Last update on January 30, 2019

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.

a guide to raising bilingual children

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.

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?