Subtractive Bilingualism vs. Additive Bilingualism: Supporting Your Child’s Native Language at Home

by Liliana Diaz July 13, 2020

Subtractive Bilingualism vs. Additive Bilingualism: Supporting Your Child’s Native Language at Home

Do you want to raise your child to become bilingual? Do you want to maintain your native language at home? Then there are two important terms that you must become familiar with: Subtractive Bilingualism & Additive Bilingualism. Knowing the difference between these two terms will allow you to best support your child at home in your native language. 

Let’s start with knowing what subtractive bilingualism is. Subtractive bilingualism is when individuals learn a second language at the expense of the first language meaning that individuals often lose skills and fluency in their primary language, especially is the primary language is not being reinforced. You may hear other terms in reference to subtractive bilingualism such as “language attrition” or “language loss.”

Factors that May Lead or Predispose Your Child to Subtractive Bilingualism.


  1. Early Immersion in English only Preschool Programs 

In the United States, most children attend preschool programs in which the language of instruction is primarily English. In some cases, some schools may offer bilingual programs however, it is important to look into the type of bilingual program that the school offers because some programs tend to only build the student’s language proficiency in English. It can be expected that once a child enters an English-only program, the child’s preference and vocabulary in English will often increase as his/her native language proficiency skills decrease. You can learn more about the best types of bilingual programs here.

  1. Gender & Level of Education 

Believe it or not, gender may play a role in your child’s ability to become bilingual. In a study by (Chavez 1993), females tended to have lower expressive skills in their native language and higher skills in English when compared to males. Chavez also suggested that higher education levels may also lead to higher English proficiency and loss in the native language. In his study, women in rural communities often sought out jobs that required a high degree of English proficiency which negatively impacted their Spanish proficiency. As you can imagine, a person that may be in fear of loosing his/her job might want to focus on perfecting his/her skills in English which can eventually lead to loss in the person’s native language if it’s not maintained. In addition, having a higher education level can result in higher English proficiency  skills and loss of skills in the native language because English is often the primary language of instruction. 

  1. Perception that the General Status of the Native Language is Low Relative to that of the Dominant Language 

The perception that the general status of the home language is low relative to that of the dominant language (English in the US) is a very common perception that is built on the hardships that some immigrant families go through. When some families migrate to the United States, they might be faced with the hardship of having to learn English in order to find a job, pay their bills, go to the grocery store, communicate with people in the community, etc. I often think about my father who had to learn English in order to successfully start his mechanic business. He went through many hardships along the journey in order to learn English.  In result, he would often tell me that in order to be successful, I had to go to school (college) and master English. The idea of true success amongst immigrant families is often related to mastering the dominant language, going to school and getting a job.  However, we know that this perception doesn’t prove to be true. You do not need to only learn just one language to be successful. There are many advantages to being bilingual, some advantages include increased cognitive skills and cognitive flexibility. You can more on the benefits here.  

  1. Parents Who are Bilingual

Large use of the second language at home can also lead to language loss in the first language. Bilingual parents that went to English-only school programs, were raised in the U.S., or often communicate in English might feel more comfortable communicating at home in the second language (which is ok and normal). However, if the second language (English) is predominately used at home and your child is aware that both parents can understand and speak English, this can cause a shift in the child’s language preference and he/she might only want to speak English.

  1. Diminished Use of Your Native Language Across Environments

There are several factors within the environment that can either support or result in language loss for your child. Some of these factors may seem out of your control however, according to (Goldstein, 2004) peer interactions in English-only can cause a shift in the child’s language preference and lead to rapid loss. In addition to living in a community that does not speak your native language or having siblings that also speak English can also lead to language loss of the native language.  This is because the “reduction in use and input (i.e., listening to the language) hampers the furthering of skills in the language as well as the maintenance of acquired skills” (Goldstein, 2004).


Your Child Can Become Bilingual!

After reading all of these factors that contribute to subtractive bilingualism, you may be thinking, “Oh no! These factors directly apply to my child and he/she will never learn their native language!” NOT TRUE. Although these factors may play a role in subtractive bilingualism, it’s not to say that your child will absolutely loose his/her native language skills if one of these factors applies. Of course, it is possible for your child to become bilingual, but it may take some dedication from your part. That’s why I had mentioned early on in this post that it is important to be familiar with both terms. Now let’s talk about Additive Bilingualism. 

Additive Bilingualism is when an individual learns the second language while his/her first language and culture are maintained and reinforced. In order to maintain your child’s native language you need to remember these 3 important points. ConsistencyMeaningful language models and Meaningful communication interactions at home and in the community.

Be consistent in the amount of exposure you are giving your child. Perhaps your native language will only be spoke at home, perhaps your native language is only spoken at grandparents house, perhaps your co-parent will only speak to your child in the native language? There is not a “best method” or “correct method” of bilingual parenting and there are several bilingual parenting methods you can look into. However, consistency will be key to the bilingual parenting method that you choose. 

Encourage biliteracy! There are many advantages to being able to read in both languages. Biliteracy can increase your child’s overall academic skills, language skills, and literacy skills! In addition, reading to your child in your native language can help your child learn about his/her culture while maintaining your native language at home. In addition, research shows that reading to your child in their home language will facilitate easier reading proficiency in the second language. 

Model, Model, Model! Children learn new words from the environment around them, this includes the input that you provide to them. Provide rich vocabulary models at home in your native language by labeling actions, nouns, adjectives, talking about your home routine and making meaningful connections with the words in your environment. Use rich vocabulary during your interactions with your child and allow them to ask questions in order to learn the new vocabulary.

Make meaningful interactions and relationships at home in your native language. Playful interactions amongst your family such as singing, dancing, and/or playing in your native language can make language learning fun! The last thing you would want to do is force your child to learn a language by sitting and drilling them with flashcards or apps on the iPad. Children learn through play! Make language learning fun by creating family bonds through play in your native language, take family trips to learn more about your culture, sing songs from your culture, learn nursery rhymes and games from your culture.

Liliana Diaz
Liliana Diaz


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