The Shaping of a Bilingual Child’s Reality

My daughter is almost 2 years old now, and as she talks more and more, not only is it a blast to see that this little crying pink thing has grown into a real human, but I’ve also got front row seats to the amazing phenomenon of first language acquisition. If you’ve never seen a kid acquire language from scratch, or have never seen it happen bilingually, there are bound to be a few surprises. It’s kind of messy, and sometimes it feels like a wonder that it even works.

The other night my daughter displayed what you might call “neat presentation” of linguistic mastery. She asked for some water by saying “please water.” I gave her some of mine, and I could tell by her expression that it was colder than she expected. “It’s cold, huh?” I asked her. She nodded her head, repeating, “cold.” “It’s cold water,” I said. She nodded, repeating, “cold water, cold water.” Then she looked at her mom, and exclaimed with joy, “冰水冰水!” (cold water, cold water). Wow, she’s already becoming a little translation machine! It’s not usually quite so orderly as all that, though.

Then there’s the “little boy” and “little girl” case, which ties in nicely with the concept of linguistic relativity. I recently realized that my daughter didn’t know the words “boy” or “girl,” and didn’t know the Chinese for them either. This seemed a little strange to me, because I know that during the day her Chinese grandmother takes her outside a lot, and she plays with other kids. Shouldn’t she at least know the Chinese for 男孩 (boy) or 女孩 (girl) or 小孩 (child), if not the English?

Well, it turns out that no, she shouldn’t know those words, because she rarely hears them. What she was learning was actually a bit more complicated than all that. Every time she encountered another baby that was male and younger than her, she was instructed to call him 弟弟, the Chinese word that literally means “little brother.” For girls younger than her, it’s 妹妹 (“little sister”). For little boys older than her, it’s 哥哥 (“big brother”), and for little girls older than her, it’s 姐姐 (“big sister”). This is fairly typical for Chinese kids.

Reality Check

Photo by Feldore

Of course, she doesn’t know the word for “man” or “woman,” either. She calls all women 阿姨 (that is, any female that’s not obviously still a child, much to the dismay of the 20-year-old young ladies she encounters), which traditionally means “auntie,” and all adult males 叔叔.

She especially enjoys identifying every 阿姨 (“auntie”) she sees, whether it be a woman on the street, a female mannequin in a store, or even a drawing of a woman in an ad.

Meanwhile, I’m lamely trying to remind her that there are English words for all these people, starting with “boy” and “girl,” and maybe it’s my imagination, but could it be she’s having a hard time accepting the words I offer because they don’t match her existing mental map?

More exposure is all she needs, of course… I certainly won’t make it any more complicated than that; I’ll just keep throwing natural English at her (I don’t speak to her in Chinese). But it’s certainly fun to watch her deft little brain running through these semantic mazes. With continued exposure, she’ll make it through, no matter what Chinese (or English) throws at her.


John Pasden

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


  1. My daughter’s been doing the same. It’s fascinating watching her. And because her Chinese is much better than her English (because I’m kinda outnumbered, obviously) she comes out with sentences like “这是elephant吗?” But now she’s starting to discriminate betweeen the two languages, sometimes if her Mummy uses the English word for an animal, she’ll object and insist on the Chinese word, e.g.
    Mummy: “Elephant”
    Wee one: “不是!这是大象!”

  2. Just teach her to call all the boys “little brother” or “big brother,” all the girls “little/big sister,” all the women “auntie,” etc!

  3. I wonder what it’s going to be like for her to read these posts when she’s older!

  4. My daughter is almost 4 years old, chinese mother, spanish father, living in Spain, ans she is used to 3 languages: spanish, chinese and english (I talk with my wife in english). The main language for her is spanish, but understand reasonably well the other 2 languages. And sometimes use words or short phrases, allways in context (say hello to a chinese neighbour, talk about her english class in school). Don’t worry about mental maps. Don’t worry about possible language mistakes. Don’t worry about if your doughter only use one language or mix words of 2 different. The human mind is awesome, and your daughter will take advantage of the situation. Without any problem.

  5. I’m going to have a boy some time during the Spring Festival (perfect timing, I know) My wife is Chinese also, so naturally we have discussed how we are going to go about teaching both Chinese and English. For now the plan is English at home from both of us and Chinese outside in which case I will still speak English except for situations that require me to talk to others in Chinese.

    I’m interested in knowing what you’re doing, do you have any strict rules other than only speaking English yourself?

  6. Great post – my granddaughter is about the same age, growing up bi-ljngual. The catch is that none of us in the family are native Chinese speakers. Also against the best advice we all (except her dad) speak both Chinese and English with her.
    Some things I find amazing:
    Ability to translate – you say something in English and she responds in Chinese, and vice versa, but once she’s learnt something in one language she is reluctant to change. She was incljned to say ‘again, again’ and now she usually says ‘再来再来’ – this is an exception
    Speed that she soaks up new words – without them being expressly taught
    How easily she learnt the 要/不要, 有/没有 strjcture.
    But she can’t say ‘doesn’t have’ in English, yet.
    And she never says her own name, even though she regularly names about a dozen other people.

    Blog post about a month ago.

  7. Interestingly, feedback I’ve had from parents with 2 languages between them is that their child pretty quickly figures out the “dominant” language and sticks to that one, regardless of where daddy or mommy speaks a different one.

    They might perfectly understand the second language, but it is not what they focus their efforts on. What the majority of people in their world speak, especially other children, will become their first language.

    Feel free to confirm with heritage learners of any language around the world.

  8. I noticed when I teach the younger classes (2 and 3-yr-olds) that they don’t seem to know, or are really slow to catch on to, the boy/girl categories in either language. Until I read your post I was wondering why they didn’t seem to already know what they were. But it fits with what our kids hear when playing outside with the neighbours (exactly what you described).

    Our girls’ situation is different because my wife and I are both native English speakers, but the preschool and neighbourhood is all-Chinese.

    (internet problems… this might be double posted)

  9. A child raised in a bi-lingual home is given a gift with life-long benefits.

  10. Ha! When my daughter was that one (she’s now 14)we spoke English in the family, but Chinese with friends and outside the home. My daughter understood English, but only spoke in Chinese. [I have to use pinyin here, because I’m on my work computer that isn’t Chinese-enabled 🙁 ] One of her favorite words was “gei” for both “gei wo” and “gei ni”. We took a trip to the US, where she quickly learned that Grandma and Grandpa didn’t understand her Chinese. So, she started speaking in English. She learned that if she wanted something, she could say “more” and point and Grandma would give it to her. One day she confused my mom by handing her a glass of water and declaring “more”! In her mind, the direct English translation of “gei” was “more” 🙂

  11. My husband is Chinese and I am American, I used to worry about this sort of thing as well, but they figure it out themselves. Our children are all teens now and my husband talks to them in Chinese and I talk to them in English, they speak them both like first languages.

  12. Philip Prendeville Says: October 31, 2013 at 1:19 pm

    I am studying Chinese here in Beijing. From Ireland and my wife is Chinese and we have 3 young kids (4, nearly 3 and 18 mts). Up til Aug we were living in Ireland. I only spoke English to my daughters (even if I tried to speak Chinese our eldest wouldn’t have any of it and told me to speak English only with her and wouldn’t let me read simple Chinese stories to her even) and my wife only spoke Chinese with them. We were in China last summer for 6 months and the speed at which our eldest daughter picked up the spoken element was unreal. Then when we went back to Ireland it was back to her only speaking English but understanding everything her mother was saying. Now that we’re back again and they are staying with my wife’s family while I study, eldest is speaking fluently for her age it appears while 老二 is mixing up the words about 50/50 but a recent visit has it at 90/10, even the intonation a like when she agrees with something, it is not ya, or ouch anymore but 啊 or 哎呀. The smallest is just starting to use words now and said 爱你 on the phone to me last night. Makes life difficult for me as they are slowly using their ability to express themselves to me in English and I can feel that they are a little uncomfortable with me when I speak English, especially the eldest. Anyone gone through this before? I know when we return next Jun that the English will come back and the Chinese will regress (at least I’m assuming that) but can anyone offer advice on the best course of cation. I suppose I should continue speaking English with them at the least?

    • Model for them the attitude toward language that you feel is valuable (this is hard… want them to be bilingual? do it yourself first!), but let them choose because ultimately it’s their life and language.

  13. Philip Prendeville Says: October 31, 2013 at 1:21 pm

    Sorry, spent 6 weeks in China last summer, not 6 months. Lots of typos there. Apologies. “Slowly losing their ability”.

  14. Kiki van den Hombergh Says: November 12, 2013 at 10:55 pm

    Don’t worry! Our four kids grew up multilingual: Dutch at home, Luxembourgish, German, French and English at school! They mixed up quite a lot but being young adults now, they are able to speak five languages (yes, I really mean: being able to keep a conversation in all of those languages and not only order a “cappuccino” that a lot of people regard as “speaking a foreign language” in their cv’s!!). Now people are amazed they are able to speak that many languages but are not studying languages.
    It is a huge advantage when kids grow up multilingual. By the way: I am learning Chinese as a sixth language ;-))

  15. Hi John. How has the OPOL (one parent, one language) approach been working after all these years? With yourself as your daughter’s primary English speaker in a Chinese environment, was she able to/has she been able to get enough English input to maintain her native-English competency? What happened when she realized that you also can actually speak Chinese? What happens when the whole family is outside and you speak to your wife in Chinese? How about some new blogs on this topic…I’m about to have to deal with this myself!!!!

    • Yes, it’s working! I think the hardest part is the very beginning, during the so-called “silent period” when the baby is soaking everything up but not talking yet. The natural tendency is to neglect input during this stage, but we did it right. It’s definitely not just input from me, either; it’s hard work to set up and maintain multiple source of good native English speaker input.

      Both of my kids have challenged me (at around the age of 3 or 4) on the need to speak to me in English instead of just using Chinese. (They hear me talking to their mom in Chinese all the time, and we all speak in Chinese with certain people like their Chinese grandmother.) So I just have to stand firm and insist that they speak to me in English, explaining that it’s important to me. They fall in line.

  16. This is good to hear. I have been reading up on this, and there are some reports on minority-language (English) dads in Japan, but their level in the majority language (Japanese) is usually low. For John, and “myself”, we are also competent in the majority language (Chinese), so I could see the kids wanting to just speak Chinese. Much like a child of immigrants in the U.S., where from my experience, except for many Hispanic kids (in California), most will lose the minority language with the overwhelming English environment (unlike, say Europe with built-in multiple-languages).

    If you have time John, it would be interesting to hear more about what you meant by keeping the English input high. I’m not in Shanghai, where I suppose you could go on play dates with other native English speakers, etc., so I’m wondering if you tried to supplement with watching English movies, kids programs, etc. I’m pretty up-to-speed on language acquisition, but would love to hear the real-on-the-ground nuts and bolts. I’m going to be the sole human English input source….

    How about the interaction with your wife, does she understand all the English between you and the kids? In my situation, mom will likely not understand what I’m saying to the kid if I go “all native” in terms of my word choice, speed, etc. How do the kids pick up on this? Do they just code switch between speaking to dad in English and mom in Chinese when you’re all in the same room in a conversation?

    If there are any forums for families trying the OLOP approach in China or other mixed approaches, I’d like to join up!

    Okay, one other topic, does all the Chinglish mess up the kids “English”? What happens in school? Do they ace all the English tests and win all the speech contests? What do the kids do with the teachers teaching them “English” in school, but with …umm a different pronunciation than what the kids are used to with dad? Also, does the overwhelming amount of time they need to speed on getting literate in Chinese…keep them below their age-appropriate native English level?

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