My son grows up as a bilingual. At home we speak Arabic or German with him while he usually speaks German at the playschool.

Until his third birthday, I sometimes remarked that he couldn't really switch between languages or more exactly address his conversation partner in the right language: For example, he insisted to talk to my in-laws (Arabic) in German. I'm not quite sure whether he did/does so because he don't know or in defiance of them, because he loves them very much, but they could rarely come to visit us!

On the other hand, he addressed my father, who speaks both Arabic and German, in Arabic.

While he at first used to talk to us in German, now he seems to adapt the language on the actual "on" language!

Therefore, I often wondered if children could easily address their conversation partner in the right language or could realize whether they could understand them or not?

And if so, at what age this would happen?

  • 1
    Only my opinion, but growing up I had many non-English speaking relatives. While I wasn't bilingual, I recall a perception difference between my immediate family (parents, brothers/sisters, grandparents) and other relatives. I think I would have considered other relatives the same as "other people", as a young child. Especially if your in-laws don't spend a lot of time around him.
    – user3169
    Commented Apr 8, 2016 at 17:54
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    François Grosjean is a worldwide reference in the matter of bilingualism and what parents want to know about bilingualism.
    – None
    Commented Apr 9, 2016 at 8:13
  • Interesting reading: theconversation.com/…
    – None
    Commented Apr 16, 2016 at 9:16

2 Answers 2


An answer from my husband who's a developmental psychologist:

Bilingualism does not cause any impairments or delays, although vocabulary may be slower to acquire. It helps if the child is exposed to rich language environments in both languages: for example, if they are surrounded by one language at home and another language at kindergarten. Exposure to books and children-suitable TV shows in both languages is also a good idea (not every cartoon is suitable for children, Sponge Bob is not).

By the age of 4 the child should be able to address each person in the right langauge, this is part of the pragmatic ability. Pragmatic ability is key to social interaction, it includes the usage of so-called rituals: how to greet people, how to draw a person's attention while speaking, how to maintain conversation cycles, and so on. Lack of pragmatic ability by the age of 4 might be a sign of a language development delay, but it doesn't have to be.

  • While I've heard this is true in the long run, I've seen studies (will find the link if need be) that indicate that verbal processing is slower for bilinguals in lower elementary and language sorting (remembering which words/structures belong to each language) can make them appear slow in pre-school / kindergarten level work.
    – virmaior
    Commented Apr 22, 2016 at 0:49
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    From what I've read, it takes a little more work for young children in the early grades because not only are they having to learn to differentiate between the two languages but they basically have to learn twice as much as their monolingual peers. This however pays off in the long run with increased executive function and other things. Here is an example: nih.gov/news-events/nih-research-matters/… of such studies.
    – Rozgonyi
    Commented May 31, 2018 at 14:33

In the country where I'm from every child is expected to at the very least learn a first language and a second language. Some even learn a third or a fourth language at school. Although we have very real problems with education it is hardly this policy's fault.

I myself in my own teaching have seen dual language houses done well and less well. You get houses where both parents are afforded the right to speak their own language with the child and some homes where one of the languages get marginalised.

Now where I'm from both these languages are official languages of the country, so it is easier to teach the children two languages. I'm sure when one of the languages in question is not an official language of the country of residence, things become hard.

In closing, I would say not only can it be done it is actually important that it be done. Your child will never truly understand the cultural heritage that both his parents come from if he does not speak both the languages.

For the sake of your child's cultural heritage teach them both languages, even if it is hard or makes you unpopular with your child.

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