Bilingual Children: Why Does Each Child Speak Less English?

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Bilingual Children: Why Does Each Child Speak Less

By Ingrid Weilguny
Photo credit: Jason Bolonski

I remember before my children were born that we planned how it would be. Bringing them up bilingually, that is.

We agreed on the one parent-one language approach. We decided that English would be the main influence within the house as outside the door they only heard German. But although I tried to bring my children up bilingually, I sometimes wonder what went wrong.

Each of my children seems to speak progressively less English.

My Story

I am an English speaker from Australia, living in Austria with my Austrian husband who speaks mainly German with the children.

When my first daughter was born, I could not speak German and the only language she heard me speak was English. When she started speaking, from early on she was very clear about only speaking English with me and German with her father. Even when she was in kindergarten she couldn’t sing the song to me on mother’s day as it was in German but when we came home, she translated it and sang it in English. To this day, she is very particular about only speaking English with me.

When my second daughter was born three years later, I had learned to speak a bit of German. She heard me speak German when I mixed with the other mothers at kindergarten, at the supermarket, with my mother-in-law. When playing with her sister, they would switch between English and German in their play depending on what the subject was. For my second child, her life was more immersed in German than the first. Although she spoke to me primarily in English, she was not so concerned when she spoke in German as she knew I understood.

My third daughter was born five years later. By this time, I was competent in speaking German. The girls often had friends come to visit and she heard me speaking German with them. She heard (and continues to hear) me speak German when helping the girls do their homework. I did not have the time to spend hours with her singing songs in English like I did with the others.

Although I still try to follow the one parent-one language model and only speak to my children in English, our third child hears more German at home than the other children. She often sings me songs in German or switches her language in sentences rather than searching for the word in English.

Language Input

Differences in language dominance are dependent on each child’s exposure to languages, which is different for each child.  It all depends on the languages the parents are speaking, their siblings, their friends and anyone else they speak with, according to Professor Gathercole, a Professor of Linguistics at Florida International University and Professor of Psychology at Bangor University, Wales

Rather than seeing the differences as something negative, this is a natural outcome of how children (and adults) learn languages.  Does this mean that your child is not considered multilingual? NO!

As Professor Gathercole says, “Language is learned in context, and a bilingual child may hear each language in different contexts. For example, a child might hear one language used in the kitchen, another language on a sports field, but at the same time might hear both in a grocery store and in school.”

It just might be that at this stage, our child knows something better in one language than the other. One language may be more important at this stage, but this may change as they grow older as well if they have to use one language more than another.

But it is important to remember that they still have two or more languages, which is more than a monolingual person has.

So have I failed?

Rather than seeing the differences in my children’s language use as having failed, what I have done is provide a foundation of bilingualism for all three of my children. Although my youngest chooses not to speak so much in English, she understands and can speak when she needs to.

How we speak is our own unique mix. It may not be exactly as we planned, but it works for us. That is the most important.

Do each of your children speak less and less of the minority language? How has this made you feel about your family’s bi-multilingualism over the years?

immigration and stress bilingualsIngrid Weilguny is an Australian living in Austria with her three bilingual German/English girls. She has an MA in Applied Linguistics and an Med in TESOL. She works as an English as a Foreign Language teacher while working on a Masters in Journalism.

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Expat April 17, 2014 at 9:04 pm

Do not worry, you haven’t failed. It is normal for kids to have various levels of proficiency in different languages. I grew up bilingual in France. My mom spoke only English and refused to communicate / show understanding in French, even though she does speak French. Of course my French was better than my English but when holidays came along I would go and spend time with my grand-parents in London. My English fluency would really improve, only to fall back with lack of use. Then when I was about 10, my mom started teaching me how to read and write in English, once a week, doing grammar exercises etc. This helped too.
Now my kids are growing up trilingual but of course their proficiency levels vary. The important thing is to keep up OPOL and try to provide them with exposure to the lowest proficiency language , especially via trips to the country where the language is spoken.

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2 Wendy April 18, 2014 at 4:45 am

This article describes our family situation perfectly. I’m Chinese, he is Ecuadorian, 3 kids (10, 6 and 3 years old) living in Canada.
Both older kids spoke perfect Cantonese and Spanish up to the age of 4 until they started kindergarten, then within weeks, switched over to English. Eldest was quite good at translating for younger brother in Spanish when we were in a English speaking setting until number two turned 4. But now that both are in school, number three is hardly speaking. He often uses whole phrases in English because of older siblings speaking in English to each other.
My youngest one will start kindergarten in five months and I feel that I’m fighting a lost cause. I feel that he will end up just speaking English.

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3 Galina / Trilingual children May 11, 2014 at 1:47 am

Hi Ingrid, I really like the way you see the different levels of language development in your children. It is absolutely not a sign of parents failure. All children are different and they learn differently. I also do as much as I can to pass on my mother tongue (Russian) and teach my children English. I am looking forward to seeing what the next school year brings me, as my younger child will go to school together with the older one.

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4 Catherine June 12, 2014 at 8:00 am

My friend’s family had similar experiences as Wendy’s kids. Both parents were Greek but were living and working in the US and UK for most of the kids’ childhood. The parents were very good about speaking only Greek in the house and as such, my friend (the oldest) and her sister grew up bilingual with no troubles except some slight teasing for speaking “old people’s slang” when they first moved back to Greece as teens.

Then along came younger brother. Since the girls were attending school in English, they spoke English with each other at the house, and Greek with the parents. Little brother was so confused as to what language he was speaking!!

So, I don’t think it’s a failure; I think it’s normal as the older kids progress in their multilingualism. At that point, although you can still give the kids language exposure at home it may take outside sources to get the younger kids to learn the language.

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5 Phyllis July 6, 2014 at 5:11 am

It’s been the opposite for us. Our oldest spoke less English and became bilingual later than our younger ones did. In our home my husband and I speak English together and Russian with our children. As they’re getting older, they’re jumping into our conversations, though, often in English. A good portion of our bilingual homeschooling is in English, so the little ones hear that. They get more English input now than our first child did in the beginning, even though we have lived in the Russian-speaking world all this time.

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