Valuing Vocabulary

My daughter is now one and a half years old, and while she can’t say much yet, I know that little brain of hers is hard at work acquiring language.

One thing that’s become really obvious lately is how much she values the words she already knows. Every morning, as soon as she can, it’s all “Mommy! Mommy, Mommy…” and “Daddy! Daddy, Daddy….” It’s not just that she’s happy to see us in the morning; I’ve come to realize that she’s still slightly uncertain of her mastery of her earliest words (she still occasionally fumbles with the words she knows). She wants to use these words as much as possible because she worked hard to learn them, and doesn’t want to forget them.

And I couldn’t help but wonder: how much do we learners really value the words we learn? I mean, we value them enough to “learn” them in the first place, but do we value them enough to put in the ongoing effort to keep them? When we learn words that we know are useful, do we make damn sure that we use them right away, repeatedly, so that we never let them go?

Granted, not every vocabulary word is going to be as crucial to us as the words “Mommy” and “Daddy” are to a baby. But still, with applying a fraction of that earnestness would go a long way. I’m finding myself grateful for this new daily reminder I have.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Jim Mitchum Says: June 3, 2013 at 11:01 am

    An opportunity to watch language acquisition first hand. This will be fun and possibly very instructive. Have you and your wife decided on a single language to start, or will she be exposed to multiple languages?

    • Jim,

      We’re taking the pretty much universally-recommended “one parent, one language” approach. So I speak to our baby exclusively in English, and my wife speaks to the baby exclusively in Chinese. Waipo speaks to the baby in mostly Shanghainese (but we’re not too strict with her).

  2. David Fieldman Says: June 3, 2013 at 1:26 pm

    Hello John,
    Jim posed a most interesting question.

    I was born into a multilingual family and five languages always filled the air – Russian, German, French, Hebrew and Yiddish.

    Of course, I recall it was confusing and I constantly made errors in pronouncing these “difficult” words along with their correct pronunciation. But I soon came to recognize which speakers spoke which languages and began to speak with them in baby words, gradually moving on to improve and increase my vocabulary. Eventually there was little mix up as the language takes its place in our wonderful brain, which is able to “identify, sort and replace” for us at ease.

    Good luck with your baby’s language acquisition.

    David (Beijing)

  3. light487 Says: June 3, 2013 at 1:37 pm

    Hehe.. when I got around to learning 差不多 Chàbùduō, I used it a lot.. probably too much.. it was such a fascinating and useful phrase/chunk that I guess I felt the need to use it in almost every situation that required comparison of something that was almost the same but not quite.. It was the same when I learned the Verb+起来(一项) (eg. 看起来一项) syntax.. I started to use that just as much as chabuduo.. hehe.. and again.. I probably used it a little too much.. 🙂

  4. I remember reading somewhere that not only the baby is repeating words but parents tend to increase the frequency of use of the words their baby has learnt.
    So it works both ways, from the learner and the teacher

  5. 卢卡斯 Says: June 4, 2013 at 5:43 am

    I feel like the amount of value I attach to new words starts at a very high level and decreases as I become more proficient in the language. Those initial words and phrases are so exciting to use, but even in an immersion environment it gets to a point where additional vocab is more spice and variety than necessity. For a baby with no way to communicate with the rest of the world short of crying and laughing, surrounded by giant people who make coded nonsense sounds 24/7, I imagine coming to understand those first bits of language and finally beginning to realize that the giant people aren’t simply making noises, but talking to each other and to you, must feel pretty incredible.

  6. Shouldn’t she be calling Mother “mama”? My wife is always Mama or Ma (Chinese) and I am always Daddy.

    • Technically yes, she “should,” but my wife likes to be called “Mommy.” I hear this is pretty common in Taiwan and Hong Kong, so maybe my wife was influenced by that somehow? Otherwise my wife still talks to our daughter in Chinese.

      • My daughter uses Mama/Mummy and Baba/Daddy pretty much interchangeably, although she’s starting to keep them to their respective languages – Baba huilai le/Daddy’s back – more. I’ve even seen her translate – if her friend says “Shushu”, she says “Uncle”, for example.

  7. kong_yi Says: June 8, 2013 at 3:10 pm

    Is your daughter starting to speak some Chinese words too?

  8. Mike Haak Says: June 9, 2013 at 10:24 pm

    How fun is that. Just last week my 3 year old taught me something that my wife could not. I was struggling with duzi/belly and tuzi/rabbit. I said them exactly alike and my wife would pronounce them for me to correct me. But what I heard was her placing the emphasis on the “oo” sound. I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that I couldn’t get it right.
    Finally my son says, “No Baba, duzi, duzi. Not tuzi”, placing the emphasis on the “D” and “T” sound.
    Thanks Son, it clicked and now I got it.

  9. Hi John,
    You might want to think a little more about the one parent one language method. I have two kids aged six and three, both born in China and after a lot of soul searching came upon the best plan for a bilingual child. Firstly I mean by truly bilingual, that the child should have a native pronunciation in both languages and native fluency. We decided that as the minority language here is my native language of English and I am usually at work, that we would speak English at home (even when I am not there). You see Mandarin is the majority language in her environment so that we had to create an English world in our home. When Laolao and Laoye visits ( which is far to often in my opinion) we switch to Mandarin. In fact when anyone visits we have to switch to Mandarin. Tv, radio, cartoons, kindergarten, movies , my child’s friends all speak Mandarin so we tried for a balance. It has paid off- I think mostly from my wife’s hard work and her excellent English skills (6 years in London). In truth, my daughters Mandarin is of a slightly lower level than her English and this is due to the fact that we may have over compensated just a bit. however we knew that might happen and that’s about to change as she is about to start school. So, you may want to revise your methods for a bilingual baby as kids take the path of least resistance which is of course Mandarin. I will add that I have two close friends with older children and they did the one language one parent thing as their wives have little English — the 12 year old can speak Mandarin like a native, however her English is very low and accented, just like a native Chinese speaker. I’m sure she will pick it up later but she will never be native in English. My other friend also has a daughter and she is 8 same situation but she actually throws a fit if family try to make her speak English. Remember … The path of least resistance. Bilingual babies just do not happen. It’s similar to the idea that if you come to China you will magically learn Chinese. You have to have a strict plan for both.

    My 2 cents

  10. I’m reminded of a story of a friend of mine. His parents wanted him to be bilingual, so they spoke English on MWF and French on Tuesday, Thursday, and weekends.

    He was very surprised when he started school that the day of the week was not a part of the grammar rules.

    Probably not true, but still a good story.

  11. Stavros Says: July 20, 2013 at 7:32 pm

    My Chinese friends in Australia who have children mostly spoke English to their children while their child grew up. This was a means to “practice” their English. But as time passed, they realized they had made a big mistake. Sure enough, their English improved but by the time their children reached puberty, they began to resist Chinese – in some cases they stopped speaking it all together and the parents eventually gave up.

    I doubt if this will happen in John’s situation. He is well-versed on SLA, and he will know all the tricks in the book.

    But perhaps the day will come when John will have to force his daughter to speak to him in English. In fact, he may have to replace the 请和我说普通话 T-shirt for one which reads: “Please speak to me in English.”

  12. […] Don’t neglect practice. Vocabulary review is a good thing, but if all you’re doing is keeping a whole bunch of words in a “sort of familiar” state which doesn’t quite make it to the “I can use this word the next time I need it” state, what are you really doing? Are you collecting, or are you trying to get fluent? Value your vocabulary. […]

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