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Coming Back to Bilingualism

How a child returned to being bilingual

Post written by François Grosjean.

It is not rare for bilinguals to go from being active, regular bilinguals, interacting with the world around them using their different languages, to being single language users. This can happen at any time and is usually due to a major life change. The language no longer being used on a regular basis will become dormant (see here) and even start to be forgotten.

The wax and wane of languages takes place particularly quickly in children. As we saw in an earlier post based on a case study, three-year old Stephen who was bilingual in English and Garo (a language from the district of Assam in India), stopped using Garo when he went back to the United States with his parents, and within six months he was having problems with the simplest of Garo words (see here).

Of course, the movement can go both ways: from bilingualism to monolingualism as with Stephen but also from monolingualism to bilingualism. In a recent case study, University of Tromsø researchers Tove Dahl, Curt Rice, Marie Steffensen and Ludmila Amundsen show how a little Norwegian-American boy, Per, reverted to bilingualism in English and Norwegian after some 15 months of solely using English.

Per grew up with both English and Norwegian and was a balanced bilingual when, at age 3, he left with his parents for the United States. They stayed there for some 15 months and during that time Norwegian was not actively used either in his home or in his preschool. When the family came back to Norway, Per had to reacquire Norwegian and hence become bilingual once again.

The researchers recorded him in his Norwegian preschool for a number of weeks starting five weeks after Per's return. Before the recordings started, they noticed that Per spent less time speaking and more time listening. He was busy assessing the language skills of those around him while reactivating his Norwegian. When they did start recording, they found that Per kept to English, even though only his teachers spoke it, but within a few weeks it stopped being his sole language. It was replaced by a mixture of English and Norwegian (he code-switched and borrowed; see here), and increasingly by Norwegian only. Some eleven weeks after his return, Per was basically only using Norwegian in his preschool.

What was especially interesting was how during this very short time span, Per adopted a number of linguistic and social strategies to communicate. Per quickly learned which interlocutors were bilingual (the teachers) and which were monolingual (his peers). Since he struggled with Norwegian at first, he interacted primarily with the adults to whom he would speak English, with or without code-switches and borrowings. He avoided the situations where it was required of him to speak Norwegian only, i.e. with his peers. He waited until the ninth week before communicating with them by themselves. And when he did so, he borrowed from English sparingly as he realized they did not know that language. Thus, little Per (recall that he was not yet five then) showed great sensitivity to social and community norms, matching his communication to the preference and ability of his interlocutors and seeking out situations that he could manage linguistically.

The authors raise an interesting theoretical question in their paper: Was Per reacquiring Norwegian during his first weeks back in Norway, particularly in his preschool setting, or was he basically reactivating his Norwegian? A similar question can be asked of adoptees who come back into contact with their first language many years after their adoption (see here). As concerns Per, the authors feel that his use of strategies common to both language learners and bilinguals make it difficult to state that he was in the process of reacquiring the language he was once proficient in. They opt for reactivating a once fluent language.

Whatever the answer to this fascinating question may be, Per (or Espen as he is usually known) is doing very well. His father sent me a message recently stating, "Our bilingual son is as balanced as one can be, spending school years in Norway and summers in the US".

Photo courtesy of Cal Rice.


Tove I. Dahl, Curt Rice, Marie Steffensen & Ludmila Amundsen (2010). Is it language relearning or language reacquisition? Hints from a young boy's code-switching during his journey back to his native language. International Journal of Bilingualism, 14(4), 490-510.

François Grosjean (2010). In and out of bilingualism. Chapter 14 of Grosjean, F. (2010). Bilingual: Life and Reality. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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