Saturday 19 February 2011

Sibling talk

Children are born as natural underlings – and quite helpless ones at that. Decision-wise, we start life at the very bottom of the totem pole: top-heavy mums and dads call the shots. Children are first socialised through this kind of hierarchical dominance, that they set out to demolish around the aptly named Terrible Threes. If there are siblings, of ages and statuses that allow their perception as co-underlings within the family, a child’s peer socialisation begins with them, also at home.

Socialising is about finding our niche in the groups that progressively come to matter to us. It is also about pecking orders and power relations, because these are the ways in which groups become groups, that is, cohesive assemblages of individuals.

Birth order provides a natural pecking order – or so firstborns are keen to remind us. Sex provides another, depending on how males and females are viewed in the groups in question. A big sister may or may not outrank a baby brother, for example. Strategic positioning of this and other kinds is negotiated and nurtured through language. So how do multilingual siblings go about managing their own peer business, and how is their multilingualism relevant to their socialisation?

I can give a few examples from my own family. At around age 2 ½, my firstborn became intrigued by the absence of intelligible speech from her newborn sister. Even more baffling was the baby’s complete indifference towards her repeated and enticing proposals to “come play”. We parents were probably to blame in this latter case: my pregnancy had been described to the future big sister as the promise of a willing and handy playmate, in the cosiness of home.

My big girl went on to ask me whether the baby also spoke “like daddy” (Swedish) and “like mummy” (Portuguese), which were then the two ways of speaking in our family. Reassured that this would indeed be the case, in time, and that the baby thus “understood” her own two languages, she proceeded to assign different functions to each when addressing her sister, in complete contravention of OPOL propriety: Swedish, which she used with deep, resounding tones of voice, served to warn and admonish; whereas Portuguese, for which she chose high pitches and questioning tones, served to soothe and suggest solutions to signs of discomfort.

Expectedly, the baby sister followed suit on this model, when she in turn became a big sister. The baby brother did the same in his turn, with the exception that he never got a chance to become a big brother. They thus created their own practices and their own expectations concerning what each language was there for, and what switching between languages was all about.

What we parents didn’t count on was our children’s subversion of the fully functional bilingualism in the family, that reigned undisturbed until the children’s school start. All three were schooled in English, a language that gained the powerful appeal associated with schooling itself, in their crucial formative years. More importantly, English was the language modelled through the irresistible appeal of peers and play. Naturally, it became their own peer language, and our family’s linguistic status had to be amended from bilingual to trilingual. My book Three is a Crowd? describes this whole process, with plentiful examples of the children’s linguistic goings-on – all translated into English where relevant, by the way. Scroll down the book’s webpage and click on ‘Contents’ to read the book online. (In case anyone is wondering, the “crowd” in the book title refers to the number of languages, not to the number of children.)

There’s a lesson to be learned here, I believe, from children’s own management of their needs, and from the natural ways in which they adopt, adapt, switch, maintain, reject and cherish what makes sense to them, not least uses of language. There are many lessons, in fact, for us adults who believe that we decide, when all too often we’re letting the languages decide for us instead. Why else should we fret, not over talking to our children, but over which languages to talk to them in? Children have one significant advantage over adults in this respect: they have no idea that languages are things that people can, and even should, worry about. They just use them. No worries.

Suzanne Barron-Hauwaert’s new book, Bilingual siblings: language use in families deals with precisely this topic, in the first comprehensive overview of multilingual siblings’ uses of language. The author is herself a parent of three multilingual children, and her findings draw on a survey of international families which, I’m proud to add, includes data from my own family. Her website is dedicated to language uses in multilingual families.

Siblings’ language choices do therefore play a core role in the family’s multilingual landscape, but families consist of more than just parents and children. Just like sibling talk has deserved less attention than parent talk, so has the role played by the remaining adult members of a family in that family’s multilingualism, particularly where these adults may be monolinguals. I turn to this next.

© MCF 2011

Next post: The monolinguals in the family. Wednesday 23rd February 2011.


  1. I like this post :) I imagine that the baby sister, when able to do so, would also challenge the natural pecking order in particular situations, by using the same deep, resounding tones, in the language her big sister assigns to the purposes of these tones, to the big sister herself? Such situations might occur, for example, when the possession of a new toy (supply of only one in a favourite colour) is at stake?


  2. I love your posts :-) I have two tripletsbrothers and my baby brother is like 5 minutes younger then me and vice versa
    with my big brother.

  3. I have not been able to convienc my daughters (6 year old twins) that their baby brother is not speaking some other language that -we- have to learn in order to speak to him. They are convienced and constantly trying to match his bables to things around him to find out what they mean.

  4. Deborah: Oh yes, they all learned very quickly to serve as they were being served!

    Jonas: I know a little about language uses between twins, but nothing at all about triplets. Tell us a bit about your own sibling talk, please? Or you, Melissa Sue, about your girls. Aside from what they may have created to talk to each other, they seem intent on learning a new language, baby-brother-speak!

    One thing I found really interesting when I first observed it in my children was their use of language switches themselves (regardless of languages) to convey specific moods or changes in mood. Any of you can relate to this?

    Many thanks for your kind words about the posts!!

  5. Madalena: Your mention of language switches and moods amongst your children is interesting. When my big sister and myself were still kids, if I recall correctly, we did switch between languages (Cantonese and English, with Cantonese being the more frequently- and extensively-used language between us then) in mood-related ways. The switch was not so much to indicate a change in mood or a specific mood though, but more to ‘get back on track’ or ‘normalise’ things after a change in mood. It’s like if we ‘irritated’ each other, in typical sibling fashion, in one language, and we both were in a mood of ‘irritation’, when one of us decided to ‘clear’ the air, it would usually be with a language different from the language in which the mutual ‘irritation’ occurred. Or if one of us had a joke (from school, about friends, etc.) to tell, and when the telling ended and the laughter died down, the conversation would usually begin with a language different from the language in which the joke was told. I must admit that I have little way of verifying, between me and my big sister, what I now recall from memory, partly because we’re no longer children, and as such, ‘irritate’ each other less :) (we still crack jokes to each other, thankfully), and mostly because at some point in our growing-up years, English (gradually) came to dominate our sibling talk, with the occasional lexical mix, of course, from Cantonese and other languages that we know. Our shift towards more monolingually(?)/less multilingually(?) English-dominant sibling talk also means that it’s now hard to observe that kind of distinct language switches in mood-related ways that I seem to recall from our childhood.


  6. I like the way you describe becoming a trilingual family as the children adopted their school language as their peer language. I've been fully expecting my children to do that, as it seems so to be a very common phenomenon. But so far they've stuck to English (which I speak to them, whereas their Papa speaks to them in German) among themselves. I'm not even entirely sure how well they speak French, as I almost never hear them use it. They are in French-speaking school/creche 3 -5 days a week and have been since they were babies (the older two are now 3 and 4 years old). Any ideas on why they might NOT use their school language as their peer language?

  7. My children’s adoption of a third language among themselves became clear roughly three years into their regular contact with it. English was a newcomer to my children, in that their schooling in it started at a later age than your children’s first contact with French, Jen. Given what Deborah reports about the shift towards one of her “old” languages in later sibling life, it will be really interesting to see what your little ones will come up with!


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