Bilingual siblings [Transcript]

January 14, 2022

Sharon Unsworth: Welcome to Kletsheads, the podcast about bilingual children. My name is Sharon Unsworth, linguist at the Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, and mother of two bilingual children. In this episode of Kletsheads, we’re talking about siblings. What’s the impact of having an older brother or sister on a younger child’s bilingual language development? It’s a topic that we’ve done some research on recently here in Nijmegen, and you’ll hear a bit more about that later. I also talk to Canadian researcher Tamara Sorenson Duncan about how hearing a second language from an older sibling can sometimes be more effective than hearing it from a parent. In Let’s Klets, I talk to Gisi Cannizzaro, enthusiastic promoter of heritage language skills and our Kletshead of the week is the 11-year-old Ella, bilingual in English and French. She tells me about which language she dreams in, and funnily enough, it’s neither English nor French. Keep listening to find out more.

Sharon Unsworth: Most children around the world grow up in a family with a brother or sister, sometimes more than one, and sometimes both. Parents raising more than one child bilingually often remark that despite the fact that their children are growing up in the same family, they’re not always bilingual to the same extent. Something that I often hear from parents is that it’s the oldest child who speaks the heritage language best or at least uses it more often than his or her younger siblings. Parents are also sometimes frustrated because their children prefer using the school language when talking to each other, even though they might be perfectly capable of speaking Turkish, Portuguese or whatever the heritage language might be. Perhaps surprisingly, there isn’t a whole lot of research on the topic of bilingual siblings, but I’ll tell you about what we do know in this episode. Is it, for example, true that firstborn children are often better at their heritage language? And what about the school language, do we see any differences there? And if the children always switch to the school language when they talk to each other, what can you do about it? Let’s start with the question of birth order. Does it really matter for your language development if you are the firstborn or not?

Sharon Unsworth: Research on monolingual children shows that their language development can sometimes differ depending on birth order, but the results of this research are mixed. There are studies showing that firstborn children score higher than younger siblings, and there are also studies showing that it’s the other way round, with the younger children doing better. Sometimes it doesn’t really seem to matter whether you’re firstborn or not. As for bilingual children, as I just said, there’s not actually that much research on differences between brothers and sisters in bilingual families. On the one hand, this makes it easier to summarize the main findings in this podcast, but it also means that there’s a lot of work still to be done. So please bear that in mind as you listen to this episode. Most studies don’t necessarily look at siblings in the same family. Rather, they compare a group of children who have an older sibling with a group of firstborn children. This can be done for both the school language and for the language or languages which are mainly spoken at home, what will refer to here as the heritage language. We start, though, with the school language. So here in the Netherlands, that will be Dutch for almost all children. These are three findings from the available research. One: toddlers with older siblings often hear more of the school language at home than firstborn toddlers. Now, I think this will be recognizable to many parents who are listening. Basically, the older child often brings the language from school into the home. This is what researcher Erika Hoff and her colleagues have found for children in the US growing up with Spanish and English. Interestingly, what Erica and her team also found is that having an older sibling also meant that the children’s mothers more often switched to English. So mothers with an older school-aged child who normally spoke Spanish to their children used more English when speaking to the toddlers than mothers with only one child. Last year we did a similar study here in the Netherlands with toddlers who were growing up with Greek and Dutch. We spoke to families where both parents use Greek and families where one parent uses Greek and the other uses Dutch. So one parent one language this is often called. In about half of all these families, there was an older child and these older siblings spoke both languages with their younger brother or sister. Like Erika and her colleagues, we also found that toddlers with an older sibling heard more of the school language at home than firstborn toddlers. This was the case if you looked at family language use in general, and it was also the case if you zoomed in on the language use of just the parents. In contrast to the American study, though, we found that parents spoke the same amount of Dutch with their child, regardless of whether there was an older sibling in the family. Now, what might explain this difference between the two studies? We think it has to do with the status of English compared to Dutch. English is, of course, a world language and many people speak it. This was certainly the case for the mothers in the American study. They could even speak English very well. Dutch, of course, is different in that you only really learn Dutch because you have to because, for example, you move to the Netherlands and, to be completely honest, even then it’s not always necessary. Most of the Greek-speaking parents in our study could speak some Dutch, but not always very well. And then it makes sense, of course, that the older siblings are less likely to switch to Dutch when they’re at home, because if mum or dad won’t understand you anyway, what’s the point? Two; in our study, we not only looked at how often the parents use Dutch but also what language the toddlers themselves used. Here we also found that toddlers with an older sibling generally used more Dutch than toddlers without, this seemed to be mainly due to the interaction with the older brother or sister because when we zoomed in on toddlers’ language used with the parents and only the parents, we saw no difference between the two groups. Three; like the American study I just mentioned showed that the toddlers with older siblings knew more words in English than firstborn children of the same age. So, for example, at 2,5 years of age, the children without an older sibling know just over 250 words, while the children with an older brother or sister knew about 100 words more. They also made slightly longer sentences. And we also found this kind of difference in our study with the Greek-Dutch bilingual toddlers. So what we find in the research is in line with what parents report. Older children often bring the school language home with them, and this means that their siblings pick up the language more quickly. Older siblings not only provide more input in the school language to the younger brothers and sisters, but they probably also provide different input. After all, children talk about different things than the parents do. The older children also make sure that the younger children have more opportunities to practise the school language. And this, of course, helps the language development. The research I’ve taught you about so far involved very young children, so toddlers, so children who weren’t yet at school. And in many of the families who took part in this research, there was also one parent who spoke the school language at home. What happens to older children then, and children who only come into contact with the school language at school? To find out more, I spoke to Tamara Sorenson Duncan of Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. Tamara recently carried out a study on such a group of children, together with Johanne Paradis of the University of Alberta. I started by asking Tamara why she thought siblings could be important for the language development of younger children in the family.

Tamara Sorenson Duncan: Yeah, so in the context of our research, we were looking at families who have moved internationally. So in this case, it was families who had moved from a variety of different countries into Edmonton, which is an English-speaking city in Canada, and we were looking to see, OK, well, in this case, the siblings are going to school, so their dominant language is becoming the majority language. But the parents have come to Canada as adults and they have varying degrees of second language training in English. And so we thought that the siblings and the parents offered this very interesting context to consider how the language abilities of the different family members might influence the way they talk to the child, and then the way that what the child is hearing could influence what they’re learning about the language.

Sharon Unsworth: Right. So probably the older siblings are likely to be better at English than the parents.

Tamara Sorenson Duncan: Right. And so in this case, our study is really focusing on English, which is the majority language, so the language of the community. These households still have another language in it. The parents still have the absolute expertise at that other home language.

Sharon Unsworth: Right. Right. Yeah. And so what kind of other home languages were there than in your group?

Tamara Sorenson Duncan: So as is typical in the Canadian context, and I’m sure in the Dutch context as well, these families came from a diverse set of backgrounds. So we had Arabic speakers, we had Mandarin and Cantonese-speaking families, Hindi, Punjabi, Urdu, a couple of Portuguese-speaking families. And we did this to reflect the diversity of our Canadian classrooms as well because we want to say, “Okay, how are these kids learning?”

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, yeah. So really diverse bunch of kids. What aspects of their language that you look at?

Tamara Sorenson Duncan: So we looked at a whole bunch of different language skills, but only in English, as I said. Yeah, there’s still lots of room to explore how these kids are developing in their other language. So we gave them a vocabulary test. We want to know how many words they understand. And this test is a multiple-choice test. The kids see four pictures and one of the researchers says a word and they have to point to the picture that matches that. And so we get a sense of how many words they understand. And we also got them to do a little grammar task. And this task was looking at how you build words. So, you know, all those little extra parts you add onto words so that your sentence sounds correct, like “he runs,” “he is running.” So that is the ‘s’ on the “runs” when we say “he runs,” or a past tense marker like “she skated.” So we want to know, do they know how to put those little extra bits, which we call morphemes, but do they know how to put those on to make their sentence grammatical? So, for example, they’ll see two pictures and we’ll say, “Here, the girl is skating. Now she’s done. Tell me what she did.” And hopefully, they say, “she skated.”

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah.

Tamara Sorenson Duncan: So it gives us a sense of how well they’re developing their grammatical skills. And then we also got them to do a storytelling task, which helps us see how well are they at communicating information in that language.

Sharon Unsworth: Right. Right. So a whole range of skills then. And what did you find?

Tamara Sorenson Duncan: So what we found was that when older siblings were speaking to younger siblings, if more of that time was spent in English, so that they were using a higher proportion of English compared to the home language, the younger siblings did better on this wide range of English skills. So vocabulary, grammar or storytelling. It seemed that if they heard more English from their siblings, they seemed to be learning English a little bit faster.

Sharon Unsworth: Right. So we’re talking about not necessarily where they end up, but the rate at which they’re learning the language at this particular moment in time.

Tamara Sorenson Duncan: Right. So this was a study where we visited the child and the families one time. So we don’t know what’s going to happen three or four or five years from now. But you know, we would speculate, because these kids are in school, whether they have older siblings or not, they’re getting this rich English language input at school. It’s not just at home that’s driving their language learning. So we’re certainly not arguing that you have to have an older sibling who speaks English to you in order to learn English in this context, right. But it did seem that for the children who had older siblings who were speaking in English with them more, they had higher scores at the time that we visited with them.

Sharon Unsworth: And was that different from input that they heard from, say, their mothers?

Tamara Sorenson Duncan: Yeah. So when we looked at input from their mothers, we found that the proportion of English the moms were using didn’t really impact the children’s English scores. So if a mom was speaking in English a lot or a mom was speaking in English a little bit, the children seem to have similar English scores. It wasn’t really, say, driving one child’s score up compared to the other. So it didn’t really seem to matter which language the mom was using when it came to the child’s English language development. Now, we do have another study with a similar group of children where we found that if the mom was using the home language a lot, those children had way better home language scores. So it’s important to keep in mind that these are bilingual kids. So it might not be the case that English input from the mom is helping English ability. Increased English from the mom might actually be hurting that other language’s development.

Sharon Unsworth: Right. Right. Yeah. So why do you think there is this difference then between the older siblings? So if older siblings speak more English, it helps, if mum speaks more English at home, it doesn’t seem to really matter. So what was your explanation for that?

Tamara Sorenson Duncan: Well, we think that the type of input that the different family members provide is different. And one reason underlying this, we think, has to do with how much experience that family member has using, in this case, English. So these older siblings are going to school in Edmonton in an English-speaking environment, in English-speaking schools. So they’re getting all of their academic training in English. They’re developing a very rich English system from a very young age. So they’re able to talk to their younger siblings using lots of different words, lots of different sentence types. And we think this is what’s helping so that the input, the language used by the older siblings, is then helping the younger siblings learn language. Because keep in mind, our tasks are getting hard. We’re asking for a variety of different words. We’re asking for can you do these complex things with language? And in the case of parents in our study, all the parents were second language learners of English. And so it’s possible that they were using more reduced vocabulary, so maybe their child had reached that level so it wasn’t giving them any new input that was challenging them to keep increasing their English language abilities. Or perhaps the sentences were more simple or short, and so that wasn’t helping the child increase their English language abilities. And certainly, we found some support for this because mothers’ fluency in English was related to how well the children were doing in English. Mothers who had a higher fluency in English, their children did have higher scores on our tasks. One of the reasons this is really interesting to look at is because these kids are in school in English, that school environment has so much to teach them. So one of the questions is, does this language that siblings are using still matter even once they’re in school? And it seems from our study, at least in the early elementary years, that it does.

Sharon Unsworth: I noticed in reading your study that there’s quite a large age range in how old the older siblings are, right. So, you know, some are just a bit older than the kids that were tested, some were more than six years older. And I was wondering whether you’d looked at that, whether you had any idea whether that might matter.

Tamara Sorenson Duncan: Well, that’s a great question. And we didn’t look at the role of the age of the older sibling in this study. And I think there’s so much more to explore there because I think we also have to factor in what age was the child and the older siblings when they came to Canada. So it’s not just if it’s a six-year age gap, but has that older sibling been in school in Canada or in the Netherlands, learning that majority language for six years or two years? And so it might be that a more older sibling, like a 12-year-old, who is playing with a 6-year-old younger sibling, maybe their English skills are just so much more advanced that they can give even more new words and even more new sentence types. But I think another speculation is that a seven-year-old and a five-year-old are more likely to play together. And what does that imaginative play? Is that where we’re getting that rich language, and new input? Maybe the seven-year-old then gets to teach them about a cockatoo or a lion or something that wouldn’t come up if they weren’t imagining. And so I think we have a lot more to explore about how we can maximize how a sibling helps.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, and these, of course, are children who are really second language learners, essentially, right?

Tamara Sorenson Duncan: And these are children who are at the early stages of their language learning. And we didn’t follow them. So I can’t say, but I honestly speculate that given three or four years in school these differences won’t be noticeable because these kids were new to schooling and English, they’d only been in Canada on average for about or at least in an English-speaking school environment for about a year and a half, some a little more. So they’re new to English still. So we’re talking about that early time period of bilingualism for these kids.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, yeah. Based on the findings from this study, though, what advice would you give to parents? Because I can imagine if you’re listening to this as a parent, you might think, “Oh, well, you know, normally I want my kids to speak the whole language to each other, but maybe I should be getting them to speak, the older ones, to speak in the school language.” What would you say?

Tamara Sorenson Duncan: Oh, I’m so glad you asked that question. I think it’s really, really tricky because I have to say our study was about that majority language as the community language and about English. And so if we want to talk about how to support English, it does seem that the older siblings are the best positioned to be helping the younger siblings with the language. So if we’re talking about supporting the community language, then I think we should be thinking about encouraging siblings to use that language with each other. But I think we still always have to remind ourselves that there’s a broader context than this one study, and there is some concern with too much English being introduced into the household because these children get to hear English at soccer practice, at piano lessons, at school, on the playground with their friends, in the neighbourhood. And so where is the space that’s left to support the home language, to support the bilingualism? And so I’m always hesitant to say, “Yes, speak English.” I think I try to have a conversation with parents, like, “Well, when your child’s 18, what language skills do you want them to have? And if you want your child to still be bilingual at 18, you have to carve out some space in their life for that other language.” And so, I don’t see a disadvantage to encouraging siblings to speak the home language because that’s how they’re going to get to keep the language. But if a parent does have concerns about their child’s English or community language development, then I think older siblings can be an important tool for supporting that.

Sharon Unsworth: So far, we’ve focused on the school language. What about the impact of older siblings on younger children’s development in the heritage language? The bilingual toddlers in the American study I mentioned before, knew fewer words in Spanish and also made shorter sentences if they had an older sibling. However, it’s not always the case that having an older sibling has a negative impact on how well younger children know the heritage language. In our study, for example, we saw that having an older sibling had neither a negative nor a positive effect on the toddlers’ language development in Greek. This could be because in many families Greek was the only home language. So even if the older siblings switched to Dutch when they were alone with the little brother or sister, as soon as the parents were around, the home language was Greek anyway. Something else which influences how much space a school language is granted in a bilingual home is the importance parents attached to maintaining their heritage language and its culture. In some families, parents actively use older children as a kind of role model or teacher. The extent to which such a role succeeds depends not only on the child’s temperament but also on the proficiency in the heritage language, of course. In our study, some of the older siblings were born in Greece and had lived there for some time. So their Greek was probably quite good and this probably made it easier to use Greek instead of Dutch. Another way in which parents can stimulate their children’s language development in the heritage language is to send them to a heritage language school. You might also know these as mother tongue schools, weekend or Saturday schools, or community-based language schools. Heritage language skills are found all over the world, and what these schools do is to offer children the opportunity to study a language they speak at home, but which they can’t study at their mainstream school. More often than not, they fall outside the public school system. Lessons usually take place after school or at the weekend. And typically these are nonprofit initiatives run by parents. I spoke to one such parent here in the Netherlands.


Let’s Klets!

Gisi Cannizzaro: My name is Gisi Cannizzaro. I live in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, and I’m a promoter of heritage language education.

Sharon Unsworth: A very active promoter of heritage, language education.

Gisi Cannizzaro: Right. That’s true.

Sharon Unsworth: So you are involved in the network The Heritage Language Schools Eindhoven. Can you tell us a bit more about that, please?

Gisi Cannizzaro: Yes, HLSE does a couple of things. There are heritage language programmes offered in over 20 languages in Eindhoven. So what we do is we gather information about all of the different programmes and we put it on our website so that it’s easy for families to find. We organise networking opportunities for the different groups who run the heritage language programmes, and we also organise public outreach events, so we can explain to the community how important heritage language education is.

Sharon Unsworth: I think for people who may be outside of the Netherlands and even people who are in the Netherlands, they perhaps don’t realize that Eindhoven is a very multilingual city.

Gisi Cannizzaro: That’s true. We have some industries here that draw knowledge workers from all regions of Europe and of the world.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. How many schools are involved in the network?

Gisi Cannizzaro: Right now, on the list, there are 24 programs listed.

Sharon Unsworth: You were the instigator of this particular platform. Why did you set it up?

Gisi Cannizzaro: Well, I personally think that it is really great, that Eindhoven has so many language communities who are willing to do the work that is necessary to organize language lessons for these children. I get really enthusiastic about it because I believe that children should be following these lessons, that it’s a universal right, that it’s beneficial. But when I looked around, I didn’t see these programs being celebrated or valued or supported or appreciated. So HLSE is basically a response to the questions: why are people so uninformed about the importance of these lessons, and why are these programmes all operating independently and not connecting with each other?

Sharon Unsworth: Right. So you are trying to bring together people who are doing very similar things in the same location as well.

Gisi Cannizzaro: Exactly.

Sharon Unsworth: And, you’re a parent yourself, right? So do your children go to these programmes?

Gisi Cannizzaro: Well, my children right now are too young. My oldest is 2,5 years old. Once he turns 4, I do plan on sending him to Italian lessons.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So you set it up even before you had your own children?

Gisi Cannizzaro: Well, most people who are involved in heritage language education are doing it for their own children. And that’s true for me. But I have a background that makes me particularly interested in the topic. I was a linguistics researcher in Groningen until 2012, and that’s when I met you. And after that, I worked in Eindhoven as an educational consultant for families who move from one country to another with children. And it was actually not when I was doing linguistics, but when I was a consultant that I discovered the world of heritage language education. I was always looking for heritage language programmes in every part of the world to recommend to the families. And I realized how difficult it is to find these programmes. So I had to, for instance, find Hindi lessons in South Africa, Spanish lessons in Vancouver or online lessons in modern Hebrew for families moving to the US, you name it. And then I found myself pregnant with a child who would be trilingual because my husband is Italian. And I knew that because my son had a right to study his heritage language, that I had a serious obligation to help him exercise that. Right.

Sharon Unsworth: Right.

Gisi Cannizzaro: So I quit working three years ago so I could stay home with him and speak as much English to him as possible before he enters the school system. And when I was pregnant with him, there wasn’t yet an Italian programme, so I helped get one started and in that process went and visited all of the different heritage language programmes. And since then, I basically never stopped thinking about it.

Sharon Unsworth: So you’re a really passionate promoter of heritage language schools. So why would a parent enrol the children in such a programme then?

Gisi Cannizzaro: The most common reasons that parents name for sending their children to heritage language lessons is they want the children to learn to read and write in the home language. They want them to improve their speaking confidence. They want to have them improve their grammar. And, of course, they want them to understand the culture and history and geography of the home country. Very importantly, they want them to be able to communicate with family back in the home country like their grandparents and their cousins.

Sharon Unsworth: So there are over 20 different languages in Eindhoven. I can imagine in other cities there will also be many different languages. And in different cities, there might not be as much choice. You might be interested then as a parent to set up your own heritage language programme. How would you go about doing that?

Gisi Cannizzaro: Or building up something from scratch is certainly not easy. And in fact, HLSE is able to consult with new groups who are interested in starting a programme. I have three pieces of advice for anybody interested in getting into this.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah.

Gisi Cannizzaro: First, what’s important to do is send a survey around to the other parents in your language community and just get an idea of how many people are even interested. How old are their children? How much are they willing to pay? Where do they live? What do they want to get out of the lessons for their children? Another piece of advice would be to connect with existing programmes. So two types of programmes; other programmes that are teaching the same language as you, that are located in other cities or other countries and also connect with other programmes that are teaching other languages but that are located in your region because you’ll get really good advice from all of them. Finally, it’s good to know before you embark on this type of endeavour what kind of challenges you might face because there are several.

Sharon Unsworth: OK, what are what are they, then?

Gisi Cannizzaro: So usually it’s the case that parents are going to start running a school and they’ve never run a school before. So they’ll have a steep learning curve. And often if the programme is successful, this leads to usually forming a foundation or an association so that you can apply for subsidy. And that’s usually also something that parents have never done before. You also have to find volunteers to help run the school. You have to find teachers who are willing to work for little to no pay. You have to find families to enrol their children in your school. And you have to accept the fact that it is not possible to keep all of the different parents satisfied, because some parents are going to want to send their children just so that they socialize in the language, and there will be other parents who are demanding more grammatical exercises for their children to complete every week. Be prepared that children will skip a lesson if something more interesting comes up because they aren’t mandatory. You have to manage a school with limited funds. You have to find a suitable location within your budget. You have to create lesson materials tailored to your unique set of students. And once you have all of this, the teachers, the students, a location and some teaching materials, you still have to make sure that the meetings are valuable and that the students are able to show some progress within the few hours per school year that you’re meeting with them.

Sharon Unsworth: So that sounds like a lot of work, right? Even to somebody like me who is a, you know, a dedicated multilingualism fanatic. So why would you be so involved? I mean, you gave some reasons from your own personal point of view, but if there’s a parent listening and thinking, “Oh, I thought that was a good idea, but that sounds like a lot of work.” What can you tell them to give them that extra push to go and do it anyway?

Gisi Cannizzaro: Well, it is challenging, but it’s not impossible and it’s extremely rewarding. I mean, at the end of the day, if you want these lessons to be available for your children and you’re not going to do it, who is? That’s kind of the attitude. It’s good to connect with the other programmes because they will have met the same adversities and they will be able to share with you the creative solutions that they came up with. People who start a school sometimes make the mistake of only focusing on their team and what they’re doing, and they don’t reach out to other programmes because then you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Maybe there’s another school in Sweden who’s also teaching your language and they’re able to share some of their teaching materials with you or some of their advice. So it’s not impossible. And I don’t mean to discourage people, but you might see schools starting and then stopping because people didn’t realize from the start what it really entailed.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. So it’s good to know what’s involved and good to know as well, I think, that you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. There are plenty of people out there like the Heritage Language Schools Eindhoven network who were happy to help and point you in the right direction, put you in touch with other programmes. So to wrap up then, do you have any tips when it comes to, say, the broader public in terms of heritage language education? Because I don’t think many people know about this, right?

Gisi Cannizzaro: It’s true. It’s the hidden treasures in our community. In order for heritage language education to work, everybody needs to be on board. Parents should visit heritage language programmes if there are ones available in their language to see if it’s something they’re interested in enrolling their children in. And if so, they should enrol their child early to make it part of the family routine. And if you’re a teacher at a regular primary school, ask parents, do you have your children enrolled in a heritage language programme? Just the question itself validates the idea that they would have them enrolled in a programme. And if you’re a teacher, show interest in what the children are learning at their heritage language lessons. This really helps motivate the children if they know that their day school teacher is also aware of what they’re doing. Also, see heritage language programmes as partners in educating the children and share your learning spaces in your classrooms after school and in the weekend. This makes lives easier for the people running these programmes. If you’re a multilingual child, find books in your mother tongue about a topic that interests you. Here in Eindhoven, we helped add two new languages to the international children’s book collection, and we’re about to add two more. So we’re really thrilled about this. And finally, I would say, if you’re a regular Dutch citizen, don’t assume that heritage language lessons are just for foreigners, for expats, for internationals, for people who are here temporarily. A lot of these kids have a Dutch parent as well. A lot of these kids hold Dutch passports. A lot of these kids were born here and a lot of them will enter the Dutch workforce in the future. So these lessons are not just for outsiders

Sharon Unsworth: Thanks to Gisi for sharing the ins and outs of running a heritage language school. These programmes are so incredibly worthwhile. And as you heard, they involve a lot of hard work, all the more reason they deserve support from the wider community. So far, we’ve mainly looked at how older siblings influence younger children’s language development, both in the school language and in the heritage language. What about the language that brothers and sisters use when they’re together? Now, there’s really very little research on this but what we know, and this will come as no surprise to many parents, is that it’s really quite common for children to switch to the school language when they’re together. Sometimes they only speak this language and sometimes they mix and match both. If you’re worried about language mixing, listen to episode four of Kletsheads, which is all about this topic. When bilingual brothers and sisters do use the heritage language together, this can create a sense of social bonding, which is basically a fancy way of saying that they feel closer to each other. Some parents report that children use the heritage language as a secret language so they might switch to Greek, Spanish or Polish when they don’t want others to understand them. This doesn’t work for my kids, I must say. That’s one of the few disadvantages of having English as your heritage language. Almost everyone understands you. Dutch, on the other hand, is handy as a secret language and in our family, we regularly put it to use when we’re abroad and want to talk about something without anyone listening in. Time now for our Kletshead of the Week. This episode we hear from the 11-year-old Ella from Montréal in Canada. She’s growing up bilingual in English and French.


Kletshead of the week

Ella: I speak English, actually, with all my family, grandparents, cousins, parents and my brother, and then at school I speak French. It’s not actually an immersion school. It’s just that here basically all schools are in French.

Sharon Unsworth: So Montréal is in Quebec and Quebec is a French-speaking part of Canada. So if you move to Quebec from somewhere else, then you have to go to French-speaking school.

Ella: Yeah, and that’s what my parents did when I was like two. They moved from the US in like Oregon, I think.

Sharon Unsworth: Uh-huh. So you’ve lived in Montréal since you were two. You went to French-speaking nursery as well, like daycare.

Ella: Yeah, daycare and everything.

Sharon Unsworth: And what’s it like then? Going to school in a different language from the one you speak at home?

Ella: Well, at first I would come home and like my mom, I learned a new word! “Cat” is “chat” or something like that. And then at one point after I got the hang of the language, it just became kind of natural and I would kind of switch languages without really even knowing it. Just when I got to school, I started speaking French and when I got home, I started speaking English.

Sharon Unsworth: Uh-huh. Do you always speak French at school, even if there are other children who are also from English-speaking families?

Ella: Well, yes, except in English class. I only have one friend at school that speaks English and sometimes we’ll speak English like at recess and just for fun. But otherwise at school, basically nobody speaks English.

Sharon Unsworth: But you’re allowed to speak English if you want to.

Ella: Yeah, in first grade at my other school, I wasn’t actually allowed like. I had a friend, I would, like, help her and talk to her in English, and actually, I think at one point a teacher told me to stay with her at recess because I was speaking English.

Sharon Unsworth: So that you could help her.

Ella: No, it was actually like because I wasn’t allowed to.

Sharon Unsworth: Oh, okay. Hmm. What did you think about that?

Ella: Well, actually, it wasn’t that bad. You basically just have to draw in the principal’s office for like 15 minutes. And so it wasn’t that bad.

Sharon Unsworth: Which language do you prefer to speak?

Ella: I don’t really know. I kind of prefer to speak English with my parents and prefer to speak French with my friends.

Sharon Unsworth: Depends on who you’re with.

Ella: Yeah, exactly.

Sharon Unsworth: And your brother, you speak, you said you speak English to him.

Ella: Yeah, I speak English with my brother when I’m at home. If, like, my friend is sleeping over, when that was possible, then he would sometimes speak French and sometimes when he was just talking to me, speak English. And my parents would try to speak French, too.

Sharon Unsworth: And how is their French?

Ella: Oh, it’s OK. They’ve gotten a lot better. Yeah, they’re good at French.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. And how important is it to you that you can speak two languages?

Ella: Well, here in Montréal, to me it’s kind of really important because here it’s kind of well, French is kind of the main language, but a lot of people do speak English and eventually, like, if I want to get a job here, I think it would be kind of important to know both languages.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. So I’ve been to Montréal a couple of times and it always struck me how when you go into, like, a restaurant or a cafe, then people say “Hi, bonjour,” in both languages, right?

Ella: Yeah. And then like when you answer, they’ll choose which language, kind of.

Sharon Unsworth: Aha. So imagine if you’re older, probably a lot older, and you have children yourself, which language would you, or languages are you going to speak to your children?

Ella: I think I would want them to be able to speak both because it would also be easier for them eventually. I guess it depends what language my boyfriend speaks kind of, but I could speak to them in both. We’ll see.

Sharon Unsworth: That’s a long time off, right?

Ella: Yeah.

Sharon Unsworth: Have you got a favourite word in French?

Ella: Um, there’s a word that I think sounds really good and is kind of delicious. It’s pamplemousse, which is grapefruit. Grapefruit is so good.

Sharon Unsworth: Pamplemousse. Nice. Yeah, it does sound a bit funny. Sounds very different from grapefruit, doesn’t it.

Ella: Well they’re words that my parents, they are, like, impossible to pronounce. It’s the ones that have like “euil” at the end, like feuille, which is leaf, and écureuil,” that is squirrel.

Sharon Unsworth: Écureuil.

Ella: Yeah, basically. My parents say it’s impossible.

Sharon Unsworth: So I live in the Netherlands. We speak Dutch here. And the Dutch word for squirrel is eekhoorn.

Ella: Like you say, acorn?

Sharon Unsworth: Eekhoorn is confusing, right? It sounds just like acorn, like the little nut.

Ella: What is acorn called then?

Sharon Unsworth: Eikel.

Ella: An acle?

Sharon Unsworth: Eikel.

Ella: Well, OK, that’s confusing.

Sharon Unsworth: Do you know any words like that, that sound the same in French and English, but I mean different things?

Ella: I can think of words that are almost the same, but mean the same thing, like all the famille, family or something like that.

Sharon Unsworth: So you can obviously read in French then, if you go to school. Yeah. Do you read at home for like fun?

Ella: Yeah, I love reading.

Sharon Unsworth: You love reading. So do you read in English, or do you read in French?

Ella: Both.

Sharon Unsworth: You know Harry Potter?

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah.

Sharon Unsworth: So I always think it’s funny how the houses of Harry Potter get different names. Isn’t Hufflepuff Pouffsoufle?

Ella: Pouffsoufle, I think, I’m not sure. Gryffindor is Gryffondor, which is the same. And Ravenclaw, what’s Ravenclaw. Serdaigle, which means basically eagle claw but almost the same thing.

Sharon Unsworth: I wonder why they changed it though.

Ella: Strange.

Sharon Unsworth: It’s funny isn’t it, how you translate things sometimes it’s not always exactly the same. So when you’re asleep at night which language do you dream in?

Ella: And I don’t really know. I guess it’s not really a mix of both. It’s just kind of neither one? It’s just kind of I’m dreaming in thoughts and my thoughts are in kind of thought language, I guess. I don’t really know.

Sharon Unsworth: Aha. That’s different from French and English.

Ella: I guess kind of, I just think of the word but it’s not like in a specific language.

Sharon Unsworth: Do you mix languages up too as well, like, do you use the two languages in the same sentence?

Ella: Sometimes, like when I don’t know how to say something in English then I’ll say it in French and usually my parents will understand but usually no, usually I just stick to one.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. Have you got a pet?

Ella: No, I wish I did though. My parents won’t let me get one. They keep making jokes about like, “Oh, maybe you could get a Venus flytrap and that’ll be your pet,” or we got a really shaggy rug and they said, “Oh, this is almost like a dog.”

Sharon Unsworth: So if you had a pet, what language would you speak to her?

Ella: Probably English, because it’s the language I speak at home and the pet, I would have it at home.

Sharon Unsworth: But what happens if you took it out for a walk? Would you switch to French?

Ella: Probably not. Maybe no, probably not. Well, it depends which language, like, I would teach it to sit and lie down and that would probably be English.

Sharon Unsworth: Could be bilingual, right?

Ella: Yeah, I guess.

Sharon Unsworth: Bilingual dog. Why not?

Ella: Yeah, I think my neighbours tried to teach their dog, like, some orders, like I don’t remember. Maybe it was German, maybe it was Dutch. I’m not sure.

Sharon Unsworth: Did it work?

Ella: I think he gave up on it.

Sharon Unsworth: What’s the best thing about being bilingual?

Ella: That you can speak to basically anyone, like most of all here I can speak to almost everyone because I can speak both the main languages of Montréal.

Sharon Unsworth: So how do you say thank you and goodbye in French?

Ella: Merci, et au revoir, or adieu.

Sharon Unsworth: Merci et adieu.

Sharon Unsworth: I love the idea of bilingual cats and dogs, and there’s no doubt a very interesting philosophical discussion to be had about whether there’s something like thought language. Well, they’re both topics for a different episode. So what have we learned in this episode about bilingual siblings and what does it mean for you as a parent in your day to day life? Here’s a summary of the most important findings, along with some concrete tips about how you can put what we know into practice with your family. Research shows that children with older siblings often pick up the school language faster than firstborn children. As a parent, you can choose to enlist the help of an older child, especially if you yourself aren’t very proficient in this language. But be aware that this may be at the expense of the other language. Older children often bring the school language home with them, and this can also influence your own language use. Take care then that you don’t automatically switch to the school language if you want your child to actively use the heritage language. This is especially important if you’re the only parent who speaks that language. And I’ve got to admit that making sure you do this can be pretty difficult because we naturally tend to follow the language of whoever we’re talking to. It helps if you have been able to lay a solid foundation in the early years by, for example, reading to your child in the heritage language as much as possible, or, if you watch TV or films, doing this in the heritage language wherever possible. This is what we did with our eldest when she was little. So when she was allowed to use the iPad, it was only to watch English films or to play games in English. And I remember very well when she was about two or three that she actually discovered that the iPad could also speak Dutch. You can’t keep that up forever, but it’s worth giving it a go. And when your children are a bit older, there are also a few tricks that you can try to make as much room as possible for the heritage language. For example, if you like playing board games, make sure, if possible, that you also have a version that’s in the heritage language. This makes it harder to switch to the school language. When the children are older, explain why you think it’s important that they speak your language. Come to an agreement with them about which language is spoken when. For example, I know families with a deal is that any language can be spoken just after the children get home from school or the parents get home from work. But as soon as everyone sits down to eat, it’s the heritage language only. The very best way to ensure that your child actively uses the heritage language is to put them in a situation where it’s really necessary to use that language. Although again here I admit this can be difficult to enforce. This is precisely why brothers and sisters often speak the school language when they’re together. It’s simply easier for them. So why make it difficult and speak the other one? So as frustrating as it may be, it’s also important to sometimes just accept that your children have good reasons for not always doing what you want them to, though I suspect that this extends to many other areas of life, not just which language they use. If you want to know more about Kletsheads, go to Kletsheads podcast dot org. That’s where you’ll also find more information about this episode. And if you want to make sure you don’t miss an episode, subscribe to Kletsheads using your favourite podcast app and make sure you select the English edition. And if you’ve enjoyed the show, why not share it with a friend? Thanks for listening. And as we say in Dutch: tot het volgende keer.

This transcript was generated using and was checked by Marieke van den Akker.

Comments are closed.