Early Childhood Research
Quarterly, 6, 323-346 (1991)
When Learning a Second Language
Means Losing the First
Lily Wong Fillmore*
University of California, Berkeley
In societies like the United States with diverse populations, children from
linguistic minority families must learn the language of the society in order to
take full advantage of the educational opportunities offered by the society.
The timing and the conditions under which they come into contact with
English, however, can profoundly affect the retention and continued use of
their primary languages as well as the development of their second lan-
guage. This article discusses evidence and findings from a nationwide study
of language shift among language-minority children in the U.S. The find-
ings suggest that the loss of a primary language, particularly when it is the
only language spoken by parents, can be very costly to the children, their
families, and to society as a whole. Immigrant and American Indian families
were surveyed to determine the extent to which family language patterns
were affected by their children's early learning of English in preschool pro-
grams. Families whose children had attended preschool programs con-
ducted exclusively in Spanish served as a base of comparison for the families
whose children attended English-only or bilingual preschools.
In this article, we address a problem in second language learning that has
long been acknowledged, but which has not received the attention it deserves
from researchers.' 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 immi-
grant children whose acquisition of English in school resulted not in bilin-
gualism, but in the erosion or loss of their primary languages (Lambert,
* This article was written on behalf of the No-Cost Research Group (NCRG), consisting of
the 300 + individuals across the United States who participated in this study, preparing research
materials, recruiting and training interviewers, interviewing families, processing and analyzing
data and interpreting findings. It includes many members of the National Association for
Bilingual Education (NABE), and the No-Cost Research Group acknowledges the support of
NABE's national leadership in this effort.
Correspondence and requests for reprints should be sent to Lily Wong Fillmore, Professor
of Education, Graduate School of Education, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720.
' Merino (1983) and Pan and Berko-Gleason (1986) are notable exceptions.