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The Person-Language Bond II

Exploring the person-language bond in bilingual children

Post written by François Grosjean.

In a post several years ago, I discussed the very strong bond that can exist in young bilingual children between a person and a language (see here). For them, person X speaks a particular language (e.g. English) and should always speak it, even if that person shares other languages with the child. Many people have reported on this phenomenon, and examples abound that show how children can refuse to answer in the "wrong language" or even become upset when it is used with them.

Psycholinguist Annick de Houwer gives an example in her book, Bilingual First Language Acquisition, concerning her Dutch-English bilingual daughter Susan who was three and a half years old at the time and with whom she always spoke Dutch. She had just got off the phone where she had spoken English and without realizing it she asked Susan a question in English and not in Dutch. Susan started to cry and said, in Dutch: "Nee mama, nee! Niet Engels mama!" (No mommy, no! No English, mommy!).

I have become aware, once again, of the person-language bond with a little French-English bilingual boy I know well. I speak French to him and whenever I try to switch over to English, he turns away or shows he doesn't like it. One day, getting ready to read a Bill Peete story to him, written in English, I asked, "Do you want the story in English or in French?". He immediately replied, "In French", forcing me to translate the story even though it would have been easier for me to read it in English. I've tried since then to read him other books in English but he always balks at this.

Why is the person-language bond so strong in some bilingual children? As I noted in my earlier post, psycholinguists have proposed that respecting the bond helps these children differentiate languages. If that is the case, it would join a long list of factors that help very young bilinguals discriminate and separate their languages such as the specificity of sounds and/or sound sequences of the languages, their grammar and prosody, cultural and contextual cues, and so on (for a post on this, see here).

Does the person-language bond remain as strong as the child grows older? Sometimes it can but it will be expressed in a different way. One parent, Nayr, who commented on my earlier post, relates how her son has tagged her as a speaker of English. In his earlier years he was bilingual in Portuguese and English but refused that she speak to him in Portuguese. Then, later when they moved to France, he became predominantly a speaker of French and English but still insisted that English be his mother's language (although she also speaks French). She writes that her son is now 17 and still insists that she "act" English, both linguistically and culturally.

Another comment came from Noemie who was raised in an English-French bilingual family. The family mainly spoke English at home but when French guests came over, her parents insisted that they speak French. She reports that she simply couldn't do it when members of her family were there: "... I would rather leave the room than speak French with my family." She continues, ".... it has lasted into my adulthood. I am still today completely unable to address my family members in French...".

Most often though, the person-language bond evolves into a "preferred language" or "agreed-upon" language that bilinguals have with other bilinguals that they know well such as parents, brothers and sisters, other relatives, close friends, etc. Violation of this “agreement”, when there is no good reason to use the other language­ (such as the presence of a monolingual, or a topic that is usually dealt with in the other language) is likely to create an unnatural or even embarrassing situation, and may end with the question, “Why are you speaking language X to me?”.

Is the person-language bond found in all societies among bilingual children? For a long time, I thought this was the case, to a greater or lesser extent. But then I reread the writings of Abdelali Bentahila and Eirlys Davies, both researchers on bilingualism based in Morocco, and realized that this was not the case. They report on Arabic - French bilingualism which is prevalent in the middle and upper classes in their country. The children hear both languages at home and are addressed in both languages by their parents. Later, they are placed in nursery schools where the two languages are present.

Abdelali Bentahila and Eirlys Davies stress that these young bilinguals are used to hearing their parents and other adults use the two languages - sometimes the one, sometimes the other, and very often intermingling both languages substantially (see here). As a result, children do not "tag" adults with a particular language and do not develop the strong person-language bond that other children do.

For these authors, whether such a bond develops or not depends on the way children are brought up bilingual. If the languages are clearly separated during childhood, by person (e.g. with the one person - one language approach) or by environment (one language at home, one outside the home), then a bond might develop. If the use of one or the other language by individuals is freer, and the languages are interchangeable, then it probably will not.

The good news for parents who each speaks both languages to their children in the home, is that the probability that the latter will become bilingual will be as high as it is for those who use a more restricted approach (see here). In addition, their children will not notice, to the point of sometimes being upset, if they hear their parents use the other language!

For a full list of "Life as a bilingual" blog posts by content area, see here.

Photo of a happy family walking in a field from Shutterstock.


De Houwer, Annick (2009). Bilingual First Language Acquisition. Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Bentahila, Abdelali & Davies, Eirlys E. (1995). Patterns of code-switching and patterns of language contact. Lingua, 96, 75-93.

François Grosjean's website.

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