In places where I live some private institutions are forcing students (of age 6 to 17) to speak only in English, regardless of their native language. This restriction is not only placed in English class but on the entire school premises, except other language classes. The purpose of these restrictions are to help students improve their English. Also, these institutions fine and punish students who speak in the native language within the school.

Some activists have claimed that the punishments will make students think ill of their native language and make them stop speaking it elsewhere too. I too think that could happen as children spend a great deal of time in school. Also, they claim that their vocabulary and fluency in their native language will be reduced.

I saw in a similar question that forcing students to speak in a language helps students to acquire knowledge of a second language. But will it affect their knowledge of their native language? Will it reduce the fluency and vocabulary in one's native language?

  • 2
    I am summarising the answers here. As @fi12 noted in his answer the restriction at school alone cannot affect the L1 language of a child provided he speaks L1 at various other places. But in cases where he has less chance to speak L1 (such as a hostel life) his vocabulary / fluency in L1 may be affected due to the subtractive bilingualism as said by PythonMaster.
    – Kolappan N
    Commented Jun 13, 2016 at 2:55
  • That term subtractive bilingualism is an aberration. You are either bilingual or not, at different levels. There is no subtraction that goes on when you learn a new language. What causes loss of knowledge of a language is not using/speaking it. And where exactly do you live? This is all very specific.
    – Lambie
    Commented Jun 21, 2019 at 21:19

3 Answers 3


In the specific case of students being forced to speak English in school, I would say no, students will still retain their full vocabulary and knowledge of their native language (L1).

For one, it's only in school that English is mandated to be spoken. At home, in shops, and almost anywhere else, the L1 will be spoken (unless people are more comfortable with English). In addition, you mentioned that there are often language classes in school that teach the L1. Each student is likely required to take one of these classes, so this ensures that fluency in the L1 does not decrease over time. Finally, remember that school only lasts for 12 years, with several weeks or months off during every school year. The majority of the time not spent in school is time that is used to refresh the L1.

The only downside to this system, as you point out, is that students may think less of their L1 because they are not allowed to speak it in school. However, this mentality should not hinder their performance in their L1.

  • Your answer holds good for me on the issue I asked i.e) private schools in India. Majority of the outside environment such as shops, home, TV channels, Movies, newspapers are in L1 only. Yet, I see some boys who speaks in English when asked something in Tamil. This may be due to their mindset on their L1 as they speak L1 normally when asked.
    – Kolappan N
    Commented Jun 13, 2016 at 2:48
  • Do you have a source for your claim? I ask because I see it as false Commented Aug 31, 2018 at 8:22
  • If a country like India, of course, they will not lose native fluency in whatever their native language is if the parents speak and they speak it outside of school. You only lose a language you speak if you stop speaking/hearing it. Otherwise, you do not. However, the level at which you speak it depends on your caregivers level of language.
    – Lambie
    Commented Jun 21, 2019 at 21:25

Oh yes it can. (Source) For some people in America, learning English means they go through subtractive bilingualism, where they learn English at the same time they lose their native language(s):

Specifically, this article deals with the phenomenon of "subtractive bilingualism," the name given the problem by Wallace Lambert who first discussed it in relation to French-Canadian and Canadian immigrant children whose acquisition of English in school resulted not in bilingualism, but in the erosion or loss of their primary languages

This phenomenon has been quite a while actually but is well ignored by researchers. Though this is really the only viable source I can find, I will give my view on this as well.

It depends how they are being taught. Some people talk English at school and their native language at home, allowing for continued fluency and retention of their original language. Others only talk English for prolonged amounts of time without using their native language, causing the slow erosion of the language. Some might even face the effects of subtractive bilingualism. But in school, due to lack of fluency at first, teachers should also be able to speak in their native language to convey instructions at ease temporarily until they can understand basic and maybe advanced English.

  • I find that term subtractive bilingualism to be an aberration. One doesn't steal from Peter to feed Paul. It's the not speaking a language that causes one to lose it.
    – Lambie
    Commented Jun 21, 2019 at 21:21

There's an important ambiguity in the question that makes me somewhat unhappy with the accepted answer (so I'm providing an alternative here). Here's some clearer variations on the question:

  1. Will forcing students to use L2 at school from T1 cause student's knowledge of L1 to fall?
  2. Will forcing students to use L2 at school from T1 cause student's knowledge of L1 to be lower than if L1 was used in school?
  3. Could the use of L2 in school cause students to not reach adult fluency in L1?

I think fi12's answer is generally correct with respect to 1. If the only context where L2 is used is school, then L1 will not fall. (If for other reasons, L2 becomes prevalent in all contexts of life -- e.g., a Japanese family living in America, sending their kids to American schools, where they have English-speaking friends and clubs, then it's possible that L1 will fall).

In general, the answers to 2 and 3 are going to be that yes L2 instruction will retard fluency in L1 for academic contexts and will make them worse at the language than if they also used it at school.

A second scenario could be where L1 and L2 are closely related (like some dialects of Chinese) and instruction in L2 at school breaks local usage down.

  • It depends on whether the child speaks the parent's language at home and at what level. You lose a language you do not speak.
    – Lambie
    Commented Jun 21, 2019 at 21:24

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