Being multilingual

Bilingual siblings and their language preferences

(this post was updated in April 2020)

We can find many studies about how to raise “a” or “one” bilingual child, but what happens when you have more than one child? And maybe twins? Will it be possible to keep the initial bilingual or multilingual situation within the family? How do children influence the language dynamic in the family? Will all children prefer the same language? Do they influence each other regarding the preference of the language?

Suzanne Barron-Hauwaert published a great book about Bilingual Siblings: Language Use in Families. A great guide for parents and teachers. Even if a family shares the same experiences, each child can get more or less out of a situation. The same occurs to the languages every family is in touch with. Within the same family you can find children who embrace the languages wholeheartedly and others who are more reluctant. Maybe one will „absorb“ every language it’s exposed to, while another one chooses a few and the next one prefers only one.

In my experience, you have to adapt your language situation within your family to the individual needs of your children.

I’ve already mentioned the linguistic situation in our family in another post.

Our situation right now (2020) is, that we talk German within our family, but in very specific situations we switch to English or Dutch, and we allow that other languages that our children are learning are shared at home too.

When we talk about an experience we had in other linguistic contexts, when we have friends over who don’t understand or talk German or when the children are playing together, languages are chosen based on the situation.

In the past, our children were exposed to Italian and Swissgerman only during playtimes with children who speak the same language or whilst reading or listening to stories, songs in these languages and during our visits to our family in Switzerland.

Now we decide to switch to a language when we want. It can happen that one of my children asks us all to switch to Swissgerman at breakfast, and the rest of the family will follow. Throughout the years, our language strategies and our children’s language preferences changed.

I’ll try to answer to some questions Suzanne Barron-Hauwaert did ask in her book and that can help to shed light on your linguistic situation too:

1) Which language(s) do the siblings prefer to speak together?

Our children mainly spoke German to each other during the fist 5 years, but they occasionally switched to Dutch or English while talking about a topic at school or something they experienced with their friends in English or Dutch. – Today my son prefers speaking German with his sisters when we are all together, my daughters prefer English, and when they are among themselves, they switch between the two languages.

2) What happens when there are two or more children at different stages of language development?

Usually, when you have children from different age groups, it’s natural that they are in different stages of language development. Those who are older can help the younger ones to develop their language skills. But it also can happen that an older child uses the baby-talk (or very basic language) with the baby or toddler… This is what happened in our family. My son spoke Italian with his sisters, but would also sing songs in Dutch or English to them when they were babies and toddlers. Especially when my daughters started attending preschool in English, my son would often switch to English when playing together.

In 2010, our children were all on a different stage of language development. Our son was already fluent in all the languages I’ve mentioned. Our twin daughters were more or less at the same level, nearly fluent. One of our daughters was a “lazy speaker” so she seemed not to be as far in her language development as her sister, but her vocabulary was quite good in all three languages (even her Italian was improving a lot and she liked Italian songs very much). Both girls mixed up the syntactic structure of German and English. – This affected our conversations, and I had to constantly model their sentences.

Fast forward 2020: my daughters are fluent in English, Dutch and German, the three language they speak on a daily basis. They are learning French and Spanish at school, and I speak Italian with them following the T&P (Time and Place) strategy. They understand some basic Italian and hesitate to reply in this language, but they are making progress. They occasionally speak Swissgerman with my husband or in the family (like I mentioned before). My son is fluent in English, German, Dutch, Spanish and Swissgerman. He likes to speak Italian with me and prompts me to switch to Italian regularly. He also speaks French but prefers Spanish; and he is learning Chinese.
My children are all pluriliterate, i.e. they speak, read and write in 4 languages: English, Dutch, German, French and Spanish; my son also reads and writes A1 level of Chinese. As Swissgerman is not a written language, we can not count it in this category…

3) Could one child refuse to speak one language while another child is fluently bilingual?

Our son refused to talk Italian when he was 2.5 as a reaction to our moving to the Netherlands and his exposure to Dutch and German. But from 2014 onwards he was very interested in learning French and thought that Italian was a nice language to learn too, so we re-activated his Italian and he improved within a short time.

In 2014 he already was fluent (B2-C1) in German, English, Dutch, and was learning French and Spanish (A1-A2). His sisters were nearly fluent in the same languages at that time, except French and Spanish (they learned it later).

None of our children does really refuses to talk a language whilst the other one(s) speak it, but one of our daughters would prefer talking only German when she was 4-7 years old, and since her preferred language is English. She is much less interested in languages than our other two children.

The other daughter had a phase where she wanted me to talk Italian to her. I tried, but after a few days we all agreed that I wouldn’t talk different languages to all of them – i.e. German to my son at that time, Italian to her and English/German to my other daughter – so we were back on talking German all together. – Interestingly, whenever I am upset or I have to tell them something very quickly, I switch to Italian and my children accepted this since they were very young. They knew that when I switch to Italian things are serious… and they understood what I was saying.

4) How do factors of birth order, personality or family size interact in language production?

In our family, personality is the most important factor that decides about the languages we use.

We all speak two to four languages per day and these are not always the same ones. Our children decided on a very early stage which languages they wanted to talk and external factors influenced us all on this.

When we moved to the Netherlands we didn’t find Italian friends in the first months and I was the only person talking Italian to my son. He also knew that I was perfectly able to talk and understand Swiss-german and Dutch (I learned Dutch along with my son), and his refusal to talk Italian was a logical and very economic consequence.
I persisted talking Italian to him until the girls were 15 months old. We then narrowed down the languages within our family from three to one because our girls developed a secret language. – So, in the end: birth order and personality influenced the languages in our family.

When we were only three, my husband, my son and I, the language strategies were much easier. We would each speak one language to our son – me Italian, my husband Swiss-german, and together we spoke German. This worked very well while we lived in Italy. The move to the Netherlands changed a lot, and the birth of my twin-daughters as well. Especially when they started speaking we had to re-adjust our strategies and the language we spoke within our family.

Until today, I try to have one-on-one conversations with my children almost every day. It is not only about languages but also about bonding and connecting with them through language.

All our children have different language preferences and that is ok for us. It has been sometimes difficult to make my children respond in the right language but with hindsight I can say that it was all worth it.
The language goals we had when our children were very young were very different from what they are now. Today I am very happy that my children like to speak different languages, that they are proud to be able to switch between languages if necessary, and that they are curious to learn new ones, that they are all more or less avid readers, and that they are able to read and write each in 4 languages and counting.

What is the language history of your family? Did your children also develop along uniquely individual linguistic paths?


This post has been republished on on 17/09/2013.

42 replies »

  1. Interesting article thank you! We’ve just moved from Australia to The Netherlands (I’m from Aus and my husband from NL) and our girls (3 & 5) are being raised bilingually. Yours is an interesting situation so it’s good to read about your experiences.

    • Thank you Renee, for stopping by. I’m glad you liked the post. Where are you in the Netherlands? I suppose your girls will not have any problem here, linguistically speaking. That is already a great start for them, right?

  2. I am English, my husband Dutch. I have 4 children, boys aged 10 and 6 born in the UK, and a son aged 3 and a girl aged 1 born in Holland. We moved here when the eldest was 5. From birth I only spoke English to them and my husband only spoke Dutch to them, but until we moved here they only replied in English. Once here though they started to reply to him in Dutch. They are at Dutch school and completely fluent in both languages, sounding English when speaking English and Dutch when speaking Dutch. English was the first language they spoke as babies, but my 3 year old is now totally bilingual. At home my husband and I only talk English to each other. The eldest 2 will talk sometimes Dutch and sometimes English, depedning on what they are talking about. But if the 2 little ones are in the room I ask them to speak English as otherwise they hear too much Dutch. If my 3 year old is playing with something he might talk out loud and that could be in English or Dutch.

    • Thank you Rachel, for sharing your linguistic experience with your four children. That sounds interesting. So your family language is English now and your daughter will pick it up very easily too. Does your husband talk Dutch to your children? And how about friends? Are they all dutch? In your situation, English is the “weaker” language though, right?

  3. Hi, yes Peter only speaks Dutch to all of them and I only speak English. Friends are a mixture of English and Dutch and although I understand quite some Dutch I never ever say a word of it in front of the kids – and I think that has been important in the bilinguilism. Buy no – I wouldn’t say English is the weaker language, the eldest 2 are fully fluent in bith, and the 3 year old is strongest in English still – mother tongue I guess. So far it works well

  4. That sounds great! You managed to balance the English-Dutch “stimulus” for your children. Aren’t you speaking Dutch when you’re out with the children or with other Dutch people? If you speak Dutch in specific social contexts (i.e. when you’re with people who don’t understand or speak English), your children will not get mixed up. This can only happen when you start to mix the language in situations they usually hear you speaking English. May I ask what you speak when you are all sitting at the table having a meal or sharing something all together? Do you speak English to your husband then and he replies in Dutch to you? Which language do your children choose if they want to tell a story or something to you and your husband at the same time?

  5. We’re a multi-lingual family as well. Our sons are now almost 14 and 18. What I noticed when they were learning to speak was that they always chose the language in which the word was easiest to pronounce. “Shoes” instead of “schoenen” is one that springs to mind, but there were lots of others. Neither of the boys has ever had problems expressing himself in any of the languages we use–they do well in Dutch and English and other languages at school.

    Funny note: We’ve developed a family patios over the years that only we understand.

    • Thanks for sharing your experience, Misirlou. We have a similar one – just with younger children 😉 Code-switching is very natural for multilinguals, especially when talking to someone who shares the same languages. And in my case: when I’m tired I just mix them all 🙂 It’s a secret language though that you have, your patois, right? Interesting. I would like to know more about this. What language do you sons talk together, Dutch or English? Or maybe both?

  6. Glad you suggested this article. I agree that birth order had nothing to do with our family. It was all personality. My youngest is the talker, so she was talking much quicker than my oldest – though he understood everything.
    My kids speak English together unless there is a word or phrase they can’t translate that great, then they throw in the Chinese. They speak Chinese at school with their local friends.
    Great post!

    • Welcome MaDonna! I’m pleased you liked. It was similar to the one you just published. Yes, birth order is not as important as it seems. I know several families where the second or third child is the “talker”. And it has nothing to do with gender. I know many boys who are “chattier” than their sisters 😉 And about the code-switching: I suppose that if your kids would need to translate the word or phrase because the other one doesn’t understand Chinese, they would take the time to translate, maybe paraphrasing what they want to say. But if they know the other person does understand Chinese, the most important thing is that the message gets through, right? – I find your situation very interesting.

  7. Thank you for this fascinating article. We are are a French-American expat family currently living in Switzerland. There is a five year age gap between my girls. One spent the first five years of life in America so English was her first language. My second daughter, while born in America, moved to France at two weeks old so French became her first language. In fact there was a time she refused to come near me as a baby because she didn’t understand my speaking English! They are both bilingual English/French. They are currently learning German in school. During sibling play they almost always speak in French. They prefer watching movies or cartoons in their original languages — no Scooby Do in French!. When they encounter new people — say a native French speaker who approaches them speaking in English, they will always switch the conversation to French or vice versa. They speak to me only in English. I understand them speaking in French but I will answer in English. My husband does the same in French. Even as babies they understood which story books were in French or English and which relatives could read to them in a particular language. My youngest was a lazy learner of English at first but each time we would vacation in the States or receive family visits, she was forced to speak English so there would be a burst of new vocabulary words available about two weeks after the visit.

    • Welcome Carolyn! Your story is very interesting! I’m wondering why your youngest daughter refused to come near you as a baby because of you talking English. This seems a bit unusual, don’t you think? Or were you mainly talking French at that time? Or was she surrounded mainly by French speaking people? Usually babies recognize the voice and the language their mum talks and don’t refuse them. It can happen that a child doesn’t like the mum talking a specific language, but it’s the first time that I hear (read) about a child refusing her mum talking her mothertongue. Interesting. Which language do they talk to you: English or French? Or do they mix? You’re not saying how old your girls are: are they both attending school? And – this is simply my curiosity as I have lived in Switzerland and have family there – where do you live in Switzerland? – I’m happy you found my blog and hope to seeing you here soon again. 😉

      • We live in Lausanne presently. My girls are 15 and ten now. To answer your previous question, yes, I guess it does seem strange but it is what happened. We’ve always taken the one parent one language approach so I’ve always spoken to my children in English, my husband speaks to them in French. We were living in Paris at the time and some holidays we would leave the girls with my in-laws in Lyon for maybe a week at a time. When my youngest would return, she would refuse to speak in English. It almost felt like she didn’t understand me at all. She probably needed time to reprocess information but it was a frustrating time for both of us. At the time she was about two–almost three. I found that when I shortened her visits temporarily she got better upon her return home. As she got older –say around four, we could extend the length of time of her stay again and all was fine. I guess it was strange for her because I was the only person speaking English in her otherwise French speaking world. For her older sister in the beginning, the opposite was true. She was hearing only French from her dad in an otherwise English speaking world.

      • That is very interesting! So, in your experience your daughters had problems to readapt to the linguistic situation when they were two-three years old. It’s the time when children realize and talk about diffrent use of language in the family. Before and after that period, they react naturally. But if they spend a certain time in a monolingual environment during this period, they can develop a preference for the dominant language or find it difficult to readapt to a multilingual situation. Even with their mum or dad. Thank you very much for sharing your experience!

  8. I find the story fascinating! I was raised (mostly) in Mainland China, so everywhere we went we spoke fluent Mandarin to people. In the house was strictly English, so we grew up speaking fluent English. We spent summers in Hong Kong, so we spoke Cantonese with my mother’s side of the family. However, we moved back to Hong Kong 5 years ago, so now my Cantonese has become more fluent, but my Mandarin suffered greatly from lack of use. [we being the kids]. My sister and I usually speak Cantonese now, though I usually use English with my brother, who is much younger. I have no idea why that is, since his Cantonese is as good as, if not better, than mine.

    • This is very interesting! I find it very fascinating how multilingual siblings choose a particular language to talk amobg them and sometimes, if they are more than two, they even can opt for two or three languages, depending on the situation, the context or just because they somehow both just prefer that language. It doesn’t even have to be one of the family languages. It can be the language of their social environment or that they happened to learn both. I’m very glad that you stopped by and shared your story!

  9. Great article. It’s super interesting how siblings choose their common language. Unfortunately, from a lot of what I’ve read, here in the United States it’s very common for the siblings to choose English… due to it being so prevalent. Hopefully my wife and I can beat the odds!


  10. Hi Jeffrey, I’m glad you liked. I know the problem you mention. Choosing to talk the dominant language also at home is often a way to show that you try to integrate. Especially when the children attend a local school, i.e. the lessons are taught in the local (dominant) language this happens. I think we can’t oblige our children to talk our languages among them, we can only persist talking our mothertongue to them and at least hope that they will build a passive competence that may help them in the future. – But what I observed is, that siblings often switch from one language to the other. Like if it was a game. They often share the same languages and know that they don’t have to make the effort to “translate” everything in only one language. (see my post about code-switching). I’m sure you and your wife will “beat the odds”!

  11. This is so interesting to read! I never really realised being raised multilingually would be such a challenge. I was born in China with Mandarin as my mother tongue. However I moved to the Netherlands when I was six, having only been to Chinese kindergarten at the time. At home we would talk Mandarin, because my parents never learned to speak Dutch fluently, but I spoke Dutch at school and to my little brother who went to Dutch kindergarten but didn’t speak Dutch as good as Mandarin. I thought my Mandarin was pretty fluent because I even learned a lot of reading and writing Chinese at home, but when I moved back to China at 12 years old, my Chinese proved to be a lot weaker compared to my Chinese peers, especially academically and culturally. Only after some time of school in China I caught up with my Chinese. I think it is not very hard to be multilingual fluent in communication, especially as a kid, because the language people use at home is more or less limited. But the language of education at school is definitely very important, performing academically means extending boundaries in thinking and understanding and is very constructive for language use, including vocabulary and cultural socialization. I know many people who are fluently bilingual, but it is just not the same if you’re not going to school in China, Turkey, Morocco or wherever you come from. That said, it is still wonderful to be multilingual. It reminds you of your roots and expands your cultural knowledge. It’s nice to see your family doing your best to persist 🙂

    • Thank you, Yibo, for your very important comment. That’s so true: being fluent is not necessarily being proficient in a language. I did a study some time ago about the “kitchen italian” many children of Italian immigrants have in Switzerland. They were “fluent”, but only in some aspects of their daily lives. When some of them moved to Italy and tried to go to school there, they often failed because they couldn’t perform academically. I must add that this was a study made in the German talking part of Switzerland, where the language talked at school is German/Swiss-German.
      My children are not fluently bilingual (or multilingual) because the school they’re attending doesn’t offer a bilingual education. I went to a school where I had a multilingual education (some lessons were taught in French, some in German, some in Italian etc.). It’s surely not the perfect way to grow up multilingual, but being or staying multilingual is a process and something we always have to work at. I’m getting better in English and Dutch right now, but I’m also trying to keep up with my German, Italian and French, which all in all require quite some energy. But thanks to my work, where I’m in contact with people who talk these languages every day, this is possible.
      En hoe gaat het met het Nederlands? Spreek je het nog? – Sorry, I can’t speek or write Mandarin, but I’m sure you’re perfectly proficient in your mothertongue 😉
      Did you observe a clear language shifting when you moved to China? And what about your language preferences now? What determines them (work, relationships etc.)?
      I’m sorry, I’m very curious, I know. But I really would like to know how others deal with their multilingualism and what influences their language preferences.

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