How Parenting a Second Bilingual Child is Different to the First

When I had my first child I knew I wanted to raise him to be bilingual. I had taught many children English as their second, third or even fourth language and had researched a lot on the benefits of bilingualism. I knew I wanted to give the gift of languages to my children.

Before my son was even born, my husband and I had a plan. I would speak English and my husband would speak Italian, using the OPOL language strategy. It was natural for us, as neither of us at the time spoke each other’s languages well.

We live in Italy and we knew it wouldn’t be hard for our children to learn Italian, but I would need to be fairly strict with English to make sure my children spoke it to a native level. I had taught English to children who actually had an English speaking parent, and thought it was such a waste that they weren’t passing on their heritage language. There I was teaching their child English, when the parent could have done it from birth. I wanted to make sure that this wouldn’t be the case for us.

From the very start we took bilingualism very seriously, and concentrated a lot on our son’s language development. I always made sure that if he answered me in Italian, that I encouraged him to use English. Where possible I never spoke Italian around him, so I am not sure he even realised I could speak Italian when he was younger.

If he answered me in Italian I always asked him to repeat in English, giving him an expression kind of pretending I didn’t understand him in order to encourage him to switch to English. I told him constantly that “Mummy speaks English, Papà speaks Italian.”

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When he was three years old we introduced Spanish, which he took to quite well. His Spanish speaking “playmate” has only ever spoken Spanish with him. She has taken the same approach we did, encouraging him to speak in Spanish.

As a result my oldest son, who is now five years old, speaks Italian and English perfectly to a native level, and conversational Spanish. We have never had issues with his language development. Of course this could also be accompanied by other factors, as we know all children develop their language abilities differently. However, I am sure that our actions, being so consistent, helped towards achieving this.

The birth of a second child

Everyone with multiple children knows that having a second child is nothing like the first. When you have only one child, that one child has all of your attention. You have all the time in the world to spend with your first child, and focus only on them, because they are the only child. With a second child, there is the first child to compete with.

I have seen a few differences with my second son, who is now three years old. Although we used the same approach, his language abilities are developing differently. He still speaks both Italian and English quite well, and has a good understanding of Spanish. However, his fluency in each language is developing differently to his older brother, his Italian is much stronger.

First of all, there could be one main reason for this:

Our little one was introduced to Spanish at around 18 months old and has been exposed to three languages from an earlier age than my older son, who started learning Spanish at three. Therefore, he has been learning three languages from very young and had to share the language exposure. Italian has always been the community language and the most dominant, however English and Spanish have had to “share” limited exposure.

However, I do notice a variety of other things that are different.

1.Bilingual Siblings

Having bilingual siblings means that they will have someone else to speak with other than their parents. I recently wrote an article on the many factors that determine the language siblings will speak. The main one for us is that the older child usually influences the younger child. I initially thought that I could slack off on being so strict, thinking his brother would give him more English exposure, but it was the opposite.

Italian is the community language, and the one my kids get the most exposure so it is dominant. I noticed my son likes to speak in Italian with little brother when I am not with them, so this is what he speaks back. They only speak in English together when we play or read together, and even then they sometimes like to switch to Italian when not speaking directly with me. As a result, Italian has even more exposure.

2.Less One on One Time

There is usually less one on one time with a second child. I hear this from many other parents of bilingual kids that I know. I do try to have as much one on one time with each of my kids individually, eg. at night my husband and I will sometimes slit up for bedtime stories so they can have a story in each language. However realistically it isn’t easy, they want to stay together most of the time.

The second child (and I am assuming a third or fourth) needs more effort and consistency. Because they miss out on the initial one on one time with you, that time needs to be made up somehow.

3.We’ve been there before

With a second child, it isn’t new, we have been through all of these milestones before. The older child is getting better and better at speaking and learning new vocabulary. It is a new exciting adventure all the time watching them grow and hear them speak their various languages.

We have to constantly make sure we giving the same attention to the second child, because every milestone for them is just as exciting, even if we have done it before. This is where one on one time is needed, to make sure each child gets the same attention. It is definitely a balancing act, and it isn’t easy, especially when you are trying to raise your children with multiple languages.

Our situation

Our family situation has recently changed and we are planning to move from an Italian speaking community to an English one, so I am not really worried about the fact that Italian is the dominant language for my little one. In fact, have recently slacked off on the English altogether and am encouraging Italian more for both of my kids, in order to prepare for a change in our language strategy. I hope they will continue speaking Italian to one another in the future as it will make it much easier to keep their fluency up.

However if we were planning on staying in Italy, I know I would need to make double the effort to make sure my second child didn’t “slip through the gaps”. I would definitely have to make more of an effort to be more consistent with the minority language to make sure it kept up.

How about you? Have you seen a difference with your second child, compared to your first with their language skills? Do you think raising a second bilingual child is different to your first? Check out our Language Resources Page for ideas in your language!

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