Chinese Grammar Points Used by a 2-year-old

My daughter is now two years old, and she’s well on her way to simultaneously acquiring both English and Mandarin Chinese (with a little Shanghainese thrown in for good measure). We’re using the “One Parent One Language” approach, and it’s working pretty well.


I’ve taken a keen interest in my daughter’s vocabulary acquisition, but recently I’ve also been paying close attention to her grammar in both English and Chinese. Those that follow the debate regarding order of acquisition and whether or not a child’s natural acquisition should be closely mirrored by language learning materials should not be surprised to learn that her grammar pattern acquisition is all over the place. What I mean is that the grammar patterns she can or cannot use do not match well to what a beginner learner of Chinese should or shouldn’t be able to use after a year of study.

So what I’m going to do in this post is briefly comment on her mastery of some well-known grammar points, and also highlight some of the more surprising ones. I’ll be using the Chinese Grammar Wiki’s breakdown by level for reference (the order, low to high, is: A1, A2, B1, B2).

Grammar Points My Daughter Can Use

  1. Measure word “ge (A1)
    So she’s counting things the Chinese way, with . Picked this one up pretty quick, it seems.
  2. “Er” and “liang” (A1)
    I was wondering how quickly she’d master the use of and , but she had it down easily, before she was two. (Obviously, she has no need for most of the fringe cases; she just needs to count stuff.) I know her waipo (maternal grandmother) practiced this one with her a lot.
  3. Expressing possession (A1)
    It took her a while to get the hang of for possession, just as it took her a while to get the hand of “‘s” for possession in English. Neither is totally consistent (she sometimes forgets to use them), but she’s basically got them down.
  4. Questions with “ne (A1)
    When an adult learns Chinese, you learn the pattern “____ 在哪儿?” to ask where something is. My daughter totally skipped that, and uses exclusively to ask where things are. This is a use of you don’t normally learn as an adult student of Mandarin until a bit later, but there’s no arguing that it’s simpler! Kids like linguistic shortcuts.
  5. “meiyou” as a Verb (A1)
    She doesn’t know that is a special adverb of negation used with . She just knows what 没有 means as a whole. And it works!
  6. Negative commands with “bu yao (A1)
    Yeah, two year olds can be a bit demanding and uncooperative. 不要 is a key tool in her arsenal of terribleness, and it’s one of the few Chinese words that she likes to use when she’s otherwise speaking English, as well.
  7. Standard negation with “bu (A1)
    Again, very useful when she wants to be contrary. She uses pretty indiscriminately, putting it in front of verbs, verb phrases, and adjectives, but sometimes also nouns.
  8. Expressing “with” with “gen” (A2)
    I say she “knows” this, but she uses it exclusively with the verb , for talking about “going with (someone).” Again, it gets the job done!
  9. Change of state with “le” (A2)
    This is another one of those grammar points that she has a very limited mastery of, but makes good use of. She knows and uses the phrases “来了,” “走了,” and a few others. (Interestingly, she often uses “来了” as a substitute for the existential , meaning “there is.”)
  10. Negative commands with “bie” (A2)
    Again, a great pattern for the terrible twos.
  11. Reduplication of verbs (A2)
    She uses this with specific, high-frequency verbs, like (看看).
  12. -wan” result complement (B1)
    Obviously, she has no clue how to use complements. She learns phrases, and the phrase “吃完了” gets used a lot. (Her English equivalent for this is “finished” or “done,” not “finished eating” or “done eating.”)
  13. Expressing the self-evident with “ma (B1)
    (not ) is notoriously tricky for adults to get the hang of, but my daughter jumped right in and started using it early. Sometimes it feels like she’s not using it quite right, but clearly that doesn’t faze her. You’ll notice that any Chinese 3-year-old uses pretty liberally, so it’s clearly something that kids pick up really quickly, and adult learners over-analyze.

Grammar Points My Daughter Cannot Use

  1. Personal pronouns (A1)
    This might seem surprising, but these ubiquitous, abstract words for expressing “I” (), “you” (), and “he/she/it” (他/她/它) are totally unnecessary in the beginning and ignored by kids for quite a while. My daughter is just know starting to use “I” and “我,” but she’s still just experimenting. (Previously, she used “baby” and her own name instead of “I.”)
  2. “Can” with “hui” “neng” and “keyi” (A2)
    Here’s something elementary learners spend quite a bit of time mastering, but my daughter has decided to shelve the use of modal verbs , , and 可以 altogether, for the time being. (She seems to be making some progress on English “can,” however.)
  3. Basic comparisons with “bi” (A2)
    Doesn’t need it, doesn’t use it. She confines her “comparisons” to just nouns and adjectives.
  4. “Shi… de” construction (B1)
    Yeah… doesn’t need 是……的, doesn’t use it. She hears this pattern in questions all the time, however. She’s slowly soaking up the input.
  5. “Ba” Sentence (B1)
    This one is notoriously difficult for adult learners, and kids avoid it for a while, too, as it turns out. My daughter definitely understands the structure, though, whether or not she even notices the presence of in the sentences she understands. She never uses it.
  6. “Bei” sentence (B1)
    She definitely doesn’t use . No need for passive at all, and she doesn’t hear it much either, at this point. I’m sure linguists have studied at what point kids acquire passive constructions and why, but it’s clearly a lower linguistic priority for kids.


None of this is scientific; these are just casual observations. Watching my daughter simultaneously acquire two languages, I’ve done a lot of thinking about the differences between the way children and adults acquire languages. Whether or not there are neurological limits is still being debated, but it’s clear to me that there are differences, in practice.

What I’m seeing:

  • Kids can get by without pronouns. Without pronouns! How many adults could do that, even after being told they’re not high priority? I’ve personally observed quite a few people that try to start learning a language by translating the English of what they want to say, and their first question is frequently, “how do I say ‘I’?” You don’t need to start this way, but adults feel they need to.
  • My daughter was not at all tripped up by measure words, but after mastering numbers 1-10 in both languages she zoomed ahead with her Chinese numbers, while the irregular teens in English (“eleven,” “twelve,” “thirteen,” etc.) really slowed her down.
  • By putting utility above all else, my daughter frequently starts “using grammar patterns” before she understands how they work at all, simply by learning phrases. I don’t mean she doesn’t intellectually understand grammatical concepts (of course she doesn’t), I mean she doesn’t even know that she can put on the end of other actions; she just knows how to say 吃完了 when she finished eating, because that’s all she needs from at this point. The memorized phrase will be generalized into a “pattern” when it becomes necessary. This is actually a point that adults should really learn from: over-analysis frequently slows adults way down and delays meaningful communication. This is also the logic behind the approach to learning on the Chinese Grammar Wiki; learning patterns in a gradual process is actually the best way to learn how to use . And it’s usually best to memorize a phrase you need first, then generalize later.

There’s a lot I could say here, but I’ll stop now. Comments are welcome! I’m especially interested in hearing about relative order of grammar acquisition of my readers’ children.

UPDATE: Grammar points at 2 and a half


John Pasden

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


  1. Very interesting post. My daughter, who’ll be 3 at the end of March, has had the 把字句 down pat for quite a while now.

    Does your daughter mix her languages? My daughter’s English is lagging quite a bit behind her Chinese – which makes sense given the linguistic environment, and is not something I’m worried about at all – so she’ll often use English words in an otherwise Chinese sentence, e.g. “妈妈,这不是一个bus,这是一个coach” (because she can’t be my father’s granddaughter without knowing the difference between a bus and a coach, but that’s a petrol head issue rather than a linguistic issue). Having said that, she knows they’re two different languages, and will often refuse to let my wife use the English word for something “不是umbrella!是雨伞”, then tell me in English “Daddy, umbrella!”.

    Tangentially related: She recently discovered Dora the Explorer, and loves it. I quite like Dora, too, for several reasons, one of which is that my daughter gets to see a happily, comfortably bilingual little girl naturally switching between two different languages (Spanish and English, in Dora’s case, although English predominates), which is nice considering all her friends are monolingual.

    • Thanks for sharing, Chris! I will keep listening for when my daughter starts using 把. (I don’t speak Chinese with her myself, and don’t get to hear a lot of the Chinese interactions, but I think I generally overhear a representative sample during family time.)

      But no, my daughter doesn’t mix languages much. When she does, it seems to be unintentional, just something she blurts out. She very clearly switches to Chinese to talk to Mommy, and English to talk to Daddy. When she doesn’t know a word in one language, she typically asks (“这什么?” or “what dis?”, depending).

      I’m trying to keep my daughter’s TV/video input in English as much as possible, because once she starts preschool the Chinese input is going to by way greater than the English input.

      • John, further to your English-as-much-as-possible media policy: We’ve been trying to keep media input, be it TV, DVDs, books, magazines, as equal as possible, but up to the wee one to decide what to watch or read. At the moment she prefers Chinese books (and maintain OPOL here, too, though sometimes she insists I read a Chinese book, in which case I either sight-translate or improvise something in English, like ask her to tell me what’s in the pictures and what they’re doing), but her favourite DVDs right now are Dora, as mentioned above, and the BBC series “In the Night Garden” (I know, the title sounds a bit creepy, but it’s cool). We made the mistake of letting her here Peppa Pig in Mandarin – actually, I didn’t realise at first that it’s an English series – and now she refuses to hear Peppa speak English, she must speak Mandarin. So we make sure Dora and Nightgarden are set to English before the DVD starts.

      • David Lloyd-Jones Says: February 10, 2014 at 1:44 pm


        You report on your daughter’s “She very clearly switches to Chinese to talk to Mommy, and English to talk to Daddy. When she doesn’t know a word in one language, she typically asks (“这什么?” or “what dis?”, depending).”

        Gotta be careful with “dis.” There is a very curious word in Japanese, “vasistdas,” and it means a Palladian window. OK, that’s easy enough to understand: some Japanese student in Germany wanted to know about these semi-circular fan-windows over the doors of Georgian buildings, then joked around about the thing, and lo, a Japanese word was born.

        I now report something much more amazing: there is also a French word “vasistdas,” but it means something totally different. It means a casement window! 🙂

        I have no idea how it was formed. I ran across it in a French article about Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Falling Water,” the lovely Chicago house with the problematic casement windows on its corners. No clue about whether the author spoke Japanese, or anything… Philologists beware: here be dragons!

        Light linguistics aside, two things. First, best to your bi-lingual daughter! My eldest pair grew up speaking Japanese and English, and their mother, the excellent Susan Schmidt, is now head of the American Japanese teachers’ association. My youngest grew up in an atmosphere of Tik-Monjiaang, Arabic, English, and the several other languages used by her highly intelligent mother’s very sophisticated extended family. I hope she’ll go on to do a job that needs doing, keeping the traditional Monjiaang oral heritage alive into the literate and computational world. (A job being done in part by a cousin, Prof. Francis Deng of Yale.)

        The second thing is that your newsletter and grammar site are superb. A treasure to the Chinese learning community. A resource of great good sense, realism, and trustworthiness. Well done!

        I hope that once you’ve got it broken in you will go on to develop an English-language based body of knowledge about Chinese grammar from the Chinese point of view.

        We obviously benefit to some extent from learning in the grammars of the eighteenth century English “grammar school.” It is sadly optimised for teaching Greek and Latin to recalcitrant upper-class twits at like Eton. We’re still stuck with it, but it works. Sorta: I think your daughter is quite right that 没有 is a verb. Splitting it into two separate “words,” 没 and 有, is a simple nonsense concocted by furriners with a Procrustean bed available for the Chinese language to lie down on at their command.)

        Still it would be nice to see a revolution in grammar teaching — in all languages — which would be post-Noam Chomsky, post-Jean Piaget, and post computer/information revolution.

        Be that as it may, congratulations on, and thanks for, your superb piece of work so far.



    • Thanks for sharing! My daughter turned 3 this past October and we observed many of the same things. It’s amazing to me that she can pick up on a lot of the nuances that I try often unsuccessfully to explain in my informal Chinese class here at work!

  2. I’ll definitely come back here and post in two years on my child’s language acquisition. I was considering speaking English only in the house and Mandarin outside but with waipo and yeye living with us I think the one language one parent approach you’re taking will be the better choice.

    Does your daughter still speak Chinese to you or does speaking English to you and Chinese to mom come fairly naturally?

    • Carl,

      I never speak Chinese with my daughter (only occasionally, when it slips out accidentally), but she does hear me speaking Chinese to other people.

      So yes, she quite consistently uses Chinese to talk to Mommy and waipo, and English to talk to Daddy.

  3. I should also note that from what I’ve read, children absorb most of their vocabulary from their fathers*. Do you think speaking English only may hinder how fast she acquires Mandarin?

    *from the book Nature Shock.

    • Carl,

      No, I don’t. I don’t really worry about it, honestly, but living in China, the biggest danger is that she doesn’t really acquire English to fluency at all.

  4. Have you heard the old joke about how a linguist always changes his area of specialization (from Syntax or Phonology or whatever) to first-language acquisition when he has his first child? Well, here we go again!

    There has been plenty of work in SLA to show that, in the long run, adults are better second-language learners than children. Sure, when it comes to tackling pronunciation (including intonation, tones, etc.), kids are king. But how many children can tell you the best way to address an office manager as opposed to your teacher, your father, or an older man you’ve just met? Everyone has hilarious stories of being approached by a child asking, “excuse me, mister…” and what s/he said.

    And is it news that kids get by without pronouns? Speakers of many pro-drop languages have a hard time learning to ADD pronouns, especially when they have teachers too lazy to correct this early on. I sometimes think I would retire early if I could get one Saudi student to use one pronoun correctly… just once! (I sometimes have a student point at himself and say “you hungry!” No, you’re hungry. “Yes!” sigh) And of course we get by without them all the time (and get by with the wrong pronouns, like when it’s lunch time in Saudi Arabia). But getting by isn’t the same thing as learning well.

    Chinatowns in North America are filled with people who are experts at ‘getting by’ in English, but they are hardly model students of English. And ‘getting by’ is all too often the default criterion of success. And if you’re an expat abroad teaching kindergartens and joining pub crawls, then this is really all you need.

    However, if you are trying to learn Chinese with the crazy hope of maybe actually doing some more serious conversation (maybe with a fiancée’s parents or a job interview or explaining why that g**d*mn spy plane wasn’t such a big issue in 1998…), you do want to get a better explanation of why this or that is right, wrong, or 50 shades of gray. Whenever I ask a Chinese friend what’s the difference between synonyms, regardless whether one is a literary term and one is a colloquial term or whether one is local dialect and the other is ‘standard’ Chinese, or even if they really are both equivalent, I inevitably get “the same!” I have to practically break in a new friend with examples of sociolinguistic folly to get across “I don’t want to use this word in a joke with friends or in an interview when it’s meant for one and not the other!” Children, happily (oh, so happily) ignore this.

    And it’s learning the more complex differences between formality and informality, spoken and written that make up real progress in language learning beyond “getting by”! Kids ignore this, and therefore should not be our models in language learning.

    I have told friends and teachers I’m training that 50% of language learning is learning to be (and accepting to be) an idiot for at least a year. You’re going to say the wrong thing, people are going to get crazy expressions on their faces while you seriously try to explain what you want, … it’s not going to be all roses and “let’s practice Chinese/English/whatever!” This is one strength prepubescents have, that they are not as self-conscious or self-important, nor have they invested much in cultivating a social role such as ‘boss/manager/superior/teacher’. (Of course, then comes puberty, and self-consciousness explodes all over like … well, you choose your accurate-yet-not-appropriate analogy!)

    However, you can attend all the ‘Crazy English’ rallies you want and learn to yell out whatever is in your head, most adults sooner or later find it expedient to actually know rules and to master them: grammatical and pragmatic (if indeed the distinction should be made). And not only are adults good at learning these, when they’re properly taught, but they feel more confident when they do know them.

    Finally, one last observation: while it’s been demonstrated in a host of studies that children tackle pronunciation much faster and more efficiently than adults, it should be pointed out that most examples are with children being exposed to native speakers. Most adult learners are fortunate if they even meet adult native speakers, let alone have a chance to speak with them. And most have already become comfortable in their accent long before they actually do get to meet the long-fabled native speaker. (And let’s face it, most native speakers in EFL have almost no training in teaching pronunciation, even general phonology, to say nothing of any work in accent reduction.) I have worked in accent reduction, and I can say that adults can (yes!) leave behind their accents. But it takes some work. And 90% of that is tied to their motivation and time (two things many adult learners are short of in the accent department).

    So why, oh why are we looking to the children? Children are the future, sure, but models of SLA? No, no, no! 🙂

    • Guilty as charged!

      Please note that I am fully aware that adults are better language learners in most ways. I never made the claim that children are perfect language learners, and I’m not sure why you assume this is my point. I do have a lot of experience with adults with certain psychological hangups in their language learning, though. Those people might benefit from simplifying their approach.

      I see your point about pro-drop languages, but I’m talking English and Chinese here. English is not pro-drop, and while Chinese may be, when verbs aren’t inflected, you do get a healthy amount of pronoun usage in normal speech (although less than English).

      My daughter isn’t fluent in ANY language right now, so I wouldn’t call her a model for SLA. But like all kids, she’s doing a good job of not getting hung up on grammar.

    • Well, I see John’s already replied. But what on Earth brought that on?

      And surely the spyplane incident was in the spring of 2001? I distinctly remember one of my students all but threatening nuclear war over that. Fortunately, as a mere student of Taiyuan Heavy Machinery Institute, he wasn’t in a position to push any such buttons.

      But really, FLA in a bilingual child is fascinating to watch, and it’s interesting to compare to adult SLA, so please, chill.

    • @Jason: What John is documenting is bilingual first language acquisition. As you point out, adult are not kids. True enough, and I don’t think John is proposing that adults should learn a second language exactly like kids learn a first (obviously adults can’t, since they would have to first wipe their brains of their already learned language(s)). That being said, sometimes adults could learn from kids, in languages as in other things. And I think John has done a nice job of sharing his observation and thoughts about this interesting process. I didn’t take him to be making prescriptions for what adults should do.

      On a different point, Jason seems to have the (extremely well-documented) results of SLA research flipped around. The generalization is: adults learn faster, but kids learn better. Give a 4 year old and a 24 year old 10 years to learn, after a few months the 24 year old will almost certainly have made more ground, but after 10 years the 4 (now 14) year old will likely be indistinguishable from a native speaker, the 24 (now 34) year old will likely be noticeably non-native, whether it be accent, grammar, collocations, what have you. The mystery is why this should be, since adults are better at so many other cognitive tasks, in theory they ought to be better at learning languages, too. Of course, these results can be very different in different contexts: in immersion, kids pretty much hands down do better. In classrooms (without a supporting language environment outside the classroom), it’s not at all clear that kids can keep up with adults.

  5. That was fascinating! I’m not bringing up a multi-lingual kid, although I would have to if we did have kids (hubby is German, we live in the UK and use Chinese a LOT, so kid would need to learn all three!), but I have been heavily involved in the teaching of Mandarin to beginners.

    I get really tee-ed off when I hear people yaddering about how they can ‘just absorb’ Chinese, or learn like a child. It’s not possible! You haven’t the time and need to learn like an adult with a very active thinking process. Of course, the main reason for the hopes of learning like a child is that people don’t want to work, but they do want the benefits.=)

  6. Child vs. adult learning.

    Children doesn’t worry about losing face because of saying something incorrect.

    Children don’t feel emotional stress, disappointment, or frustration due to having an inability to express complex concepts and deep inner feelings, let alone understand what others are saying to them.

    Children are unaware of how ridiculously slow they are learning, literally “years” until “adult fluency and comprehension”.


    Would adult learners do better if from the beginning they imagined they would take 10-15 years to reach true “adult” like fluency in a 2nd language? Would they worry less about how fast they are learning, and rather focus more on enjoying the experience, like children tend to “enjoy” their childhood years? Would it help adults to focus more on “passing/putting in their learning years” instead of getting frustrated and quitting before they are all “grown up” linguistically?

    • Children absolutely do feel emotional stress, disappointment and frustration due to having an inability to express themselves, as anybody has tried to figure out what a toddler actually wants in the midst of an attack of the Terrible Twos knows all too well.

      Children are unaware of how ridiculously slow they are learning because they are learning ridiculously quickly. The difference between children and adults is that the kids are starting out from a near tabula rasa and have the major disadvantage of protein sheaths around their neurons so thick that it’s pretty close to impossible for them to form long term memories of all but their most common or traumatic experiences until the age of two, and even then they won’t form strong long-lasting memories of things until four.

  7. Victor H. Mair Says: January 23, 2014 at 11:27 pm

    Thanks, John. This is fascinating.

    I hope that you’ll write a similar account of your daughter’s progress with Mandarin and English (and Shanghainese) at regular intervals (maybe every year or half-year) until she is 6 (goes to elementary school).

    My son’s first (and practically only) language was Mandarin, but when he turned 6 and went to primary school, he learned English in a jiffy. Since that time he has been living in a primarily English environment, so he hasn’t had a chance to learn to read and write Chinese very well (though he can do it to a certain extent), but he’s 43 now and can still speak Mandarin pretty well.

    Even more amazing, my sister Heidi, who helped us watch him one summer while we were teaching at Middlebury, learned a fair amount of Mandarin from Thomas (yes, the guy who wrote about Swype on Language Log yesterday), things such as “wo yao laniao” (I have to pee) and “wo yao chi tang” (I want to eat some candy). Heidi can still say these things perfectly after more than 40 years. Thomas certainly knew his Mandarin pronouns at age 2.

    As for writing, Thomas astonished the whole family one day when he was less than a year old and, pointing to some calligraphy hanging on the wall of his waipo’s flat in Taipei, distinctly and clearly said “zi4”. I almost fell over when he did that.

    Perhaps the most moving of all of TK’s linguistic feats was when, in his early 20s (he was enrolled in a year-long language program at Hangzhou at the time), he produced an illustrated accordion book with ink paintings (flowers, etc.) and verse written with a brush for his mother. Just as I can’t comprehend how he swypes and does so many other things so effortlessly, I’ll never understand how he was able to produce that precious accordion book.

  8. Very exciting! 🙂 My 3 month old has a ways to go before he even says his first word but this gives me a little sneak peak into what I might expect! 🙂

    I was thinking about my own level of Chinese, which hasn’t much improved in the last 2 years or so, and came up with a definition of my level: Survival Chinese. 🙂 I can “survive” in China by myself. I can order food, ask for directions, ask people for help when I get stuck, haggle, buy/search-for a myriad of essential items etc and have enough language to get by on basic topics. I’m getting closer to “Making Friends” Chinese fluency too.. where I can make friends easily right now with a few local phrases and so on.

  9. David Moser Says: January 24, 2014 at 11:45 pm

    Delightful and fascinating post, John! Interesting about the lack of pronouns, but I wonder if that isn’t a feature of Chinese. We know that Chinese uses pronouns much, much less than English, partly because the grammatical subject itself is dispensed with so readily in Chinese. So any Chinese kid can easily (and idiomatically!) get by with sentences like “Lai le!” and “Bu wanr le”, since these subject-less structures are actually more idiomatic than “Ta lai le” and “wo bu wanr le”. You don’t mention whether or not she ever mixes languages. Our daughter used to do that somewhat, even as late as age 6. One example was:
    Daddy do you like ice cream?
    Mommy, do you like ice cream?
    See, we DOU like ice cream!

    • David,

      It’s true that Chinese is a pro-drop language, but there’s a difference between omitting pronouns sometimes and NEVER using them.

      As a learner, knowing Chinese requires pronouns less often, I remember intentionally dropping pronouns from my own speech and writing. But I would often go too far, and be told by native speakers that it was unclear who was doing what, and that a pronoun was needed. So there are limits, for sure!

      My daughter doesn’t mix languages much, and certainly not intentionally. I imagine that’ll become more common later.

  10. “Arsenal of terribleness”

    Grammar in general more or less fits under that category I’d say, at least from the learner’s perspective 😉

  11. Victor H. Mair Says: January 25, 2014 at 9:49 pm

    One other thing I forgot to mention about Tom’s skills as a small child was his ability to use limited vocabulary to express a wide variety of ideas and things. Once, when he was three and a half years old and we were on a bus from Watertown to Harvard Square, we were sitting right behind a man with a conspicuously gleaming pate. I don’t think that, before that time, Tom had ever seen a bald person, so of course he didn’t know the word for baldness in Mandarin, and he barely knew any English at all. Nonetheless, he was intensely interested in this strange (to him) phenomenon of a man without a single hair on his head. So Tom pointed to the man’s head (the same way he pointed to the calligraphy on the wall a couple of years earlier and said “ZI4” [“writing”] — as a little boy, Tom was curious about everything and pointed beautifully in the direction of anything that intrigued him), and proclaimed very clearly, “jīdàn bóbo 雞蛋伯伯” (“uncle egg”). That really cracked me up, but he often did that sort of thing.

    Adults can use the same technique when learning second languages. I remember when I took a test of spoken Japanese back around 1993, I surprised myself by scoring high when I thought that I really wasn’t that good. After the scores were announced, I asked the examiner why my score was so high, and I still remember her reply, “You are especially good at expressing yourself with limited vocabulary.” Well, I do manage to get along adequately in quite a few languages, but I certainly don’t consider myself fluent in many of them.

  12. Matthew Appleyard Says: January 26, 2014 at 5:51 am

    Very interesting and in depth article John. We live in England and my son is 18 months old. We are also using the OPOL approach. He isn’t currently speaking much though, mainly just sounds! So well behind your daughter I think. He responds to show he knows what many words mean though so is clearly learning both languages. English will takeover once he starts school though. And then in his holidays there will be some Taizhouhua thrown in as well!
    All best, avid CP user, Matthew

  13. Dave Cragin Says: January 26, 2014 at 7:10 am

    When I started learning Chinese as an adult, a friend who studied Japanese said much the same as the above, i.e., his perspective was that intellectually adults had an advantage over kids in learning a 2nd language. It was interesting to hear that research supports this.

    Part of the reason adults learn poorly is the way they are often taught, i.e., memorization of words, grammar rules etc. This constrasts with kids who learn by hearing the language spoken for communication.

    Memorization of individual words is akin to teaching someone to sing by 1st having them memorize how to sing each word – then giving them a rule book (grammar) to try to figure out how to sing the song. If we taught singing this way, it would sound disfluent and unnatural.

    In contrast, learning a language via full sentences and expressions gives much more fluent speaking skills and implicilty teaches grammar. Hence, I’ve found both Pimsleur and Chinesepod far more effective than other teaching approaches (and as result, via my ipod, John has been one of my main teachers).

  14. Dave Cragin Says: January 27, 2014 at 12:23 am

    I just saw that in Dec 2008, a Sinopsplice post by “Chris(Mandarin student)” is so on-target, I’m reposting part:

    Chris said: “when I pronounce something well it is usually because I have stitched together some long phrases that I have heard Chinese people speak and mimic the sound they made. My worse pronunciation is when I construct a new sentence entirely from individual words I know.”

    Kids learn mostly by hearing phrases people speak (as Chris notes), this allows them to speak well. In contrast, many adult teaching approaches use the latter approach, i.e., individual word memorization. Hence, it’s quite understandable that many adults have trouble learning to speak languages fluently.

    I’m a poster child for this. When I speak Chinese, many people assume I have a special ability with languages. I don’t – I’m just using effective learning tools that teach sentences and phrases. Before learning Chinese, I worked 8 yrs for a French-owned company in the US and I tried 3 different language CDs to try to learn the language. I made zero progress, despite much interest, and assumed I lacked language ability. However, in retrospect I realized the CDs used terrible teaching techniques such as word-list memorization. I found that memorization of words out of context is a worthless exercise.

    Learning full sentences also addresses the point that Nommoc made, i.e., for an adult, being able to actually communicate in a 2nd language can be immensely satisfying and will help keep that adult learner motivated for the 10 – 15 yrs noted. Learning full sentences from the beginning allows this.

  15. Interesting! My two-year old son isn’t learning Mandarin as his second language (Indonesian, actually), but the personal pronouns thing is definitely intriguing to watch.

    The funny thing is, I notice that I myself, automatically for some reason, often don’t speak to him with the first person personal pronoun (“I,” “me”) but primarily in the third person. I think a lot of parents do this by instinct, and I’d be curious to know why.

    (E.g., “Edward, Daddy wants you to…” etc.)

  16. […] to Mr Pasden’s musings on first language acquisition in a bilingual child, and, just like him, basing this purely on observation of my own daughter (so extremely rigorously […]

  17. Hi John,

    Do you have good Chinese material to recommend for toddlers? I also have a 3 year old son, but we are in the USA. We also do the one-language-per-parent policy. I speak Chinese to my son. But there just aren’t as many cute books in Chinese for his age as there are in English (at least not many reasonably priced).

    My son is doing very well speaking Chinese at the moment. However, I am afraid that as soon as he hits pre-school, his Chinese will begin to degrade. Any advice there? I speak Chinese fluently, but only at a very basic level (grew up in the US/Canada most of my life). So I will need to look elsewhere for help eventually. I don’t want to send my son to “Chinese School”. That never worked for me growing up. Any suggestion would be appreciated.


  18. Jon Sieg Says: March 8, 2014 at 3:06 pm

    I know this comment is late, but I have to comment on the pronoun thing too. My daughter is 2 1/2 years old and is being raised in China is well, but both of her parents are from the US. Her primary ability is English, but she is terrible at pronouns too! She thinks “you” is another title for herself. She’ll say, “Daddy help you,” or, when she sees herself in a picture, point and say, “You!”

    Aside from it being a more abstract concept and it being easy to survive without it, I agree with Andrew that perhaps a major reason for this is because my wife and I have both used the third person most of the time until lately, and that’s muddled the issue for her.

  19. Chinese at heart Says: April 4, 2014 at 5:53 am

    In the future I will have bilingual children in a Chinese environment. Is it possible for both parents to speak Mandarin on one day, and then switch to English the next day? Or I was thinking of giving each room a language in the house?

  20. Terry Waltz Says: May 1, 2014 at 2:58 am

    Adults learn. Children acquire. That’s the difference.
    The challenge is to optimize adult learning to make it work as much as possible like acquisition, while leveraging the advantages of learning where appropriate.

  21. […] written about my daughter’s acquisition of Chinese grammar in the past, but today I want to comment on how her mastery of English has been affected by her Chinese […]

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