What language will bilingual siblings speak?

Just yesterday my son said “but I want Ruben to be English and Italian like me, and to speak English..” after commenting that my 16 month old says ‘mamma’ and not mummy yet. I told him how most babies start off saying mama and then go on to say ‘mummy’ just as he did. He seemed semi-satisfied with the answer. I realised he was clinging to his sense of identity and how he wanted to have someone else in the same boat as him. His little brother is in the same situation as him and so obviously he wants him to speak the same way he does.

At the moment my 16-month-old son doesn’t speak, but he understands everything in both languages. He has started to express other words such as “pappa” and “again” but only at odd intervals.

You’re also probably wondering what language siblings would speak to each other in a bilingual family setting. As much as you may like to choose, the children are the ultimate deciders of this quandary.

You can’t force their common language on them but if you have done a good job of working on the target language, chances are your older child may choose to speak the target language with the sibling

There are many factors at work to determine choice of language between bilingual siblings.

  • There’s the amount of time dedicated to each language and the activities that take place whilst adopting it.
  • There’s who speaks the language. If only daddy speaks the minority language and spends very little time with the children at the end of the day where everyone is tired, it’s not likely to be adopted as the children’s common language choice.
  • There’s also the personality factor. Every child has his/her own personality and will have preferences of which language they choose to speak. A quieter child may not like switching languages and prefer to remain with a language that makes them feel secure, the same way a more extrovert child may insist on speaking the language they prefer.
  • There’s the love. The main language provider will always be the person to pass on the language and the love for it and the for the culture it represents and this is of utmost importance when trying to set the choice of language between siblings.

If the older sibling speaks the minority language well enough to be able to communicate fluently, he/she may well choose to speak it with the younger sibling with a little encouragement from the parent who speaks it. Remember the older sibling will initiate language choice with younger siblings.

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In many bilingual families the children decide to switch languages depending on the situation. If they are with a group of children who are talking in X language, they will switch to X language. They can use the advantage they have of being bilingual, and adapt with ease into different circumstances.

In any case, the first few years of your child’s life are crucial to their development in both languages. The more exposure they have of a language, the more they absorb and assimilate and the more proficient they will become. The language they choose to speak with a sibling is the reflection of the input they have been given and a language that has been given more love and attention may the one, no matter how ‘minor’ it may be.

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