(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 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)