The ‘secret’ language of the bilingual siblings

While chatting to a hotel receptionist this morning, I mentioned that my two children, Joe and Maggie, had begun to speak to each other in Spanish.

But not recently. No, this was 5 years ago… and two years into our life in Spain. Once I had observed this phenomenon I made the assumption that they would continue communicating in Spanish thereafter. Surely, now they had picked up the new language and were hearing it spoken 24/7 by their friends, they would go on in the same vein as long as we lived in Spain.

But no! How strange it was a month or so later, to see them SWITCH BACK to communicating with each other in English. I have wondered about this off and on during these last five years. Why would they start speaking to each other in Spanish and then revert to English? It didn’t seem to make any sense.

But the hotel receptionist has a theory I rather like! As a multilinguist himself (Spanish, English, French and German) who is living in Spain, he is encouraging his children to speak solely to him and their (French) mother in French. And it’s working, he says.

He added that Joe and Maggie, when speaking English with each other, are exhibiting what amounts to a secret language; a language of their own, which is not understood by the Spanish. Wow… they are in cahoots! But the funny thing is they probably don’t even consciously know it.  Contrast this with the times my wife and I would visit markets in England and consult with each other in Spanish about the price we wanted to pay before haggling with the seller! We were certainly conscious of what we were doing.

Young children, on the other hand, are not. And interestingly, the secret language seems to come naturally to them.

My thanks to this morning’s receptionist. Sorry, I didn’t get his name. He works here:

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