There are approximately 5,000 languages spoken in fewer than 200 countries in our world. That means there are a lot of people out there who are bilingual or multilingual! In fact, there are different kinds of bilingualism. Understanding these is relevant to parents who want their young children to grow up speaking more than one language.

  • Additive Bilingualism is when one language is added to a child’s mother tongue and both languages continue to develop naturally.
  • Subtractive Bilingualism is when a child’s mother tongue stops developing because the second language takes priority. It can lead to passive bilingualism.
  • Passive Bilingualism is when someone understands a language but no longer speaks it.

As many parents and teachers have noticed, young children tend to learn conversational English quite quickly and effortlessly. This is because they learn their second language in the same way they learned their mother tongue – from acquiring it naturally, in social interactions. Although this can be seen as an advantage, young children are at highest risk of losing their mother tongues1. They can start to lose their mother tongue—in as quickly as 2 to 3 years—when it is not encouraged and supported.

These are the children who enter school in the earliest grades, before they (or their monolingual peers) have fully developed their oral language, let alone reading and writing skills. In time, they may become passive bilinguals. They may understand their parents but respond to them only in English. Inevitably, if a child loses his or her mother tongue, it is likely to haven an emotional impact on the child and the family.

A factor that cannot be avoided is the social power that English holds. For students in an English speaking setting, it is the language of school, but more importantly, of their peers. Students are eager to stop speaking their mother tongue once they can communicate with their friends in English. English is also the language of things seen to be “cool” by children, such as television shows, Hollywood movies, and video games. Furthermore, the inescapable language of the internet is dominated by English terms—world wide web, email, weblog, download, chat, link, YouTube, etc. It is our responsibility—as parents and teachers—to shift the power balance of languages if we want ESL children to see the value in their own.

As you’ve already learned from my last post, What You Should Know if You Have an ESL Child, bilingualism has positive effects on children’s cognition and their academic potential. Therefore, schools should encourage mother tongue development, but sadly they often do not. This leaves parents to figure it out on their own. In future posts, I will discuss what parents can do to support their child’s bilingual development. Check back again soon!

1 Cummins, Jim (2001). Bilingual Children’s Mother Tongue: Why Is It Important for Education?