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Keeping a Language Alive

Ways of maintaining a language

Post written by François Grosjean.

Some of us feel that we are no longer making progress in a language that we have learned. Others of us who have known and used a language for years may realize that we are no longer using it very much, or at all. We no longer need it to interact with others, nor do we need it in our studies or at work, or in our social activities. Whatever the reason, we may have become dormant bilinguals (see here) and we may even feel that we are starting to forget the language (see here). Although many of us allow our languages to follow their course, we are not always aware that there are ways of keeping a language alive—both in adults and in children—although special measures may be needed with the latter.

If adult language users are not, or are no longer, in contact with a community or a group that speaks the language (e.g. they have moved to another region or country), then various strategies are open to them to maintain the language. In addition to regular trips to the region or country, they can find friends with whom to practice their language. A more formal way, especially for foreign language learners, is to join a language group or club (e.g. a French club) which meets regularly and where its members speak together in that language. It can be combined with various activities such as seeing a movie, hosting a guest speaker, having a meal together, etc.

There are also so called language exchange (or Tandem) programs where two speakers of different languages meet and agree to speak each language half the time. For instance, someone who wants to practice her Spanish can meet a Spanish speaker who wants to practice her English. They take it in turn to use the other's language and hence get practice that way. Such exchanges can also take place on the internet, via Skype, for instance.

In a more passive way, but still at the level of the spoken language, one can watch TV programs or CDs in the language concerned, go on the internet and follow various news or entertainment programs, or put on some songs and sing along with them (this is great for pronunciation and rhythm).

At the level of reading and writing, all kinds of approaches are possible, such as keeping a diary in the language concerned, having a pen pal or friend, reading books and articles in the language, taking notes, etc.

Things are not quite as easy with children as one must create a real communicative need to keep a language alive. In a previous post (see here), I related how two American kids, Cyril and Pierre, came to live for a year in a small Swiss village and acquired French during their stay. The family returned to the United States at the end of the year and very soon English took over again and became dominant even though the family remained bilingual in English and French.

Since there was no language community on hand that spoke French (and no bilingual program in the local school), the parents decided to enforce a home language convention where only French would be spoken at home (both parents had originally come from France). However, like any parent in a bilingual family knows, this was easier said than done as the majority language—English—entered the home in multiple ways (peers and friends, homework, TV, DVDs, and so on).

So the parents, while doing their best to enforce the home language convention, devised other strategies. For example, they sought out newly arrived French-speaking families who had children the same age as their boys, and they organized get-togethers with them to see if they got along. It worked with one or two children and thus, for several months, while the latter were learning English, both Cyril and Pierre had monolingual French-speaking friends to talk to and play with.

The parents also invited some of the friends the two boys had made in Switzerland to come and visit. Since they were monolingual in French, Cyril and Pierre didn't have any choice but to speak French with them. In addition, the parents had French-speaking friends and relatives come and stay; this bolstered the presence of the home language in a natural way.

The parents had learned quite rapidly that forcing children to keep to just one language when they themselves, the parents, are bilingual can lead to frustration on both sides, especially if it is the weaker language that has to be spoken. Invariably, the children revert back to their stronger language. Thus Cyril and Pierre's parents created situations where there was a real need for the weaker language; it worked well and both boys retained their French. In later years, they went on to acquire other languages.

Photo courtesy of Matthew Bowden


François Grosjean. Family strategies and support. Chapter 17 of Grosjean, François (2010). Bilingual: Life and Reality. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

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