Bilingual Siblings: Different Language Histories

by Corey · 7 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.

Different Language Histories

I felt closer to my daughter because she speaks my language well and we can discuss and chat together more. My son makes a little effort when he has to, but that’s it.Our oldest child had delayed speech, limited knowledge of vocabulary, and her sentences were simplistic. The second one talked all the time! We did the same thing with each child, but the last one hardly ever speaks both languages.”

Language histories are the background to how a child becomes bilingual. As we have seen, children who have the same environment do not always grow up to have the same language use or affinity to both languages. The language history can encompass all the small experiences that make up a child’s life; a holiday, a special friend, a favorite book or film which inspires them to think or learn. Even if the whole family has the same experiences some children will get more or less out of each situation.

In case studies on bilingual families, siblings appear to behave in different ways to each other in linguistic terms. They can embrace a language wholeheartedly or feel rather distant and unattached to one parental or country language. The most common difference is a scenario where one child found learning languages easy, while another sibling struggled, or one child feels more attached to one parental language. However, it is important to look at the whole family’s circumstances, since one sibling may have had less input in one language or less chance to practice one language.

Xiao-lei Wang wrote about her two adolescent sons’ trilingual development (The Bilingual Family Newsletter, 2009). As she encouraged their heritage language learning (Chinese) she commented on their different learning styles and how parents may want to consider their children’s approach to language learning, saying,

For example, my son Léandre is two years older than his brother Dominique. From a chronological perspective, I probably should set up higher Chinese learning goals and expectations for Léandre. However, in reality, I often do the opposite. This is simply because of Léandre’s personality, and his tendency to avoid doing anything extra. Recently, while helping the children prepare for a Chinese examination, I asked Dominique to complete all the review materials in two hours and only asked Léandre to finish two of the exercises in the same amount of time. This disparity recognizes the disparity between my sons’ personalities.

In some families one child may have more affinity with a parental culture and feel closer to them in cultural ways, enriching their language skills along the way. Leena Huss is a Finn who moved to live in Sweden with her Swedish husband. She described the linguistic progress of her three sons, now aged 29, 26 and 21 years old (The Bilingual Family Newsletter, 2003).

In the beginning Leena spoke Finnish to her first and second children, and struggled to maintain her first language in an essentially monolingual climate. The family then moved to Finland when the boys were six and three, where they soon dropped their ‘Swedish borrowings’ and developed ‘native fluency’ in Finnish. Their third child was born in Helsinki and the family moved to Sweden when he was just a year old. To help support the minority language Leena asked her older sons to speak Finnish with the baby, which they did. As she says,

In spite of the fact that the boys shared the same home environment and were exposed to the same kind of bilingual upbringing, they responded in different ways. Little brother, who was too young when we returned to Sweden to remember his time in Finland, eventually became the ‘most Finnish’ and would shout: ‘Speak Finnish!’ when he passed the bigger brothers’ room and heard them speak Swedish with each other …

Leena remarks that this was accepted as the ‘idiosyncrasy of the younger one’, and his strong attitude to ‘hold the Finnish fl ag high’ helped maintain bilingualism and bicultural values in the home. A successful language strategy that worked with one child may not be suited to another child. Each child can react differently to their family languages and circumstances, and have differing motivations to speak each language.

Meg Valenzuela, an American married to an Argentinean and living in Germany, wrote an article on balancing multilingual language use in families who move house frequently (The Bilingual Family Newsletter, 2004). Their first son, Lucas, was born in Germany and the couple strictly followed the OPOL + 1 approach, with success. The family then moved to Italy, and managed to maintain German through German-only weekends and German-speaking friends. When Lucas was six, the family returned to Germany and he settled in easily to the first grade of school. Their second son, Samuel, was born in Italy and had a different experience to his brother. His parents still spoke English and Spanish, as they had done with Lucas, but he was ambivalent toward German and had only a passive knowledge. Meg recounts,

With our younger son, Samuel, we have walked a different path … Because of our good experience with the OPOL strategy, we chose to speak English and Spanish with him as we had with Lucas. We hoped that he would pick up enough German from our conversations with each other and Lucas … As a result, Samuel returned to Germany with a passive knowledge of German, but few experiences of using it actively Samuel initially had problems settling into Germany, and struggled in comparison to his brother.

Meg remarked that his German was much weaker than they expected. Searching for a way to help Samuel communicate more in German, the parents noticed that Samuel responded better to visual learning. He loved visiting the local library and looking at books. The parent’s assumption that hearing German would be enough to support his bilingualism proved to be wrong for the second child. The story shows that we cannot assume that because our first child is good at languages the second child will be too, and the second child may not have the same learning patterns as the first one did.

Even when parents bring up their children bilingual in the same way, the children can grow up with different language histories. One child may choose not to be bilingual or use one language.

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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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Justine Ickes February 1, 2012 at 9:49 pm

What fascinating research, and so important for families trying to raise bi/multilingual kids. We’re only just beginning the journey in our Turkish-American family but already I can see how my two sons’ distinct personalities are showing up in their language learning differences and preferences…along similar lines to what Xiao-lei Wang described. An recent example: We were in the car listening to a CD of Turkish – a simple review of basic words in Turkish. My eldest, who is more of a reflective learner, asked “What’s the difference between ‘hayir’ and ‘yok’?” These are two ways of saying “no” in Turkish. Before my husband could explain, our younger son, who’s more of an experiential learner, blurted out “Who cares?! They both mean ‘no’!” I thought to myself, “Well, I guess Noah won’t be too worried about accuracy when he speaks.” 🙂 But, later, that afternoon on the way home from school, Noah (my youngest) announced that he’d taught his Spanish teacher “a couple of words in Turkish”. Which ones? “Hayir” and “yok”. 🙂


2 Corey February 3, 2012 at 11:04 pm

This is fascinating, Justine! Isn’t it fun to see these differences in our own household? I notice little difference in my children as well. What is most hilarious is how often my oldest correct my German (that know-it-all *grin*). My middle child definitely takes it all in stride while my older one is more attentive to detail. My youngest just gets away with whatever she is up to. 😉


3 Reb February 3, 2012 at 6:45 am

It’s fascinating how differently children adapt to their bilingual environment. My own children (5 1/2 and 2 1/2). I never imagined they would be so different in terms of their relationship to both English (minority langauge) and French (the majority language). For example, my son has taken to speaking to me in English then translating it in French for the general public whereas my daughter at the same age was unaware that other people couldn’t understand her when she was speaking to me. It’s become obvious to me that my daughter’s English has had as much as if not more of an influence on my son’s English than I have.


4 Corey February 3, 2012 at 11:06 pm

What a fabulous observation, Reb! I know many parents who insist that their children don’t know that they can speak the community language – this always surprised me but now I realize that it all just depends on the children/family situation. Some children don’t notice things like that as much while others are extremely attentive to it. We just never can tell how our children will be, can we? Thank you for sharing!


5 Amber Lee February 3, 2012 at 10:57 pm

I wasn’t aware that siblings have bilingual tendencies. This is very fascinating. I have never encountered a research study such as this one. You made a lot of effort in writing this book. I would love to have one. Where can I purchase the book?

Thanks for the information.

Amber Lee


6 Corey February 3, 2012 at 11:02 pm

Thank you for your comment, Amber! Isn’t this a fascinating topic? I have read through this whole book and love every bit of it! The best part is hearing what other families have to say and then Suzanne’s way of putting the information together to give a good overview.

If you purchase this book at Amazon, please use our link and Multilingual Living will receive a little percentage of the sale:



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