How bilingual children’s languages influence each other [Transcript]

January 18, 2022

Sharon Unsworth: Welcome to Kletsheads, the podcast about bilingual children. My name is Sharon Unsworth, linguist at Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, and mother of two bilingual children. Before we start this episode of Kletsheads, the last of this season, a reminder that Kletsheads is now on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. If you’re also a social media user, we’d love it if you followed us and shared the podcast with your friends, family or colleagues.

Sharon Unsworth: Have you ever noticed that your bilingual child or bilingual children in your class or clinic sometimes say things slightly differently to children who only know one language? And that how they say things seems to be influenced by their other language? We call this cross-linguistic influence. And that’s what we’re going to talk about in this episode of Kletsheads. In Let’s Klets! we talk to a mother here in the Netherlands about deciding which language to talk to your child when as a parent, you grew up bilingual yourself, and about the challenges her family faced during the lockdown and afterwards. And our Kletshead of the Week is the trilingual 12-year-old Nicole. She tells us why it’s important for her to speak Italian and how some words can be a bit confusing because they sound the same in two languages but mean something different. Keep listening to find out more.

Sharon Unsworth: It’s summer holiday time, and at least in a normal year, this often means a trip abroad. Brush up on your school French, and before you know it, you’ll be ordering your croissants at the baker’s or enjoying a nice glass of wine sitting in the sunshine at a cafe. And of course, it doesn’t all have to be in perfect French, so if you want to order a white wine and you say “un blanc vin” instead of “un vin blanc,” the waiter will surely understand you, even though you’ve got the order of white and wine mixed up. In English, as in many other languages around the world, adjectives come before the word that they’re describing. So you say, “big bottle,” “green tree,” and “happy child.” There are languages, however, where the adjectives come after the word that they’re describing. Think, for example, of Spanish or Welsh. In French, both orders are possible. Now, if you did French at school, you might not quite remember, but most adjectives like “blonde, rouge, vert,” the words for all the colours, as well as words like “Néerlandais,” Dutch, magnifique, super and dangereux, dangerous, they all appear after the word that they’re describing rather than before it. But there are exceptions. At the baker’s, you should order “un grand croissant” and “un croissant grand.” Now, you might be wondering, why is she telling us all of this? Well, saying “un blanc vin” instead of “un vin blanc” as an English speaker is a good example of what we’re going to talk about in this episode: cross-linguistic influence. So that’s how one language influences another. This isn’t just something that happens to adults as second language learners. We also see cross-linguistic influence in bilingual children. This is one of the reasons why bilingual children can sometimes sound different from their monolingual cousins. These differences might be in their accent, so how they sound, their choice of words, but also in the way that they put together their sentences, or the morphosyntax, to give it its proper linguistic label, as in the examples I just gave. And that’s what we’re going to be focusing on in this episode. Why do bilingual children do this? What does it tell us about their language development and why do some bilingual children do it more often than others? Is cross-linguistic influence, something to worry about, or is it part and parcel of being bilingual? These are the questions we’re going to answer in this episode. And we’re going to do this together with my colleague at the Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, Chantal Van Dijk. Chantal has been working with me for the past five years on a project that deals precisely with this topic, the 2in1 project. The podcast recording was also the first time Chantal and I had seen each other in person for almost a year. We caught up on Sunday afternoon in my back garden. I started our conversation by asking Chantal to give us some more examples of how one of a bilingual child’s two languages can influence the other.

Chantal van Dijk: Typical are like word order examples where bilingual children use a different word order than a multilingual child might do. So, for example, a Dutch-English bilingual child could say something like, “Ik viel af de trap,” I fell down the stairs, which is perfectly fine in English, of course, but in Dutch it’s incorrect word order. And it also happened the other way around. So maybe a bilingual child could say something in English like, “I fell the stairs down,” which is perfectly fine in Dutch, but it’s not a correct word order in English.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, so I noticed that too, right, in my own kids, that they say things sometimes that it’s not wrong, but it’s not quite right. Some things are completely wrong. Like my son once said something like, “I want that not.” If you speak Dutch or German, that’s very clearly influence of one of those two languages, Dutch in his case, of course. Or they might say something like, instead of “You’re doing that the whole time,” “You’re doing all the time that,” or something like that, right. So things which, you know, you understand what they mean, but it doesn’t sound quite right. And I’m sure many of the parents listening will have their own favourite examples from their children. How common is it, then, that bilingual children should cross-linguistic influence?

Chantal van Dijk: Well, on the one hand, like, it is common. We see it as very typical for bilingual children to show this sometimes, as cross-linguistic influence. However, at the same time, we also see that children, like most of the time, they just use the word order from their languages. Most of the time you don’t see this influence from one language on the other. And I think also relevant here is that there is a lot of variation between children. So you have children that might not show it at all and other children like sometimes and some more than other children and even like the same child might go through a phase where they do it more then, like, later on. So there are just a lot of differences here.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. So that’s also one of the things that makes it so interesting to look at, right, as a researcher, because we’re trying to basically figure out what is causing children to do this, right. We’ll talk a bit more about that later. So you said there’s lots of variation between children. So what do we know then about what predicts when one language will influence the other?

Chantal van Dijk: Yes. So we actually did what’s called a meta-analysis to look at these different predictors or factors that predict cross-linguistic influence. So what we did is we took studies that were already done before with bilingual children and we combined them all, so we had lots of different information from lots and lots of different children. So more than seven hundred bilingual children. And then we looked at whether if we saw differences between these children, whether that was maybe because of whether they were dominant in one of their languages or not, how old the children were, and also whether there was overlap between their languages. So this way, so that’s called a meta-analysis, this way we could really see whether certain factors played a role in or could predict cross-linguistic influence. One that’s been investigated quite a lot is language dominance. So typically a bilingual child has a stronger language and a weaker language. And what we, for example, then see, or what people have claimed, is that there is more influence from the stronger language onto the weaker language than the other way around, for example. Influence from one language onto the other is typically stronger, or we see that it’s stronger from the dominant language onto the weaker language. But we also do see it in the other direction. So it’s not bound to that.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, I recognize that too, because I also see that my kids show influence for both directions, right. They say English-like things in their Dutch but also, Dutch-like things in their English.

Sharon Unsworth: So in the study that Chantal just mentioned, we pulled together the data from 26 different studies from over 700 monolingual children and over 700 bilingual children with 17 different language combinations. You can find a link to the article we wrote in the show notes. It’s open access, which means that anyone can read it, though it is, of course, written for other researchers rather than the general public, so there’s quite a lot of jargon in there. As Chantal just explained, one of our findings was that language dominance predicted the extent to which one language influenced another, but not which language influenced the other. Language dominance basically refers to the balance between a child’s two or more languages. Which one is stronger? Most bilingual children are dominant in one of their languages, though this isn’t always the case. How best to measure language dominance is a tricky question and a question to which we don’t really have a clear cut answer. That’s a topic for a future episode of Kletsheads. What we did in this meta-analysis was to consider the language spoken in the local community as the dominant language. So, for example, in the case of Greek-English bilingual children, those who were living in Greece would be considered dominant in Greek and those who were living in the UK would be considered dominant in English. This isn’t perfect by any means, but precisely because there’s no clear cut way to measure dominance that’s used by all researchers, this was the best we could do with the data available. So what we found then was that the influence from the language spoken in the local community on the home language, or heritage language, was larger than the other way round. So in the example I just gave, this would mean that for the Greek-English bilingual children growing up in Greece, the influence of Greek on English would be larger than the other way round. But there would still be influence from English on Greek. Another factor that has been found to play a role in cross-linguistic influence is how similar the two languages are or not. This is usually referred to as language overlap. It’s not a question of the two languages being completely the same, so completely overlapping, but rather that they overlap a little bit. So there’s partial overlap. Here’s Chantal again.

Chantal van Dijk: So what we, for example, see is that one if in one language there are multiple possibilities, like multiple options, and in the other language there’s only one option, you see stronger influence from the language with only one option into the other language.

Sharon Unsworth: Right. So if we go back to the example that I mentioned at the start with the adjectives and the nouns in French, how would that work then?

Chantal van Dijk: Yeah, so that’s a good example then, because in French, so like you said, adjectives typically appear after the noun like a “vin blanc.” But we also know that there are a number of adjectives in French that actually come in front of the noun, typically, like grand, big, for example, petit, small. So there is some optionality in French. And if a child has another language like English or Dutch or German, where the adjective always goes in front of the noun, so no matter which kind of adjective, then the idea would be that the children use these adjectives in front of the noun more often in French as well, under influence of their other language.

Sharon Unsworth: Right, right. So the one language basically reinforces one of the two options in the other language.

Chantal van Dijk: Yeah. And I think it’s interesting here that also we see that also monolingual children might then do something different sometimes than adults. So it’s not just bilingual children doing that. But yeah, due to influence from the other language, some bilingual children might show it more strongly, for example.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, yeah. So that’s a good example of how bilingual children may do something that’s the same as monolingual children, but they do it maybe for longer.

Chantal van Dijk: Yeah. So you see different things. Yeah. Sometimes they can do something more. It can actually also be, like, in a different direction that they actually maybe acquire something a bit earlier than monolingual children because the other language helps them.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. But they might also do things that are just completely different from monolingual children. So they might say something like “apple green,” which obviously doesn’t sound very English-like at all.

Sharon Unsworth: I think it’s worth emphasizing here that most of the research on this topic focuses on cases where bilingual children do something different from monolinguals of the same age, as in the example I just gave, or cases where bilingual children make the same mistakes as monolingual children do, but they carry on making these mistakes for longer. There are, however, studies showing that bilingual children’s languages can help each other. For example, in a study looking at bilingual children learning Italian and German, researchers found that they were quicker to learn the various words German has for “the” compared with monolingual German-speaking children. Now, why was this? Well, because the other language, Italian, gave them a helping hand. This part of Italian grammar is a lot simpler than in German, and so, the researchers argued, bilingual children were able to make use of what they learned in Italian to help the German.


Let’s Klets!

Sharon Unsworth: In every episode of Kletsheads, we talk to a parent, teacher or other professional about their experiences with bilingual children. In this episode, we hear from a mum who grew up bilingually herself and who is now raising her own child with two languages.

Martha: I’m Martha and I speak English and Dutch with our little boy. I live in Kampen, it’s a riverside town near to Zwolle, in the sort of northeast of the Netherlands.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. So you have a little boy and how old is he?

Martha: He’s actually just turned five.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, tell us about your situation at home, does everybody speak English or?

Martha: No, just me, really. We sort of try and do one parent one language. So my husband speaks Dutch, he is actually Dutch and I’m English by birth but have dual nationality. So from sort of day one, I’ve spoken English to our little boy and my husband Jasper has spoken Dutch to him.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, you were telling me just before we started the recording that you yourself grew up bilingually in the Netherlands, right. Do you want to tell us a little bit about that? Because that’s quite interesting, that you’re bilingual yourself.

Martha: Yeah, exactly. Well, we moved here when I was about three from England, from London. And my parents are both British English. So they spoke English to us. And my baby brother was only six months when we moved here. So we went to Dutch schools and after a little while, my parents noticed that our Dutch was much better than their Dutch, especially for my mum, who didn’t work outside the home. So she thought, “Right, I better switch to Dutch, otherwise I won’t be able to keep up with the kids and they may stage a coup and get up to no good, speaking Dutch really quickly and I won’t know what they’re up to.” So from then on, she sort of went back and forth, but mostly English was the language at home. And that’s really how we learned English. And we would go to England once or twice a year to see family and then speak English there.

Sharon Unsworth: That you mentioned also before we started the recording, that prior to having a child, you mostly spoke Dutch rather than English. So I’m interested, what made you decide to make the switch and how easy was it for you to make that switch?

Martha: It was actually really weird, at first. I decided to make the switch because I’m quite close to several family members in England and I thought it would be nice for him to be able to visit with them and also with cousins of sort of his age because all my cousins are having kids now and sort of looking into the future, he might want to go to England and be able to communicate with them. And also that English is a useful language. So those were sort of reasons that I thought it would be fun. And then I started reading about it during my pregnancy and thought, “Oh, I need to start doing that sort of straight away. Oh, oh, okay.” So that was really weird because when a baby is born, obviously they don’t answer back. So I was sort of having to chatter away to a baby saying, “Oh, oh, I’m going to change your nappy now. Oh, this is your left foot. Oh, I’m pushing a sock on,” things you’re supposed to say to a baby to help them, do that all in English. So that was really weird because I didn’t do that sort of thing. I would phone my granny about once a week and have a video chat with other family every so often, but not sort of on a day to day basis. So the first few months were really weird and my parents do still live in Holland. So we do see them sort of, well, not that often because they don’t really live nearby, but they help because they speak English to him. And within about a year, we got to know another English family here in Kampen, funnily enough, with the same language pair, so they were half English, half Dutch, sort of like me as well. So that was really good. So he could interact with other English-speaking kids. And I noticed that my English was actually really old fashioned because I would speak to my granny who was born in 1920. So that was sort of my active vocabulary was 1950s English. So I would be saying, “Oh you’re a prick.” And my younger cousins were like, “What is ‘you’re a prick’? What are you on about, Martha?”

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. And how’s it going with his bilingualism then.

Martha: Well it’s been really interesting because the first sort of two years, when he started to talk, it was about fifty-fifity. I kept an Excel file of the words he knew.

Sharon Unsworth: Wow.

Martha: A bit of a geek. Sorry.

Sharon Unsworth: Even I don’t do that.

Martha: Yeah. I think I sort of gave up after a while. I think I went up to 200 words and for the first sort of 150 to 200 words, it was about fifty-fifty. When he was about six months, he started going to daycare three days a week, and when he started to talk in sentences he switched to Dutch and it became sort of 80-20 Dutch to English. And I would still be talking English to him all the time. And he would answer in Dutch, which was fine because I mean that’s obvious because we live here. So, of course, he’s got more exposure to Dutch. So I wasn’t upset by that or worried or anything. And then lockdown happened last year. And it happened is really strange time in that he was due to start school on the Monday that the lockdown started.

Sharon Unsworth: Ooh!

Martha: It was really frustrating for us and for him because we’d sort of been preparing him like, “You’re going to start school on Monday and you go for two trial mornings first to sort of get to know the classroom, the teacher, et cetera,” and suddenly that wasn’t happening. So suddenly he was at home all of the time. And we noticed in the summer that he suddenly started to switch to English and he was speaking English much more. And then after the second lockdown in the winter, he’s become almost exclusively English in his conversation. He’s probably watched things on sort of the iPad, like educational apps and Paw Patrol and all sorts of video stuff, most of that has been in English because all the time up until this year, we’ve made a conscious effort to have enough English in the home because the outside world is all Dutch. So but in the winter, for medical reasons, we had a really strict lockdown as a family because we both, I think the English word is “extremely vulnerable” or “vulnerable category,” so we didn’t have any visitors at home at all during the lockdown, not even the one a day that was allowed. So he couldn’t see other kids except for the odd playdate outside for about two months.

Sharon Unsworth: Wow.

Martha: So that has really, really impacted his language. And school has actually been really worried about that. And he had already seen a speech and language therapist last year for sort of a screening just to check because they do that at the beginning of the school year anyway. And she said “No, his language,” – what’s the word language acquisition, I think – “is sort of, it’s adequate for a bilingual child. So his Dutch is slightly slower than you would want for that age, but that’s normal because he’s bilingual.” But now she’s sort of done the second screening and she’s now saying, “His Dutch vocabulary, his active – the number of words he knows has really dropped. And he does know the Dutch word for things, but he doesn’t immediately use it himself, his first response will be in English.”

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah.

Martha: So he’s been really struggling at school because of this. And it’s taken us by surprise because we’ve always been so conscious of having enough English at home, sort of not really making an effort about the Dutch because that would happen naturally. And then suddenly this sort of once in a lifetime situation of lockdowns has –

Sharon Unsworth: let’s hope it’s a once in a lifetime.

Martha: Yes, I hope so, but sort of the surprising effects of it, I mean, if it does happen again, then all of us will be more prepared, maybe do things differently.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, I guess, you know, in a certain sense, if he has been in a completely English language environment for two months with no contact with Dutch, it’s not entirely surprising.

Martha: What we’ve noticed is after about a month or maybe two months, he did start switching back and forth more, because my husband does speak Dutch with him and did speak Dutch with him during the lockdown. But he was still working, so he spent far less time with our boy than I did. So he’s been making a conscious effort to read more stories to him and sort of do more things in Dutch with him. And we’ve noticed that Max has been visibly thinking, “Oh, right, daddy is talking to me now, okay, that needs to be in Dutch.” And we’ve sort of been saying to him, “Okay, so what’s that in Dutch? Do you know what the word for that is?” And trying to keep it playful and not make him feel inadequate or worried or anything, because I think that does happen at school, that he’ll sort of freeze when he doesn’t know the words and then the kids will think, “Oh, well, don’t bother playing with him because he doesn’t know what to say anyway.” And that’s a bit of a difficult thing that’s going on for him. But it’s really an effort to sort of think how can we sort of change this so that it becomes a more positive thing for him again?

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, sounds quite challenging. And what about the teachers? How have they responded?

Martha: They don’t know that much about bilingualism because again, it’s quite a small town, so they aren’t that many bilingual children. So they’ve been trying to be positive and helpful. But because it’s English and they understand what he’s saying, they just sort of react to what he says, whereas they probably should just be asking him, “What do you mean?” forcing him in a gentle way to speak Dutch. So and obviously they have a whole class full of children, so they can’t sort of constantly be translating or managing things or whatever. So they’ve been doing their best.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. And so how do others react to your child being bilingual?

Martha: Mostly I think about, well, 99 per cent are positive, again, probably because it’s English and not something else. One friend of mine has said, “I’m glad that it’s English,” because it can feel quite rude to be speaking in English to him when you’re sort of in company with other people and they’re not understanding what I’m saying to him, but she can understand English. She said recently to me, “I’m glad it’s English because if it was something I didn’t understand, it would feel really sort of weird and like, what are you talking about? Are you talking about me?”

Sharon Unsworth: That shows you what kind of a place of privilege we’re in, right?

Martha: Absolutely. Yeah. I’m friends through Instagram with several people who were involved in, like, Black Lives Matter and anti-discrimination, anti-racism education stuff. And one of them is Surinam, her heritage and the Dutch person who did the Eurovision Song Contest recently, part of the song he did was in the language of Surinam –

Sharon Unsworth: Sranan Tongo.

Martha: – which used to be prohibited. So it’s just a huge change that’s happened, but if she spoke that language to her little boy in the street, she’d get a very different response than when I speak English to Max.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, I think all the more reason to keep saying that to people, right, to point out to people that it’s what kind of bilingualism is not better than the other. So what are you most proud of so far?

Martha: The fact that even before he could speak himself, he could understand English. When he was really little, I think he was just starting saying words, we were visiting family in England, in Newcastle, and my uncle said something to him. He said, “Oh, you’ve dropped the fork on the floor.” And he immediately crawls over, picks up the fork and gave it to my uncle. And he was like, “Oh, my God, this child who lives in Holland can understand what I’m saying.” And that was just, it was brilliant. And then other times when he started interacting with that English family I talked about, that was great fun as well because he was sort of you could say he was thrilled to hear other kids speak this strange language that he speaks with mama.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. So that he can communicate with other family and friends. And what do you think his future looks like now? So, you know, he’s gone from being very English-oriented, it seems like Dutch is back on the OP. Yeah, of course. He is only five. He’s got quite a long school career ahead of him. And he does have the privilege of English being the other language. What do you think the future’s going to look like for him?

Martha: I think the next sort of four to six months will be really important in sort of helping him to get more Dutch and more exposure, especially with the summer holidays coming up. But I myself am confident that he’ll be able to do that. And I just hope he’ll see it as a positive thing. And that sort of in his long term future that it will benefit him. That’s what I hope. I do sort of anticipate a point in time at school when he’ll sort of say, “Mum, I want you to stop speaking English to me because everybody else is speaking Dutch. Please stop.” So I’m sort of prepared for that at some point.

Sharon Unsworth: But what are you going to say if he says that?

Martha: I really don’t know. I mean, now both of us, my husband and I have really sort of two minds. What’s the best thing to do now? Would it be better for me to switch to Dutch? And I think no, no, it probably really isn’t. And it’s just so frustrating for him at school that he can’t really communicate with the kids, so not as easily. So you want to help him with that. But, yeah, to my mind, it would be a short term solution to switch to Dutch now and also possibly confusing for him. Yeah, I don’t really know what I’ll say. Depends what age he’ll be. I mean, if he’s a teenager, he’ll probably be screaming at us for all sorts of reasons. So this could be just another reason to hate us.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. No, I can see that. And I don’t know what I will say to my kids either. If they ever say that to me.

Martha: How old are they?

Sharon Unsworth: Almost eleven and eight.

Martha: Oh, and they haven’t said that yet.

Sharon Unsworth: No. Often they tell me to stop speaking Dutch.

Martha: Because it’s bad or anything?

Sharon Unsworth: No, because I don’t pronounce things properly. And my accent is actually pretty good. There are certain sounds that are very difficult, and then I get told off. Let’s finish with what piece of advice would you give to other parents when it comes to raising bilingual children?

Martha: Be creative, really. Just think of all sorts of different ways to give the child exposure to the two languages and really depends on what situation you’re in. So what we have really enjoyed is an educational app with sort of games that he can do himself and that’s in English and it’s been really fun. It’s helped him sort of count and all sorts of different things. And that’s because he likes to learn. For another kid, it might be reading more books to them, or pointing out the colours in both languages and sort of just be creative and try and find something that you could enjoy and make it playful.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, okay. And I guess be flexible as well, right, because you’ve had to be too.

Martha: Yeah, exactly. The things you might anticipate are possibly not what’s going to happen and then something else will take you by surprise and you sort of need to think on your feet a lot. That’s definitely another thing.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. Well if there’s one thing we’ve all learned this year is to be flexible. Okay, thank you very much, Martha, for coming on the podcast. And it’s been great talking to you.

Martha: Absolutely.

Sharon Unsworth: So even if you speak English as your home or heritage language, raising a child bilingually is not without its challenges. At the same time, and as I said to Martha, having English as your home language clearly does put you in a position of privilege. There’s still quite a lot of work to be done here in the Netherlands and no doubt in many other places in the world to make sure that all kinds of bilingualism are valued equally. One other thing that struck me in my conversation with Martha was that her son’s teacher apparently assumed that bilingual children should be delayed in the school language. As we’ve discussed earlier on the podcast, when bilingual children haven’t heard much of the school language in their day to day lives before they start school, it will likely be the case that they won’t be at the same level in that language as children who were raised in that language only. This won’t be the case for all bilingual children, however. Many bilingual children function at the same level as the monolingual classmates from the get-go. If you want to know more about the role of language input, listen to episode two where I talked to Erica Hoff about this question. Now, though, it’s back to my conversation with Chantal.

Sharon Unsworth: So we’ve talked about overlap between two languages, we’ve talked about language dominance and what other factors might play a role?

Chantal van Dijk: So another factor that has been investigated is age. Some people have found that influence between languages becomes weaker when children become older, but the evidence for this is a bit mixed because we also see, from studies with older children, for example, that they also still show cross-linguistic influence. So it seems to be really part and parcel of being bilingual, and it’s just part of that.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. So it could actually be both, right? We could it see partly because children do this when they’re developing when they’re learning a language. But it could also be for certain structures or in certain ways or certain children carry on doing as they as they get older. Okay, so what does this actually tell us about bilingual language development then, the fact that we see this?

Chantal van Dijk: Well, I think what it shows to us is that, like, the languages of bilingual children are really closely interacting with each other, like when they’re speaking or listening to speech. And we also see some evidence that when bilingual children use one language then the other language also becomes activated. So they really closely work together. However, at the same time, we also see because we don’t see cross-linguistic influence all the time, we also see that children can really very well differentiate between their languages at the same time.

Sharon Unsworth: Right. So they keep them separate, but yet they must be connected in some way.

Chantal van Dijk: Yeah, well, I think that’s the big question that we would like to know, that we would like to find out. Yeah, I think for a very long time people have assumed, no, they are separate, the languages, or to a certain extent at least. And I think now more and more we see that languages are probably to some extent connected with each other.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. And so one of the things that we use, one of the methods that we use to tap into this is called priming, right. So the fact that when I say something, the way I say it might influence the way that you say it. Could you maybe tell us a bit about that?

Chantal van Dijk: Yeah. So what we did is we used sentences. So, for example, let’s go back to the adjective-noun orders in French and Dutch, for example. The idea is that if you use a certain word order in one language, there’ll be some children who then use that word order again in their other language. So, for example, let’s go to the white wine example, so “vin blanc.” So what we did in one experiment is we gave a word order, well it wasn’t with wine, but for example –

Sharon Unsworth: That’s not allowed.

Chantal van Dijk: Yeah, exactly. For example, a white cat in French, so “chat blanc“, cat white, and then the child had to describe some picture in English. And then we saw that children sometimes actually used that word order they just heard in French to describe something in English. So they might say something like “a dog green.” And so we saw priming from one language into the other.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, that’s what we mean by priming, that basically you’re influenced by the way in which somebody else says something. And so we see this and there is plenty of work, research, looking at bilingual adults that show this, too, that what somebody says in one language, so if I say something in English, it can influence what you say in Dutch and vice versa. Yeah, right. So what does that tell us then about the way the two languages are organized?

Chantal van Dijk: Yeah, well, so it might actually suggest that some of these word orders we have, these structures we have for our languages actually are shared, that we don’t necessarily learn the same word order separately for our two languages or at least bilingual children don’t do that, but not necessarily that everything becomes shared. But also that if when one word order is very active in the head of a child, because they just heard it in one language, they might actually use that in their other language then because it’s so strongly activated.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. So that’s also something that might influence, which might have an effect on the extent to which one language influences another, right. So if we were just speaking a lot of Dutch before we actually started this recording, because we normally speak Dutch to each other, so then we might see more influence of, or maybe people can hear that we’ve just been speaking Dutch. So you might find more influence of Dutch then compared to when we’d spend the whole day talking English to each other, right. That’s to do with this idea of languages being activated or active, woken up, you can think of it like that. And we don’t know that much yet, really, about this in bilingual children. So if the two languages are in some sense shared then, do you think it’s from the star or do you think it happens gradually?

Chantal van Dijk: That’s a very good question. Honestly, I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s from the start. Like, I can imagine if a child has learned something in one language and it’s also present in their other language, maybe they can just use what they’ve learned from the one language and use it in their other language. We don’t really know, right, so. On the other hand, like I said before, we know the children are really good at differentiating their languages from very, very early on, they do so. So, yeah. What does it mean? I don’t know.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, that’s a bit of a puzzle that we need to figure out, yeah. Some languages are similar, right, because they come from the same language family, so German and Dutch, for example, or Spanish or Italian. Does that play a role in how much one language influences another? Right? Do we see it more with languages that are closely related to each other?

Chantal van Dijk: So, again, I think my answer is going to be a bit mixed here, like, in my own research, I did find some differences for children. Like in one study, I found cross-linguistic influence with German-Dutch bilingual children, like, very, very closely related languages. And I didn’t see it with English-Dutch bilingual children, but of course, still related languages, but not as closely. It might be the case that it matters how closely related languages are. At the same time, we do see from all different kinds of studies that very different languages also still influence each other. So for example, English and Persian or English and Cantonese, we also see cross-linguistic influence there. So it might matter. But I mean, we do see cross-linguistic influence with very different language combinations.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, okay. We’re going to listen now to our Kletshead of the Week.


Kletshead of the Week

Nicole: Hi, I’m Nicole, I’m 12 years old and I live in the Netherlands, and speak Dutch, Italian and English.

Sharon Unsworth: Dutch, Italian and English. So you are trilingual, we call that.

Nicole: Yes.

Sharon Unsworth: So can you tell us about that? Who do you speak English with?

Nicole: Well, my dad speaks English to me and I talk back to him in Dutch.

Sharon Unsworth: OK, and your mum?

Nicole: I speak Italian.

Sharon Unsworth: So she speaks to you in Italian, you speak back in Italian.

Nicole: Yes.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. And Dutch, you learn…

Nicole: Well, I speak Dutch with my friends and sister.

Sharon Unsworth: Aha. I was going to ask you about that because you have an older sister.

Nicole: Yes.

Sharon Unsworth: OK, so you two speak Dutch with each other?

Nicole: Yes.

Sharon Unsworth: Never Italian?

Nicole: No, no.

Sharon Unsworth: Why not?

Nicole: I like Dutch better, and she does too. And it’s just weird if we talk Italian to each other. Well, when we do it, it’s weird, we think.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. When you go to Italy, right. When it’s allowed again, do you speak Italian to each other then, or do you speak Dutch?

Nicole: Also Dutch.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, it’s like a little secret language.

Nicole: Yeah.

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

Nicole: I can speak with a lot of friends that don’t speak Dutch and I better at English at school.

Sharon Unsworth: So you get good marks?

Nicole: Yes.

Sharon Unsworth: Aha. Good. Is there anything that’s less good about it?

Nicole: Well there’s something called the begrijpend lezen and it’s that you read a text and then there’s questions about it, and I’m not very good at that. So we think it’s because I speak three languages.

Sharon Unsworth: And what makes you think that?

Nicole: Well, because I’m not really good at reading. My parents think it…

Sharon Unsworth: Do you find it hard at school?

Nicole: No. No.

Sharon Unsworth: Good. So you said you prefer to speak Dutch. Has it always been like that? Can you remember when you were smaller, was it different?

Nicole: Well, maybe when I was smaller, I would like more English, but I don’t think so. I think Dutch also.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. Have you got any other friends who are bilingual.?

Nicole: Yes. Well, one friend is the same as me, English, Italian and Dutch, but one friend doesn’t speak Dutch and I just talk Italian with her and sometimes I say or in English because I don’t know how to say it in Italian.

Sharon Unsworth: And if you have to speak English you can do it.

Nicole: Yes.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah I mean, I can hear it now. I think your English is great. It’s much better than my Italian, I can tell you. So is it important to you that you can speak Italian and English as well as Dutch?

Nicole: Well, my grandparents are Italian so that I can speak to them. And English, it’s always handy for in other countries, but I don’t speak it very much.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, yeah. And I suppose Dutch, you have to, right, if you live in the Netherlands. When you’re older, what languages do you think you’ll speak?

Nicole: Think the same.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. And imagine if you had children. I realized that might be a long time off, even if you ever have children. What language are you going to speak to your children?

Nicole: Well, it depends on where I live because if I live in Italy, I am first going to teach them Italian and then the other languages.

Sharon Unsworth: So it depends on where you live and I guess on what language your partner speaks, right?

Nicole: Also, yeah.

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

Nicole: No.

Sharon Unsworth: No. What about a word that sounds like a Dutch word, but means something different?

Nicole: In Italian, it’s prima and prima in Dutch. In Italian, it means, so “Prima I’m going to school,” so “first I’m going to school.” And in Dutch, it means like, “okay.”

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, right. So if people are listening and I think it was “prima” means like if you say, “Shall we do that” and you say, “Prima,” it means like “okay.”

Nicole: Yes.

Sharon Unsworth: But actually means “first” in Italian. Do ever you have to think twice sometimes about whether it’s an Italian word or a Dutch word or an English word?

Nicole: Italian not, but English sometimes.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. Now I’ve seen because we’re actually doing this live and I’m at your house, we’re doing it face-to-face instead of online, which is very exciting. I’ve seen that you’ve got two cats. I want to know are the cats trilingual, too?

Nicole: Well, I speak Italian and Dutch to them.

Sharon Unsworth: And they understand?

Nicole: Well, sometimes, yeah. Well, only when we call them, like, “Cookie en Malou,” they come and that’s it. If we say “food” or something.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. Cats aren’t very good at following orders, are they? No, they’re not like dogs. Can you read in Italian and English?

Nicole: English, yes. And Italian some words I don’t know, but…

Sharon Unsworth: But that’s kind of normal, right? You can’t know all words in all languages. What do you think?

Nicole: And I never read in Italian or English, so.

Sharon Unsworth: No, no. You prefer in Dutch.

Nicole: Yes.

Sharon Unsworth: What’s your favourite book?

Nicole: It’s called “In de ruimte is het stil” what means “In the sky it is quiet.” It’s like a girl and her sister, she doesn’t know where her sister is. And it’s a girl that doesn’t want to talk to people and she loves the sky, that sort of stuff.

Sharon Unsworth: Uh-huh. Sounds nice, I’m going to recommend it to my daughter. Talking about being in the sky and thinking about things, it made me think of dreaming. Do you know what language you dreaming?

Nicole: And mostly Dutch and sometimes also Italian.

Sharon Unsworth: How do you know?

Nicole: If it is in Italian it’s with my grandparents or something.

Sharon Unsworth: Mm-hmm. Depends on who’s the dream. Yeah. Who’s in the dream. Yeah. And to listen to music, in what language.

Nicole: English.

Sharon Unsworth: English. Because Italian has got a lot of music, right. It’s a very rich music tradition.

Nicole: Yeah. I don’t like it.

Sharon Unsworth: No? She’s now looking at me going like, “No way do I listen to that music.” Okay, now I don’t really know Italian, so maybe can you teach me something in Italian?

Nicole: Maybe just saying, “Hi I’m Sharon?”

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, okay.

Nicole: Ciao, io sono Sharon.

Sharon Unsworth: You’ll have to say it a bit slower. “Ciao” I got.

Nicole: Io.

Sharon Unsworth: Io?

Nicole: Si eh yes. Sono.

Sharon Unsworth: Sono?

Nicole: Then your name.

Sharon Unsworth: OK. Ciao, io sono Sharon.

Sharon Unsworth: Yes. Okay, okay. Ciao, io sono Sharon. I hope I manage to get to practice that sometime. And how do you say thank you and goodbye?

Nicole: Goodbye is ciao, that also means hello. And thank you is grazie.

Sharon Unsworth: Grazie. So, grazie, Nicole, and ciao.

Sharon Unsworth: OK, so I’m sitting outside today for an outside recording – yay! – talking to my colleague Chantal van Dijk from the Radboud University and we’re talking about cross-linguistic influence, so how one language can influence the other. We’ve learned that not all children do it, that there seem to be certain factors that play a role, so whether the languages overlap in a certain sense, whether children are dominant in one language or another. So that’s all very interesting. But I think as a parent, you might be interested also to know whether this is something that you should do something about, right. Whether you should worry about this, if you hear that your child is influenced by the other language. Is it something that you should worry about, Chantal?

Chantal van Dijk: So I can be very short about that: No, there’s no reason to worry about it. It is just being part of being bilingual. Bilingual children have two languages so they know they have multiple word orders or rules from both of their languages, so they have more options than a monolingual child. And we see that it’s just really common for a lot of children and it’s just part of being bilingual.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. And what about as a teacher, if as a teacher, you hear bilingual children saying things in the school language, that will be Dutch here or whatever that language is wherever you are. Is that something that they should worry about or is anything that they… Should they take action?

Chantal van Dijk: I think the most important thing is being aware that it happens, that it’s just part of being bilingual. Being aware that there is something like cross-linguistic influence might help teachers to understand why it happened. So my mother actually used to teach Dutch and I talked about it with her. And for her, it was like a bit of an eye-opener, like, “Oh, that’s why I sometimes hear this child say something different maybe than other children.” But it’s not something to actively work on. And the question is whether you can do anything about it. I don’t think you need to do anything about it.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, I think, you know, if it’s something that maybe leads to mistakes which may be problematic in some sense in the school language, what you could do as a teacher is to talk about the differences between the two languages, right, to ask children about how their language works and to raise their awareness as well of how that works because that might also help them figure out the school language a bit better.

Chantal van Dijk: Yeah, that’s true.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. You know, I do agree that I think it is part and parcel of being bilingual and it’s good to be aware of that as a teacher. At the same time, I recognize, too, that, you know, children do need a certain level of proficiency in the school language. And if the other language is making them, you know, make mistakes, as it were, that are systematic and may be problematic in some sense, then maybe just actually, as I said, raising awareness, talking about the language with a child, or first yourself as a teacher, figuring out trying to see if you can find out more about that language. Yeah. Yeah. OK, well thank you. It’s been great to see you again for real.

Chantal van Dijk: It was really nice talking about this, yeah.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. And I hope the birdwatchers who are listening can figure out all the birds that they can hear in the background. You can let us know on social media.

Sharon Unsworth: In this episode, we’ve been talking about cases of cross-linguistic influence. So how one of a bilingual child’s languages can influence the other. This means that bilingual children do something different from their monolingual friends, sometimes saying things that are not quite right or perhaps not mastering a particular feature of one of their languages as quickly as their monolingual classmates. We also heard that cross-linguistic influence can lead to faster language development. The two languages have a bilingual child can also help each other. As I said earlier, there’s been some research on this, but not much, perhaps because it’s not so easily noticed. Cross-linguistic influence gives us a glimpse into the minds of bilingual children. It shows that the two languages are connected and that even when bilingual children are only using one of the two languages, the other one is still there. It’s still active in their mind. And we know that this is the same for adults. We don’t yet fully understand under what circumstances one language influences the other and why it happens to one child and not the other, so we definitely need more research on this topic. But one thing is clear, and that’s that cross-linguistic influence is part and parcel of being bilingual. So that’s it for this first season of the English edition of Kletsheads there are plans for a second season, but when exactly this will be ready to go, I’m not sure yet. Probably early 2022. If you’ve got any ideas for topics or guests or any questions you’d like us to answer, drop us a line either via the website, or on social media. In the meantime, enjoy your summer and stay safe.

Sharon Unsworth: If you want to know more about Kletsheads, go to 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. 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.

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