Bilingual Siblings: In Comes the Majority, Out Goes the Minority

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. To find more book excerpts and extracts on Multilingual Living, click here.

In Comes the Majority, Out Goes the Minority

“We speak more English since our first child has started school in England”

Marjukka Grover, editor of The Bilingual Family Newsletter wrote about her personal experience with her two Finnish/English sons, and being a mother speaking a minority language, Finnish, in England, as she observed in a 2005 article:

When a child joins a majority language nursery or playgroup the parents will get some idea of how powerful the majority language can be. However, it is not until formal schooling starts that the full force of this process becomes apparent. Some families are lucky to live near an International School, but most children will enter into the local majority-language school system and may become embarrassed to speak a language that other children don’t understand.

Parents often remarked that when an older sibling brought friends from kindergarten or school or the neighborhood home to play the siblings chose to speak the language of the country, school or the majority language. Younger siblings liked to copy older siblings. This was a testing time for families following OPOL, minority language-at-home or non-native strategies, who tried hard to use only the minority language at home, and limit the majority language to school or outside the home. The local children who came to play would naturally choose to watch television in the majority language or play games using the majority language. The parents of small children agreed that when friends came to play it was important that everyone understood each other, and that the invited children did not feel excluded linguistically. Consequently, a minority-language parent might use the majority language with the invited child or translate everything and even speak the majority language with their own children.

Siblings are aware of these subtle changes in family language interactions and a younger sibling could quickly pick up the message that the minority language is not worth much, or that it is not necessary to learn it since the local kids only speak the majority language. A younger sibling might decide not to speak the majority language to both parents, since they clearly understand it. This can destabilize a strategy, like minority-language-at-home or OPOL, because parents speak less and less to their children in the minority language.

Here are comments from case-study mothers, Lilian, Theresa and Josie on how the majority language can slowly suppress minority language use.

 Lilian: English/Portuguese in the United States (mL@H), mother of Kelvin (5) and Linton (3):

Our strategy is speaking the minority-language-at-home. However, since our oldest son became fluent in English he sometimes speaks English to us, and, without thinking about it, we reply. Or once in a while we have to speak English while helping him with homework.

Theresa: English/Spanish in Spain (OPOL), mother of Carmen (13), Rocio (11) and Violeta (9):

When my husband and I met we spoke only in English, but after moving to Spain we started using more and more Spanish. With our eldest daughter, we started speaking only in English, but when she started playing with other kids and going to school, we began using more Spanish. Since the kids speak in Spanish to each other, our conversations often switch over to Spanish too.

Malaysian mother Josie lived in Singapore before, with her children attending a German-language school. When she returned to live in her husband’s country, Germany, she found it hard to keep English on the agenda.

Josie: Chinese/German/English trilingual family in Germany, mother of Niklas (12), Tobias (8) and Lukas (4):

When we lived in Singapore, we encouraged the children to speak German to each other, although being at the German School they were never in the danger of forgetting the language. We tried to reverse that after returning to Germany, but the children cannot be persuaded to speak English between themselves. Only Lukas, who is 4, will sometimes still say something to his brothers in English, but that is increasingly rare. In view of the fact that Tobias was (and still is having problems speaking English) we have even tried insisting that the language spoken by all of us – including my husband –when we are together should be English, but to no avail. Any attempt at this lasts about two minutes before everyone goes back to German. My husband and I continue to speak our own languages to the boys, only making an exception out of politeness when we are in the company of people who would not otherwise understand what we are saying.


Stay tuned for more Multilingual Living excerpts in the coming days from Bilingual Siblings: Language Use in Families, by Suzanne Barron-Hauwaert! Did miss the first excerpt? You’ll fine it here: Bilingual Siblings: Fine Tuning Family Language Strategies

Don’t forget that you can purchase Bilingual Siblings 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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