As you settle into your happy family life with the first- born, joyously listening to him/ her speak to you in your language and your partner in another, you think your multilingual family has found the right balance. And then you realise that baby number two is on the way, and everything you planned so perfectly may not go the way you had hoped! Every parent with two or more kids will tell you that dealing with two kids is much more complex, it’s not really one + one… and a question you never really thought of before comes up: what language will the siblings speak to each other?
I have a friend with 4 young children, the parents of whom are German-speaking on one side and English-speaking on the other. The two eldest kids speak German to each other, but English to their younger siblings. Why is that? And how long will it last? Another family I know have four ‘home’ languages: German (mother’s MT), Taiwanese (father’s MT), English (language the parents communicate in) and Mandarin (adopted youngest daughter’s MT). The two eldest children speak each one to differing levels, and speak German together, although up until a year ago they spoke English together. And the youngest (adopted aged 3) can only speak Mandarin, but has already learnt a good deal of English and German in the year she has been there.
Confused? I am! Eating together for a large family is turmoil enough- talking loud to be heard above the others, stretching and grabbing to get the food from the other end, multiple chairs scraping and cutlery clattering. Add in to that the muddle of babble in two or more languages, and it can become chaos. Can we as parents encourage our kids to lean toward one language or another? Should we?
To be honest, parents have very little say in how their children will communicate. Generally we are happy enough that they are communicating, not hitting or pinching or ignoring, so when it comes to speech we heave a sigh of relief that words are coming out at all. The age of the oldest child will play a key part in what actually does come out- the older he or she is, the more you can negotiate and discuss what language to use with the new one. But when the oldest is still building his own language ability and development nothing can be guaranteed. And generally speaking, it will be the older child’s call- whatever he picks to speak in will be taken up by the younger one(s).
If they already go to school, another important factor is which language they speak there & among their peers. Although children (and adult language learners too) will often gravitate toward people who speak the same language as themselves, the need is there for them to communicate with the general masses, and instinct will encourage them to learn whatever is the most popular language, or what will help them most with teachers. When children get older, they tend to focus more on what their friends talk. Of course, there is the family language, but when you’re already a multilingual family and the children know exactly that you’re perfectly fluent in all the other languages, well, then you’ll have a very specific multilingual family situation.
You might find it disappointing in the long run if your children decide to speak the language of your partner together, and not yours. However, there are a few things you can do to help them keep the second language tuned up:
- keep your communication with your child in the minority language. Even when with other people it’s best to stick to this principle, and translate for others. If he sees that you do not stick to speaking it, he won’t do it either;
- get involved. Comment on what the siblings are saying to each other, and encourage their language use in your tone and words;
- assign a specific language to a specific activity. Restrict t.v. watching to the minority language, or join a class, like a swimming class, where there is one language spoken by all participants;
- allow for passive language learning. Any kind of exposure to a language creates neural tissue and connections in the brain and facilitates learning of new words in that language. Passive language learning creates the necessary base for active learning later in life;
- try to build curiosity for the language in your child. When I was growing up my mother and grandmother spoke to each other in French when they didn’t want me and my sister to understand. I believe that is the reason why I learnt French and other languages: to sticky- beak in on what they (and others) were saying;
- keep it fun. There’s nothing as off- putting to a child as ‘work’. As long as they are enjoying themselves you are likely to progress.
Whatever language your children settle on at home, be supportive and encouraging to them; after all, happy communication is important whether it’s in your, your partner’s or a third language.