Harmonious Bilingual Development

Harmonious Bilingual Development is about enjoying time shared in the parent's language
Harmonious Bilingual Development is about enjoying time shared in the parent's language

Is it possible to have a bilingual child that speaks two roughly balanced languages and loves having great conversations with you in the minority language? It is!

In this article you will find out about Harmonious Bilingual Development. 

First, we will discover what Harmonious Bilingual Development is. I will give you a checklist that can help you make sense of your child’s bilingual development. 

Then, we will talk about the lack of Harmonious Bilingual Development through two real case studies of children who needed more of it. 

Finally, I will share with you what this concept has meant for me in my quest to help bilingual families.

In this article there will be a lot of talk about Professor Annick De Houwer’s work, because the term Harmonious Bilingual Development was coined by her and introduced in her 2009 book Bilingual First Language Acquisition.

Part 1 – What is Harmonious Bilingual Development?

Wouldn’t we all like to know that our child’s bilingual development is going just fine? 

In 2015 Professor De Houwer published an article that gives the criteria to assess whether a bilingual child’s language development is going well, not just for learning two languages, but for the child’s wellbeing as well.

The three distinct characteristics of Harmonious Bilingual Development are:

1. Conversations in a single language, separately in both languages

2. Children’s active bilingual use of both languages 

3. Children speaking two languages at similarly good levels.

I know that for many bilingual parents this seems like such an unrealistic dream that it’s depressing to even read about it. But this is exactly my point: it does not have to be an unrealistic dream.  

Harmonious Bilingual Development is possible and achievable within the resources of an ordinary family.

If you aren’t currently running a victory lap for scoring the hat trick in these three characteristics, then fear not. It is not too late. This is what this article is here for.

Most bilingual families do not enjoy Harmonious Bilingual Development. You are normal if bilingual parenting feels like hard work and disappointment.

I will show you what the problems look like in two case studies.

Part 2 – The lack of Harmonious Bilingual Development

Professor Annick De Houwer specialises in children aged 0-5 who are growing up with two languages from birth. In her 2009 book Bilingual First Language Acquisition she gives short case studies showing a lack of Harmonious Bilingual Development. 

I think Bilingual parents everywhere can relate with the families in these stories.

Case study 1 - Kate

“Even though children may speak two separate languages in the third and fourth year of life, they may stop using one of those languages”. “Dutch-English Kate, who was a competent bilingual at age 3:8 [3 years and 8 months], stopped speaking Dutch very soon after the family moved from Belgium to the United States, even though her father continued to address her in Dutch and she met up with other Dutch (bilingual) speakers as well.” 

(De Houwer, 2009, page 311)

I’m sure most bilingual parents personally know someone with almost identical experiences. For many bilingual children simply starting school is enough to stop speaking their second language.

When Kate’s family moved to the US her family’s shared language (English) changed from being a minority language in Belgium into being the majority language in the US. 

In Belgium, the minority language (English) was supported by the whole family using it together. In the US, the minority language (now Dutch) was not supported by the whole family using it together.

It sounds like in Belgium Kate was enjoying a Harmonious Bilingual Development. She got a really good start before her family moved to the US. Yet, Kate lost her ability to speak Dutch soon after the family moved to an English-speaking country. This can happen in months. 

Imagine if Kate’s family had always lived in the US. Her chances of bilingualism would have been much lower to start with. The good news is that it does not have to be this way! 

It is possible to turn things around and achieve Harmonious Bilingual Development even when the family uses the majority language as their shared language. 

Case study 2 – Michal 

But what if the minority language is the native language of both parents and everyone at home uses the minority language? 

The chances of bilingualism are much higher in families where parents are immigrants from the same country. Still, an international move can derail children’s language development, even when the whole family moves abroad together and continues to use their shared native language at home. 

It seems incredible, but unfortunately it is true. This could happen to families even during a temporary stay abroad as expats. 

“[A] girl, Michal, moved from Israel to the United States when she was two and half years old. At that point, she was a fluent monolingual speaker of Hebrew. Input in Hebrew continued at home through both parents and two older siblings while English exposure started at Nursery School. As Michal learned to speak English, she became less and less able and willing to speak Hebrew. By the time she was four and a half she spoke fluent English but could hardly be said to speak Hebrew anymore”. “Michal’s example is by no means exceptional.”

(De Houwer, 2009, page 311)

Michal was 2 ½ when her family moved from Israel to the US and within two years she lost her native monolingual Hebrew – regardless of the fact that it was supported by her entire family. 

There was no lack of input in Hebrew in Michal’s life in the US. There was no lack of exposure. There was no lack of need to use Hebrew. On the contrary, Hebrew was absolutely essential for Michal’s participation in family life. Yet it took only two years to lose it. 

How is this even possible? 

When children struggle to develop or maintain a minority language there is a natural social process at play to do with tiny everyday interactions that we are not even aware of. This is what Interaction Sociology studies. 

Harmonious Bilingual Development is absolutely possible. It takes far less work than one might imagine, if you know how to harness these powerful social processes to work in your favour. 

In my PhD study I wanted to find out what really happens in family talk when children lose a language and also what happens when the minority language keeps growing with the bilingual child. I wanted to find out how to make things work for all bilingual families. De Houwer’s idea of Harmonious Bilingual Development helped me a lot with that.

Part 3 – Harmonious Bilingual Development is achievable

I first read about Harmonious Bilingual Development in 2009 when I was doing the first year of data collection for my PhD study in bilingual families with school-aged children here in London. 

This concept was heaven sent. Someone else saw that too many bilingual families where suffering and shared my belief that a better world was possible.

It became my guiding light to understand what makes Harmonious Bilingual Development possible. Once I put the pieces together of how Harmonious Bilingual Development really works two years later in 2011, I began developing the Bilingual Speech Activation methodology to see if the discovery could be used to help struggling bilingual families. 

From the very first timid attempt the results were stunning. In the first family I helped there was a Finnish dad, a Polish mum and they spoke English together. I met them in our local park when I was there with my own kids. 

I heard the dad speaking Finnish and we got talking. We discovered that we were all postgraduate students at the same university. Their two-year-old was not really speaking any language yet. 

I told them about my PhD breakthrough. They were willing to see if I could help them. I did a social interaction analysis of their family conversation. I explained what I found and taught both parents some effective ways to have a conversation with their child. Just ten days later, the mum called to thank me because their child had begun to speak.

That was amazing! If I could help people like this, how could I not make it my job for the rest of my life? 

Seven years later I had a chat with the dad of that family. They were still doing great with bilingual development, now working on learning to read in two languages.

Nowadays, with eight years of experience under my belt, I know much more about the details of the speech activation process, for example that it normally takes up to 3 months to activate and a total of 3-6 months to consolidate bilingual speech.

Although things may seem hopeless now, in each and every family that has worked through to the half-a-year mark, their child has begun to enjoy speaking both languages. By then, time shared in the parent’s language has become the highlight of the day for both parent and child.  



De Houwer, A (2009). Bilingual First Language Aquisition. Clevedon. Multilingual Matters.

De Houwer, A (2015). Harmonious Bilingual Development: Young families’ well-being in language contact situations. International Journal of Bilingualism, Vol 19(2), pp 169-184.