Children growing up in the same bilingual family can differ in how well they speak their two (or more) languages. Sometimes siblings in bilingual families differ in how much they use their two (or more) languages. Parents often remark that their eldest child is more bilingual than their youngest. Or that their youngest develops more quickly in the school language and often ends up preferring this language over the heritage language (or languages). A crucial moment in a bilngual family’s life is when the eldest child goes to school. Then, suddenly, the school language starts being used (more) at home and language dynamics may change in the family.

This is what parents often report, but to what extent is this backed up by research? What can the available research tell us about the language development of siblings in bilingual families? Do older children really have such a big influence on the bilingual language development of their younger siblings? And if so, is this the same for both the school language and the heritage language? The language development of siblings in bilingual families is a topic that we’ve done some research on recently. You’ll hear a bit more about this during the episode and you can read the study I talk about here (open access). I also talk to Canadian researcher Tamara Sorenson Duncan about her research on the topic.  

We also discuss the language use between siblings in bilingual families. Children often have a preference for the school language when they talk to each other, much to the frustration of at least one of their parents. There’s not much research on this topic but I will give you a number of practical tips for how, as a parent, you can ensure that your children continue to use their heritage language in the home.

In Let’s Klets (starts at 22:17), I talk to Gisi Cannizzaro, enthusiastic promoter of heritage language schools here in the Netherlands. Our Kletshead of the week (starts at 35:04) is the 11-year-old Ella from Montréal. She comes from an English-speaking household and attends French-language school. We talk about the language of dreams and about the word for “squirrel” in different languages!

Dr. Tamara Sorenson Duncan is an assistant professor at Carleton University in Ottowa, Canada. Her research focuses on the bilingual language development of children who immigrated or fled to Canada with their parents, children with language development disorders, and children with autism. The research she discusses in this episode was carried out as part of her doctoral research at the University of Alberta, under the supervision of Prof. Johanne Paradis

Dr. Gisi Cannizzaro lives in Eindhoven with her Italian husband and two trilingual sons (English, Italian, and Dutch). Originally from New Orleans, in the U.S., she speaks English as her mother tongue. After completing a PhD in child language acquisition at Groningen University in the Netherlands, she worked for six years as an educational consultant helping multilingual, internationally mobile families with children. In 2018 she initiated two volunteer projects in Eindhoven: one to organize Italian language lessons for Italian-speaking children (Eindhoven Italian School “La Lampadina”) and one to organize a network of mother tongue (“heritage language”) programs, Heritage Language Schools Eindhoven. 

The Heritage Language Schools Eindhoven website contains information about heritage language education in the Eindhoven region, lists the available programs, and announces news and updates from these programs. The site also has information that is of interest for people living outside of Eindhoven: it lists events about multilingualism in the Netherlands and abroad (if online), features interviews with experts in the field of heritage language education, and contains useful resources for parents and Dutch school teachers. There is a special resource page devoted to information about professional development for heritage language program managers and organizers. 

Other relevant websites about heritage language schools include this list of programmes throughout the Netherlands on the website and Mother Tongues in Ireland. We spoke to the Director of Mother Tongues, Francesca La Morgia, in a previous episode of Kletsheads about the impact of the pandemic on bilingual families. 

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