Language preference among bilingual siblings




We can find many studies about how to raise “a” or “one” bilingual child, but what happens when you have more than one child (and maybe twins)?

Will it be possible to keep the initial bilingual situation within the family?

Do the children influence the language dynamic in the family?

Do all the children in the same family prefer the same language?

Do they influence each other regarding the preference of the language?

Suzanne Barron-Hauwaert published a great book about Bilingual Siblings: Language Use in Families. A great guide for parents and teachers. Even if a family shares the same experiences, each child can get more or less out of a situation.

The same occurs to the languages every family is in touch with. Within the same family you can find children who embrace the languages wholeheartedly and others who are more reluctant.

One may seem to literally absorb every language, while another one chooses only a few, and the next one prefers only one.

In my experience, we sometimes have to adapt our language situation within our family to the individual needs ofour children.

I’ve already mentioned the linguistic situation in our family in an other post.

Our situation right now is, that we mainly talk German with each other, but also switch to English, Dutch, Italian or French, if neccessary. This switch between languages happens when we talk about an experience we had in these other linguistic contexts, when we have friends over who don’t understand one of the languages, or when the children are playing together.

Our children are mainly used to talk German, Dutch and English. The other languages (including Swissgerman!) are only spoken during skype meetings with family, or when they meet other children who speak the same language, or whilst reading or listening to stories, songs in these languages and, of course, during our visits to our family in Switzerland (the German and Italian speaking part of Switzerland!) and Germany.

I’ll try to answer to some questions Suzanne Barron-Hauwaert asked in her book and that can help to shed light on your linguistic situation too:


1) Which language(s) do the siblings prefer to speak together?


Our children mainly talk German and English to each other, but they can switch to Dutch if they talk about a topic they shared with a Dutch friend. The


2) What happens when there are two or more children at different stages of language development?


Usually, when you have children from different age groups, it’s natural that they are in different stages of language development.

Those who are older can help the younger ones to develop their language skills.

When my children were younger it could happen that my son (my older child) used  baby talk (or very basic language) with the baby or toddler…

Our children are all on a different stage of language development.

Our son is fluent in all the languages I’ve mentioned – and is learning French and Spanish at school at the moment (2016).

Our twin daughters are more or less at the same level, nearly fluent in English, Dutch and German.

One of our daughters prefers English to German and Dutch.

When they were 4-7 years old, my daughters used to mix up the syntactic structure of German and English which lead to very interesting speech productions. It used to affect our conversations, but thanks to consistent modelling (i.e. repeating the sentence in the right order etc.), they are now nearly native in all three languages.

3) Could one child refuse to speak one language while another child is fluently bilingual?


Our son refused to talk Italian when he was 2.5 as a reaction to our moving to the Netherlands and his exposure to Dutch and German.

Since we switched to only German as our family language , our children grew up with mainly German as family language. Since 2015 our son restarted talking Italian: it was his wish to talk Italian with me when we are alone, so I introduced it with the T&P (Time and Place) strategy, which is working pretty well so far. He is very interested in learning different languages and has now added basic knowledge of Latin, French and Spanish.

He is now fluently bilingual in  German, English and Dutch, and his sisters are nearly fluent in the same languages.

It’s not that one of our children does really refuse to talk a language whilst the other one(s) speak it, but one of our daughters would prefer talking only English (and this was once German, so she changed her preference in the last 5 years!). She is less interested in languages than our other two children, which is very interesting to observe!

The other daughter had a phase where she wanted me to talk Italian to her, then stopped, and now wants to improve her German (i.e. I think because two of her best friends are Germans).

– I personally still prefer talking Italian... which is very dominant especially when I’m upset or very happy. Talking Italian then is more natural for me.


4) How do factors of birth order, personality or family size interact in language production?


In our family, personality is the most important factor that decides about the languages we use.

We all speak two to four languages per day and these are not always the same ones. Our children decided on a very early stage which languages they wanted to talk and it were external factors who influenced us all on this.

When we moved to the Netherlands we didn’t find Italian friends in the first months and I was the only person talking Italian to my son.

He also knew that I was perfectly able to talk and understand Swissgerman and Dutch (I learned Dutch alongside with my son), and his refusal to talk Italian was very economic and natural.

I persisted talking Italian to him until my daughters were 15 months old. We then narrowed down the languages within our family from three to one because our girls developed a secret language.

So, in the end: birth order and personality influenced the languages in our family.


All our children behave in different ways in linguistic terms and we are aware that the situation may change in the future.


What is the language history of your family? Did your children also develop along uniquely individual linguistic paths?


If you want to find out more about the linguistic preferences of your children and you would like to have a consultation about how to manage this, contact me at to schedule a free consultation.








This post has been republished on on 17/09/2013.

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