Sandra Guevara with her niece and nephew

“I can understand Spanish, but I can’t speak it,” “I don’t want to speak Spanish! No one speaks Spanish here.” In the United States (U.S.), language attrition is occurring more frequently, specifically with second and third generation bilinguals (e.g., Fillmore, 1991; Portes & Schauffler, 1994). In a country where the majority language is English, it is not surprising that many bilinguals are now being classified as “receptive bilinguals” (Ribot, Hoff, & Burridge, 2018). That is, bilinguals that can understand one of their languages, but cannot speak it.

My now eight-year old nephew, Zach was a late talker. He started receiving speech and language services around the age of three. He was receiving a lot of input in Spanish from his parents at the time, both who are native Spanish speakers; and from his nanny who spoke primarily in Spanish to him. Zach was working with a bilingual speech-language pathologist (SLP) for a little bit, but unfortunately due to the limited bilingual service providers in the area, he started receiving services only in English. My sister and her husband were never directly educated on bilingual language development, such as the importance of continuing to speak to Zach in Spanish or how to encourage his output in Spanish. Carryover materials and recommendations were all provided in English. Zach is now eight-years old and no longer receiving SLP services. He doesn’t speak a lot of Spanish, just a couple of words here and there. It is difficult for him to communicate with our family members who are primarily Spanish-speaking (such as my dad and his grandpa).

The moral of the story is that our recommendations, as SLPs, can have long-term impacts on individual’s language skills, generalization, and overall quality of life.

So what do we know about language attrition and bilingual language development? 

A couple of things:

  • Bilingual children living in a culture in which their first language (L1) is not the majority language are at risk of losing their L1 (Portes & Schauffler, 1994).
  • Children with language disorders are more at risk for language attrition (e.g., Restrepo, 2003; Restrepo & Kruth, 2000).
  • Immigrant families residing in the U.S. may demonstrate a preference towards the English language, which may lead to attrition of heritage languages (Portes & Schauffler, 1994).
  • Bilingual language development requires more than just parent or caregiver input of the native language, such as the child’s practice and spoken output of the L1 (Ribot et al., 2018).
  • English-only education models may contribute to language attrition (e.g., Ebert, Kohnert, Pham, Disher, & Payesteh, 2014; Farver, Lonigan, & Eppe, 2009; Lugo-Neris, Jackson, & Goldstein, 2010; Restrepo, Morgan, & Thompson, 2013; Uccelli & Páez, 2007). 

Code-Switching and Language Attrition: What do we know?

Researchers have attempted to investigate code switching (CS) behaviors in bilingual individuals to better understand implications for language loss or attrition. For example, CS may be used by some speakers for lexical gap purposes. That is, during times when a word or sentence structure in one language is more readily or easily available at the time it needs to be used, children or adults may decide to switch into the language that is more accessible. Usually, the word or sentence structure that is available during this time is a person’s more proficient or stronger language (see Guevara, 2020 for a review of the literature on CS for lexical gap purposes). Investigating CS behaviors in bilingual children may help us understand more about children’s language patterns and use, and what implications this has for the SLP. 

We investigated 24 typically-developing Spanish-English bilingual children and their caregivers over a single year. Children were recorded during play or joint book reading sessions with their caregivers at 30, 36 and 42 months. Children were seen twice at each age and caregivers were instructed to either speak only in English or in Spanish during each session (Builes Carmona, Guevara, Bernstein Ratner, & Hoff, 2019). 

We found that children more often switched into English when spoken to in Spanish by their caregivers over a single year (see Figure 1 below) and the opposite occurred when children were spoken to in English (see Figure 2 below). That is, children switched less into Spanish when spoken to in English over time (see Figure 2 below) (Builes Carmona et al., 2019). 

This is an interesting finding given that children investigated in this study were reported to be receiving pretty balanced input (the average proportion of reported English exposure in the home was 37.87%) and all caregivers were native, fluent Spanish speakers (Builes Carmona et al., 2019).  

Although the findings of this study are preliminary, they provide insight into CS behaviors in bilingual children that may be indicative of language attrition. However, the good news is that the SLP and other professionals working with bilingual children can provide recommendations to parents and colleagues about how to help maintain children’s L1 and how to promote bilingualism, in general.

Figure 1. Code Switches to English when spoken to in Spanish

A screenshot of a cell phone

Description automatically generated
(Builes Carmona et al., 2019) 

Figure 2. Code switches to Spanish when spoken to in English

A screenshot of a cell phone

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(Builes Carmona et al., 2019) 

What are some recommendations the SLP can give parents or colleagues about helping maintain the L1?

  1. Encourage the child’s output of the first language. For example, parents may ask their children open ended questions in Spanish to encourage their children to make requests in the L1. 

“Que quieres comer?” What do you want to eat?

“Con que quieres jugar?” What do you want to play with?

  1. SLPs may further teach parents to use forced choice techniques if children are struggling to think of words. “Quieres comer uvas o fresas?” Do you want to eat grapes or strawberries?
  1. Authors propose that providing more input in the L1 may be more helpful in maintaining the heritage language (Ribot et al., 2018).
  2. SLPs may encourage parents to speak more often in the L1 to their children or show television shows in the L1. 
  3. Consider speaking the L1 in environments where the second language (L2) is the majority (e.g., grocery stores, restaurants, movie theaters, etc.). 
  1. Recommend families to enroll their children in bilingual education programs, if possible (e.g., Ebert et al., 2014; Farver et al., 2009; Lugo-Neris et al., 2010; Restrepo et al., 2013; Uccelli & Páez, 2007).
  1. For children with atypical language development, recommend the child be seen by a bilingual speech-language pathologist, so that the child can improve their language skills in both their L1 and L2 (e.g., Ebert et al., 2014; Farver et al., 2009; Lugo-Neris et al., 2010; Restrepo et al., 2013; Uccelli & Páez, 2007).
  1. Educate teachers, paraeducators or other special educators about bilingual language development (see Paradis, Genesee, & Crago, 2011) and how to encourage bilingualism in the classroom. 
  2. Teachers may consider hanging posters in the room with written material in various languages. 
  1. Educate parents and colleagues on the benefits of bilingualism, especially for children who are not typically-developing (see Gutierrez-Clellen, 1999 & Thordardottir, 2010 for information on how bilingual intervention in bilingual children with language disorders leads to better treatment outcomes). 


Carmona Builes, V., Guevara, S., Bernstein Ratner, N., & Hoff, E. (2019, November). Hard to keep your heritage: Language attrition in Spanish-English bilingual preschoolers over a single year. Poster session presented at the annual convention of the American Speech Language Hearing Association, Orlando, FL.

Ebert, K. D., Kohnert, K., Pham, G., Disher, J. R., & Payesteh, B. (2014). Three treatments for bilingual children with primary language impairment: Examining cross-linguistic and cross-domain effects. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 57, 172-186. doi:10.1044/1092- 4388(2013/12-0388) 

Farver, J. M., Lonigan, C. J., & Eppe, S. (2009). Effective early literacy skill development for young Spanish speaking English language learners: An experimental study of two methods. Child Development, 80(3), 703- 719. 

Fillmore, L. W. (1991). When learning a second language means losing the first. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 6, 323-346. 

Guevara, S. S. (2020). An analysis of code switching events in typically developing Spanish-English bilingual children (Unpublished master’s thesis). University of Maryland, College Park.

Gutiérrez-Clellen, V. F. (1999). Language choice in intervention with bilingual children. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 8, 291-302. doi:1058-0360/99/0804-0291 

Lugo-Neris, M. J., Jackson, C. W., & Goldstein, H. (2010). Facilitating vocabulary acquisition of young English language learners. Language, Speech & Hearing Services in Schools41(3), 314–327. doi:10.1044/0161-1461(2009/07-0082) 

Paradis, J., Genesee, F., & Crago, M. (2011). Dual language development & disorders: A handbook on bilingualism & second language learning (2nd ed.). Baltimore, Maryland: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co., Inc. 

Portes, A., & Schauffler, R. (1994). Language and the second generation: Bilingualism yesterday and today. The International Migration Review, 28(4), 640-661. 

Restrepo, M. A. (2003). Spanish language skills in bilingual children with specific language impairment. In S. Montrul & F. Ordoñez (Eds.), Linguistic Theory and language development in Hispanic languages. Papers from the 5th Hispanic Linguistics Symposium and the 4th Conference on the Acquisition of Spanish and Portuguese (pp. 365-374). Summerville, MA: Cascadilla Press. 

Restrepo, M. A., & Kruth, K. (2000). Grammatical characteristics of a Spanish- English bilingual child with specific language impairment. Communication Disorders Quarterly, 21(2), 66–76. doi:10.1177/152574010002100201 

Restrepo, M. A., Morgan, G., & Thompson, M. (2013). The efficacy of vocabulary intervention for dual language learners with language impairment. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 56, 748-765. 

Ribot, K. M., Hoff, E., & Burridge, A. (2018). Language use contributes to expressive language growth: Evidence from bilingual children. Child Development, 89(3), 929-940.doi:10.1111/cdev.12770 

Thordardottir, E. T. (2010). Towards evidence-based practice in language intervention for bilingual children. Journal of Communication Disorders, 43, 523-537. doi: 10.1016/j.jcomdis.2010.06.001 

Uccelli P., & Páez, M. M. (2007). Narrative and vocabulary development of bilingual children from kindergarten to first grade: Developmental changes and associations among English and Spanish skills. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 38, 225-236. doi:0161-1461/07/3803-0225 

About the Author

Sandra Guevara, B.S., is a graduate student in the department of Hearing and Speech Sciences at the University of Maryland. She is a member of the Cultural and Linguistic Diversity- Emphasis Program and the Bilingual Certification Program. Her clinical and research interests include bilingualism and neurological communication and swallowing disorders across the lifespan.

Expenses related to this research were funded by the MCM Fund for Student Research Excellence. This award is designed to support independent student research projects, and is made possible by an anonymous donation to the Department and by other donations by faculty, alumni, and friends. Please consider donating to the fund through the following link: