Bilingual Siblings: Fine Tuning Family Language Strategies

by Corey · 0 comments

Have you ever wondered to what degree siblings influence the language dynamic in a bilingual family? Does each child prefer the same language? How does each child influence the language preferences of the others? Surprisingly, sibling language use is an uncharted area when it comes to bilingualism research.

To help fill this void, Suzanne Barron-Hauwaert has written a book titled, Bilingual Siblings: Language Use in Families to help shed light on some very important questions such as:

  • How do bilingual siblings talk to each other?
  • What happens when there are two or more children at different stages of language development?
  • Which language(s) do the siblings prefer to speak together?
  • Could one child refuse to speak one language while another child is fluently bilingual?
  • How do the factors of birth order, personality or family size interact in language production?

We are honored and delighted to be able to share with you this series of excerpts from Suzanne’s book Bilingual Siblings: Language Use in Families, published by Multilingual Matters. You will find the book for sale at 20% off at the Multilingual Matters website and at Amazon in paperback and for the Kindle Reader.

We hope you will enjoy these excerpts! Please let us know what you think of the book!

Fine-Tuning Family Language Strategies

“We now sprinkle more English into the home, whereas when we just had our first child we were more exclusive to Spanish.”

Often a new dynamic of language use between the children appears, pushing parent-orientated ‘stricter’ strategies out to a more child-centered and mixed way of communicating. Some strategies, such as OPOL or minority-language-at-home, demand that parents practice an essentially monolingual language use with their children.

Parents can find it harder to pretend to two or more children that they do not understand the other parents’ language, or will not speak a majority or country language with them. A trio of two adults talking directly to one child is often a success, because the child wants to communicate with his or her parents, and please them. The first child often does not realize that one or both of his parents could actually speak the other language.

In fact the success of OPOL and minority language at home strategies rests on the basis that the child has to speak only one language otherwise the parent will not understand or reply. Having a sibling can dilute the intense one-to one parent–child relationship, and some parents found they could not play the game of ‘not understanding’ one language with two children involved. Age differences can play a role as an older child knows the language abilities of the parents. One parent might decide it is not worth pretending he or she does not speak one language, knowing that the older one will tell the little one sooner or later.

As the older children start school and have a wider circle of friends and activities the language of the community becomes difficult to ignore or ban. Children began to have a say in language use, sometimes preferring to speak a different language to what the parents chose. Parents may be less serious about policing language use at home and allowing exterior or non parental language use at home.

Parents also noted that it was harder to control the language the siblings choose to use together, especially when they played together, away from the parents, and created their own mixes and interlanguage translations. Mixing also increased as siblings found their own way to communicate with two languages, and likewise, parents might find themselves unintentionally mixing more in their daily speech too.

There were also some families who adapted their strategies to suit circumstances that they had not expected, like a child who had speech problems, emotional problems caused by moving to live in a country with a new language, or introducing new family members like a stepmother or stepsiblings with different language needs. All these reasons can influence a family language strategy and whether it works or not.

There are many areas open for discussion in the family home. When should the ‘other’ language be used? How strict should parents be about using the ‘wrong’ language or lazy translations? Should parents pick up on words or phrases that are commonly mistranslated and correct sloppy language use? What if you want to tell your family about something closely linked to one language and need to switch into the other language? One issue many parents agreed on was that when children begin formal schooling the parents could not avoid doing homework in the ‘other’ language.

Madelana Cruz-Ferreira, linguist and mother of three Portuguese/Swedish/English trilingual children, commented on the difficulties of remaining loyal to your own language (personal communication, January 2008):

“Like many self-labelled so-called ‘OPOL’ parents, we found ourselves using all three languages in our family. For example, I use my second language (Swedish) words/expressions to talk about Swedish-bound happenings, memories, etc. Their father does the same in Portuguese for the same reasons, and both of us used English to discuss school homework when the children were small.”

Here are some comments by case-study parents, Odile and Tammy, on the subtle changes in language use, created by homework and outside events:

Odile: French/English in Malaysia (OPOL), mother of Amy (7), Luca (5) and Elliot (1):

“Since having children we stuck to Dad speaking English and Mum French and it seems to work. My husband and I speak French at home, but the children always address him in English. The one thing I make allowance on is when Amy and I do Maths homework [she attends an English language school], and I will say some numbers in English because I realized she was confused with the French numbers. If the children get lazy with me and start introducing shorter English words or bad English translations into our conversations, I’m very strict in the sense that I make them repeat the correct word or sentence in French.” 

Tammy: English/Spanish in the United Kingdom (mL@H), mother of Isabel (8), Elena (6), Monica (3) and Nora (1):

“We are bringing up our children using our second language (Spanish) at home. Between us we felt more comfortable speaking English to each other since our Spanish level is ‘conversational’ and at an elementary level. Our oldest daughter, Isabel, quickly surpassed our Spanish level threshold when she was around six or seven years old. When she started elementary schooling it became difficult for us to discuss certain concepts with her in Spanish, like religion, nature and all those Why? Questions children of that age ask their parents. We simply had to reply in English.” 

Stay tuned for more Multilingual Living excerpts in the coming days from Bilingual Siblings: Language Use in Families, by Suzanne Barron-Hauwaert!

Don’t forget that you can purchase the book for 20% off at the Multilingual Matters website or at Amazon in paperback and for the Kindle Reader.

Suzanne Barron-Hauwaert is British and married to a Frenchman. The family lives in France with their three more-or-less bilingual children. Suzanne has a Masters in Education and teaches English as a second language. She independently researches family bilingualism and multilingualism. Suzanne is the author of Language Strategies for Bilingual Families - the one parent-one language approach and Bilingual Siblings: Language Use in Families. (Multilingual Matters, 2004). Suzanne is on the Editorial board of The Bilingual Family Newsletter and writes a quarterly column: Notes from the OPOL Family about life with two languages and cultures.

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