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Harmonious Bilingualism: Well-being for families in bilingual settings

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This chapter discusses the subjective well-being of parents and their pre-adult children as it relates to settings where family members need to (learn to) use two languages in daily life. This specific type of well-being is subsumed under the term Harmonious Bilingualism (HB). The chapter reviews empirical research that either explicitly or implicitly explores bilingual families' and/or bilingual family members' levels of HB. Children's well-developed dual language proficiency is central to families' HB. The HB of bilingual families is often threatened when children do not speak two languages or do not speak them well. While children always end up speaking the societal language, about a quarter do not speak the home language, in spite of hearing it at home. This represents a major threat to HB. Language choice patterns in parent-child conversations are crucial in order to socialize children into speaking the home language and thus aid families in developing HB. The chapter ends by briefly indicating additional likely factors supporting HB and by outlining the most urgent needs for research into a better understanding of well-being for families in bilingual settings.
July 2019: accepted manuscript version of Chapter 4 of the Handbook of Social and Affective Factors
in Home Language Maintenance and Development. Berlin, Germany: Mouton de Gruyter, edited by
Susana Eisenchlas & Andrea Schalley
Harmonious Bilingualism: Well-being for families in bilingual settings
Annick De Houwer
1. Introduction
1.1. Harmonious Bilingual Development/Harmonious Bilingualism
Home language maintenance, the main topic of this Handbook, is a very emotional subject for
many parents raising children in bilingual settings. As reviewed in De Houwer (2017), parents feel
upset and ashamed when their children do not speak the language that the parents speak to them.
On the other hand, growing up in a bilingual setting can lead young children to experience acute
feelings of distress (first documented by Dahoun 1995). A bilingual situation can thus influence
subjective well-being.
When subjective well-being is not negatively affected by factors relating to a bilingual setting,
we can speak of Harmonious Bilingualism. This is an expansion on the notion of Harmonious Bilingual
Development proposed earlier in De Houwer (2006; 2015). Harmonious Bilingual Development
applies when families with young children in a language contact setting do not generally experience
any problems because of that bilingual situation, or have a positive subjective experience with
bilingualism. The notion of Harmonious Bilingualism increases the scope to families with children
beyond the early childhood stage. Harmonious Bilingualism, then, is the more encompassing term to
refer to a subjectively neutral or positive experience that members of a family in a bilingual setting
have with aspects of that setting. The counterpart of Harmonious Bilingualism is conflictive
bilingualism. Both Harmonious Bilingualism and conflictive bilingualism form two ends of a
Several studies have specifically assessed aspects of subjective well-being in bilingual situations.
Others have revealed aspects of such subjective well-being (or the lack of it) more implicitly. This
chapter aims to bring some of these studies together and consider how they contribute to a better
understanding of Harmonious Bilingualism and the factors supporting it. First, however, I discuss the
notion of subjective well-being.
1.2. Subjective well-being and the role of language
Subjective well-being is a multidimensional concept referring to "a broad category of
phenomena that includes people’s emotional responses, domain satisfactions, and global judgments
of life satisfaction” (Diener et al. 1999: 277). While its precise conceptualization is not clear, the
relevant literature tends to define subjective well-being in terms of "the experience of pleasant affect,
unpleasant affect, and life satisfaction" (Tov 2018: 3).
Subjective well-being (henceforth: well-being) is inextricably linked with overall physical and
mental health, temperament, and personality (Lansford 2018). As reviewed in Diener, Oishi, and Tay
(2018), there are many other factors that affect well-being, such as socio-economic status, the
political system people live in, and the quality of interpersonal relationships. Newland et al. (2018)
studied these extensively for 25,906 9- to 14-year-olds across 14 countries, relying on data collected
through the International Survey of Children’s Well-Being (ISCWeB), a worldwide research survey on
children’s well-being that analyzes children's answers to a questionnaire (
The general ISCWeB questionnaire does not, however, query anything related to language,
except as part of a question about language classes taken outside school time. Also, the
comprehensive Diener et al. (2018) handbook does not mention language as a factor in well-being.
Yet, as studies of monolinguals show, it certainly is. For instance, preschoolers with better pragmatic
language abilities enjoy higher peer status (Paulus 2017). Adolescents who are proficient speakers
have a higher chance of having successful friendships than peers who are not (Durkin and Conti-
Ramsden 2007). Low verbal abilities are a risk factor for antisocial and delinquent behavior (Muñoz et
al. 2008). People who stammer or who can no longer speak fluently due to dementia or aphasia pay a
dear social price. Even receptive language skills impact how others perceive us: A study of 615
children in middle childhood found that children with lower receptive vocabulary skills showed
increasingly troublesome behavior and suffered progressively more peer rejection, thus lowering their
well-being (Menting, van Lier, and Koot 2011). These results are not surprising, given that we have
known at least since Sapir (1927) that language use in interaction is intimately bound with
personality, which is a socially ascribed and often verbally expressed construct of how we perceive
others and ourselves, with all the biases this may entail (Trofimova 2014). Thus, language plays a
fundamental role in well-being (Rose, Ebert, and Weinert 2016).
1.3. Well-being in bilingual settings: some examples
Except for extreme cases of atypical language use as in aphasia, the role of language in well-
being is hard to see in individual interactions in monolingual settings. Perhaps this is why the general
well-being literature has not paid much attention to it. In bilingual settings, however, the role of
language in well-being is much more immediately visible. Consider the example of my taxi driver in
Portland, Oregon, in March 2014. He was born in Ethiopia and had moved to the United States as a
young adult. He spoke English fluently. My driver's first language was Oromiffa, and he self-identified
as belonging to the Oromo people. He married an English-speaking American who did not know any
Oromiffa. In 2014, my driver was the father of three young children and wanted them to speak
Oromiffa. However, after his first son, Ifaa, was born, my driver did not speak Oromiffa to him
because he thought it would confuse the child. He just spoke English to the baby. Yet Ifaa grew up
with Oromiffa from birth, through input from his aunt, who lived with the family for the first two
years of Ifaa's life, and who interacted with Ifaa a lot and did not know any English. Ifaa learned to
speak Oromiffa through her, but stopped speaking it when his aunt went back to Ethiopia just before
his third birthday. When Ifaa was about 4, his father started to speak Oromiffa to his children because
he was alarmed at the fact that Ifaa was not speaking much Oromiffa. At age 6, Ifaa was able to speak
some Oromiffa to the family back in Ethiopia (on Skype) but refused to speak it to his father. My
driver cited Ifaa as telling him there was no point in speaking Oromiffa to him, because he spoke
English anyhow. The father was puzzled by the fact that Ifaa was able and willing to speak some
Oromiffa with other Ethiopians, but not with him as his father. Throughout the conversation, my
driver was very open about being upset because his son would not speak Oromiffa with him. He
expressed his long-held sense of grief about what he saw as his failure as a father to transmit his first
language to his elder son. Clearly, my driver's well-being was being affected by specific language
choices in the family. He was not experiencing Harmonious Bilingualism.
In another example, a child's sense of belonging in preschool and overall well-being were under
attack because of her inability to verbally communicate in a new linguistic environment and the lack
of attention from that environment for her predicament. Zerdalia lived in Algeria during the French
colonial occupation (Dahoun 1995: 35-36). She spoke Arabic at home. Her first day at a French-
speaking nursery school in her neighborhood came as a brutal shock. There was no sweet teacher to
greet her in Arabic and pronounce her name correctly. In fact, no-one spoke a language she could
understand. When the teacher called on her, she was stifled with fear - in what language should she
speak? Zerdalia soon realized that the language spoken in her home and neighborhood was excluded
at school. The following months she paid close attention to the sounds coming out of the teacher's
and the other children's mouths and to how their mouths opened and closed. She realized she would
have to learn to do as they did in order to communicate with them. And there was candy if you found
the right words to say. One day, she gathered her courage to get up and address the teacher, in the
hope of getting a candy. Instead, she got a cold disapproving stare and a finger pointing at her seat.
Zerdalia felt unfairly treated, and her identity and her language crushed (Dahoun 1995 is recounting
her own experiences as a child). Thus, already at age 3, Zerdalia experienced a lack of well-being due
to the linguistic diversity she was confronted with, or, rather, due to how that linguistic diversity was
shaped in her environment. She was not experiencing Harmonious Bilingual Development.
The next example also shows a relation between linguistic factors and well-being, but this time
it is a positive one: The young man in this example prides himself on his bilingualism, and his
bilingualism seems to contribute to his overall well-being. John lived in Louisiana, United States, with
his Canadian-American parents who spoke French to him (Caldas 2006). In Lousiana John spoke
English with his friends. He spent summers in Québec, Canada, and had many French-speaking friends
there. When asked how he felt about being bilingual in Canada, he said: "I speak well enough French
to be perfectly integrated socially. In fact, my bilingualism and Americanism actually gave me an
edge" (Caldas 2006: 158). At age 18, John thus seemed to be experiencing Harmonious Bilingualism,
an improvement from 6 years earlier, when he had felt self-conscious and awkward about being
bilingual (Caldas 2006: 152-159).
A final example shows a more neutral relation between linguistic factors and well-being: A
German mother in Greece admitted that her children did not speak German very well, but she
considered this to be normal (Leist-Villis 2004: 166). After all, she said, Greek is the environmental
language in Greece, and nobody can be perfectly bilingual. This is also why she did not pressure her
children about speaking better German. She found it good enough that they were able to make
themselves understood. If her children wanted to speak better German, it was up to themselves to
make that happen. This mother attributed no particularly negative or positive aspects to her
children's lesser proficiency in the language she spoke to them. She appeared quite satisfied with her
bilingual family situation, and was likely experiencing Harmonious Bilingualism.
The examples above show various degrees of well-being in people living in settings where they
themselves or a family member are in regular contact with more than a single language variety. As the
review below will show, there is indeed a large degree of interindividual variation in how people
experience their bilingualism.
2. Scope of the review
The studies selectively reviewed below hail from different disciplines and research perspectives.
Similarly to my earlier review of mostly European research (De Houwer 2017), I include both large
quantitative and smaller qualitative studies. Their combination can likely tell us more about
Harmonious Bilingualism than just a single research perspective. I here widen the scope to studies
worldwide. Included are studies published in English, French and German. Most of the quantitative
studies, however, are limited to countries where English is the societal language.
One novelty of the present review is that it systematically brings together findings about young
children, adolescents and parents who are part of a family with pre-adult children (Sevinç, this
volume, discusses families with adult children; De Houwer 2017 only considered studies involving
families in bilingual settings with children up to age 6). "Family" here means a unit made up of at least
one adult who lives with and is responsible for at least one person who has not yet reached legally
adult status (excluded are institutions such as orphanages or boarding schools). Families are dynamic
systems that are firmly embedded within and influenced by wider society (Treas, Scott, and Richards
2017). Family members are autonomous persons who at the same time are strongly dependent on
each other. What happens to one family member will affect the other(s) (Ram et al. 2014). Good
child-parent relationships are central to family well-being (Suldo and Fefer 2013).
The review only considers studies yielding information on well-being and language use.
Excluded are studies of well-being in bilinguals without a focus on language. The discussion below is
limited to links between well-being and aspects of the bilingual setting in which respondents find
themselves even if studies investigate additional aspects such as academic achievement.
The bilingual settings covered involve language varieties considered to represent different
languages, rather than varieties of the same language. "Home language" here refers to any language
not commonly used in public life in the region where the family lives; "societal language" refers to any
language commonly used in public life. Families may speak both a home language and the societal
language at home. Often, (pre)schools use the societal language, but some children are in institutions
using both the home and the societal language, or just the home language.
Quantitative studies (section 3) often measure aspects of well-being through standardized
assessment instruments. Many studies expressly examining well-being in relation to language
consider children as individuals, that is, not in relation to their parents (3.1). Several other studies
investigating well-being in bilingual settings focus on the child-parent relationship (3.2). So far, I have
found only a single study systematically addressing aspects of parental well-being in bilingual families
(3.3). Aspects of parental well-being in bilingual settings have mainly become visible through studies
that happened to reveal some of those aspects as a result of a more ethnographic approach (section
3. Empirical research explicitly addressing well-being in bilingual settings
3.1. Well-being in children in bilingual settings
When young children are raised with a single home language that is not the societal language
the first place they will meet up with another language in regular interpersonal contact is day care or
preschool (De Houwer 2013). Bullying and victimization by monolingual peers are real dangers for
these emergent bilingual children who do not yet speak the societal language well (see Chang et al.
2007 in the United States, involving 345 emergent bilinguals between 4.5 and 5.5; and von Grünigen
et al. 2012 in Switzerland, involving 203 emergent bilinguals between 6 and 6.5). Importantly, Chang
et al. (2007) found that teacher behavior modulates bullying rates: Emergent bilinguals were less
likely to be victims of peer aggression in classrooms where teachers spoke more Spanish (the
children's home language) compared to classrooms where teachers only spoke English (the societal
language). Furthermore, the more teachers spoke English, the more they found their relationships
with children to be conflictive. In contrast, the more teachers spoke Spanish, the less they felt that
their relationship with the children was conflictive. von Grünigen et al. (2012) found that levels of
bullying sharply decreased as emergent bilingual children gained proficiency in the societal language.
Societal language proficiency is important for all children: In a large (N = 7,267) cohort study in
the United Kingdom, low levels of English proficiency at age 5 were associated with social, emotional,
and behavioral difficulties for bilingual and monolingual children alike (Whiteside, Gooch, and
Norbury 2017). Similarly, an even larger (N = 261,147) cohort study of 5-year-olds in Australia found
that children who were not proficient in the societal language (again English) showed high levels of
developmental vulnerability on several measures of well-being, regardless of whether they just heard
English at home or another home language (Goldfeld et al. 2014).
It is thus not surprising that bilingual children who have developed good levels of proficiency in
the societal language upon (pre)school entry have an advantage over emergent bilingual children in
terms of well-being. They may even have an advantage compared to monolingual children who speak
just the societal language. 5-year-olds with good proficiency in English but whose main home
language was not English experienced fewer social, emotional, and behavioral difficulties than peers
from monolingual English-speaking homes (Whiteside et al. 2017). Bilingually reared 6-year-olds who
did not yet know much English upon entry in English-speaking primary schools (N = 6,361) were
consistently rated by teachers as being in the vulnerable range on several measures of well-being
(Goldfeld et al. 2014). In contrast, bilingually reared children who already spoke English fairly well (N =
37,657) did not show this vulnerability, and had equal or even lower chances of being in the
vulnerable range for well-being compared to monolingual English-speaking peers, mirroring
Whiteside et al.'s (2017) findings. Another study from Australia found no bilingual-monolingual
differences for socio-emotional outcomes in 8- to 9-year-olds, but did not consider levels of
proficiency in the societal language at school entry (McLeod et al. 2016; N = 3,240). In the U.S., Han
and Huang (2010) and Han (2010) found interesting differences amongst 5 types of children. They
studied 12,580 and 14,853 children, respectively, who took part in a large cohort study spanning 6
years. Han and Huang's (2010) sample consisted of "Asian origin" children (N = 1,350) and "US-born,
non-Hispanic White" children; Han's (2010) of "Latino origin" children (N = 2,888) and "US-born, non-
Hispanic White" children. They categorized children on the basis of language fluency at kindergarten
entry (the preparatory year before primary school). Both studies found that language fluency status at
kindergarten entry predicted later levels of well-being, viz., children categorized as fluent bilinguals or
non-English-dominant bilinguals surpassed monolingual English-speaking children, English-dominant
bilinguals and non-English monolinguals on measures of well-being 6 years later. In fact, children who
upon school entry did not know any English had the lowest degree of self-control and interpersonal
skills, and the highest level of internalizing problems 6 years later.
To prevent such long term negative effects of early developmental vulnerability in emergent
bilinguals, Han (2010) proposes that children should have the chance to participate in high quality
second language instruction programs as soon as they enter school. While this is no doubt a good
recommendation, other factors can help as well. In their study of 2,059 Spanish-speaking
Latino/Hispanic children in the United States, Winsler, Kim, and Richards (2014) found that strong
skills in children's home language help to fast develop proficiency in the societal language. Four-and-
a-half-year-olds with stronger Spanish and stronger socio-emotional skills made faster gains in English
proficiency a year later compared to peers whose Spanish was weaker and who exhibited more
behavioral problems, less self-control and lower degrees of initiative. Another U.S. study of somewhat
older children (N = 228) showed that dual language competence correlated with well-being over and
above other factors such as maternal education, levels of poverty, family structure, classroom
composition, child non-verbal IQ, or gender (Collins et al. 2011).
The previous studies used teacher and/or parent ratings of aspects of child well-being. Two
studies used self-reports to explore links between dual language proficiency and aspects of well-
being. Van Der Wildt, Van Avermaet, and Van Hecke (2015) found that bilingual 4th graders (N =
1,761) in Belgium who reported knowing one of their languages much better than the other felt less
of a sense of school belonging than children who knew both their languages equally well (school
belonging supports well-being). In the Netherlands, Vedder (2005; N = 256) found interesting
differences between two ethnic groups. Turkish origin adolescents experienced slightly better
psychological adaptation if they knew both their "ethnic" language and the societal language (Dutch)
well. Suriname origin adolescents, on the other hand, showed lower degrees of psychological
adaptation if they knew both their "ethnic" language and the societal language well (unfortunately,
Vedder does not identify the "ethnic" languages). Vedder explains this discrepancy by differences
amongst Turkish and Suriname origin families in the extent to which they emphasize the importance
of the societal language. If Suriname origin adolescents try to speak the "ethnic" language well, they
are in a sense rebelling against their parents, who tend to emphasize the value of only the societal
language, thus contributing to lesser degrees of psychological adaptation. Turkish origin families, on
the other hand, consider the home language to be very important. This brings us to the next section,
which focuses on studies investigating well-being and adolescent-parent relationships in families in
bilingual settings. They were all carried out in North America.
3.2. Well-being of children and parents in bilingual families
Tseng and Fuligni's (2000) was the first quantitative study (N = 626) to draw a link between teen
well-being and language choice in bilingual families. It showed that adolescents in California who did
not speak the same home language as their parents felt more emotionally distant from them and
were less likely to engage in conversations with them compared to peers who spoke the same home
language as their parents. In a later study of 414 9th graders, Oh and Fuligni (2010) found that in
addition to language choice the level of home language proficiency also mattered for the quality of
adolescent-parent reationships, reflecting similar earlier findings by Portes and Hao (2002). Similarly,
Boutakidis, Chao, and Rodríguez (2011) found positive associations between 611 teens' fluency in
their home language and the degree to which they respected their parents. They also found that the
more fluent teens were in their home language, the more highly teens rated the communication with
their parents.
There have also been studies involving both teens and their parents, all focusing on Chinese as
the home language and English as the societal language. These studies used parental and teens' self-
reports on language use but included well-being measures only for teens (through self-reports). In Liu
et al. (2009; N = 444 teens and their mothers) teens who were proficient in their home language
(Chinese) and whose mothers were so too reported fewer depressive symptoms compared to teens
who were less proficient in their home language or compared to high home language proficient teens
with low home language proficient mothers. However, no relation between teen well-being measures
and a match in levels of English proficiency between teens and mothers emerged. These findings are
consistent with earlier findings by Costigan and Dokis (2006), who studied 89 fathers, 92 mothers and
92 12-year-olds in the same family. Fathers and mothers spoke the home language more frequently
than their children. Overall, teens reported relatively low levels of depression and intergenerational
conflict. Reported intergenerational conflict and feelings of depression were lowest, however, for
children who spoke the home language and had mothers with high levels of home language use.
Conversely, in their study of 451 13-year-olds and both their parents Weaver and Kim (2008) found
that teens who reported highest depressive symptoms and who rated their parents as being least
supportive had low proficiency in the home language and lived in families where parents had low
proficiency in the societal language.
The studies reviewed here strongly suggest that teens feel best in families where there is a
match between teens' and parents' language proficiencies.
3.3. Well-being in parents of bilingually reared children
I have been able to find only a single quantitative study investigating aspects of well-being of
parents in bilingual families. In her in-depth structured interview and questionnaire study with 100
mothers in Greece and Germany who spoke mostly just German and Greek to their children,
respectively, Leist-Villis (2004) included a question about mothers' global satisfaction regarding their
bilingual family life. Mothers had first born children between 4 and 16 years. Most mothers (57) were
very satisfied with the bilingual child rearing and development process as a whole, 20 mothers more
or less so, and 23 were not satisfied. 12 of these 23 reported feeling they had utterly failed at
transmitting their language to their child(ren), and felt very bad about that. Mothers who were highly
satisfied with their bilingual family life tended to (1) have children who spoke the home language, (2)
only speak the home language to their children regardless of the situation, (3) have children who
attended a school that used the home language as a medium of instruction (exclusively, or in addition
to the societal language), (4) have a spouse who was able to speak the home language reasonably
well, and (5) have more home language speakers in their social networks.
Other interview studies might include questions about how mothers feel about their family's
bilingualism, but few do so systematically or in a standardized way. Even if not asked, interviewees
may happen to express evaluative feelings towards their bilingual situation. Investigators might also
gain insight into aspects of well-being through observation. Section 4 reviews some findings gained
through studies that are not explicitly focused on well-being.
4. Empirical research implicitly addressing Harmonious Bilingualism
Observational studies of preschool-age home language speaking children like Zerdalia who did
not know the societal language when they first started to attend preschool show extremely high
levels of stress and unhappiness in these children, with some withdrawing from engagement and
remaining silent in preschool for up to two years (Dahoun 1995, Algeria and France; Drury 2007,
United Kingdom; Manigand 1999, France; Kostyuk 2005, Germany; Nap-Kolhoff 2010, the
Netherlands). These qualitative studies complement quantitative studies demonstrating that children
who do not yet know the societal language when they enter (pre)school are especially vulnerable in
terms of overall well-being (section 3.1).
A rare study based on ethnographic interviews with children gives some insights into how they
evaluated their bilingualism (Mills 2001). None of the 10 children (aged 5 to 19) were very proficient
in their home language (Urdu) but all spoke the societal language (English in the United Kingdom)
fluently. None of them appeared to have any particular issues with their bilingualism, and accepted
that they needed Urdu for contacts with older relatives and/or with people in Pakistan, even if they
did not speak it very well.
If children still speak the home language a bit, its use may, however, become a locus of
intergenerational strife, conflict, and power struggle (Danjo 2018; Kheirkhah and Cekaite 2015; Sevinç
2016). Children may actively refuse to speak the home language in particular situations, answer only
with single words, or change the topic and with it the language (De Houwer 1999). Eventually, these
strategies may lead to children not speaking the home language at all. This negatively affects parents'
well-being. Pakistani origin mothers in the United Kingdom expressed feelings of regret, remorse, and
guilt at what they saw as their failure to transmit their home language to their children (Mills 2004).
Such feelings are shared by parents all over the world (De Houwer 2017). Often, parents mention that
if their children were not to be able to speak the home language they would no longer be able to
communicate with grandparents and other relatives. Parents shudder at the thought. Rodriguez
(1983: 29-30) remembers his relatives' fiercely negative reaction when as a child he could not speak
Spanish, his home language (see also Sevinç, this volume). Children are also expected to learn to use
polite and respectful language forms when speaking to their home language-speaking grandparents
(Mills 2004). If not, parents will be blamed for not raising their children properly. Wong Fillmore
(1991) mentions a particularly tragic example where a Korean origin father in the United States felt
compelled to physically punish his son for not using appropriate honorifics when the child's Korean-
speaking grandfather came to visit. The grandfather had scolded his son for not educating his
grandchildren properly so they could speak polite Korean. The children were taken in protective
custody. Unfortunately, no-one involved recognized the role that language played in this family
It does not help that in-laws who do not speak the home language may also create tensions.
Leist-Villis (2004) reports that societal language-speaking in-laws often voiced negative attitudes
towards child bilingualism and/or to the home language, which led to conflicts and made the speaking
of the home language by mothers and/or children into a battleground. In these situations, the
parental couple relationship may be threatened as well: Spouses face the dilemma of either going
against their parents, or against their home-language-speaking spouse, who in turn may not feel
sufficiently supported (Leist-Villis 2004).
Conversations in which children speak the societal language and parents the home language
involve divergent language choices (De Houwer 2019). The establishment of such conversations may
have become a habit since children were preschoolers. Regardless of their feelings about them,
parents may have adjusted to such conversations, as shown in Nakamura's (2018) study of an Italian-
and an English-speaking father in Japan whose school-aged children spoke mainly Japanese with
them. A longitudinal and observational group study of parent-child story-telling interaction in bilingual
families in the United States similarly suggests such adjustment. Park et al. (2012) traced home
language maintenance (Cantonese or Mandarin) in 68 children who were 6 years old at Time1 and
nearly 7.5 years old at Time2. They compared the amount of parental home language support in
parent-child interactions with assessments of child home language proficiency. Home language
support was defined as a combination of parental home language choice and feedback on child home
language use, including the use of "insisting" discourse strategies which socialize children into using
the home language. A lack of parental home language support at Time1 was associated with
children's home language loss at Time2. Importantly, this study found no evidence that parents
decreased their expression of warmth towards their young children with limited home language
proficiency. Likewise, fathers' interactions with children in Nakamura (2018) showed evidence of a
child-centered and warm parent-child relationship, in spite of divergent language choices. This stands
in sharp contrast to findings for adolescents and their parents (3.2), where interpersonal relationships
may be strained and conflictive if they speak different languages with each other.
There is less of a chance for conflictive bilingualism when children speak the home language.
Parents in recently immigrated Iranian families in the United States mentioned that children started
to take pride in knowing the home language (Farsi) when they were asked to translate from English
into Farsi for their visiting grandparents (Kaveh 2018). Parents in Greece with school aged children
who spoke the home language (Albanian) appeared satisfied with their bilingual family experience
(Chatzidaki and Maligkoudi 2013). Indeed, many are quite satisfied if children speak the home
language (Leist-Villis 2004). Others may not care much about the home language and are satisfied
that their children are highly proficient speakers of other languages (Gogonas and Kirsch 2018), but
such reports are rare: Most parents who speak a home language to their children want their children
to speak the home language, too. There are no reports of parents or children feeling bad because of
fluently conversing in the same home language.
Even if children speak the home language they may not want to use it outside the home. Many
maternal reports indicate that somewhat older children are embarrassed when their mothers speak
the home language in public (Kaveh 2018; Leist-Villis 2004; Little 2017). Examples abound of children
telling their mothers to stop talking the home language in public. This telling off and rejection of their
home language makes mothers feel bad. In most cases, though, they comply, and switch to speaking
the societal language in public (Chatzidaki and Maligkoudi 2013; De Houwer 2017).
Finally, parents are often insecure about how they should go about ensuring that their children
learn both the home language and the societal language (De Houwer 2017). Many are torn between
children's need to learn the societal language well, and their desire that children should learn the
home language as well (Kaveh 2018, Mills 2004: 184, Sevinç 2016).
5. Research on well-being in families in bilingual settings: a brief assessment and outlook
Research explicitly addressing well-being in families in bilingual settings so far is mostly focused
on children. We need more systematic studies like the one conducted by Leist-Villis (2004) that assess
parental well-being in bilingual settings. Most of the information on parental well-being in bilingual
families is rather scattered and unfocused, given that it usually just happened to come up in an
interview. Also, this rather anecdotal information is virtually limited to mothers. We know little about
fathers' assessments of their bilingual family life.
The information regarding bilingual children's well-being mostly does not take into account
family level processes. Also here the research base needs to be expanded.
Most of the large scale studies of well-being in bilingual family members hail from North
America, and are heavily tilted towards children in Hispanic and East Asian origin families. Currently
available information on well-being in bilinguals does not indicate different patterns across countries.
In particular, the two-country study by Leist-Villis (2004) did not find any differences amongst
maternal feelings of satisfaction with their bilingual experience beyond the fact that different
languages and societies were involved. Yet, there may be regional or language-specific effects that
have thus far gone unnoticed. More comparisons across countries are in order.
Many families in bilingual settings have an immigration background. Recently immigrated
individuals may suffer from acculturative stress. Others, also those with a less recent immigration
background, may have experiences with non-language related discrimination. It is highly likely that
overall processes of acculturation are linked to language. It remains to be investigated, though, to
what extent levels of acculturative stress or feelings of societal exclusion are related to linguistic
factors. Especially young children's experiences with social exclusion based on lack of
intercomprehension (as in Zerdalia's example) may have long lasting effects. These effects may,
however, go in either direction: Children may retreat from the new language and society, or they may
start focusing only on their new language and reject the home language and all it represents. Only
long term longitudinal studies can reveal the effects of either.
The available studies, however, already allow us to formulate some main findings.
6. Well-being in bilingual families: some main findings
The review above shows that language choice and proficiency relate to well-being in members
of families living in bilingual settings. Language use in families living in bilingual settings deeply affects
family relationships within the nuclear family and beyond. Furthermore, children's positive or more
negative language related experiences in (pre)school are likely to not only affect children as
individuals, but also their families.
6.1. Home language use between children and parents
Parents and children may use the same language(s) in speaking to each other, and thus follow
the default convergent pattern for language choice (De Houwer 2019). Although same language
choice does not garantee friction-free intergenerational communication, both quantitative and
qualitative studies show that well-being is at risk if parents and children address each other in
different languages. The pattern whereby children speak the societal language and parents the home
language does not serve family members well.
Several surveys show that this divergent choice pattern of intra-family communication is quite
common. A quarter of the 5,335 children in 2,250 families in Flanders, Belgium, who heard a home
language from one or both parents did not speak that language but solely spoke the societal
language, Dutch (De Houwer 2003). Longitudinal findings for 93 infants exposed to an indigenous
language in Australia and the societal language, English, show a nearly identical proportion of sole
English use by the time children were of preschool age (Verdon and McLeod 2015). A larger
longitudinal study of children in Australia, this time including speakers of any non-English home
language, found that of the 666 children who spoke a home language at age 2 to 3 only 78% still
spoke that language by the time they were 4 to 5 (Verdon, McLeod, and Winsler 2014). Slavkov (2017)
reports similar proportions of home language use by school-aged children in bilingual families in
Ontario, Canada. A fifth of 626 adolescents with a recent immigration background in the United States
reported speaking English to their home language-speaking parents (Tseng and Fuligni 2000). The fact
that home language maintenance generally appears to be absent for about a quarter of the families
surveyed suggests that many families in a bilingual setting do not experience Harmonious
A study investigating parent-child language choice in more detail concerns 1,086 families with at
least one 5- to 7.5-year-old child in Texas and California where Spanish was the home and English the
societal language (Branum-Martin et al. 2014). Amongst others, this study queried whether family
members spoke only/mainly Spanish to another family member, Spanish and English equally, or
mainly/only English. If we consider just the percentage of parents and children who spoke only
Spanish with each other, my comparison of data in Branum-Martin et al. (2014; Table 2 )shows that in
father-child conversations 52% of fathers spoke just Spanish but only 46% of children did so, and that
in mother-child conversations 62% of mothers spoke just Spanish but only 52% of children did so.
These comparisons confirm the frequent occurrence of parent-child divergent choice conversations in
which parents speak the home language and children the societal language (the reverse pattern has
not been reported).
Patterns of divergent language choice may start to occur quite early. Many mothers note that
children started to refuse to speak the home language soon after they started attending a preschool
in the societal language (Leist-Villis 2004: 187-192; Kaveh 2018; Mills 2004; Wong Fillmore 1991). In
response to children’s increasing use of the societal language at home, parents may start to speak less
and less of the home language, so that eventually the entire family just uses the societal language
(e.g., E-Rramdani 2003), with parental feelings of regret and shame as a frequent result.
6.2. Children's dual language proficiency
Apart from what happens with the home language and with intra-family communication,
studies demonstrate that children's proficiency in both the home and the societal language is of
importance to their well-being, and this from the very start. In this respect children who have been
raised with both languages from the very start fare much better than children who have not had the
chance to learn the societal language from when they were infants.
Parents are very much aware that dual language proficiency is important for their children's
overall well-being and success in life. Society, however, may make it very hard for parents to succeed
in raising dual language proficient children. Mothers complained about negative attitudes towards the
home language in (pre)schools and blamed these negative attitudes for the fact that children no
longer wanted to speak the home language (Leist-Villis 2004: 187-192). All too often, teachers, speech
therapists and pediatricians advise parents to solely speak the societal language at home instead of
the home language (Bezcioglu-Göktolga and Yağmur 2018; Kaveh 2018). Such advice is ethically
reprehensible and legally unacceptable (De Houwer 2013). As Wong Fillmore (1991) already noted,
teachers harm parents and children with this advice. It makes parents feel insecure and thus detracts
from Harmonious Bilingualism (De Houwer 2015a; 2017). If home language-speaking parents follow
this advice, professionals are co-responsible for taking away the best chance bilingual children have to
grow up harmoniously: Supportive and rich language input from expert speakers who love them.
7. Conclusion: the hallmarks of Harmonious Bilingualism and how to support it
How family members experience their bilingual situation is intensely personal (De Houwer
2015a). This implies that individuals with at first sight similar experiences do not necessarily evaluate
those experiences the same way. Yet the bulk of the literature that gives "accidental" insights into
Harmonious Bilingualism in bilingual families and the large scale studies addressing well-being in
bilingual family members does allow for some fundamental generalizations across different
individuals, contexts, and languages.
The central finding across all relevant studies is that families in bilingual settings experience
Harmonious Bilingualism when children develop good language skills in both the home and the
societal language from a young age. This dual language proficiency allows children to develop and
continue developing barrier-free communication within and outside the family (Leyendecker et al.
All children eventually learn the societal language, though not necessarily to high (enough)
levels of proficiency. Several surveys of children's and parents' home language use show, however,
that home language maintenance is much less of a given. A lack of home language maintenance is
linked to a lack of Harmonious Bilingualism in parents and adolescent children alike.
Home language maintenance is threatened when parent-child interactions mainly consist of
divergent language choice patterns in which parents speak the home language and children the
societal language. Parents tend not to be aware of the importance of convergent choice patterns.
Many lack what I have called an "impact belief", that is, a belief that they can influence their child's
language development (De Houwer 1999). Yet parents can use conversational practices encouraging
very young children's choice of a particular language (Lanza 1997). Such practices tend to be
successful. The parents in Greece with children who spoke the home language (Albanian) all insisted
that children speak Albanian at home with them and other older relatives (Chatzidaki and Maligkoudi
2013). For many parents such insisting strategies may not suit their parenting style (Currie Armstrong
2014). However, the research evidence suggests that parents (and children) may be spared much
sadness and frustration if they socialize children into answering in the same home language that they
were addressed in.
In addition to using insisting strategies, the parents in Chatzidaki and Maligkoudi's study tried to
expose children to Albanian as much as possible, and actively supported their children's development
of home language literacy. The mothers interviewed by Leist-Villis (2004) pointed at the importance
for the home language of visits to the country where the home language was a societal language, and
of visits of relatives to the country where the family lives. A Greek mother in Germany noted that her
Greek mother came to stay with the family 6 months a year. The grandmother did not speak German
and this motivated the mother's son to speak Greek (Leist-Villis 2004: 177). My driver was grateful
when I gave him tips about how to increase his use of Oromiffa to his children and told him about the
importance of joint book reading. I also suggested that he should have his sister record stories and
rhymes and songs in Oromiffa that could then be played to the children. The father was aware of
having to choose activities that would interest the children and became hopeful that he might be able
to turn the tide with Ifaa and do better with his younger children. Indeed, as discussed in other
contributions to this volume, there are many more factors supporting home language maintenance
besides convergent choice conversations. Frequent and qualitatively high home language input to
children is crucial (De Houwer 2018).
Age appropriate proficiency in the societal language is another pillar supporting Harmonious
Bilingualism. Many parents raise their children with both a societal and a home language from birth.
Parents in such bilingual families hold various ideas about child bilingualism, the languages they
should speak to children, the language(s) children should learn, or the best way to teach children two
languages (De Houwer 1999). Some of these ideas are likely to support Harmonious Bilingualism (e.g.,
if parents believe it is possible for young children to learn several languages from early on), whereas
others will not (e.g., if parents believe it is harmful to children to learn several languages from early
on). Early bilingual acquisition is very much driven by the language input environment children find
themselves in, but parents are not always aware of this fact. Frequent and qualitatively high language
input is important in any language.
Finally, (pre)schools have a crucial role in supporting Harmonious Bilingualism. They can do so
by showing respect for children's home languages and thus bolster children's pride in their home
language while children are acquiring the societal language at school (De Houwer 2015b; Robertson,
Drury, and Cable 2014). Zerdalia was lucky to have another teacher in the second year of nursery
school (Dahoun 1995: 38): Ms. Bruno was new to Algeria and held no linguistic or racial prejudices.
She made a patient effort to reach out to the silent Zerdalia, and Zerdalia opened up to her. Ms.
Bruno even visited Zerdalia's home and tried to say some things in the local Arab dialect. Because of
Ms. Bruno's "intelligence du coeur" (p. 38, intelligence of the heart), Zerdalia started loving school
and loving French. She continued to speak Arabic with her family and in the neighborhood, and
describes how she came to evaluate her bilingualism as positive. Chang et al. (2007) note that "The
[teacher's] acknowledgement of a child’s home language changes and elevates the status of that child
within the classroom" (p. 265). School and home are intricately linked: When children feel that their
home language is respected at (pre)school, they will show less of a tendency to reject it. This is
uniquely shown in a study from Belgium attempting to explain differential levels of self-rated home
language proficiency in 312 10- to 12-year-olds (Dekeyser and Stevens 2018). Home language
proficiency was not only directly related to parental home language choice and child-rated maternal
home language proficiency, but was also higher in students who thought they were allowed to speak
the home language at school.
Families in bilingual settings may experience Harmonious Bilingualism most of the time. Others
may go through long periods in which they do not. The good news is that Harmonious Bilingualism is
possible even after families have had negative experiences. As researchers, we need to investigate
the causes of this ebb and flow so that we may furnish families with the tools to help increase their
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In talking about family language policy in the Turkish immigration context in the Netherlands, teachers emerged as the key actors in shaping parental language choices and practices. Previous research has shown that teachers take a central role in the implementation of school language policy but there is not much research on the influence of mainstream teachers on language practices of minority parents in the home context. In this paper, we will combine the evidence derived from observations on 20 families, interviews with 35 parents and with 5 classroom teachers in Eindhoven, the Netherlands. Findings show that there is a serious degree of mismatch between parental aspirations regarding teachers’ professional advice for parents and teacher expectations regarding parental role in the schooling of immigrant children and the use of home language. The interaction between parental beliefs and teachers’ opinions show diverging attitudes towards the value of heritage language, schooling and parental participation.
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Whether children in migrant households maintain proficiency in their heritage language (HL) may affect their attachment to their cultural heritage, while the extent to which they acquire proficiency in the new language of their destination strongly conditions their success in the country’s educational and occupational institutions. In this paper, we investigate the extent to which children of Moroccan heritage living in Antwerp, Belgium maintain their proficiency in their parents’ HL and the extent to which they learn and speak Dutch. Our research design draws from family language policy to consider how elements of the children’s family background, language practices by the parents and siblings, attitudes towards the HL and Dutch, and language management, affect the children’s levels of proficiency in each language. Based on data for over 300 children, the results show that the children’s proficiency in their HL is strongly affected by whether the parents use and value the HL, the mother is proficient in the HL, and by opportunities to use the HL outside of the household. In contrast, the children’s proficiency in Dutch is affected by the mother’s proficiency in Dutch and by the languages used by the other children in the household.
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It is a pleasure to bring to you the eHandbook of Subjective Well-Being, the science of when and why people experience and evaluate their lives in positive ways, including aspects such as positive feelings, life satisfaction, and optimism. There are chapters in this eHandbook on the philosophy and history of well-being, as well as reviews of empirical research on the ways to assess well-being, the circumstances that predict it, the outcomes that it produces, the societal policies that enhance it, and many other social, biological, and cultural processes that help us understand why some people are happy and satisfied with their lives, while others are not. There are also chapters on theories of well-being, such as the baseline or set-point models.
Recent developments in multilingualism research urge us to move beyond seeing bilingualism as ‘double monolingualism’ and towards translanguaging, which conceptualises language as a bundle of socially constructed linguistic resources that individuals can deploy to make sense of their multilingual world. Despite this theoretical development, the monolingualist ideology remains strong in child language acquisition and bilingual education. The One Parent One Language policy (OPOL) which I examine in detail in this paper is one of the most commonly practiced family language policies; it requires parents to constantly monitor their language practices at home based on the assumption that language is a fixed, countable, and complete system. Part of a broader ethnographic research with Japanese-English multilingual families in the UK, this article focuses on a single-family case study, through which it aims to critically examine the way in which OPOL is negotiated and exercised in situated language practices in the family home. Focusing particularly on language interactions between two pre- and early-school age children and their mother, the paper shows how the strategic and creative employment of linguistic resources by children undermines monolingualist dogmas that OPOL is reliant on. The paper thus makes a significant contribution to the empirical study of translanguaging.
This chapter outlines a holistic framework for approaching the study of language input to children under age 6 acquiring oral languages in bilingual settings. After a brief historical overview, the input factors discussed include relative timing of input in two languages, cumulative, absolute and relative frequency of overall language input, input frequency of linguistic categories, language models, the people speaking to children and language choice patterns, communicative settings and media use, and interactional style. The chapter addresses methodological issues and gives an indication of the extent to which particular aspects of the input have been investigated. It ends with a selective evaluation of links between input and bilingual language outcomes and early bilingual acquisition.