Published by under categories Bilingual Baby | comments Comments (3)

One of my customers, now also a friend, in New Zealand, left a comment on my previous post Why she speaks more English than Chinese?

In my post, I questioned why my daughter still speaks more English than Chinese after I did my best to create a Chinese-rich environment for her.

One reason I thought about is that that I didn’t strictly follow “one parents one language” rule. I read to DD in English as well, only because sometimes she got tired of our limited stock of Chinese books and wanted something different. This is the only time I don’t speak Chinese to her.

I questioned myself that how much impact it had made on her to achieve perfect bilingualism?

Bilingualism in Development: Language, Literacy, and Cognition Parents' and Teachers' Guide to Bilingualism (Parents' and Teachers' Guides)
Bilingualism in Development: Language, Literacy, and Cognition Parents’ and Teachers’ Guide to Bilingualism

From Chui’s comment, it looks it is the right reason. Chui was in the same situation as I was: she could get unlimited resources in English but very limited resources in Chinese. Her husband doesn’t speak Chinese. She is the only person to speak Chinese to her son in his world.

But the difference is: she didn’t read books in English to her son. She only read to him in Chinese.

His son spoke both Chinese and English fluently since month 17.

Maybe I should stop reading books in English to my daughter and only read to her in Chinese. What do you think?

Here is full text of her comment:

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I have a son who is bilingual at 17 months, speaking fluently in Mandarin and English. His father can only speak English whereas I can speak a few languages.

Similar to Lina, English resources are in abundant in NZ whereas Mandarin ones are very limited. Every month I could borrow up to 40 books in English, however the number of Chinese books I might not even come close to that.

As a result, right from the start, even though we are reading English books, I always read to him in Mandarin. Only his father will read to him in English. He turned 3 last week, a few days ago he said to me. Mommy, how come you can read in English? (he said it in Mandarin).

Even though he hears me speak very fluent English to every one, except to him, it never occur to him that I can read in English too…To be honest, I didn’t realize that he didn’t know that I can read in English!

In the past, both my husband and I will read to him and still does. If my son bring me a book, I will read to him in Mandarin. If he takes the same book to his daddy, his daddy will read to him in English. I find that learning two languages at the same time actually reinforces his understanding of the first one.

Life with Two Languages: An Introduction to Bilingualism Raising a Bilingual Child (Living Language Series)
Life with Two Languages: An Introduction to Bilingualism Raising a Bilingual Child (Living Language Series)

In terms of communicating with my husband, I used to ask my son to convey my messages to his father. Eg, I ask my son to please and go and tell daddy dinner is ready. While I will speak to him in Mandarin, I will train him to go to daddy and tell daddy in English. Of course in the beginning, my son will automatically tell his father in Mandarin. He will realize soon enough that daddy couldn’t understand what he is saying and that he has to translate in English for him. I will tell my husband/sign to him what my message was, my husband will then expressed what my request was to my son in English, and my son will repeat after him. Though persistence, now my son does not even have to pause to translate.

I find that like Sara-Elizabeth, always giving running commentary of what happens in my son’s surrounding helps a lot. When he hears other people talks to him in English, I will always translate to him in Mandarin (not because he could not understand what they were saying, but because I want his vocabulary in Mandarin to not fall behind his English vocabulary) Only then he will be able to communicate with me effectively and still find this language useful in helping him express himself.

Recently through a friend’s recommendation, I bought some books that help him learn to recognize Mandarin characters. Within 3.5 months of starting the books and flashcards, he can now identify just under 100 Chinese characters and read 8 books. I have never dreamt that the first book he read himself will be in Mandarin and not in English. But the reason, I started him early in Mandarin because I know Mandarin is harder to learn (in reading) than does English. If I wait until he goes to primary school, by then he will find it too hard to learn Mandarin because English is relatively easier to learn to read.

Raising a bilingual child is never easy and there are lots of trial and error. After all there is not much personal experience we can draw on ourselves. I hope my personal experience help in some ways.

What is your experience
to help your child achieve bilingualism?

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Related posts:
How I help my baby acquire a second language?
How babies acquire languages?
How children acquire second languages?
Bilingualism and cognitive development
More resources on bilingualism and its effects
Why my baby isn’t talking yet?


  1. 1
    Chui // June 18th, 2012 at 1:05 am

    Through my journey of teaching my son Chinese, I have also discover that Chinese books are writen in a very different style than English books. My child might prefer the story style in most English books over the Chinese ones. If I only read Chinese to him when he wants Chinese books read, then his exposure to Chinese words will be very limited. While resources from China are very helpful for children in China learning Chinese, they might still not be the ideal resources for children outside China who are learning Chinese as second language. The stories might not be as attractive to these children trying to acquire a second language. In choosing the relevant material for any child, I would consider the child’s interest and how relevant is what he is reading/watching to his daily life. Learning how to apply this language in his every day life is the most crucial part in learning a second language.

  2. 2
    Viv // July 16th, 2012 at 12:53 am

    We also have a mix of English and Chinese and German books, but more English and German! At first, I read the English to him in English, but recently, I changed to translating to Mandarin instead since our son is only 14 months and doesn’t recognise words yet. I can’t understand German, but we have some really attractive, 3D books in German, and I simply use Mandarin to describe the pictures to him. He likes it just as much as when his father reads to him in German. So, it’s like 1 book can actually be 3 for him (in 3 languages)! So I agree with Chui, it’s probably a good strategy to increase the Mandarin exposure even with limited Chinese books in your home.

  3. 3
    Amanda Miss Panda // November 10th, 2013 at 6:51 am

    I enjoyed the post very much. I can relate with the story very well since I am also the only person who speaks Mandarin Chinese in the family. We do need more target language input for the children so they can keep growing with Chinese. When my daughter turned three she told me to read books in Chinese when she saw Chinese characters on the page and to read to her in English when she saw English words on the books. That was very interesting.

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