Maintaining a mother tongue abroad is like taking a rollercoaster ride. What’s more, multilingual children travel in multiple cars on different lanes at the same time. The rollercoaster cars of their various languages do not go up hills, go straight ahead or go down slopes at the same speed, and sometimes repeat the same peaks and troughs.
We work very hard to support children who are still at the starting point of their language learning, that is to say, during the first period of silence when they are beginning to speak. This is not difficult, since a baby unconsciously encourages everyone to talk to him continuously. And this is the right thing to do. However, it is less beneficial when we do not make the same amount of effort to speak to them when we see them going down the slope of the language rollercoaster, or even coming dangerously close to a new period of silence in one of their languages. This is because multilinguals do not become immune to this period and it can occur several times. The good news is that this does not happen from one day to the next, but changes slowly, and they can almost imperceptibly switch from one lane to the other when they use another of their languages.
At first it may be only occasionally that they do not answer, for example, in the language their parents speak, but over time it will happen more frequently. Multilingual families often use several languages in their conversations and do not keep track of when or how often they use one or the other. It is common that they do not always remember which language they saw a movie or read an article in.
However, repeating everything in multiple languages is a method that requires energy and time, so families tend to switch to one of the languages most familiar to them. This is because with the rush of day-to-day life the most important thing is that listeners understand, for example, that the next day someone else will pick them up from school or that they should not forget to bring a gift to their friend’s birthday party.
Therefore, the car goes down little by little, almost imperceptibly, and can even leave its lane if something extraordinary does not happen, such as the COVID-19 lockdown. During the lockdown many parents wrote to me and told me that, for example, their children who seemed to have forgotten their native language began to speak it again with a grandmother who was trapped at home, or that after a month of doing three sentences of daily dictations, they began to write a diary. Of course, there are other methods to achieve this – there is no need for a nationwide lockdown to improve language ability!
Other radical changes can provide solutions, such as going to summer camps in another country, or spending a semester studying abroad when a child’s language level begins to drop. However, there are also gentler ways to change the trend. My CFHP programme offers help for this.
When children seem to be losing their language skills, it is a very delicate time. Affected parents often prefer not to mention it and trust that it will fix itself. Let us be cautious when we argue that one language or another is impractical for whatever reason. If the child has already started to speak a language this means that he has worked a lot on it, so even if he no longer answers in this language he may have a remarkable passive knowledge of it. If we help children overcome this type of negative trend, they will appreciate it as an adult. In the case of teenagers, if the language they are speaking less is the language of one of their parents, it is very important to be able to use it so that not only information but also authentic emotions are transmitted. There are many more arguments to defend the importance of maintaining parents’ mother tongues. However, what I want to emphasize here is that if someone notices that their child is going down this slope with one of their languages, they should not be scared, because this does not have to be definitive and it is normal for something like this to happen to a multilingual child. The least normal thing would be to not to ask for help or support and to wait for the next quarantine!