sentences, sentences

Further 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 scientific, of course):

My daughter, not quite 3 years old, has been able to say complete sentences in Mandarin for quite some time now. “Oh sure”, you say, “really simple sentences.” Well, yes, but she had the infamous “把字句” down pat a long time ago, and that’s something that gives a lot of adult second language learners trouble. Well, to be fair, Chinese as a foreign language textbooks do tend to offer rather inadequate explanations of the 把字句, especially failing to answer the questions “When do you use it?” and “But, WHY?!” – hence the link to the wonderful Chinese Grammar Wiki. Anyways, moving on, as I was saying, my daughter has been saying complete sentences in Mandarin for a while now, but her English has been limited to single words or short phrases, often inserted into otherwise Mandarin sentences.

Now, I haven’t been particularly worried about this. She’s still little, there’s plenty of time for her to learn, she has plenty of English-language books and DVDs and I’m very strict about only speaking English to her, and besides, she’s in an overwhelmingly Mandarin language environment. She attends a normal Chinese kindergarten where she is surrounded my monolingual Chinese staff and pupils, and I am the only one who regularly speaks English to her. But her English will come with time.

But over the last few days she’s suddenly started coming out with complete English sentences. We were at Decathlon the other day, where we found her a wetsuit. We also showed her a boogieboard/body board, and she liked the look of that. Then she told me “I go swimming at the beach”. Just like that, unprompted. Later she was watching the Dora the Explorer episode Pablo’s Magic Flute, and she picked up her own flute (actually a 葫芦丝/húlúsī, and a toy plastic one at that) and started playing. I asked her, “Are you playing your flute?” and she replied, “Yes, I play the flute.” Still later, she told me, “I am pretty, I am ML*”

You’ll notice something in those sentences. Apart from ‘am’, there is a definite lack of conjugation of verbs. Well, that’s not something she has to worry about in Mandarin, of course, although she does hear me conjugate verbs all the time. Still, it’ll come. English grammar is more complex than the grammar of spoken Mandarin, so it’s to be expected that these niceties will take  a little more time. At least she doesn’t have to worry about grammatical gender or the declension of nouns, and she’ll only have to get her head around a few ragged remnants of a case system hanging on in pronouns.

Then, as I was trudging through the snow on the way to pick her up from kindy yesterday afternoon, I got to idly wondering if she would be able to form English sentences by analogy to Chinese. I mean, could she be thinking, “I know these Mandarin words and can join them together this way to express this idea. I know these English words, could I join them together just like I do in Mandarin?” Well, of course she wouldn’t be thinking exactly as expressed in those words – still no conjugation of verbs, for starters. But could that process be going on in her mind?

Let me give a few examples to explain.

When she was 18 months old we told her she was only allowed her dummy (pacifier in American, 安抚奶嘴 in Mandarin, don’t know what other English dialects may call such a thing) when she was thinking. She looked at us thoughtfully and somewhat cunningly for a minute or two, climbed up on the bed, lay down, and told us she wanted to sleep. We gave her her dummy, sceptically, because she’d just not long gotten up, and she closed her eyes and happily sucked on it, opening her eyes just a crack to make sure we were fooled by her ruse. Even at that age she was able to understand perfectly a rule, a rule that she had been told clearly in both her languages, and quickly figure out a way to use that rule to get what she wanted. If that’s the kind of thinking she was capable of at 18 months, could she be analogising at almost double that age?

My wife isn’t quite as strict as me on the One Parent One Language rule. I don’t mind that, because although my daughter sees plenty of evidence of me being bilingual, she only ever hears my wife speak English when we Skype my family in New Zealand, and then only a little bit of English. My wife occasionally using a bit of English with my daughter means the wee one gets a bit more evidence that both her parents are equally bilingual. But also, this helps just a little bit more in balancing out the language equation. What’s interesting, though, is that my daughter will very often refuse to let my wife use the English word for things. My wife will say, “Umbrella”, and the wee one will insist, “不是umbrella,是雨伞,好不好!”, but then I’ll say “Umbrella” and the wee one will agree that the 雨伞 is an umbrella. So she is quite aware that English and Mandarin are two separate languages and that Mandarin is for speaking with Mummy, and English for speaking with Daddy.

But, of course, her English so far lags quite a bit behind her Mandarin, so she’ll usually just speak to me in Mandarin with a few English words thrown in.

Having said all that, I was quite interested this morning when, watching Pablo’s Magic Flute again, she wanted her flute, but we couldn’t find it. She said to me, “I 没有 flute!” Then she said, “妈妈, I 没有 flute”, correcting herself to say “Mummy, I 没有 flute”. Could it be that, watching an English-language DVD and talking first to me and second to her Mummy, she decided English was appropriate, but then, realising that not being able to conjugate verbs on her own yet and therefore not being able to form the negative of ‘have’, or ‘can’ (though I don’t know if she knows ‘find’ yet), she fell back on the Mandarin word she does know? At least that way she gets to complete her sentence.

Unrelated to sentence formation, but another aspect of English grammar the wee one has yet to grasp is singular/plural. She’ll often say “a socks” or “a shoes“, final s bolded to emphasise that it is clearly there in her speech, it’s not just a toddler twist of the tongue. Last night we were reading a poster with her – one of those character recognition posters with pictures of loosely unrelated things an a Chinese character and English (often Chinglish) word for each picture. There was a picture of a bunch of bananas and a picture of a banana (the poster was trying to express the concepts of ‘many’ and ‘few’), and when we pointed to the bunch she said “bananas”. When we pointed to the single banana she said “bananas” again. We went through “one banana, many bananas” a few times, emphasing the lack or presence of that final s, but I don’t think she realised the difference. Oh well, there’s time.

And one final bitlet of toddler cuteness: The wee one tends to pronounce ‘bananas’ as ‘bunanas’.

*She actually stated her name, I’m just continuing an old policy of loosely disguising names of real-world people who haven’t given express consent and aren’t in any articles online I’m discussing in the blogpost in question.

About the Author


A Kiwi teaching English to oil workers in Beijing, studying Chinese in my spare time, married to a beautiful Beijing lass, consuming vast quantities of green tea (usually Xihu Longjing/西湖龙井, if that means anything to you), eating good food (except for when I cook), missing good Kiwi ale, breathing smog, generally living as best I can outside Godzone and having a good time of it.

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