Friday, 17 February 2012

Bilingual siblings: a different story

When I read this article about bilingual siblings in Multilingual Living, it got me thinking about how my children's relationship with their languages differs so much.

Suzanne is now 5 1/2 and I can't believe that her English is so good. Until her brother was born, she only heard English 2 hours a day, yet English was her first and strongest language. Her brother Max, now 2 1/2, was different though.

We strictly adhere to OPOL for both children, yet Max spoke French. Suzanne spoke English to Max and Max continued to speak French. Last spring, I was dismayed when I returned from a 2 day work trip and Max only spoke French to me. But then he spent 3 weeks with my mother during her summer visit. And then it all clicked for him.

Now that both of my children have found their bilingual-selves, it's interesting to see their relationships to the language.

For Suzanne, bilingualism was always so "normal". She was never overly concerned with the distinction between French and English because that's just how it is. She speaks some Franglais, she made up some inter-language such as waleau (a combination of water and l'eau) or applying English grammar to French verbs.  At one point she translated everything I said so her father woult understand. But Suzanne just has a feeling for language and knows that she speaks English and French.

But Max needs to separate the languages. He is structured in most everything he does, he becomes extremely distraught when he breaks something and doesn't like things to be out of place. And this type of personality trait carries over into his language use. Unlike Suzanne, Max does not mix languages, create an inter-language or use any Franglais. If Max doesn't know a word, he just doesn't say anything whereas Suzanne used to use periphrases.

Last week, my husband offered Max a drink, "veux-tu du ginger ale?" Max looked at his father and said, "toi pas anglais papa." He was very upset that his father had said "ginger ale" because it is an English word. When Max and I speak English, if there are non-English speakers in the room, he translates for the general public. When I pick him up at the nursery school, he translates for the caretakers so they are part of our conversation.

Another interesting point is how the kids interact. Because Suzanne has always spoken English with me and because she spends more time with me and Max than with her father (because my schedule is more flexible), she speaks mostly English to her brother. Suzanne plays by herself in English or French, depending on the game, but Max plays in French. However, a few weeks ago, I heard my kids upstairs arguing about something. Suzanne was saying to her brother, "get down Max." But he obviously wasn't listening. So she told him the same thing in French. It was the first time I'd heard her do that, like she was using the other language in case he didn't understand.

Max usually speaks English to Suzanne. When I put him to bed the other day, I told him to say goodnight to Papa and Suzanne. Max said, "bonne nuit Papa. goodnight Suzanne." Interestingly, both kids speak English to the cats...

Another point is the influence that Suzanne has had on her brother's English.  I always knew I'd be the main influence in my kids' English. Suzanne sounds so much like me, with my intonation, that sometimes I feel like I'm hearing myself.  I also knew Suzanne would be my greatest ally but I underestimated the impact Suzanne would have on Max's English. Sometimes I think she has had as much, if not more, of an influence on his English that I have.

I'm not sure what all of this means. But it does show that the kids' personalities have rubbed off on their bilingual beings. By this, I mean that their relationship with both of their languages and how they handle them is linked not only to their relationship with me and their father and the outside world but also with their individual personality traits.

Now if I could just figure out where the volume button is on my kids, I'd be really happy.

5 comments:

Medea said...

I think the volume button is duct tape- maybe that's just me!

I find it fascinating how different my kids are in their language acquisition. I wish that once I figured out what worked for one that it would work for the other. Unfortunately that is not the case!

Lulu said...

Oh this is such an interesting read for me! I love seeing how children develop languages and interesting to see how it worked for your children.

I have no idea with my kids- Noah speaks 95% English words but is not much of a talker yet and Shion doesn`t say anything but I do hope they will "play" in English together later on but maybe I can only hope for that until they hit kindergarten which will all be in Japanese.

Tracey said...

Really interesting post! I only have one child so far so don´t know how the biligual sibling interaction will go but was great to read about what happens in other bilingual families.Such a fascinating insight!

Reb said...

Thanks for your comments. Seeing the siblings interact is really fascinating and attests to all the hard work we bilingual parents put in!

Kate said...

Fascinating insights! I was really interested in what you said about Max liking things structured and in order. Sounds very much like my son! But then, I'm not sure yet about how my Aleksander is with mixing languages. He's only been talking for 3 months, so we're still settling into it all. He does, however, like to do a running commentary on the languages being spoken. When I greet him in the morning, he announces "German!" Later, if I'm speaking English to his babysitter (especially during German time), he admonishes me: "English!" I find it all rather amusing :) He does mix the languages sometimes. But he often corrects himself, which is amazing. He hasn't started translating yet....
It'll be interesting to see how things progress for your kids!!

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