Why don’t immigrants’ kids properly acquire their parents’ language?

My colleague Rome Lacvrencic, head of the B.C. Association of Teachers of Modern Languages, and I had an interesting Twitter discussion recently. 

Lavrencic, of Polish extraction, heard some Polish at home in Ontario, Canada, English everywhere, and was in late French Immersion. By the end of Grade 12, he says he was “more proficient in L3 than L1.”  He attributes this to being able to speak more French than Polish. 

 This  is a familiar refrain: “I used to be good at ____ but now I don’t speak it much so I’m bad at it.”

This was where I disagreed. I told him that speaking wasn’t the point, but that listening was.  

So I thought I’d take a look at this via numbers and my own experiences. 

My L1 was German.  I heard it at home a lot until Grade One, and much less after Grade Four, when my cousin Sig came to live with us.  Sig spoke Spanish, French and English, so English it was at home. 

Now, when I speak German, I sound like a five-year-old from 1963. I hear my folks speak German but that’s about my only exposure. And I suck at German. When I am around German speakers, I understand a ton but I can say much less than I understand. 

In terms of input, mine dropped to close to zero at age 9. Lavrencic went through a roughly similar process: Polish dropped off but French input massively upped.  My guess is that he (and anyone else in his shoes) would get 5-6 hours daily of French input at school, plus homework (reading) while in Polish (like me in German) would have gotten maybe an hour or two.  

Lavrencic took French in Uni and also teaches it so he’s obviously super-proficient.  

In my view, Lavrencic is bringing up the problem of post hoc, ergo propter hoc (after this, therefore because of this), also known as the correlation vs causation problem. There was speaking and input, then there was acquisition.  The acquisition happened after both the speaking and input. Was it therefore because of the speaking? 

The research says it’s the input. Terry Waltz recently remarked, echoing Krashen, that there are loads of cases of people acquiring languages without speaking them. The deaf who do not get speech training are one. As we all know, when we start acquiring a  language, we go through Krashen’s “silent period” where we understand more and more but our speaking lags.  It is also well-known that babies as young as a few days have begun understanding some aspects of language 8 months prior to even single words emerging. 

Recently on Yahoo this topic came up and master teacher Hai Yun Lu weighed in. She’s Chinese, married an American, and wants her kid to acquire Chinese. Check it:

“I have raised my son to be bilingual. There are many rules and  practices we have implemented at home in order for this to happen. After my son was born, a college professor visited me and shared research she had read. If I wanted to raise a bilingual child, then his second language input needed to be minimal 30% of his total language input (I wish I could find this actual research to share with everyone).

Let’s say, if his waking/alert time is 14 hours a day. 8-9 hours in daycare = English input. He has about 5 hours at home with us. Listening to me speaking Chinese to him, his father speaking English with him and his parents conversing in English. Of course, on the weekends/holidays, he gets more Chinese input. Still, we can barely meet the minimal input amount. Therefore, rules have come into place in our house. Each time we go back to visit China, first and most, we carry a suitcase full children books back for him. (Richard Scary’s collections, Curious Gorge, Clifford…) I only read to him in Chinese, even with an English book [she means, she reads the words to herself silently in English but says them in Chinese].

We rarely turn on TV before he goes to bed. If he’s interested in watching some cartoons, I do whatever I can to get them in Chinese. Therefore, he watches his favorite cartoons in Chinese (e.g Thomas and Friends, Disney films, Curious Gorge, Magic Flute’s Adventure). The majority of his playmates have been Chinese-speaking kids until this spring. He has developed close friendships in JK, where we have finally “extended” our friends circle.

My son is one of the very few kids who can speak Chinese fluently, in comparison to the kids in a similar situation. Many people complain to me that their kids understand their languages, but only speak back in English. I always say “input” proceeds “output”. They need more comprehensible input before they can output. (Here I have left out some psychological factors such as the desire to “fit in”, which typically occurs once when kids start school and they start to refuse to speak their parents’ languages.)

Many of my son’s friends’ parents are very eager to have their children to speak Chinese, and they keep saying to me: “just speak Chinese to my child, I hope we will be able to speak.” It hasn’t worked for any of his friends yet, because what we can say to each other is incomprehensible to his friends, unless I want to turn a playdate into a Chinese lesson time.”

Haiyun Lu


  1. I’d like to correct a few of the errors in your summary of our Twitter discussion to more accurately represent what I shared with you.

    1) I was never a student of French Immersion; only Core French. I began studying French in Grade 4 all the way to the O.A.C. (Ontario Academic Level) level at a public school.

    2) In my opinion, the Comprehensible Input that I had of French at school never amounted to anything greater than my CI of Polish at home. French classes in those days were about 60 minutes in length (not the 5-6 hours you mentioned in your blog). Where as the authentic conversations at home in Polish were greater than 60 minutes. Additionally, not all of the French I was exposed to at school was comprehensible (in fact much wasn’t in those days). However, my comprehension of (aural) Polish at home was far greater.

    3) I learned French under the grammarian method. Whereas as my exposure to and use of Polish was authentic and meaningful, and more in line with the communicative/experiential approach of the mid 90’s. My ability to output in my L1 dramatically decreased over the years due to lack of practice and exercise, in my opinion. I simply was no longer able to fluently express myself verbally in my L1.

    4) You wrote: “By the end of Grade 12, he says he was “more proficient in L3 than L1.” He attributes this to being able to speak more French than Polish.”

    I said I was more *proficient* in my L3 than L1 because I could read, speak, write and understand (aurally) French with greater understanding in the 5 language competencies than I could in my L1 at that time. In fact, I have practically zero ability with writing in my L1, yet somehow I could sound out some words when reading in my L1.

    The point here, is I used the term *proficient*. Proficiency is different than language acquisition. My understanding of proficiency of a language requires that a student/user be able to produce (or output) with the language, as well as have good CI.

    I do not disagree with you that language acquisition needs lots and lots of comprehensible input. However, language acquisition and language proficiency are not the same thing, in my opinion.

    1. You didn’t get Polish L1 reading. This might explain why you don’t feel like you are that good at reading and writing in it.

      There is research on this question (can L2+ competencies overtake L1s?) and the answer is “yes.” E.g. English learners of Spanish (who read a lot) have demonstrated greater vocabulary than native Soanish speakers who do not read. (There are other such studies)

      The point however remains: is it “practice” or speaking or writing which develops competence? The research says that there will only be limited effects for output practice at the highest levels of language acquisition, with input doing quite literally 95% of the work.

      We have really good Canadian rsearch on this– see my entry on the Lightbrown et al “The New Brunswick E.S.L. Study”

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