brains are more malleable is not actually just a myth. Granted, older brains are much more malleable than previously thought, but there is no doubt that younger brains are much more capable, especially when it comes to language, to learn and adopt to new forms of syntax and linguistic structures (take, for example children who have had strokes that affect the left hemispheres or Wernicke's areas of their brains - they are able to shift their language processing largely to the right side and come out pretty much completely normal, whereas for adults who have already formed more or less immovable structures for language in the left side this is not possible if they have a stroke, and their speech takes much longer to improve, if it ever does).

As for remembering? They may remember a bit, but languages do tend to be use it or lose it types of things. There are lots of studies out there that are trying to make sense of what might happen, cognitive development wise, to a bilingual child's brain, perhaps making it more efficient in other areas or making it easier to learn new languages later on, but all of that research is relatively nascent.
posted by Lutoslawski at 4:19 PM on December 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

My mum is English, but lived in Wales as a small child, went to kindergarten and learnt Welsh there. She has forgotten it all now, but when we went to Wales a few years ago, she picked up the accent in a really quickly.

I learnt German in Germany on exchange for a year in 1996 at 17. I've lost a lot of it, but relearn it pretty quickly if I try.

Moving is undoubtably traumatic, but I think makes for more interesting people.
posted by kjs4 at 4:19 PM on December 11, 2012

Anecdata: a little-known fun fact is that my first language was not English. It was French. One parent and half-sibling immigrated from France, and the other parent is one of those language nerds who learned French to the point of near-native fluency. So, we spoke French in the house, and that is kind of all I spoke until pre-school (I had picked up some English words from my grandparents, and made up some fun neologisms on my own, but French was where it was at). I vaguely remember going into pre-school at the age of 4 not understanding what was going on around me. Learned English in about, oh, a month or two.

I remember I spoke both French and English into Kindergarten, parent was convinced by a relative that if I spoke French, it would impact my scholastic ability, and I would always struggle in school. So they stopped. The other parent picked up a graveyard shift, so they weren't really around to talk at all. It was all English from there on out.

By the time I went back to France for a visit at the age of seven, I had forgotten all of it. I still can't speak it to this day, and the only reason why I have the capacity to freak people out and make them think I still know how to "read" and "understand" a lot of written French is because...I learned Spanish to an advanced level, so I can recognize some of those shared romance language things. But I don't understand French at all.

Another fun fact: said French sibling moved to the U.S. at the age of 9, and...though the sib can understand more written/verbal French than I can, and has a good accent when pronouncing words and phrases, they actually can't really speak French at all, at this point.

You have to maintain it, consistently, at least through adolescence.
I am, often, saddened that I missed out on the chance of becoming truly bilingual. :(
However, I did move around a lot, including overseas, and though it was disorienting at times, I regret none of it. Growing up outside of the U.S. was fantastic, and there is really nothing about that experience that I can speak negatively about.
posted by vivid postcard at 4:22 PM on December 11, 2012

I am a linguist, and I have some personal experience with what you are talking about.

Basically it varies a bit, but in general you should expect that yes, your child would become fluent within a year or so, but no they would probably not retain any of it into their teenage years or adulthood if you leave that environment when they are still a preschooler and they have no further exposure.

However, their accent, if they relearn the language later, might be better.

My husband is Swedish and grew up in Sweden until the age of five. His parents only spoke Swedish to him at home. Then the family moved to New Zealand and he switched to only speaking English outside the home. His parents attempted to continue to speak Swedish with him, but he refused and after a couple more years they gave up. He occasionally (at holidays, with visitors) continued to HEAR Swedish spoken around him. As an adult he has almost zero Swedish. He can't put together a sentence, and only remembers about 20 words. Very very occasionally he will recall a word or a phrase from his childhood. He even attempted to relearn the language a few years ago, and I as a total outsider made quicker progress than he did.

My own experience is that my parents put me in a daycare situation when I was a preschooler where my carers were Maori speakers and spoke Maori with me. I apparently learned a lot of Maori, although I am not sure if I was ever fluent. I had only occasional exposure to the language after the age of six, but as an adult I can still easily produce certain sounds and combinations of sounds that other English speakers struggle with (the sound they write "wh", and the word-initial "ng-", for example).

I think the linguistics literature supports the idea that if a child acquires (or basically doesn't lose) a phonemic distinction or a particular phonetic sound before the age of five or so, they'll continue to be able to hear that distinction or make that sound in later life. But grammar and vocabulary are more easily lost or affected by other languages.
posted by lollusc at 5:26 PM on December 11, 2012

Before I started school, my grandparents and my great grandmother watched me all day while my mother worked. They were all Lithuanian speakers, but my grandparents also spoke English. My great grandmother spoke no English, so we spoke Lithuanian at home. She died when I started school, and it was then that my language skill went right into the toilet. I cannot muster more than a few phrases as an adult. My father's side of the family spoke Spanish and while I never had the language immersion there that I did with Lithuanian the Spanish was more reinforced over time so I understand much more of it as an adult.
posted by crankylex at 5:40 PM on December 11, 2012

I agree with KokuRyu's comments and others regarding "use it or lose it". This is the same for most any other skill - most people remember their high school French just as poorly as they remember their high school algebra.

There is nothing magical about young children and their ability to learn language. In fact, adults generally learn faster, mostly because they have larger vocabularies. There is good evidence that early exposure is beneficial for acquiring a native accent and being able to hear phonemic distinctions, but an accent has nothing to do with language proficiency. Some adult learners of foreign language will tell you that they can speak with a native accent and that they can even do so easily. This really isn't the case. Intonation is the big area that is a giveaway of a foreign speaker, but a tipoff is also English aspiration i.e. the puff of air when saying "p" or "t"; many languages do not aspirate these sounds or at least do it with much less force than English speakers. These differences can be very subtle - did you know most varieties of English have more than one "l" sound? Notice the position of your tongue when saying "letter" and "lottery"; these are called the "light l" and "dark l" respectively. Some languages, such as French, have just the "light l", but most NSoEnglish will not realize they are using both l's, so they might as well wear an Abby Hoffman American flag shirt.

The other big advantage that young children have is that they are not inhibited in speech - they don't know about incorrect grammar or word nuance. They just want to communicate.

So to answer your question, if they have preschool exposure and then nothing again until high school, there is a very high probability that very little to anything will be retained.

My anecdata is that so far, Mrs. Tanizaki and I have done a good job of raising our school-age children to be bilingual in English and Japanese. She speaks to them in Japanese and I speak to them in English as a general rule, but we all do a lot of code-switching. The kids also attend Japanese school on Saturday mornings and do homework for it most days of the week. They read at an age-appropriate level in both English and Japanese, and our 8 yo son just sat for and passed his first Kanken (test of Chinese characters). However, it is a lot of work on both the oral and written fronts. I do hope that it sticks, but being in the US, it is us against the world.
posted by Tanizaki at 6:14 PM on December 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

I lived in Paris for a year as a small child (age 3-4) and attended a preschool that was ostensibly bilingual (French-English), but there were probably at least a half dozen languages going on in the classroom. I loved my (Dutch and decidedly multi-lingual, bless her) teacher and classmates (even the ones I couldn't really talk to) and did not find it hard to make friends - my mom was just the other day telling me about how funny it was taking me to other kids' birthday parties and watching how great the kids all got along even as the parents stood around staring at each other in awkward silence.

My parents say that my French got pretty good while I was there (not only from school but also chatting with shopkeepers, neighbors, etc.) I forgot it all almost immediately upon returning to the U.S., but when I did take French in middle and high school later on, I was always one of the top students in my class - maybe that earlier exposure helped? You definitely do lose it again pretty quickly without practice, though.

On the other hand, my little sister was 1 when me moved to Paris and just beginning to talk, and my parents say that her language skills were a little slow to develop in general and she just didn't talk much in Paris at all, in French or English. They have wondered if moving at a such a critical time was really confusing for her and slowed her language skills down for a little while - this is total speculation, though.
posted by naoko at 7:03 PM on December 11, 2012

Here's my bunch of anecdata. My parents are anglophone, but I attended a French school in a predominantly anglo town in Ontario. Not immersion, but a school for French native speakers. I had Sesame Street level French at the start. Not to be all braggy or anything, but I still have the trophy I got at the end of Kindergarten for being excellent in French. I did French school until Grade 8, and went to a bilingual high school. I spent a year in the French-speaking part of Belgium. And then I never studied it again. After 12 years of basically not speaking French at all, I got a job and worked professionally in French without much trouble. I did some one-on-one work with a French tutor to become fluent in the vocabulary of the sector and worked that job for four years. I don't write well at all, though. Well, I suppose I write like a high schooler, which isn't outrageous since that's as far as my studies went and plus, written French is just hard. Now I speak French only socially and just write quick notes to my kid's teacher and I'm starting to lose vocabulary. It's always the nouns that disappear for me. I get comments on my accent all the time, but I am not usually taken for an anglophone. Instead people are confused by my mishmash accent of franco northern Ontarian and Hainaut area Belgian.

My brother went to the same school as me. He's five years younger, so I was already fluent by the time he started and we could therefore speak together in French. He eventually became fluent but never really thrived in the school. My parents transferred him out to an English school in Grade 7. 25 years later, he doesn't speak any French at all. Or, he speaks Canadian anglo level French, can read the back of the cereal box, etc.

My daughter started French school at age 4. Despite my best efforts she began knowing only two words in French. She didn't say a word in class for three months, then began speaking fluently in the week right before winter break. Her teacher said that in almost all cases, kids whose first language is something other than French are fluent by the March break.

It's true that kids' brains are not some kind of magical sponge. One of the reasons kids reach fluency so quickly in a second language is because what we consider fluent for a 4 year old is dramatically different than what we consider fluent for a 40 year old. A 40 year old will speak like a four year old fairly quickly, too.

There is something, though, about learning a second language while you are still acquiring your first one. When I am stuck on a word, for example, you know, like when you just blank on something, I'm as likely to have the French name for it pop up for me as the English. It's like those two languages are stored in the same part of my brain. On the other hand, I took both German and Spanish in high school, neither of which stuck particularly well. I can cobble together sentences in Spanish if I need to, but interestingly, when I am stumbling on a word in Spanish, the German word, if I know it, is what is most likely to pop into my brain. This even though obviously French is much closer to Spanish. And it works the other way, too, with Spanish words turning up for German ones, even though English makes more sense. It's an almost physical sensation of those two languages being written together on the part of my hard drive reserved for Languages I Don't Really Know.

With my kid, there are lots of words that she learned first in French, then in English. And she has all kinds of funny French-isms in her English. She attaches and detaches her shoe laces, opens and closes lights, and when she studies hard gets "10 on 10" on math quizzes. (I say 8 on 10 or 19 on 20, too, and only as an adult did I realize in English people say 8 out of ten.)
posted by looli at 7:06 PM on December 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Young children learn easily and quickly, and also forget easily and quickly. If you don't continue the language upon return to the US, more likely than not it will be almost completely forgotten. But the experience of learning the language and culture will in no way be harmful to your child.
posted by Dansaman at 8:53 PM on December 11, 2012

Both my husband and my grandmother forgot their native languages once they went to primary school in the US. My grandma forgot *everything*; my husband can struggle along in "baby talk" but definitely is not even close to fluent.
posted by town of cats at 10:16 PM on December 11, 2012

I moved to Bulgaria when my daughters were 3 and 7 and we lived there for 3 1/2 years. We dropped my youngest daughter straight into the state run kindergarten where no one spoke English and she attended it the whole time. When she was home without us she was with our housekeeper who spoke no English. She became comfortable in Bulgarian within a month and was the main translator for the family. By her final year she was helping a teacher who had been brought in to teach English to the kids. She is now 18 and remembers only a few word and phrases, but she is "good" at languages.

My older daughter went to a small English based school where children also spoke Bulgarian and Romany. Her Bulgarian acquisition was slower, but she had learned the Kyrillic alphabet by the time we came back to the states. She ended up studying German in American high school and is fluent, she added Russian in college and is also fluent in that. When she recently traveled through Eastern Europe she felt comfortable with Bulgarian and Serbian also and is now studying Turkish.

They are very happy that their childhood was broken up by living in another country and we traveled widely when we lived there and after through western Europe and Africa. The main thing that they appreciate is that they know that words only represent something, they AREN'T the thing. I would definitely recommend raising children in other countries-I think it may have been the best parenting decision I made.
posted by Isadorady at 1:52 AM on December 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Anecdata Point 1: I was born in the US in household and extended family that spoke only Cantonese and didn't speak a word of English before going to pre-school, to the point where, for example, my mother worried that I wouldn't be able to ask how to go to the bathroom.

After a week or so of pre-school, my mom came to pick me up at the end of the day when the class was out in the playground. Apparently, I saw her coming, ran up the stairs to the slide, yelled, "MOM, LOOK AT ME!" in English, and went down.

Twenty-ish years later, I make my living by being very, very good at English. I still speak Cantonese to my parents, but at a roughly first or second grade level despite almost a decade and a half of intensive Chinese tutoring by my father -- I mean, we ain't talking Saturday Chinese school. We're talking memorization of over 100 classical T'ang dynasty Chinese poems and entire dialogues from the Analects, working through middle and high-school level textbooks in Chinese history, Chinese written language homework every single day in the summer in middle school, and so forth.

By high school, but I didn't have time or energy to maintain it, and now, I squint at menus like every other ABC (American Born Chinese).

Anecdata Point 2: My cousins were born in the US in a household and extended family that spoke only Cantonese, and they also got a similar version of the Chinese tutoring that I got. When the older cousin was 8 or 9 and the younger was a few years behind, their parents moved her and her brother back to Hong Kong for a few years. They were enrolled in local schools. From what I've heard, it was rough and then some. Her parents moved back to the US after a few years for work-related reasons.

Fifteen-ish years later, at least one of the cousins maintains her skills by doing independent reading in Chinese, which is more fluency than I will ever, ever have again.
posted by joyceanmachine at 7:40 AM on December 12, 2012

It takes effort. I sweated blood from 1999 to 2001 to bring my Japanese up to a professional level. I was studying 8 hours a day for months and months and months (this was before kids, and I had a really easy job).

I got another gig in 2006 where I had to translate a ton of tv material. Just listening to rapid-fire sports announcers for that gig for 8 hours a day improved my listening. It can be done in adulthood, if it is a priority.
posted by KokuRyu at 3:10 PM on December 12, 2012

Anecdotally, I studied Spanish from K-5 (once a week) and then for two or three more classes throughout middle school & high school.

Without practice or exposure, I can get to the bathroom or order at a restaurant, but when I went to Mexico for 10 days this summer, by the end of the trip I could carry on political discussions.

My officemate (we're both developmental cognitive neuroscientists) does a lot of work on language development, and he says a year of immersion would do a kid a world of good in attempting to relearn the language later on. It might slow their acquisition of English, but is unlikely to affect it negatively in a long term way.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 5:30 PM on December 13, 2012

You may find the section "Children Learn Languages Easily" (a myth) on the Zompist web page "Why Do People Learn Languages?" helpful. (Scroll down to that section.)
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 2:42 AM on December 14, 2012

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