4 communication styles in (multilingual) children

We all have different communication styles. And so do our children.
Parents often assume (or expect) that their children will have their same communication style, but that is not as simple. Especially in multilingual families, communication styles can be very different and children who grow up in such settings might switch back and forth between these different communication styles.

When we know what communication style our children have, we can understand them better, not only because of what they say, but also how they say it, what makes them communicate in one way or the other.

Elaine Weitzman  distinguishes 4 communication styles in children* that depend on 2 factors:

  • their ability to initiate interactions with others
  • their ability to respond when other people initiate an interaction with them. 

The way we interact with others differs from culture to culture, from language to language. Depending on the communication style that is most common in a language – which affects or influences intonations, turn takings, making (or not making) eye contact, the pace of a communication and the way adults communicate with children in general – our children will most probably follow the one of the language they are exposed to for the majority of the time. Or, in other words, the language of the person they are mostly communicating with. This can be a parent, peers, teachers etc.. 

I take Elaine Weitzman’s the 4 communication styles in children (see here below) as starting point to explain the different communication patterns that we can observe not only across cultures but across languages.

This is only a very generic explanation that I usually analyze more in detail with the multilingual and multicultural families I work with.

1) Sociable Communication Style

Children with a sociable communication style initiate interactions with others and are quick to respond to others’ initiations. Even if they only have a few words or are hard to understand, they continue to try and communicate with others. They are often considered “outgoing” or “extrovert”. Sometimes they insist communicating even if the other person can’t really understand what they mean.

If one of your child’s culture and languages is one that fosters and encourages this sociable communication style, i.e. interactions of children (or at any age) with adults and peers, chances are high that your child will have this style too.

But even if parents, and communities our children grow up in, foster this communication style, it is not a given that our children will adopt this style and feel comfortable with it. There are many factors that influence a child’s communication style (character traits, experience in different settings etc.).

2) Reluctant Communication Style

Children with a reluctant communication style are more likely to respond to others than to initiate an interaction on their own.

They can be considered “shy” and might need time to “warm up”, to become comfortable with new people and new environments. When these children are not given time to adjust and respond at their own pace, they tend to “fly under the radar” or risk to be labelled as “not fluent in the language”, although they are often much more capable than they appear!

Those who grew up in a context where children are not encouraged to interact with others (especially not adults), might need some time to adjust to a more “sociable” communication style. Especially in multilingual and multicultural contexts, it is difficult to determine if a child has this communication style because he/she is rather cautious in general, or because this is a style that is fostered by his/her parents.

Teachers who work with children coming from diverse cultural backgrounds, should be trained to understand and support the children’s different ways to relate and communicate with others.

3) Inactive Communication Style

Elaine Weitzman defines this style as passive communication style, as the passive behaviour of children with this particular style can be a sign of autism or other developmental issues.

Children with this communication style seem hard to connect with because they seem uninterested in people and objects – also toys, games etc. A developmental delay, a sickness or being on medication can lead to this more “inactive” communication style. – I prefer the term of “inactive” as I assume that these children are, in some way, receptive for their environment, i.e. that they understand and connect with their parents, teachers, siblings, friends etc. at least to some extent.

This is why I distinguish two (or more) categories of children with this communication style: those who have a developmental delay, a sickness or are on medication, which affects their way to connect with others, and those who have this more inactive communication style because they don’t understand the language (yet) or don’t know how to behave in given situations (yet)!

In fact, children who are schooled in an additional language, i.e. that is not one of their home languages and they are still in the adaptation and adjusting phase, can have this kind of communication style in specific situations only. This is very important to know because this helps us to find ways to help our children become “proactive”.

If your child has this communication style in specific societal contexts only,  it is advisable to explain this to the teachers and to invite them to find ways to interact with your children’s language, or to find ways to bridge between the home languages and the daycare/school language.

If after a few months the child still struggles with becoming confident in the new setting, despite the help from the teachers and environment (including the parents, of course), it is advisable to contact a child psychologist.


4) Own Agenda Communication Style

Children with this own agenda communication style, usually initiate communications with others only when they need something. They can be found playing independently and alone. It might be difficult to get a message across to these children as they seem as if they are in their own little world. They might struggle to successfully play and share with others. There are several reasons for children to have this own agenda communication style. It can be that they are the only child, that they are not used to social interactions with peers or other adults (yet), that they are used to play by themselves, or that for some reason they have problems to connect with others.  

One reason for children to have this communication style are hearing problems: they simply don’t hear when others’ speak to them, and only react when they are addressed through eye contact or touching the arm or shoulder for example. It is always advisable to check out the hearing of the child and to observe him/her in a variety of settings and situations.

If children with this communication style are schooled in an additional language that is not one of their home languages and that are still adjusting to the new language and environment, it is, once again, advisable for parents to explain the situation to teachers and to invite them to find ways to bridge between the home languages and the daycare/school language, or to find ways to interact with the child in his/her language. 

This is only a short overview and introduction about communication styles in children and some ideas on how they can apply to multilingual and multicultural children.

  • What communication style best describes your child most of the time?
  • Does your child have the same communication style in all his/her languages?
  • Does your child have the same communication style in all the societal settings, i.e. when at home with the family, at the daycare/school, with extended family and friends etc.?

If your child has an inactive, reluctant  or own agenda communication style: does she/he have the same style in all his/her languages? Does he or she have the same style in all societal settings, i.e. with adults she knows (like parents, and other adults in their daily life) and peers, in formal and informal circumstances?

If your child currently has predominantly one of the aforementioned communication styles, it can be that either your child has hearing problems (maybe has an ear infection), in which case it is advisable to let your infant’s or toddler’s hearing be checked (especially if they are prone to ear infections). If your child has one of these three communication styles but does not have an ear infection, is not ill and doesn’t take medications, and struggles with communicating, they might need some support and encouragement to get involved in interactions.

All children benefit from parent’s and other people’s efforts to make interactions more successful, interesting and engaging. If your school aged child has one of these three communication styles in specific situations only, it might be that he or she is struggling with either the language, the situation (at school or at home) or with peers/friends.

In any case, it would be helpful and beneficial for your child, if you could help him/her become more confident in sharing their thoughts, communicate effectively with you, so that you, as a parent, can understand what is going on and help or find help. 

If you want to find out how to optimize the communication with your children to support their way to communicate and connect with others in the most effective way, don’t hesitate to contact me.

And if you are looking for ways to foster understanding and speaking in a fun and entertaining way with your 0 to 15+ year old children have a look at our Toolbox for Multilingual Families, where Ana Elisa Miranda and I share 60 activities that foster understanding and speaking

Last but not least: multilinguals can have different communication styles depending on the language they speak (which doesn’t mean that they have multiple personalities…)

Some more questions: 

  • Do your children have different communication styles?
  • What communication style did you have when you were a child?
  • What style can you relate to most?
  • What style makes you feel comfortable/uncomfortable?

Please let me know in the comments here below.

*Weitzman, E. (2017) It Takes Two To Talk: A Practical guide for Parents of Children with Language Delays, Toronto, ON: The Hanen Centre.

– Finding out the communication style of your children is important to better support their language development – at home and at school. It is one aspect that you learn in my online course ENJOY Raising children with multiple languages for parents of 0-4 year olds.


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