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? Do the children influence the language dynamic in the family? Do all the children in the same family prefer the same language? Do they influence eachother regarding the preference of the language?
Suzanne Barron-Hauwaert did publish 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 sometimes 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 an other post.
Our situation right now is, that we talk German within our family, but in very specific situations we switch to English or Dutch. This happens when we talk about an experience we had in these other linguistic contexts, when we have friends over who don’t understand or talk German or when the children are playing together. Our children are 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.
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 talk German to each other, but it can happen that they talk Dutch or English while talking about a topic they had at school or shared with their English friends. The same happens with Dutch.
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 often can help the younger ones to develop their language skills. But it also can happen that an older child uses the babytalk (or very basic language) with the baby or toddler…
Our children are all on a different stage of language development. Our son is already fluent in all the languages I’ve mentioned. Our twindaughters are more or less at the same level, nearly fluent. One of our daughters is a “lazy speaker” so she seems not to be as far in her language development as her sister, but her vocabulary is quite good in all three languages (even her Italian passive knowledge is improving a lot and she likes Italian very much). Both girls mix up the syntactic structure of German and English. – This affects a bit our conversations, as I usually have to model their sentences.
3) Could one child refuse to speak one language while another child is fluently bilingual?
Our son did refuse 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 now he’s interested in learning French and thinks that Italian is a nice language too. He’s now fluently multilingual (in German, English, Dutch). His sisters are nearly fluent in the same languages. Our son is also re-starting to talk Italian, whilst our daughters have a more passive knowledge of this language.
It’s not that one of our children does really refuse to talk a language whilst the other one(s) speak it, but one of our daughters would prefer talking only German. 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 did try, but after a few days we all agreed that I wouldn’t talk different languages to all of them, so we’re back on talking German altogether. – But when I’m upsed or I have to tell them something very quickly, I switch to Italian – that’s much quicker and they all know that things are getting serious when I do so.
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 did decide on a very early stage which languages they wanted to talk and it were external factors who did influence 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 Swissgerman and Dutch (I learned Dutch along with my son), and his refusal to talk Italian was very economic and natural. 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 did influence the languages in our family.
All our children behave in different ways in linguistic terms and we are aware that the situation might change in the future.
What is the language history of your family? Did your children also develop along uniquely individual linguistic paths?
This post has been republished on Expatica.com on 17/09/2013.
- Which language to choose? (expatsincebirth.com)
- In Defense of the Bilingual Child (expatsincebirth.com)
- About OPOL (expatsincebirth.com)
- Don’t worry if your child does code-switching (expatsincebirth.com)
- Secret language among (my) twins (expatsincebirth.com)
- OPOL among multilingual siblings? (expatsincebirth.com)
- My multilingual journey (expatsincebirth.com)