Bilingual Siblings: Our ‘Preferred’ Language

by expert · 4 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.

Our ‘Preferred’ Language

They chose which language they spoke together … we had no say in it! For our firstborn we could rigidly separate the languages we used. The second and third children they use more German at home. i.e. the environment language.

One of the most interesting factors of the bilingual family is the question of which language the siblings choose to communicate in. The common language the siblings choose to use together is often referred to in academic research as the preferred sibling language. It is their private language and can be one language or a mix of two languages. The choice is often subconscious, arising simply from a need for siblings to communicate effectively.

The preferred language is the language that the siblings use to play, make up jokes, tell stories and argue in. This preferred language is used when the parents are not around, so it is not strictly necessary to use a parental language. Even if the parents do not approve or agree with the language selected, there is little they can do to control language use in such private contexts. The parents might have some influence in which language becomes the preferred one, but in the long term, it is the children who choose. The chosen language(s) must be accepted by all the siblings for it to work. In some cases children do speak different languages to each other, but this is usually temporary, for example, when one child starts school has more exposure to one language.

From the limited information we have, younger children appear to be guided by the older child, who sets the precedent. Case studies and data on families show that the siblings tend to use at least one parental language. If not, the default option is a school or country language. It can take time for siblings to find the best combination; they may prefer to stick with one language exclusively or mix two or more together. The choice also depends on the sibling’s contact with the outside world, especially school and friends, who may have an influence on their language preference. A typical pattern is that the mother’s language is the preferred language when the children are at home with her for most of the day. When school begins and the children find new friends from outside the home the peer group language has a stronger influence.

There is very little research on the language choice of siblings, probably because of the difficulty in obtaining detailed data on language use without a parent or researcher present. In classic observations of bilingual children the family language use transcribed is usually between the father or the mother and one child. The issue of child-to-child language use in a bilingual family has probably been under-estimated by researchers in the field. Data on unsupervised sibling-to-sibling language use is difficult to collect, simply because the recordings have to be done away from an adult.

When a parent (or researcher) is present the siblings are tempted to adjust their speech to suit him or her accordingly, sometimes without even realizing it. Siblings can even change languages when a parent enters the room, without directly speaking to them. Asking the parents which language their children prefer can be biased, because a parent might answer that their children naturally prefer to speak their language. Nevertheless, most parents probably know which language their children use together when they are playing together. Ideally, researchers could hide recording devices in the areas where the children play, but this could pose ethical problems with regards to private conversations.

Being a parent and a linguist is one way around the problem of privacy. Stephen Caldas and Madalena Cruz-Ferreira compiled diary studies of their respective three children and unobtrusively recorded genuine family conversations either around the dinner table, or when their children were talking or playing games together and unaware they were being taped.

In the Caldas family the sibling’s preferred language changed as the children grew up. Stephen Caldas taped his family conversations while they ate together at the dinner table, and was able to regularly record his children’s relatively natural language use over a long period and calculate the percentage of French and English as they chatted together. According to Caldas’ diary entries, the children preferred French when they were young. They all attended bilingual schools and spent their summers with French-speaking family or in French language camps in Quebec. However, as the oldest child, John, reached adolescence and started High School, he became significantly more Anglophone and refused to speak French at home, especially with his sisters.

The lowest point was in May 1996, when John was 10 years old and Stephen counted ‘zero’ French words. The girls reacted badly to this change of sibling language, demanding of their brother to ‘Parlez en francais!!’ This had little effect since John was simply more influenced by his new school friends than his young sisters. Two years later, the 10-year-old girls also began replacing French with English and copying their brother’s linguistic choices. In one year their French conversation levels, around the dinner table, plummeted from roughly 95% French in the summer to about 25% by the September, when the girls started fifth grade. This was in spite of the fact that the twins were still attending a bilingual school. Here is an example of the family language use six months later:

I videotaped at least half hour of Christmas morning interaction in 1997 when the twins were 10;7 and John was 12;7. There was much communication among all, family members. Suzanne and I spoke some French, but the children spoke only English.

The mutual decision to switch from French to English in the Caldas household took a few years to be resolved. By the time John was 15, and the twins were 13, all the family conversations recorded in America were in English. Despite the sibling switch to English when Stephen made recordings around the dinner table in Quebec the French levels peaked again. As Stephen sums up, it was not that the children could not speak both languages together, they simply chose not to. Caldas remarked perceptively,

The children were exhibiting parallel monolingualism more than classic bilingualism.

The sibling agreement on which language suits their needs is an important factor in preferred language use. Siblings may take time to ‘sort out’ which language suits them in their own circumstances and what works best for them. Since the preferred language is not tied to a parent’s language the children have to each adjust their personal language preferences alongside their sibling’s needs to find out which language feels more comfortable and ‘right’ for them.

What works best for young children playing together with trains or dolls might not be the right option when they are preadolescents or teenagers, sharing music or watching films together. Sibling language preference can also be affected by external factors, such as the language of the country where they live, their school and friends.

Bilingual siblings often have a preferred language that they use together. It could be a parental language, a school language, a community language or a mix of two or three languages. The preferred language can change over time and across contexts.

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.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Liliana December 3, 2011 at 10:45 pm

This is such an interesting article!
Right now, my two children (5 and 3) speak my language at home, even to my husband who speaks to him in his native language. However, when we have English speaker families over (we live in USA), my children speak in English to them. I still have not heard them speaking in English to each other. I love hearing my kids speaking in my language (Spanish) and I will be understanding if they switch to English, but I honestly think it is going to break my heart the day they decide to do so.


2 Corey January 3, 2012 at 10:19 pm

Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Liliana! It broke my heart when my children stopped speaking German with one another. I know the sequence of events that lead to it (and watched it happen) but wasn’t sure what to do: the kids were in daycare three days a week where English was spoken and became the language of play, all of the DVDs at the library were in English, etc. But it still broke my heart. At least they still speak German with me! 😉

Thank you for sharing!!


3 Reb December 5, 2011 at 2:26 am

This is really interesting for me since I have a 5 and 2 year old growing up with American and French (we live in France). So far, my kids have made English – the minority language – the home language without my even trying. It will probably change once my son starts school, but I sure hope not! My daughter has been such a help in helping my son’s English develop!


4 Corey January 3, 2012 at 10:21 pm

You make such a great point, Reb! When kids start school, things sometimes change drastically. This isn’t always the case but it is usually the perfect age for our children to become more aware of their languages and to want to be more like their friends. Either way, it is wonderful that your children are sticking with English at this point – that is a fantastic start!


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