2013. Vol.4, No.9, 688-694
Published Online September 2013 in SciRes (http://www.scirp.org/journal/psych) http://dx.doi.org/10.4236/psych.2013.49098
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 688
The Effects of Family Structure on the
Development of Bilinguality
Queens University of Charlotte, Charlotte, USA
Received June 14th, 2013; revised July 17th, 2013; accepted August 12th, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Lily Halsted. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribu-
tion License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original
work is properly cited.
This study examines the role of family structure in the development of different levels of bilinguality.
Students from five different public and private universities responded to an extensive survey on various
aspects of bilinguality. Participants were divided into three groups: monolinguals, non-fluent bilinguals
and fluent bilinguals. In line with the initial hypothesis, higher levels of bilinguality correlated with hav-
ing more bilingual family members. Also further evidence was found for the importance of the mother,
father and sisters in becoming bilingual. Additionally, the presence of bilingual step-parents and grand-
parents on acquisition and maintenance of a second language was examined and fund to be much less in-
fluential than the role of the parents. Finally, the influence of socio-economic status (SES) on develop-
ment of bilinguality was measured with no clear effect being found. The unique contribution of this study
is that it attempts to connect the influence of specific family members to different levels of bilinguality.
Keywords: Bilingualism; Heritage Languages; Monolinguals; Language Use Surveys
It is estimated that over 70% of the world’s population speak
more than one language (Trask, 1999). Trask asserts that being
able to speak two or more languages has most likely been the
norm across societies for thousands of years. A key question is
how large majorities of people—then and now—have been able
to acquire and maintain more than a single language. One pos-
sible explanation is the influence of family members and the
home linguistic environment on the individual. In recent years
there have been a number of studies that have examined the
effect of family dynamics on the presence and advancement of
bilinguality in children (Harding & Riley, 1986; Gregory &
Williams, 2000; Kenner, 2000; Obied, 2009; Dale, Harlaar,
Haworth, & Plomin, 2010). In the United States immigrants
create the most common bilingual environments in families.
We know that immigrant children often choose not to interact
with one another in their parents’ (heritage) language but in-
stead adopt the dominant language of that society (Miller,
1983). This choice can ultimately lead to the inhibition of the
parents’ language in the younger generation (Levy, McVeigh,
Marful, & Anderson, 2007). This may be why the rate of bilin-
guality is estimated to be only 20% in the United States (Shin
& Kominski, 2010) as opposed to 70% for the rest of the world.
There have been many studies that have documented some of
the benefits of bilinguality in such areas as executive control
(Bialystok, 1986, 1988, 1999; Bialystok & Craik, 2010), achi-
evements in physics and mathematics (Farrell, 2011), success in
acquisition of foreign languages as adults (Eisenstein, 1980;
Thomas, 1988; Keshavarz & Astaneh, 2004) and a decreased
reduction in attentional processes as a result of natural aging for
bilinguals (Bialystok, Craik, Klein, & Viswanathan, 2004; Bia-
lystok, Craik, & Ryan, 2006). At the same time, there seem to
be some disadvantages to being bilingual including lower
scores recorded in vocabulary tests in both languages (Oller &
Eilers, 2002) and a reduction of access to the first language
after a period of immersion in the second language (Linck,
Kroll & Sunderman, 2009). As the lifelong advantages of being
bilingual would seem to outweigh the disadvantages it is im-
portant to determine how one becomes and remains bilingual or
In general, the path of bilingual child rearing seems to be in-
fluenced by family structure. Within the immediate family, the
role of mothers in the encouragement and promotion of bilin-
gualism in children has been emphasized in the past (Baker,
2000). The argument is that mothers, especially stay at home
mothers, spend more time with their children. If the mothers
speak a different language, they have more opportunities to
promote bilinguality in their children. Of course this will only
occur if the mother chooses to use her native language with her
children. Some mothers prefer to promote the dominate lan-
guage of their culture with their children to make sure the child
assimilates better into society.
The role of the father in the linguistic development of chil-
dren, on the other hand, is more reflective of the affiliative
nature of his relationship with his smaller children. Fathers’
language use often relates to the same context as their children,
in contrast to the mother’s language which tends to be more
practical and disciplinary in nature (Baker, 2000). However,
when the mother is the speaker of the minority language in the
family the children seem to have a higher chance of adoption of
that language compared to when the father is the minority
speaker. This effect exists, perhaps, because even in our mod-
ern societies mothers spend more time with their children
(Clyne, 1982; Kamada, 1995).
Furthermore, some studies show that the possibility of bilin-
gual development increases when both parents speak the mi-
nority language at home or when they both speak the minority
language but only one also speaks the dominant language (Ya-
mamoto, 2001). Clearly, this is a fairly stringent requirement
for the adoption of a minority language. In addition, some of
the newer studies place greater emphasis on the importance of
schooling in the promotion and maintenance of bilinguality
In terms of the possible influence of siblings in the bilingual
development of the child, some studies indicate that first-born
children are more likely to become bilinguals in comparison to
later born children (Manaster, Rhodes, Marcus, & Chen, 1998).
It also seems that older children are more likely to become
bilingual and encourage and promote bilinguality and biliteracy
in their younger siblings (Baker, 1995; Gregory & Williams,
2000, Obied, 2009). As for a particular dynamic among siblings,
there is some evidence that in general sisters are better at en-
couraging the advancement of the minority language in their
siblings and can be good language teachers to their younger
brothers (Azimita & Hesser, 1993; Rashid & Gregory, 1997).
Most studies that focus on family dynamics and second lan-
guage development tend to examine the evidence within one
culture or one linguistic environment (Obied, 2009, Portuguese;
Yamamoto, 2001, Japanese; Shin, 2005, Korean; Rashid &
Gregory, 1997, Sylheti; Farrell, 2011, Maltese; Bialystok, Craik,
Klein, & Viswanathan, 2004, Tamil; Linck, Kroll, & Sunder-
man, 2009, Spanish). We know that different cultural attitudes,
as well as pride and the degree of determination to preserve
one’s heritage and language, can influence how much of an
effort parents and the family as a whole make to preserve their
native language (Baker, 1995). Now, as has been true many
other times during the course of human history, all languages
are not viewed as equal. Based on the large number of people
who wish to adopt or communicate in a particular language,
some languages, such as Latin, were considered prestige lan-
guages. Currently, in many areas of the world English is con-
sidered a prestige language. This is in contrast to heritage lan-
guages which are spoken by fewer individuals in the commu-
nity and are typically not taught in schools. Over time, these
heritage languages tend to lose ground to prestige languages
and are increasingly forgotten by later generations of immigrant
families (Lambert & Taylor, 1990; Shum, 2001).
In an effort to control for possible differences in culture, eth-
nicity and language as they relate to family structure, the sub-
jects in the present study were recruited from five different
colleges and universities in two different states. By casting a
wide net it was possible to include participants who spoke a
diverse range of heritage languages and came from families
with origins in many different countries outside of the United
States. Socioeconomic status (SES) has also been considered as
another factor that can affect bilinguality in children (Morton &
Harper, 2007). To see if SES had any role, the subjects for the
current study were recruited from a variety of academic institu-
tions (private and state universities, and a community college)
with very different tuition and family income levels. Overall,
the advantages of being bilingual outweigh the disadvantages.
Clearly, many societies in the world are aware of this fact and
adhere to it, while in the United States we continue to lag be-
hind the rest of the world in the development and maintenance
of bilinguality in our children and adolescents.
In the present study it was hypothesized that with bilingual
participants, and especially fluent bilinguals, there would be a
strong influence of immediate family members (parents and
siblings) on the advancement of the subjects’ second language
fluency. This will not be the case in monolinguals and will play
a less significant role with less fluent bilinguals. It was ex-
pected that grandparents would not have as much influence as
parents or siblings as they tend to be less available during a
person’s childhood when most language development takes
place. In general, it was expected that bilingual and fluent bi-
lingual subjects have more family members in their household
who speak a minority language. It was also expected that
step-parents would play a similar role as grandparents in a
child’s second language development. School was expected to
have a lesser influence than family on second language acquisi-
The subjects for this study consisted of 122 college students,
93 of these students (76%) were females and 29 (24%) were
males. This ratio reflects the larger number of female psychol-
ogy students at the participating institutions. The subjects for
this study included students from four public and private uni-
versities as well as a community college. Four of these institu-
tions were located in North Carolina and one in Tennessee.
Participants ranged in age from 18 to 52 years old. The mean
was 22.4 years (SD = 5.71) and median was 21 years. Out of
122 subjects, 49 reported themselves to be bilingual. The re-
maining 73 subjects spoke only one language: (monolingual).
All subjects were English speakers, with the second language
spoken by the bilingual subjects included Spanish, French,
Polish, Farsi and German. Most of the subjects were enrolled in
various psychology classes and participated in this study in
exchange for extra credit. The socio-economic background of
subjects was diverse. A high proportion of the private univer-
sity students came from higher income families, while the stu-
dents from the public universities were more representative of
the middle class. Students attending the community college had
a lower average family income compared to the other two
groups. Specific characteristics of the subjects are reported in
Procedures and Measures
A 100-item, multi-scale online survey on bilinguality was
designed for this study and made available to participating stu-
dents. In addition to basic demographic information, the survey
measured the level of competence of the participants in a sec-
ond language (reading, writing and speaking). It also measured
the subject’s level of interest and engagement in their second
language, as well as the amount of time spent in reading or
conversation in that language. The 48 questions that dealt spe-
cifically with the levels, depth and the frequency of bilingual
behaviors in the subjects are listed in the appendix.
In this survey we also tried to determine the sources and
causes of bilinguality as it is influenced by family structure.
Toward the end of the survey there were several questions ask-
ing about second language abilities for each member of a par-
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 689
Characteristics of the participant groups.
Number of participants 73 25 24
Mean age (years) 22.8 20.9 22.9
Mean age of second
language acquisition (years) n/a 10.5 3.3
% born in US (or in
English-speaking countries) 100% 88% 50%
% with mother born outside USa 1% 20% 83%
% with father born outside USa 4% 12% 87%
% learning second language
before age 5 n/a 28% 75%
% attending foreign language
classes (after school/weekends) 1% 4% 21%
Note: aIn non-English speaking countries.
ticipant’s immediate (mother, father, step parents or siblings)
and extended (grandparents) family. There were also questions
about each parent’s place (country) of birth, level of education,
linguistic competence and how often they speak a second lan-
guage at home.
Monolingual versus Bilingual
The first analysis for this study was to determine the level of
bilingual capabilities of the respondents. In the present study
subjects were considered to be bilingual if they 1) said they
spoke a second language, 2) claimed to still speak the language,
and 3) could speak the language at least “pretty well.” These
questions were followed by more in-depth question about their
Nearly half (45%) of the respondents answered “yes” to the
two questions “Do you speak any languages other than English?
and “Do you still speak this ‘second’ language?” After exclude-
ing six subjects who responded “not very well” to a later ques-
tion on language fluency (“How well can you speak your sec-
ond language?”), there were a total of 49 respondents (40%)
considered to be bilingual for this study. An additional 73 re-
spondents were classified as monolinguals. Among the bilin-
gual subjects, 24 reported being fluent in their second language
while the other 25 felt they could speak their second language
either “pretty well” or “very well.”
There were no significant associations between bilinguality
and gender (χ2(1) = 0.28, ns), age (F(1,119) = 0.72, ns), year in
school (χ2(3) = 4.85, ns), or family income (χ2(1) = 0.02, ns).
Similarly, among bilinguals there were no significant associa-
tions between language fluency and gender (χ2(1) = 0.725, ns),
age (F(1,48) = 2.56, ns) or year in school (χ2(3) = 4.64, ns).
However, within the sample of bilinguals there was a signifi-
cant association with family income (χ2(1) = 5.03, p < 0.03),
with fluent bilinguals more likely to come from homes with a
family income under $100,000.
Presence of Bilingual Family Members
Monolinguals versus Bilinguals
Table 2 presents the percentages of monolingual and bilin-
gual respondents with specific family members who spoke a
second language. All survey respondents were asked the ques-
tion “Growing up, were there other family members who lived
in your home who regularly spoke a language other than Eng-
lish” and if so, “what is their relationship to you?” Among
monolinguals it was rare to find any other family members who
spoke a second language. The highest percentages were for
mother (6%), father (6%) and grandmother (6%). In this group
only 4% reported having both a mother and a father who spoke
a second language.
In contrast, 61% of the bilingual group reported one or more
family members who spoke another language. The highest per-
centages with this group were for mother (49%) and father
(47%). For 42% of bilinguals, both parents spoke a second
language. Counting up the total number of family members
who spoke a second language, the mean for bilinguals (2.41, SE
= 0.38) was significantly greater than the mean for monolin-
guals (0.23, SE = 0.08), F(1,120) = 43.94, p < 0.001.
Table 3 presents the zero-order correlations of presence/ab-
sence of each type of bilingual family member with whether a
subject was monolingual or bilingual. The correlations were
significant for every family member with the exception of
step-mother. A stepwise linear regression was then performed
to determine more precisely which specific bilingual family
members had the strongest association with the subjects’ bilin-
guality. The strongest predictors of bilingualism were having a
bilingual mother (β = 0.32, SE = 0.13, p < 0.01) followed by
having a bilingual sister (β = 0.26, SE = 0.16, p < 0.05). The
overall model fit was R2 = 0.29.
Fluent versus Non-Fluent Bilinguals
As shown in Table 1, half of the fluent bilinguals in this
Percent of family members who spoke a language other than English:
monolinguals and bilinguals.
Family Monolingual Bilingual
Member (N = 73) (N = 49)
Mother 6% 49%
Father 6% 47%
Step-mother 1% 6%
Step-father 1% 8%
Grandmother 4% 29%
Grandfather 4% 37%
Sister 4% 35%
Brother 0% 31%
Any member 11% 61%
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
Correlation of presence of bilingual family member with subjects’
bilinguality and level of fluency.
Family Bilinguality Fluency
Member (N = 122) (N = 49)
r pa r pa
Mother 0.51 0.001 0.67 0.001
Father 0.49 0.001 0.72 0.001
Step-mother 0.13 0.080 0.26 0.036
Step-father 0.17 0.003 0.16 0.136
Grandmother 0.40 0.001 0.35 0.007
Grandfather 0.35 0.001 0.37 0.004
Sister 0.49 0.001 0.57 0.001
Brother 0.46 0.001 0.50 0.001
study were born outside of the United States in non-English
speaking countries. In contrast, only 12% of the non-fluent
bilinguals were born outside the US. Furthermore, fully 75% of
the fluent bilinguals started learning their heritage language
before the age of five, compared to only 28% of the non-fluent
bilinguals. In addition, within the bilingual group, a large ma-
jority of the fluent speakers had family members who spoke
another language at home. Table 4 (and Figure 1) shows that
the highest percentages were for mother (83%), father (83%)
and sister (63%). In this group of fluent bilinguals, 79% re-
ported having both a mother and father who spoke a second
language. For the bilinguals who were less fluent in the second
language, only about one in six had another family member
who spoke another language: mother (16%), father (12%), and
grandmother (20%). Only 8% of the non-fluent bilinguals had
both a mother and father who spoke a second language. Count-
ing up the total number of family members who spoke a second
language, the mean for fluent bilinguals (4.08, SD = 0.51) was
significantly greater than the mean for non-fluent bilinguals
(0.80, SD = 0.33), F(1,120) = 43.94, p < 0.0001.
As presented in Table 3, even within the two groups of bi-
linguals, presence/absence of each type of bilingual family
member was still correlated significantly with whether a subject
was a fluent or non-fluent bilingual speaker. Within the two
groups of bilingual respondents, a stepwise linear regression
found that the presence of a bilingual father was the best pre-
dictor of overall second language fluency (β = 0.72, SE = 0.10,
p < .0001). The overall model fit was R2 = 0.51.
Where Was the Second Language Learned?
Another question asked only of the bilinguals was “where
did you learn to speak this second language?” Table 5 (and
Figure 2) presents the percentage response for specific sources
of language learning for the two levels of bilinguality. For
non-fluent bilinguals the primary source of language learning
was “at school” (80%). In contrast, for the fluent bilinguals,
parents edged out school by 79% to 67%. Table 5 also presents
the zero-order correlations for each source of learning with
degree of bilinguality. Learning from parents, grandparents and
Bilingual Family Member
Monolingual Non-Fluent BilingualFluent Bilingual
Fluency level related to presence of bilingual family members.
Percent of family members who spoke a language other than English:
non-fluent bilinguals and fluent bilinguals.
Family Non-fluent bilingual Fluent bilingual
Member (N = 25) (N = 24)
Mother 16% 83%
Father 12% 83%
Step-mother 0% 13%
Step-father 4% 13%
Grandfather 12% 46%
Sister 8% 63%
Brother 8% 54%
Any member32% 91%
Source of language learning and level of bilingual fluency: percentages
(N = 25) (N = 25) (N = 49)
% % r pa
Parents 26% 79% 0.44 0.002
Grandparents 20% 58% 0.39 0.006
Other family 20% 58% 0.39 0.006
School 80% 67% −0.15 0.304
Traveling 32% 21% −0.13 0.373
Language classes16% 13% −0.05 0.733
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 691
Source of Language Le arning
Source of second language learning for fluent and non-fluent bilinguals.
other family members were the strongest correlates with be-
coming fluent in a second language. A stepwise linear regres-
sion found that the best predictor of second language fluency
was whether or not subjects had learned the language from their
parents (β = 0.44, SE = 0.13, p < 0.005). The overall model fit
was R2 = 0.19.
This study aimed to examine the concept of bilinguality on a
deeper level. It considered not only whether or not participants
were bilingual, but among the bilinguals it sought out possible
explanations for different levels of second language mastery.
Currently there is no unified definition in the literature for bi-
linguality. Older studies set very stringent criteria and required
full mastery of both languages (Bloomfield, 1933). More mod-
ern studies, however, tend to be more lax with some even con-
sidering people bilingual who have only receptive abilities in
their second language and very little productive abilities (Die-
There are very few studies that examine socioeconomic fac-
tors as they relate to bilinguality. For example, Morton and
Harper (2007) attributed a better performance on the Simon
task to children having a higher socioeconomic status (SES).
Although the subjects for the current study were chosen pur-
posefully from higher education institutions that collectively
draw students from across the SES spectrum, the only SES-
related effect was that fluent bilinguals tended to come from
households that earn less than $100,000 per year. This is quite a
high break point and does not indicate any clear socioeconomic
There were significant results found for the influence of fam-
ily members on the development of bilinguality. Close to half
the bilinguals in this study came from homes where both their
parents were also bilingual as opposed to only 6% of the mono-
linguals. This effect was even stronger when we compared the
two fluent and non-fluent bilingual groups. Fluent bilinguals
were much more likely to have bilingual parents as opposed to
either non-fluent bilinguals or monolinguals. These results con-
firmed the main hypothesis for this study and are consistent
with previous findings (Yamamoto, 2001; De Houwer, 2007). It
is important to note that even within the bilingual group degree
of second language fluency was strongly related to the home
environment. It is clear that when one or both parents speak a
second language the child has a greater chance of being ex-
posed to the second language, especially if parents communi-
cate with each other and other family members in their native
language. Accordingly, it seems sensible that more exposure
results in higher levels of fluency.
This study found that having more family members speak a
different language is associated with a higher degree of bilin-
guality in the child. Having a bilingual mother was the best
predictor of being bilingual, which is consistent with the strong
role most mothers play early in a child’s life during the most
active period for language acquisition. This result is consistent
with earlier research that found a strong influence of bilingual
mothers (Baker, 2000; Kamada, 1995).
The next most important person in the family who can foster
and nurture bilinguality was found to be the sister. This result is
again in line with previous findings in this area (Rashid &
Gregory, 1997). Sisters seem to not only be good teachers of a
second language but they may be more willing to communicate
in the heritage language with their siblings. Bilingual grand-
parents, on the other hand, while promoting bilinguality,
weren’t as influential as parents or siblings.
The most important member of the family for distinguishing
non-fluent bilinguals from fluent bilinguals was the father. In
part, this is likely due to the addition of another bilingual
member to the family (beyond the mother), but it is also likely
to be due to the particular role most fathers play in the family.
Overall, having a bilingual mother increases the chances of a
child becoming bilingual in the first place, having a bilingual
sister further helps other family members to become bilingual,
but ultimately it is the presence of a bilingual father that is
likely to lead to the highest levels of second language profi-
In our modern society with increasingly larger number of
blended families there is a need to examine the role of step-
parents in nurturing bilinguality in their children. The current
literature in this area has for the most part neglected this in-
creasingly common family type. In this study we did not find a
strong effect for the role of step-parents in second language
acquisition. This may be because in the survey there were no
questions to measure how long the subject may have lived with
any step-parent. If the step-parent has not been in the household
for long enough or early enough in the life of the child then
their linguistic influence would be expected to be quite limited.
On the other hand, if a bilingual step-parent has been in the
family for many years and still has not been able to influence
the child’s language then there must be a specific dynamic in-
volved that diminishes the influence of step-parents compared
to birth parents. This is a question that should be addressed by
Lastly, this study examined the influence of second language
schooling for the two groups of bilingual respondents. School-
ing was found to play a more important role in the language
acquisition of non-fluent bilinguals compared to the fluent
group. For the fluent group the most important factor was found
to be other family members, particularly parents. Finally, as
bilinguality is a complex topic it can never be attributed to one
single factor, in the present study, familial influence. It is un-
derstood that community support or other factors not directly
addressed in this study could also have an impact on bilingual-
In this study we took a closer look at bilinguality, not as a
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 693
monolithic characteristic of a person, but as a capability in in-
dividuals that is mastered to different degrees. Across the spec-
trum, from monolingual to non-fluent bilingual to fluent bilin-
gual, it is clear that the influence of family is a strong force in
the acquisition, maintenance and ultimate mastery of another
language. This study contributes to our current understanding
of the development of bilinguality; in particular, the role that
family influence plays in promoting and preserving bilinguality
among American children.
The researcher would like to thank Dr. Marc Halsted for his
valuable advice and suggestions with the survey and final draft
of the study. Also thanks to Kristine Miller and Jocelyne
Morillo for their assistance in collecting data for this study.
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Bilingual Study Questionnaire (Selected Items)
1. Do you speak any languages other than English?
2. What is the other (second) language?
3. Did you learn to speak your “second” language BEFORE
you learned to speak English?
4. How old were you when you started to learn the “second”
5. Do you still speak this “second” language?
6. Approximately how many years have you spoken this sec-
7. Do you speak a third language? If so, what is that language?
8. Where did you learn to speak this second language? Check
all that apply.
From other family members
In language classes outside of school
9. Growing up, who else in your family spoke this second
language? Check all that apply.
No one else
10. In what situations do you currently use your second lan-
guage? Check all that apply.
With college roommates
When traveling in another country
At language school/class
11. Currently, how much of the time do you use your second
12. How much do you like speaking in your second language?
13. How well can you speak your second language?
14. Are you able to READ in your second language?
15. Are you able to WRITE in your second language?
16. How much do you like WRITING in your second lan-
17. Do you ever read books or magazines in your second lan-
guage for pleasure?
18. How much do you like READING in your second lan-
19. Do you ever watch TV shows or listen to radio programs in
your second language?
20. Do you like the TV programs or radio programs broadcast
in your second language?
21. Do you ever listen to music in your second language?
22. Do you like music sung in your second language?
23. Do you feel proud to be able to speak a second language?
24. Why or why not?
25. How comfortable are you speaking your second language in
26. Why or why not?
27. Has anyone ever made fun of you speaking your second
28. Did your parents encourage/require you to learn your sec-
29. Did your parents require you to go to second language
30. Do you plan to continue to learn/improve/maintain your
second language skills?
31. Why or why not?
32. Do you ever feel embarrassed to speak your second lan-
guage in public?
33. Why or why not?
34. Growing up, did you attend any foreign language classes
AFTER SCHOOL OR ON WEEKENDS?
35. How many years did you attend these language classes?
36. How old were you when you stopped attending these
37. Why did you stop attending your second language school/
38. How many hours of homework did you have in your second
language each week?
39. Did you ever have difficulties with the amount of second
40. What grades did you usually get in your foreign language
41. Have you ever visited a non-English speaking country?
42. Please list the non-English speaking country or countries
you have visited.
43. Which non-English speaking country have you spent the
most time visiting/living in?
44. How many times have you visited this country?
45. Approximately how old were you when you first visited this
46. Approximately how old were you when you last visited?
47. Typically, how long did the visits to this country last?
48. Did you speak in the native language of this country while
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