bilingual babies

November 23rd, 2011

There are other things I should be doing right now, as always, but this post at Ethnic ChinaLit grabbed my attention for two reasons. First, it’s depressing that so many Chinese parents seem to be abandoning local and minority languages and dialects in favour of Putonghua. The argument that Putonghua is important for their kids’ future economic success is spurious at best. It seems to me that the majority of the world’s people grow up at least bilingual and that learning local or minority or otherwise non-prestige languages has no effect on their future economic well-being. I also don’t buy the argument that learning more languages increases the educational burden on students. It’s common for European students to be taught more than one language, yet every European I’ve ever met has survived the experience intact.

And then there’s this comment:

With the increasing popularity of mixed marriages where only one parent speaks Mongolian, Chinese is the language of choice at home;

And y’know, one of the most frustrating things I’ve found about raising a mixed baby in a mixed marriage is the sheer number of ignorant and sometimes just straight out stupid comments we hear about language. We’ve split the language labour: I speak to our daughter in English, my wife speaks to her in Mandarin – and here I use the word Mandarin because such conversations in this family switch between Putonghua and Yanqinghua depending on the social context. But I’m not concerned about Yanqinghua somehow “polluting” her Putonghua, because as she grows and learns about the world, my daughter will learn quickly and easily the different contexts in which different languages or dialects are appropriate. English with Daddy and her Kiwi grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins. Mandarin with the Chinese side, varying between Putonghua in Beijing and Yanqinghua in Yanqing. But some people are terrified this approach will somehow confuse the child. I have never yet seen anything to justify such fears. A colleague and his wife take the same approach with their daughter, who is now two and, so my colleague reports, switches easily and comfortably between English with Daddy and Mandarin with Mummy. The other day at work my wife found herself in yet another of those conversations about mixed babies and mixed languages, and heard a story of a family in Guangdong where one parent speaks Cantonese, the other Putonghua, and a grandparent some other language, and baby switches easily and comfortably between those three languages depending on which big person she’s talking to. And I haven’t done a huge amount of detailed research into this (i.e. none), but everything I’ve read on the topic suggests that that is the case: Given a clear context for each language, baby copes just fine.

Then Mr Humes raises three points, and while the first touches on the structure of the education system, he sums them up quite nicely with this:

These factors contribute to what reporter Bai Yansong labeled the “Mongolian is useless” school of thought (蒙语无用论) that is widespread in society.

Now my wife and I are lucky in that we are native speakers of dialects of two of the world’s more important languages. Nobody questions our choice of languages to teach our daughter; they question whether or not it’s possible to raise a child bilingually without terribly confusing the poor wee thing. But it seems to me that an awful lot of people are running around with an extremely narrow and petty definition of the word “useful” that can be summed up in answering this question: “Can I, without any thought and just at first glance, see an immediate beneficial application of this knowledge/field of study/language to a real-world situation?” There are an awful lot of things in this world – art, literature, music, blue skies scientific research – whose immediate utility is not terribly obvious but which are immensely useful and beneficial. I have, of late and elsewhere, been in the mood to launch into a collossal tirade about how the application of this narrow, petty, and very harmful definition of “useful” is partly responsible for the world’s current economic woes, but for now let’s stick with language. I have been known to, just for fun, tell my boss and his secretary that I’m going to teach my daughter Maori. Of course, that would require me learning Te Reo first – widespread Maori-language education in primary schools was very new when I was a kid, and not very effective. But their response is scorn. Why teach her that useless nonsense? Well, I can think of many reasons, most of which are connected with it being one of the languages of her Daddy’s country, and one with official status, to boot. For starters, if she goes to school in New Zealand she will have to learn some Maori anyway, and I’d expect that to be a lot more than I got, as the curriculum and standard of teacher training should have improved dramatically since then. I also do what I can to ensure the English she learns has a bit more of a New Zealand flavour than the bland, internationalised English I have to use at work, and my impression is that more and more Maori words are being used in everyday New Zealand English. There certainly seem to be more and more Maori words gracing the pages of the New Zealand Herald without the brief, bracketed, weak English translation that used to be the rule for situations in which sensitive mononlingual Pakeha eyes had to cope with a Maori word. But to try and pull myself back on topic: Language is very hefty part of culture, and culture is a very hefty part of identity, and identity is a very necessary aspect of healthy human life. Abandoning a language because it doesn’t enjoy the same economic and political prestige as English or Putonghua is likely to lead to a lot of people growing up with strong and difficult questions about their culture and identity, and it’s not difficult to think of examples of how disaffected, alienated youth contribute to some very unfortunate social phenomena.

Of course, languages are just as mortal as people, and although some, like Latin, leave behind healthy descendants, other languages die childless. But languages, like people, need a bit of TLC, and part of that tender, loving, language care is a healthy pride in one’s language, and part of that pride lies in teaching it to the younger generations, and teaching them the value of that language. And a language’s value does not lie in its immediate economic and political utility, but in its expression of culture, values and identity. And no, learning a minority language does not need to disadvantage any child. The human brain is both flexible and powerful, and polyglotty should be seen as the norm and not as the exclusive and miraculous preserve of a few talented individuals, because so far as I can tell it is the norm and monolingual societies the exception.

And now that I see just how far this post has diverged from the title I gave it, I suppose I should get some lunch then get back to that lesson planning and test marking I was supposed to be doing.

15 Responses to “bilingual babies”

  1. Hao Hao Report Says:

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  2. Ronny Says:

    People who do not know still posses opinions, and sometimes a lack of pertinent knowledge is not a barrier to forming a correct idealism.
    That being said, I have read that children are the most capable of casually learning language and even multi languages, their brain is more than capable. and from what I have observed this is very true. But it can take a lot to teach adults that children are more capable in certain things. The fact that your daughter can understand “New Zealand” English is amazing xixi, just a little Ozzie humour.
    Good luck to you n yours mate.

  3. wangbo Says:

    Ronny, I’m not sure how to reply to your:

    “People who do not know still posses opinions, and sometimes a lack of pertinent knowledge is not a barrier to forming a correct idealism.”

    …except to say ignorance and stupidity are not the same. Ignorance can be dealt with easily by supplying information. Or by seeking information, depending on who it is who suffers from the ignorance. And we all have vast areas in which we are ignorant.

    You’re absolutely right in saying “their brain is more than capable. and from what I have observed this is very true.” It’s amazing watching babies. They pop out with zero knowledge and limited instincts, but they vacuum up all the information around them, and that applies to every aspect of existence, from figuring out they have hands and fingers that are attached to them, to learning how to manipulate these things to achieve the goals they want, all the way through to how to communicate with the people around them.

  4. Ronny Says:

    except to say ignorance and stupidity are not the same.

    Well, although this is true, ignorance becomes stupidity when it voices itself as knowledge, a matter of evolution, thought to voice.
    But poor me, wishing I was 9 months old, wanting to escape the tediousness of teaching myself Putonghua, and amazed when visiting Shantou when my friends mother said my local dialect was better wodetiana!!

  5. wangbo Says:

    I disagree, but only slightly. Ignorance doesn’t become stupidity. Stupidity enshrines ignorance as knowledge. It may seem like I’m splitting hairs, but I’m leaving open the possibility that honest people can recognise their ignorance of a subject and fill that hole in their knowledge. An awful lot of people, in my experience, are too lazy or insecure to accept the possibility they may be wrong or not know about something, and so parade their ignorance as if it were expertise.

    Teaching oneself Putonghua can be tedious, but I hope you can find ways to liven it up. I may be assuming too much when I say this, but: Getting to the stage where one can get stuck into one’s own interests improves the experience drastically.

  6. Magnus Says:

    You drew me in with the name on Hao Hao Report. Interesting take on this subject. My 3 year old is dealing with the same thing. In the states (a monolingual nation) we also are a bilingual house. My wife MX is a Shanghai native and speaks Shanghainese every once in a while and while on SKYPE with her folks.

    Early on when our son starting speaking in both languages it was so fun to hear him flawlessly switch between languages depending on who was there and who he was talking to. As you said, People are flexible and I think children are most flexible of all. His foibles and funny lines are captured on our Twitter account where we tweet his bilingual tweets. How old is your daughter? You should do the same!

    The thing that I’m worried about is when he gets older, not becoming like these Chinese kids here that MX teaches Chinese who have NO INTEREST in the language but study only because their parents want them to. I don’t want my son to have that attitude.

  7. wangbo Says:

    My daughter is far too young to be on Twitter yet. Not even 8 months old! I think we’ll wait for her to start putting actual words together before we go embarrassing her that way.

    It’s good to hear of another family confirming that kids cope just fine growing up bilingual.

    I, too, hope my daughter doesn’t lose interest in either language. I wonder why those kids lose interest? Is their some kind of social pressure?

  8. Ryan Says:

    Great post Chris. Like yourselves, my wife and I both speak to our little one in our respective native tongues.

    Funny to me is that initially I was concerned that he wouldn’t have enough Chinese spoken to him (funny that this was a concern living in China). We speak English to each other though, and I thought there might be more of an effort given to assure he got his dose of Chinese.

    Foolish thinking as it turned out, as my wife gets a lot more face time with him, and so now at 18 months he is picking up a lot more mandarin than English.

    He’s only just beginning to speak, but his comprehension has been showing itself for many months now, and he’s never had a problem differentiating between the English or Chinese when asked where an object is (on a page, or in the room, etc.).

    It’s actually quite cute as we’ll be sitting at the dinner table and he’ll pick up a mushroom or something, turn to his mom and say “neige?”, get his answer and then turn to me and ask the same question. He figured out pretty quick that the same thing has different names depending who he asks. I’ve got to think that’s a valuable lesson and a positive piece of learning, not a point of confusion.

    I read a book about raising a multi-lingual kid and it stressed that initially there may be some speaking delays because of it, but that in the long-term there are only benefits — particularly when it comes to learning additional languages latter in life (in my son’s case it would likely be French, not Maori, but same difference).

  9. wangbo Says:

    Interesting you’d worry about him not getting enough Chinese. I’m more worried about my daughter’s exposure to English, considering my wife and I usually speak Chinese to each other. Fortunately I’m an incorrigible bookworm (as is my mum), so we’re building up a good supply of books and I read to her every day.

    And my daughter’s likely to get French too. It is, after all, the first foreign language I learnt and my major… Poor girl.

    And it’s great to hear of another family succeeding at the bilingualism. The more of these stories we hear, the more we have to fight back with when we get those ridiculous comments again.

  10. John Pasden Says:


    Nice post! I have very recently become interested in this topic. :)

    I’m also like you, in that there’s a lot more Chinese spoken in our home than English, so I’m a little bit worried about our daughter being exposed to enough English to grow up fluent. Conventional wisdom states that each parent should speak communicate with the child exclusively in his/her native tongue, but the critical question is: how much is enough for fluency?

    I’m actually working on acquiring various books and studies on raising bilingual children. I can share what I find with you, if you like.

  11. wangbo Says:

    John, again, congratulations.

    I have no easy answers, especially considering I’ve always (since that were possible) been more comfortable with the written word than the spoken word. But I do insist on only speaking English with my daughter and make sure to read an English book to her every day, and never speak or read to her in Chinese. And yet, at just short of 8 months, she’s still far too young to show the results in terms of language acquisition. Even so, there’s plenty of comments talking about successfully teaching both languages.

    I’d be very interested in reading what you find in the way of books and studies on raising bilingual children.

  12. Tom Says:

    Here in London the children and most Cantonese speaking parents are not introduced to English until they go to school at the age of five.- they then rapidly become bilingual.

    I have a stepson who took his family to France where they now live and his children, now bilingual, did not speak any French until they went to school in France.

    Thus I don’t think there is much to worry about.

  13. wangbo Says:

    There’s a slightly different situation, Tom, and one that seems to hold true for many migrant families. At university I had a Dutch flatmate who spoke flawless English with us (she’d been in NZ since she was 7), and code-switched to Dutch with her family. But the common theme is that there’s a clear context for each language. For the migrant families it’s Cantonese/English/Dutch as the case may be at home, and English/French at school. For the mixed families it’s Language A with mummy, Language B with daddy.

    Either way, you’re absolutely right, there isn’t really very much to worry about. Well, except the phenomenon Magnus mentioned of migrant kids losing interest in one of the languages, but that’s not a language acquisition problem.

  14. M. Says:

    Linguists have found that it sometimes takes bilingual kids a fraction of a second longer to remember a word. This is more of an issue (a) the words are in same subject area and/or (b) the words have similar in meanings or sounds (e.g., plate/platos). Other than that, the benefits far outweigh the downsides.

    But since people aren’t big listening to science or logic, I think they’re mostly just trying to bully you into doing what everyone else does. I’ve found that the best approach is to just nod your head, smile, and change the subject.

  15. wangbo Says:

    M., that minor issue would seem to me at first glance to be shared with bilingual adults – sometimes you misinterpret which language it is; sometimes you mix the languages; sometimes when speaking you remember the word in one language but not the other.

    But I don’t think anybody’s trying to bully us into anything, really. For the most part they’re just ignorant, with a small minority who are just stupid, and a “Well, actually….” nine times out of ten does the job just fine.