Young children who move abroad are generally quick to learn the new language. But what if their parents decide to return home after living in the second language environment for many years?
Flores investigated the role of age for maintaining the second language when migrants return to their country of birth. The study traces the German-language development of Ana, a nine-year old girl, who returned to Portugal after living in Germany for seven years. Having attended kindergarten and school in Germany, Ana was dominant in German when she first arrived in Portugal, and German was the language she used to communicate with her older brother.
Three months after arriving in Portugal, Ana’s use of German had ceased almost completely. Five months after her arrival, Ana was still able to converse in German but sometimes had trouble remembering German words and correctly using certain aspects of German grammar. After 18 months, conversation had become too difficult but she was still able to complete some written tasks.
In contrast, Flores has also been able to show that children who remained in Germany until they were teenagers maintained a good level of German fluency when they returned to Portugal. This seems to suggest a type of cut-off point at which a second language becomes stabilized in the mind and is immune to the effects of language loss. When exposure to a second language ceases before this point, as was the case with Ana, more effort is required to maintain it.
Importantly, Flores points out that Ana did not actually “lose” her German. Instead, she had trouble activating her knowledge of the language as she was not exposed to it. This was not such a problem for her peers who had lived in Germany until they were teenagers.
What we can take from this study is the importance of maintaining exposure to a child’s second language, particularly if they are below puberty age when they leave the second language environment.
Flores, C. (2015). Losing a language in childhood: a longitudinal case study on language attrition. In: Journal of child language, 42:3, 562–590.