Bilingual Siblings: The School Language Effect

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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.

The School Language Effect

“After the oldest one started school they quickly switched to using the ‘school’ language together and only used my language at home with me.”

In studies on siblings observed by the parent-linguists and researchers the school language often becomes the majority or dominant language for children. Starting school is often a catalyst for a change in attitude and language use at home.

Barbara Zuer-Pearson, author of Raising a Bilingual Child (2008), conducted a study with her colleague, Arlene McGee, on 110 junior high school students in Miami. They found that first-generation immigrant children switched to English within a very short time of arriving in the country. Barbara added that even children in dual-immersion schools, who were able to maintain their Spanish, still preferred to switch to English in the shared areas such as school halls, canteens and on the school bus.

Researcher Sarah Shin observed 12 bilingual Korean-American first graders in a school setting and interviewed 251 Korean parents of school-age children. In her book Developing in Two Languages: Korean Children in America (2005), Sarah highlighted the important factor of schooling. After the children entered the monolingual American schools their Korean language skills dropped. For first-born children, Korean-language use with their parents plummeted from 78.8% to 43.1%; Second born children went from 66.3% to 26.8%, while the third-born children declined from 42.9% to 23.8%. Mixed language use and English increased in line with the decrease in Korean, with half the first-borns preferring to mix languages after they started school. Sarah concluded:

The children, across birth-order categories, spoke more English (or Korean and English) and less Korean with their parents once they started school. However, even before entering school, fewer second-born children (66.3%) than first-born children (78.8%) spoke Korean with their parents, while even fewer third-born children (42%) did so. (Shin, 2005: 131)

The same scenario was seen in Una Cunningham-Andersson’s English/Swedish household in Sweden, where once the youngest child joined the three older ones at a local school, the language of the siblings became Swedish. In a trilingual household, the school language can squeeze out parental languages.

Charlotte Hoffmann remarked on her two trilingual German/Spanish/English children’s change of language after the youngest child, Pascaul, started attending a local English-language school around age five. Charlotte understood that English was their most proficient language and the one they both spoke with ‘the highest degree of grammatical accuracy. ’ She described the new situation,

The children used to speak German to each other; however, now that Pascaul has been going to primary school for a year, he normally uses English as the language of play and explanation to his sister, and even to the parents. When asked to switch to German or Spanish he used to do so quite willingly, although he is becoming more reluctant now. It is clear that English is already his preferred language. (Hoffmann, 1985: 485)

A parent and researcher, Cathy Benson-Cohen, observed 39 language patterns of seven- to eight-year-old French/English bilingual children living in France. The parents reported that French usually became the dominant language between siblings once one or two children started nursery school. In an article from The Bilingual Family Newsletter published in 2005, Cathy explained how French became more present at home,

Once a child starts nursery, it appears that gradually more and more French is used to the English-speaking parents (who in all cases in this study is a competent French speaker). It is understandable that the child finds it easier to talk about events in French that happened in the French-speaking environment. However, once the child starts using French regularly to the English-speaking parent, they are less likely to push themselves in English. (Benson-Cohen, 2005:5)

Fabiana, a case-study parent with four trilingual Italian/Chinese/English speaking children, echoes the strong school-effect on sibling language use. In her family, the two eldest daughters began speaking Italian together (the mother’s language) but soon changed to using English after they started attending an English-language school. Fabiana says,

Before starting school the girls were all speaking Italian between themselves. Our third child was already exposed to English through her sisters speaking English among themselves. Now all three prefer English. — Fabiana: Italian/Chinese/English trilingual family in Malaysia, mother of Martine (10), Natalia (9), Arianna (6) and Thomas (1)

Bilingual children who were keen to speak both languages in the tight family circle of preschool might be tempted to change their language use when they start school. This is especially pertinent if the chosen school is monolingual where bilingual children might think twice about speaking a language publicly that few people understand. The pressure is also increased by increased time away from home and after-school enrolment in activities in the local area, like sport or music. The risk is that the home or minority languages might fade away over time. From the children’s point of view this is not necessarily a rejection of the minority language, more a pragmatic choice made by the children that since they spend so much time at school or with school friends.

For parents who are able to make the decision about which school their children attend, they should carefully consider the language of school and activities and the possible effect it might have on their children’s language use in the home.

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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