Being multilingual

Secret language among (my) twins


Also known as idioglossia, autonomous language or cryptophasia, the phenomenon of the secret language among twins, twin language, twin talk has fascinated both parents and researchers. It is a spoken language – sometimes also a language of gestures and body language – that twins adopt to communicate among each other. According to twin statistics about 40 percent of multiples develop some type of language between them that only they can understand. Scientists in this field also describe it as very rare and happening only in cases of extreme isolation and it is more likely to occur with identical twins (see Karen Gottesman, Raising Twins after the first Year. Everything You Need to Know about Bringing up Twins – from Toddlers to Preteens, Avalon, 2006, 84-86).

Well, I would like to describe what I observed with my twins. My twin girls started talking (monosyllables) around 11 months and were building up vocabulary pretty fast in Swissgerman and Italian (and a bit in Dutch: they went to daycare 3 days per week).
At the age of 15 months my daughters started to communicate in a language that had nothing in common – neither phonetically and nor morphologically – with the languages they were exposed to and they were surely not suffering from “extreme isolation”. Unfortunately my attempts to record them were in vain, as they always stopped talking immediately when I pushed the record button…

My daughters weren’t “mimicking each other’s attempts at language” (like discribed by Pamela Prindle Fierro in Twin Talk (Idioglossia), Do twins have a secret language?). They were already producing their first monosyllables in italian and dutch and even attempting bisyllables (it. bocca (mouth), it. ´atte (“latte”; milk), it. ´ajza (“calza”; sock); nl. kaike (“kijk”; look) etc.) when I observed them producing soundchains that were completely new. There were not vouwel-consonant alternations (like the one in the video above bababa, papapa) but an alternation of vouwel and consonant sounds that sounded like bapu’ia-mubu.

Were they really only babbling or repeating each other’s vocalizations? I really don’t think so. Or if they did, they were really persuasive as they didn’t repeat what the other was saying, but they were engaged in a conversation with longer “words” and sentences. The intonation went up and down and the gesture language was very notable. Maybe a simple babytalk though or gibberish? I remember them playing nicely with their toys when one of them told something in this language to the other which stood up, walked through the room (they both walked since month 12), picked up a toy in a box (and there were a few boxes standing around) and gave it to the other and went on playing. They both exactly knew what the other one was saying.

I know that language acquisition has ups and downs, but what was happening here? – My girls started to attend daycare at the age of 7 months. We decided to put them in two separate groups, as we wanted them to get used to be independent from each other as soon as possible. They were exposed to Dutch at daycare whereas at home we talked Italian and Swissgerman – and they were passivly exposed to German (the language my husband and I talked together) and English (the language my son was exposed to at school and that we talked with some friends too).

Was this secret language their way to cope with their language situation?

Was it only temporary?

What I knew was that our son was suffering from this situation: he felt excluded. Any attempt to use Italian or Swissgerman with him failed. He was starting to avoid playing with them and when we tried to talk to them one-on-one in order to focus on one language, their attention spam would last only max 2 minutes and they completely refused to talk to us. Focussing on their language production was not the right thing to do. I realized that we didn’t have much choice. If we would maintain our multiple languages at home, our son would be suffering (we tried to explain to him what was probably happening, but he felt very much excluded from “their” world. He adores his sisters and being treated this way was making him feel very very sad).

I must add that our son stopped answering in Italian to me since we arrived in the Netherlands, so this was also something I was struggeling with: how can you valorize a language to the point that your 4.5 year old feels that it’s worth to be learned? I was “fighting” for Italian with all three children and not obtaining any response was exhausting. I tried everything: DVDs, CDs, read italian books, meet with Italian children, but nothing worked. They all would prefer the other languages, mainly Dutch and English.

I know that you should never ever skip one language and it felt anything but fair for my husband and me. But it was worth a try. We decided to narrow down the languages in our family to a single one, Standard German, for a two months. Speaking it consistently requested the same effort to me and my husband and this was the perfect compromise for us.

After these two months not only my daughters stopped talking this secret language, but our son also started to talk German like if he would have talked it since birth.

Would our girls have stoped to talk the secret language by themselves? Would our son have re-started talking Italian to me? Should we have waited longer to make this change? Did we hinder them in becoming bilinguals?

They are all bilinguals/multilinguals now. They are all fluent in German, English and Dutch. I talk now Italian with my son during the weekends – and when we’re alone – and our daughters understand Italian too.

Did we do the right thing? I’m still not sure, but I know that we can never be completely sure if we’re doing the right thing. Every family has to decide what works better for her. It’s good to know what the theories are about bilingualism, twins talk and language use among siblings, but what is even more important is to consider the single cases and act in a healthy and positive way that enforces communication. No matter in what language.

Every child can become bilingual. It doesn’t have to be in the traditional way, following a handbook.

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