Bilingual Siblings: Siblings As Teachers

by Corey · 2 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.

Siblings As Teachers

“Our first child is often ‘teaching’ our second and third children by modeling ‘Say x ….’, and then correcting them afterwards.”

Charmian Kenner (Becoming Biliterate: Young Children Learning Different Writing Systems, 2004) studied six bilingual children in London, observing the dual language worlds of children whose parents spoke a minority language at home and who attended English-language schools. The children she studied often attended Saturday schools or ‘complementary’ schools for extra minority language input.

Charmian noted the complexity of living with two languages and how older siblings could play a role in guiding younger children how to use each language appropriately. The older siblings often employed the same teaching techniques as used in the school environment. One family had a particularly strong sibling support. Six-year-old Ming was being brought up with English from the community and two Chinese languages, Hakka and Cantonese, at home. Ming had five siblings ranging in age from 12- to 24-years old. Charmian observed the following sibling interactions,

Ming’s older siblings, particularly his twelve-year-old brother, helped him with his homework from Chinese Saturday school. On Thursday or Friday evenings Ming practiced writing the characters. He knew his brother could translate and would ask him the meaning of Chinese words in English. (Kenner, 2004: 7)

Charmian also noted how Ming would read his school library books to his brothers and sisters and watch how they used English/Chinese dictionaries for their secondary school or college homework. His sisters helped him practice writing his name and to do informal activities at home, such as making a Christmas card.

The effort made by the siblings to support biliteracy was very positive and helped Ming to go further with his emerging bilingualism through the older sibling’s encouragement and experiences. Had the parents in my study found an older sibling took on a teaching role?

Here are some comments from the parents I surveyed on their children’s teaching techniques:

When my second child was learning to speak, using Portuguese in Israel, her older brother would correct her and provide the Hebrew equivalent, saying ‘This is what WE say’ …Our oldest child often helps his brother and corrects his pronunciation, either in Portuguese or English. He does so very emphatically and has his younger brother repeat a word until he can say it right …

Andrea, mother of a teenager and two young children, thought a wide age gap was more conductive to sibling teaching. Andrea’s two daughters, Lena and Melanie, both took on teaching roles.

In our case, the age gap works as an advantage since our older child (Melanie for both the little ones, and Lena for Finlay) was/is at an age where she can perceive herself as a model and teacher. — Andrea: English/German in Germany (L2 at H), mother of Melanie (15), Lena (6) and Finlay (3)

Canadian mother, Christina, found that the first-born was a strong role model in her family too. Tom, now a teenager, used English with his younger brother, supporting and encouraging the use of the minority language at home in a German-speaking environment.

The first child may get more intensive language input since the parents don’t have to divide up their attention between two or more children, But other children have the advantage of being able to learn from their siblings. We found that already having one bilingual child helped to reinforce our goal. Our older son acted as a ‘helper’ to teach his younger brother English. — Christina: English/German in Germany (OPOL), mother of Tom (15) and John (12)

Like monolingual siblings, several parents commented that their children had picked up language patterns directly from siblings, citing slang, swearwords or accents that the parents did not use themselves. Some parents said that their older sibling helped the younger ones with tricky grammar, pronunciation or vocabulary. How far should parents go in allowing older siblings to ‘teach’ a younger one?

Parents from the case studies also reported that some older siblings took on the task of correcting younger ones emerging language use. In other families an older one would try to tell the parents, or other adults, what the little one was trying to say. This is a common scenario, seen in both monolingual and bilingual families. However, in a bilingual family, one language could be dangerously under-used and become passive.

Around a third of the parents said that one of their children (usually the first child) ‘talked’ for another. Here are some comments from parents via the online survey on an older sibling ‘talking’ for a younger one,

My son interprets what he thinks his sister (age just over two years) is saying …My son speaks for his sister. He has a firm belief she can’t understand French because she doesn’t speak it. But she understands French 100% …

and from another parent,

Our second child did not speak until age 3 due to the first one speaking for her.

Having an older sibling who is keen to tutor a younger one can be a positive factor. Younger siblings can benefit from listening in to conversations between parents and siblings. A teaching role, through role playing, can exist between siblings.

However, children should not be pressurized to be a teacher at home. An overly helpful child can sometimes unintentionally stifle or talk for a younger one, a situation that can lead to a child being frustrated and missing practice in speaking one or both languages. All in all, parents should not leave language learning solely in the hands of a sibling.

Siblings can teach younger ones and show an example of how to use each language in context. Some older sisters (or brothers) may talk or translate for a younger sibling but younger siblings need practice and should be encouraged.

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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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Amy January 13, 2012 at 9:15 pm

This is interesting! My oldest does not teach the younger siblings, but now that we have two kids going to Saturday Chinese school, the oldest likes to show off his knowledge to the younger one! Also, in our trilingual family, the youngest learned english pretty much from his sister talking to him so much! So much for an older talkative sibling stifling a younger one!


2 Corey January 14, 2012 at 2:17 pm

Thank yo for sharing this, Amy! It is amazing how different things can influence our children (and us) differently along the way (like your child going to Saturday Chinese school and now enjoying to show off his language skills). We often forget how much influence our children’s language can have in our family – but as you point out, it is a lot!


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