"expatsincebirth: Bilingual siblings and their language preferences"

expatsincebirth: Bilingual siblings' language preferences

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Many studies exist about raising one bilingual child, but what happens to a family's linguistic context when two or more children create their own language preferences?

We can find many studies about how to raise 'a' or 'one' bilingual child, but what happens when you have more than one child? Is it possible to keep the initial bilingual or multilingual situation within the family, or do children influence the language dynamic in the family, or even influence each other regarding their language preferences? Do all the children in the same family even prefer the same language? These are just some questions facing bilingual and multilingual families.

Suzanne Barron-Hauwaert
published a great guide for parents and teachers titled Bilingual Siblings: Language Use in Families. She writes about how each child can get more or less out of a situation, even if the family shares the same experiences. This includes the languages the family is in contact with or using. Within the same family you can find children who embrace the languages wholeheartedly and others who are more reluctant. One child might 'absorb' every language they're exposed to, another chooses a few, and the next child prefers only one.

In my experience, you sometimes have to adapt your language situation within your family to the individual needs of your children. 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 experiences 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 also exposed to Italian and Swiss German, but only during playtimes with children who speak the same language or while reading or listening to stories and songs in these languages, and during our visits to our family in Switzerland. (You can read more on the linguistic situation of our family here).

Our family's multilingual experiences inspired me to answer to some questions Suzanne Barron-Hauwaert asked in her book, which might help guide others' linguistic situations too.


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

Our children mainly talk German to each other, but sometimes they talk Dutch or English while talking about a topic they had at school or shared with their English/Dutch friends.

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

Of course, it's natural that children from different age groups are in different stages of language development. Those who are older often can help the younger ones develop their language skills. But it can also happen that an older child uses the baby talk (or very basic language) with the baby or toddler.

Our children are all at a different stage of language development. Our son is already fluent in all the languages I've mentioned. Our twin daughters 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 our conversations a bit, as I usually try 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 two and a half years old as a reaction to our move 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, while our daughters have a more passive knowledge of this language.

Our situation is not so much that one child absolutely refuses to talk a language while the others speak it, but one of our daughters does prefer talking only German. She is much less interested in languages than our other two children. Our 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 to talking German altogether. But when I'm upset or I have to tell them something very quickly, I switch to Italian – it's much quicker and they all know that things are getting serious when I do so.

a guide to raising bilingual children

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

When we moved to the Netherlands we didn't find Italian friends in the first few 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 very natural and 'economic' (where someone is inclined to use forms of speech that ensure communication is at the lowest cost possible for both speaker and listener). 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 you could say that birth order also influenced the languages in our family.

Overall, 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 in your family? Did your children also develop along uniquely individual linguistic paths?



Reprinted
with the permission of expatsincebirth.

Expat since birth: Ute Limacher-RieboldUte Limacher-Riebold has been an expat since birth. Born as a German citizen, she grew up in Italy, studied in Switzerland and worked in Florence, before settling in the Netherlands in 2005 with her husband, son and twin daughters. After working at the University of Zurich, Ute is now a freelance translator, language teacher and writer. In expatsincebirth.com she blogs about being an expat, multilingualism, raising TCK's (Third Culture Kids), and much more. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter.

 

Photo credit: scbailey (photo 1), GlowJangles (photo 2), crimfants (photo 3), Phil Scoville (hot).

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6 Comments To This Article

  • Ute (expatsincebirth) posted:

    on 19th October 2013, 11:58:43 - Reply

    Lottie, informally people use the term "fluency" to denote a high level of language proficiency. But language fluency is necessary but not sufficient for language proficiency. Fluent speakers can have a narrow vocabulary, limited discourse strategies and an inaccurate word use. To be fluent means basically that someone is understood by native and non-native listeners. I think that you consider to be "master" when you reach the point to be proficient in the language. –
  • Lottie Smith posted:

    on 25th September 2013, 14:48:04 - Reply

    I wonder what is understood as 'fluent' in this context?
    I was brought up in a multi-lingual family environment living in a country where my parents were 'ex-pats' and whilst I obtained a very good passive understanding of various languages and fluency in others, I was 'master' of none. This, I came to learn, during my subsequent formal language studies is very common in multi-lingual households. Hence my initial question - and a need to keep things in perspective when we are talking about fluency
  • Ute (expatsincebirth) posted:

    on 22nd September 2013, 09:43:25 - Reply

    I know that in many schools there is a "one language" policy (not always openly declared) especially in the first years. The reason is, that they want the children to start reading and writing in one language at a time. Therefore, second, third etc. languages are introduced later. In some cases way too late. I agree with you that schools should be more open minded with the multilingualism of their pupils but they are simply overwhelmed with all the requests. They would need specialised teachers for those languages etc. - But I would like to give you some advice: try to provide opportunities to your children to be surrounded by the minority languages. They need to have peers around them who share that same language, with whom they can talk, interact on a regular basis.
    Pete: You don't say how old your daughter is. I know parents who were talking a language to their children for more than 10 years without their children speaking the same language back to them. But the kids did build a passive competence and were able to interact with peers. Don't give up and keep on talking Mandarin and Fries to your daughter. If she "needs" these languages - because she has to interact with people who don't speak Dutch - she will be able to do so.
    Pink: I agree with you. I hope that this will change soon. I would fully embrace a schoolsystem that is more multilingually orientated. It's such a shame to "waste" early schoolyears by not teaching other languages!
    Zara: You don't say how you practice the three languages at home. Are you and your husband the only persons who talk armenian and english to your daughter? Children will always have a preferred language - and often it's not the one we would like them to prefer... - but we need to accept that. Maybe your 2 year old will choose another language than Dutch? Children don't push away languages they need to communicate. If you can find a way to increase the interaction with armenian and english talking people, especially children they like (the "like" factor is very important! ) they will find a way to improve. If you can, try to spend your holidays in the countries where those languages are dominant. Get them all the input you can (DVD's, CD's, books, songs etc.) But meanwhile: keep on talking armenian and english to them. Even if it seems to you that they don't "know" them sufficiently: passive competence is precious too! As long as they understand what you're saying you don't have to worry. As soon as they will need to talk, they will "turn the switch" and start talking.
    Thank you very much for all your comments! I would be glad to know how this works for you and your family! - Ute
  • Zara posted:

    on 19th September 2013, 04:33:54 - Reply

    Hi,

    My 4 year old speaks 3 languages, and we do practice all 3 languages at home. My husband would only speak Dutch, I make sure armenian they get from me, and english is the language I communicate with my husband. So far it has worked perfectly, bu since she started attending Dutch school in Singapore I notice that dutch is becoming her preferred language, which was pretty much expected. She does try to talk to me in dutch and there are things she is unable to resell in armenian and she is communicating in dutch. And she also has picked dutch as a language to communicate with her almost 2 year old sister. So far it is all what we have expected living an expat life. But indeed worry remains what happens when we move to The Netherlands. I am a little concerned that when they realize that speaking dutch they can communicate to many more people than in any other language, they will simply push away the other two.
  • Pink posted:

    on 18th September 2013, 22:22:56 - Reply

    It's a shame that dutch schools don't more fully embrace multilingualism. Perhaps they did more in the past and there is the advantage of being in Europe so close to other countries, but the general attitude as also reflected in my daughter's dutch school handbook, is that other languages are frowned upon as everyone must speak dutch. Meh. I would love it if these so called tolerant dutch schools would teach arabic or chinese.
  • Pete posted:

    on 18th September 2013, 19:41:48 - Reply

    She used all four languages before going to pre-school.
    When she started pre-school, all her classmates were ignorant of Mandarin and Fries, and only a couple had any knowledge of German.
    Dutch was the language used in the pre-school. When she spoke anything besides Dutch, she was ignored, or the meaning of what she said was not understood by those around her.
    Her response was that she began refusing to speak in any language besides Dutch.
    Her mother asked a question in Mandarin, and her answer was in Dutch.
    Her father asked a question in Fries, and her answer was in Dutch.
    She clearly understood Mandarin, Fries and German, but she rebelled and would only speak in Dutch because of her experience at school.