In my last workshop, a French father who lives in Spain told me that the silent phase lasted 4 years for his first child. He spoke to his son in French, but his son never spoke a word of French back; if he did reply, it was always in Spanish. Then, on his return from a week at his grandparents’ in France, he suddenly became fluent in French. The father concluded by saying that having seen this drastic change, he would feel much calmer about his second child’s silent phase. It almost goes without saying that the rest of the group, who were also parents, almost in unison, all at once asked the same question: why do you think the same thing will happen with your second child? So I am not telling anyone anything new by saying that no two siblings are the same.
And just as no two siblings are the same, sibling relationships are also very different, depending on, for example, how many years apart the children are, or whether they are boys or girls. Add to this the fact that the family is multilingual, and it gets even more complicated.
Regardless of whether siblings are exposed to all their languages at the same time, or if the family moves countries during their childhood and the children are exposed to the new language or languages at different ages, each sibling will follow a completely different path in terms of language learning.
For example, if the eldest sibling is very young when the family moves to a new country, they will most likely be the one to socialise the family, as they will be the quickest to learn the new language. They may be given small interpreting tasks at an early age, which will be very good for their confidence. While they will also have the task of helping any younger siblings with homework, this will also depend on their ability to retain the language of origin. If the oldest child is able to learn the new language quickly and skilfully at nursery or school, but continues to speak the original language at home with their parents, the second child will have sufficient linguistic support from this home communication, even if, as is often the case, they receive less input from their parents due to lack of time. If, on the other hand, the older child is already very advanced in their use of the second language at home, this means that the younger child will receive input in the second language earlier, which will be useful for nursery or kindergarten, but will cause them to progress more slowly in their language of origin.
The general tendency is for siblings to switch to the language used in their school sooner or later. However, how a family in a multilingual environment uses languages at home is always a matter of negotiation. It is important to be flexible with the use of languages, and to seek a balance where there is room for everyone, because which language the family uses at home is something that children have a strong say in. Parents often mention that they stop using their mother tongue because the child no longer responds to them in that language, and they feel that the child might not understand if they, the parent, continue to use their own language with them. What to do in such cases is the subject of my next article.
What I would like to highlight today is that instead of comparing children, we should help each one in the individual situation he or she is in. Let us also try to tell stories, read, and sing as much as possible to younger siblings in the language of origin – and let us not forget that the simultaneous acquisition of several languages is a complex dynamic process. Languages are not enemies, they support each other. The better you know one language, the easier it is to learn another, and a language can grow stronger and weaker in the process, but whenever it weakens, it can be strengthened again.