Language preference among bilingual siblings

©Ute Limacher-Riebold 2010

We can find many studies about how to raise “a” or “one” bilingual child, but what happens when you have more than one child (and maybe twins)?

  • Will it be possible to keep the initial bilingual situation within the family?
  • Do children influence the language dynamic in the family?
  • Do all the children in the same family prefer the same language?
  • Do they influence each other regarding the preference of the language?

Suzanne Barron-Hauwaert talks about this in Bilingual Siblings: Language Use in Families, a great guide for parents and teachers. Even if a family shares the same experiences, if the child gets more or less out of a situation, depends on multiple factors.

The same applies to all the languages the family is in touch with. Within the same family we can find children who embrace the languages wholeheartedly and others who are more reluctant.

One may seem literally to absorb every language, while another one chooses only a few, and the next one prefers only one.

In my experience, we have to adapt our language situation within our family to the individual needs of our children, and to their attitudes towards the languages – either the single languages or the amount of languages we are using.

How it works in our multilingual family

I’ve already mentioned the linguistic situation in our family in an other post.

In our family we now (in 2022) mainly talk German and English with each other, but also switch to Dutch, Swiss-German and occasionally Italian (not French anymore, like a few years ago, because our children have chosen to not continue learning French (for now)). 

We switch between languages when we talk about an experience we had when using a particular language, when we have friends over who don’t understand one of the languages, or when our children are among them.

Our children are mainly used to talk German, Dutch and English. The other languages (including Swiss-German) are only used during face-times with family, visits in the country or when they meet people who speak the target language. They usually prefer reading and writing in English – the language of their education – but are keen to implement their writing and reading skills in German and Dutch, as well as other languages (Italian, Japanese and Chinese). Since they were babies and toddlers, we used to sing songs and listen to audiobooks in a variety of languages. 

I’ll try to answer to some questions Suzanne Barron-Hauwaert asked in her book and that can help to shed light on your linguistic situation too:

1) Which language(s) do the siblings prefer to speak together?

Our children mainly talk German and English to each other, but they can switch to Dutch if they talk about a topic they shared with a Dutch friend. The

2) What happens when there are two or more children at different stages of language development?

Usually, when you have children from different age groups, it’s natural that they are in different stages of language development.

Those who are older can help the younger ones to develop their language skills.

When my children were younger it could happen that my son (my older child) used baby talk (or baby / infant directed speech) with his younger sisters.

Our children are all on a different stage of language development.

Our son is fluent in all the languages I’ve mentioned – learned French and Spanish at school (until 2016) and now learns Japanese and Chinese (as autodidact). Our daughters are fluent in English, Dutch, German, and also learned French and Spanish at school – but only to a basic A1/2 level, alas – and Italian.

One of our daughters prefers English to German and Dutch, whereas the other one is interested in improving her Italian.

When they were 4-7 years old, my daughters used to mix up the syntactic structure of German and English which lead to very interesting speech productions. It used to affect our conversations, but thanks to consistent modeling (i.e. repeating the sentence in the right order etc.), they are now nearly native in all three languages.


3) Could one child refuse to speak one language while another child is fluently bilingual?

Our son refused to talk Italian when he was 2.5 as a reaction to our moving to the Netherlands and his exposure to Dutch and German.

Since we switched to only German as our family language , our children grew up with mainly German as family language. Since 2015 our son restarted talking Italian: it was his wish to talk Italian with me when we are alone, so I introduced it with the T&P (Time and Place) strategy, which is working pretty well so far. He is very interested in learning different languages and has now added basic knowledge of Latin, French and Spanish.

All three children are now fluently multilingual in German, English and Dutch.

It’s not that one of our children does really refuse to talk a language whilst the other one(s) speak it, but one of our daughters would prefer talking only English (and this was once German, so she changed her preference in the last 10 years!). She is less interested in languages than our other two children, which is very interesting to observe! 


– I personally still prefer talking Italian... which is very dominant especially when I’m upset or very happy. Talking Italian then is more natural for me.

4) How do factors of birth order, personality or family size interact in language production?

In our family, personality is the most important factor that decides about the languages we use.

We all speak two to four languages per day and these are not always the same ones. Our children decided on a very early stage which languages they wanted to talk and it were external factors who influenced us all on this.

When we moved to the Netherlands we didn’t find Italian friends in the first months and I was the only person talking Italian to my son.

He also knew that I was perfectly able to talk and understand Swissgerman and Dutch (I learned Dutch alongside with my son), and his refusal to talk Italian was very economic and natural.

I persisted talking Italian to him until my daughters were 15 months old. We then narrowed down the languages within our family from three to one because our girls developed a secret language.

So, in the end: birth order and personality influenced the languages in our family.

All our children behave in different ways in linguistic terms and we are aware that the situation may change in the future.


What is the language history of your family? Did your children also develop along uniquely individual linguistic paths?


If you want to find out more about the linguistic preferences of your children book a consultation with me.








This post has been republished on on 17/09/2013.

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