Skip to main content Accessibility help

Parental language input patterns and children's bilingual use



This article reports on a study that addresses the following question: why do some children exposed to two languages from early on fail to speak those two languages? Questionnaire data were collected in 1,899 families in which at least one of the parents spoke a language other than the majority language. Each questionnaire asked about the home language use of a family consisting of at least one parent and one child between the ages of 6 and 10 years old. The results show that the children in these families all spoke the majority language, but that minority language use was not universal. Differences in parental language input patterns used at home correlated with differences in child minority language use. Home input patterns where both parents used the minority language and where at most one parent spoke the majority language had a high chance of success. The “one parent–one language” strategy did not provide a necessary nor sufficient input condition. Implications for bilingual families are discussed.


Corresponding author

Annick De Houwer, Department of Communication Sciences, Sint Jacobstraat 2, University of Antwerp, Antwerp 2000, Belgium. E-mail:


Hide All
Alba R. D. 2002 Only English by the third generation? Loss and preservation of the mother tongue among the grandchildren of contemporary immigrants. Demography, 39, 467484.
Bayley R., Schecter S. R., & Torres-Ayala B. 1996 Strategies for bilingual maintenance: Case studies of Mexican-origin families in Texas. Linguistics and Education, 8, 389408.
De Houwer A. 1995 Bilingual language acquisition. In P. Fletcher & B. MacWhinney (Eds.), The handbook of child language (pp. 219250). Oxford: Blackwell.
De Houwer A. 1997 The role of input in the acquisition of past verb forms in English and Dutch: Evidence from a bilingual child. In E. Clark (Ed.), Proceedings of the 28th Stanford Child Language Research Forum (pp. 153162). Stanford, CA: CSLI.
De Houwer A. 1999 Environmental factors in early bilingual development: The role of parental beliefs and attitudes. In G. Extra & L. Verhoeven (Eds.), Bilingualism and migration (pp. 7595). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
De Houwer A. 2003 Home languages spoken in officially monolingual Flanders: A survey. Plurilingua, 24, 7996.
De Houwer A. 2004 Trilingual input and children's language use in trilingual families in Flanders. In C. Hoffmann & J. Ytsma (Eds.), Trilingualism in the individual, family and society (pp. 118138). Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
De Houwer A. 2006 Bilingual development in the early years. In K. Brown (Ed.), Encyclopedia of language and linguistics (2nd ed.). Oxford: Elsevier.
Finocchiaro C. 2004 Language maintenance/shift of a three-generation Italian family in three migration countries: An international comparative study. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Melbourne.
Guardadao M. 2002 Loss and maintenance of first language skills: Case studies of Hispanic families in Vancouver. Canadian Modern Language Review, 58, 341364.
Hakuta K., & d'Andrea D. 1992 Some properties of bilingual maintenance and loss in Mexican background high-school students. Applied Linguistics, 13, 7299.
Hammer C. S., Miccio A. W., & Rodriguez B. L. 2004 Bilingual language acquisition and the child socialization process. In B. A. Goldstein (Ed.), Bilingual language development and disorders in Spanish–English speakers (pp. 2150). Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.
Hart B., & Risley T. 1995 Meaningful differences in the everyday experiences of young American children. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.
Hurtado A., & Vega L. 2004 Shift happens: Spanish and English transmission between parents and their children. Journal of Social Issues, 60, 137155.
Jisa H. 2000 Language mixing in the weak language: Evidence from two children. Journal of Pragmatics, 32, 13631386.
King K., & Fogle L. 2006 Raising bilingual children: Common parental concerns and current research. In CALdigest Series. Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics.
Krashen S. 2000 Bilingual education, the acquisition of English, and the retention and loss of Spanish. In A. Roca (Ed.), Research on Spanish in the U.S.: Linguistic issues and challenges (pp. 432444). Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Press.
Landry R., & Allard R. 1996 French in South Louisiana: Towards language loss. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 17, 442468.
Lanza E. 1997 Language mixing in infant bilingualism: A sociolinguistic perspective. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Leopold W. 1970 Speech development of a bilingual child. A linguist's record. New York: AMS Press.
Lyon J. 1996 Becoming bilingual. Language acquisition in a bilingual community. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
Meisel J. M. 2007 The weaker language in early child bilingualism: Acquiring a first language as a second language? Applied Psycholinguistics, 28, 495514.
Mishina S. 1999 The role of parental input and discourse strategies in the early language mixing of a bilingual child. Multilingua, 18, 130.
Nicoladis E., & Genesee F. 1997 The role of parental input and language dominance in bilingual children's code-mixing. In E. Hughes, M. Hughes. & A. Greenhill (Eds.), Proceedings of the 21st Annual Boston University Conference on Language Development (pp. 422432). Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Press.
Okita T. 2002 Invisible work. Bilingualism, language choice and childrearing in intermarried families. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Pan B. A. 1995 Code negotiation in bilingual families: “My body starts speaking English.” Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 16, 315327.
Pan B. A., & Gleason J. B. 1986 The study of language loss: Models and hypotheses for an emerging discipline. Applied Psycholinguistics, 7, 193206.
Paradis J., & Navarro S. 2003 Subject realization and crosslinguistic interference in the bilingual acquisition of Spanish and English: What is the role of the input? Journal of Child Language, 30, 371393.
Patterson J. L. 2000 Relationships of expressive vocabulary to frequency of reading and television experience among bilingual toddlers. Applied Psycholinguistics, 23, 493508.
Portes A., & Hao L. 1998 E Pluribus Unum: Bilingualism and language loss in the second generation. Sociology of Education, 71, 269294.
Portes A., & Rumbaut R. 2001 Legacies: The story of the immigrant second generation. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Sánchez S. 2005 Is it wrong to speak to my babies in their home language? Washington, DC: Head Start Information & Publication Center. Retrieved from
Sirèn U. 1991 Minority language transmission in early childhood. parental intention and language use. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Stockholm University, Institute of International Education.
Tseng V., & Fuligni A. J. 2000 Parent–adolescent language use and relationships among immigrant families with East Asian, Filipino, and Latin American backgrounds. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 62, 465476.
Veltman C. J. 1981 Anglicization in the United States: The importance of parental nativity and language practice. International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 32, 6584.
Wastie S. 1994 Supporting families at risk for language loss. Ottawa, Canada: Canadian Child Care Federation. Retrieved from
Wong Fillmore L. 2000 Loss of family languages: Should educators be concerned? Theory into Practice, 39, 203210.
Yamamoto M. 2001 Language use in interlingual families: A Japanese–English sociolinguistic study. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Applied Psycholinguistics
  • ISSN: 0142-7164
  • EISSN: 1469-1817
  • URL: /core/journals/applied-psycholinguistics
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed