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How to help children retain their native languages

Losing the ability to speak the language of your native country can be a fear for any expat parent that moves abroad, especially when children are young. 

But can you forget a language? The general consensus is that yes, it is possible: children can experience complete language attrition, a linguistic term that defines the weakening or loss of a language.

However, recent research has shown that adults maintain remnants of languages thought lost. One Swedish study showed that adults who had left their native countries at a young age—and had seemingly lost the ability to speak their mother tongues—performed better in phonetic testing in their mother tongues than those who acquired the language later, despite having had similar language training as adults. Yet another study showed that Chinese children adopted in France, who no longer spoke their native languages, still processed language skills possessed by bilingual children, despite being monolingual French speakers at the time of testing.

In other words, once you learn a language, the stage in your brain is set—and you cannot dismantle it.

But even though a mother tongue cannot ever truly be forgotten, NAISR, an international school specialising in multilingual proficiency for its students, helps expat children to retain and improve their native languages—and, as a result, their culture. NAISR realises that it is essential for students to continue to develop their mother tongues, and for this reason, they offer mother-tongue support in several languages. They strongly encourage students to continue the development of their mother tongue by taking part in these daily 45-minute classes.

Speak your mother tongue at home to encourage native language retention.

Expat parents coming to a new country such as the Netherlands may feel the need to completely immerse themselves in their new language—therefore speaking Dutch as much as possible—while parents of two different nationalities may have adopted a third language in which to converse at home. NAISR also offers the option of taking Dutch as a Second Language as part of its Modern Languages Program.

However, continuing to speak your native language with your children vastly improves their ability to maintain a grasp on the language and a connection to their culture and country. This can be especially useful when children attend an international school, whose language of instruction—often English—may differ from the language of the country in which you reside.

Enrol your child in a school that offers mother-tongue education.

The language of many international schools in the Netherlands is English; for children whose native language is neither English nor Dutch, this pushes their native language to third place in level of “importance” in terms of linguistics.

Only some international schools in the Netherlands have begun offering programmes in students’ native languages to embrace mother tongue education, a concept promoted by international organisations such as UNESCO. Mother tongue education at an international school allows children to maintain their skills in their first language, which can improve cognitive development and create a language-learning foundation upon which children can build.

Mother tongue education has shown additional benefits beyond language learning; children learn better overall and improve their social skills when the language of instruction is in their native language.

Use media to your advantage.

Some parents do not approve of sitting a child down in front of the television; however, media can be a great tool in assisting the retention of a native language. Some studies have shown that media, especially educational television programmes, can help children aged two and older learn new words. Children younger than two require interaction in order to learn—and that is where other media comes in.

Music has long been regarded as a great addition to the classroom. Teach your children lullabies, nursery rhymes and children’s songs from your native country—even better if there are clapping games to go along with them! Not only do songs help teach sounds to children, the interaction of these games, along with the repetitive tunes, will make speaking your native language more fun and less of a chore. 

Spend time in your native country.

It may be an expensive language lesson, but one of the best ways to learn a language—and retain it—is through immersion, according to various studies. Bringing your children back to your native country (during longer school breaks) will not only expose them to their native languages in a more natural setting, but it will also help them reconnect with their culture.

Finally, do not get frustrated.

It is important to ensure that learning and speaking your native language is a positive and fun experience. There is an abundance of resources that advocate the one parent-one language (OPOL) strategy for parents of bilingual children; while it has proven beneficial, parents should not take it too far. Do not ignore your children if they speak to you in the “undesired” language. Children should associate their mother tongue with happiness — not with fear, anger or embarrassment.

After a few years of living as an expat, if you notice that your children are beginning to lose touch with their native language(s), have no fear: the aforementioned studies also showed that adults who “completely” lost the ability to speak their native languages were able learn them again later much more quickly. Although you can never truly lose a mother tongue, you can certainly take steps to ensure that it never fades.

For more information on the Modern Languages Program offered at NAISR, please contact the school directly. You are also more than welcome to arrange a visit to the School, during which you can speak directly with the Modern Languages Coordinator who is happy to answer any specific questions you may have about the program.