Published by under categories Bilingual Baby, From Lina | comments Comments (5)

I dreamed DD to reach the perfect bilingualism, which was defined as “the full range of competence in both languages that a native monolingual speaker has in one”(John Lyons, 1981, p. 282). In another words, I would like her to be equally competent in English and Chinese both actively (through speaking, writing, or signing) and passively (through listening, reading, or perceiving).

But, it seemed she was more like a receptive bilingual, who has the ability to understand a second language, but does not speak it. With no doubt, DD understood perfectly when I spoke Chinese or read Chinese books to her. She could follow the story line when watching Chinese cartoons. But she choose to speak to me in English, the community language.

What happened? Only four to five months ago, DD’s vocabulary for Chinese reached 500 words. She could easy carry a simple conversation with my parents in Chinese. She could name least seven colors (e.g. blue, red, yellow, white, black, pink, green, and etc), at least three actions (e.g. jumping, walking, running, and etc), and a number of opposites (e.g. tall, short, big, small) in Chinese.

100 Popular Chinese Children's Songs (2 DVDs) Chinese Children's Dancing Songs (2 DVDs)
100 Popular Chinese Children’s Songs (2 DVDs) Chinese Children’s Dancing Songs (2 DVDs)

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She could count from 1 to 10 fluently in Chinese. And she could say the seven magic words (e.g. please, sorry, you’re welcome, good morning, thank you, goodbye) in Chinese without any trouble.

I think there are a number of causes to explain why she fell to receptive bilingualism.

One, her exposures to under-used minority language, which is Chinese in her case, was dramatically reduced after my parents left. When my parents came to visit, she had three people to talk to in Chinese. Now it was just me. She didn’t have a Chinese playgroup or playmate to hang around. The only opportunity to get an interactive Chinese exposure was from me.

To make it even worse, currently I was hand-full with twins. So I didn’t have time to read her Chinese books or watch Chinese cartoons with her. She spent more time with daddy and grandparents, who speak exclusively English to her. And she watched Nick Jr. most of the time.

Two, I was not consistent in speaking Chinese at home. M doesn’t speak or understand Chinese. To communicate with him, I had to shift to English. In order to keep him on the same page, I had to explain and translate my conversation with DD in English.

Sometimes the effort required to maintain pure Chinese with DD became too great that I succumbed to the pressure and went over to English myself. Looks like a perfect note for a linguist scholar’s announcement that “where one of the parents does not understand one of the languages, attempts to maintain bilingualism in the family are most likely to fail”(John Lyons, 1981, p. 39).

Bilingual DVD: Dora the Explorer (Chinese/English, 5 DVDs) Bilingual DVD: Dora the Explorer (Chinese/English, 5 DVDs)
Bilingual DVD: Dora the Explorer  (Chinese/English, 5 DVDs) Bilingual DVD: Dora the Explorer  (Chinese/English, 5 DVDs)

So, what to do?

I definitely don’t want to give up.

One thing I can do is to do my best to give DD exposure of the Chinese language as much as possible. How about watching Chinese cartoons instead of Nick Jr.? Squeeze some time out to read Chinese stories to her, listen Chinese songs with her, play games in Chinese or simply engaging her in a short conversation in Chinese, no matter she answers me in English or in Chinese. Yes, DD might be a receptive bilingual at present, but I might just as well emphasize the positive aspects and say that DD at least understands the Chinese language.

Next, I am thinking to create a Chinese environment around DD by launching a Chinese story time in the local library. Just like the story time hosted in library right now, I will teach children vocabularies and phrases on family members, body parts, colors, numbers & simple math, shapes, and basic social expressions, through songs, stories, finger plays, visual aids, games and activities. I will encourage children and parents to participate and interact through the story time. Of course, I will take all my three kids to the story time.

Now it is your turn. Dear readers,

What do you do to help kids achieve perfect bilingualism?

John Lyons (1981): Language and Linguistics: An Introduction, Cambridge University Press.

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Related posts:
OPOL series: OPOL and child bilingualism
How strictly or consistently do we need to follow OPOL?
Why she speaks more English than Chinese?
How I help my baby acquire a second language?
How babies acquire languages?
Stages of baby’s language acquisition


  1. 1
    Viv // July 16th, 2012 at 1:14 am

    I don’t think it is really possible or practical to achieve “perfect” bilingualism, it’s really a myth that anyone can have equal fluency, especially kids who live in a monolingual culture like the States. Even in Singapore, where the dominant culture accepts bilingualism as the norm and where it is built into the education system, it is very rare to find a “perfectly” bilingual Singaporean because our exposure to and our use of the languages are unequal and uneven.

    For my son Ju, he has an even harder job — 3 languages! Neither my husband nor I speak each other’s language (German and Chinese) and we converse in English. But just like DD, Ju has a passive vocabulary in all 3 languages (he does not speak yet). Even if one parent manages to achieve 99% consistency, I read that it is not enough to ensure the child gains the same level of proficiency because when he goes to school, the dominant (majority) language takes precedence. I am also looking for solutions to overcome this problem, the system in Germany is heavy on German, English gets less attention and Chinese would be relegated to nothing if I don’t find Ju a weekend Chinese school! Meanwhile, I am taking your advice in your past posts, and doing my best to keep to Mandarin as much as I can. But I am quite sure that Ju will never be equally proficient in all 3 languages. He will only be as good as the input he receives, and the opportunity he gets to use the language, and this can’t be forced on a child.

  2. 2
    Lina // July 17th, 2012 at 1:43 pm

    @Viv: Yes, you are absolutely right: learning languages should be a happy, relaxing and rewarding experience, especially for little children. That is also the purpose that I started early to bring her up bilingual. There is no point to learn a second language if that only adds burdens to the child and the parent.

  3. 3
    cartside // August 23rd, 2012 at 3:12 pm

    We had the same difficulty, in a similar context. What worked for us was this: when my older daughter was 4, I went on 2 holidays to Germany, 2 weeks each, without my husband. First I stayed with my dad, and visited lost of friends (but no German children) and 4 months later, I went on a holiday with a good German friend and her two children (3 and 1 years old). After the second holiday, my daughter was suddenly speaking German, and from there it was easy to maintain. I also made an effort to make German friends locally and to meet up regularly – so she hears German more often. But the trip with the German children was definitely the most successful 2 weeks ever. I also told her that her new sister only speaks German and although she knows that this is not true, she does mostly speak German to her. Only now, a year and 3 months after our trip, does she fall back to mixing Enlgish in her German sentences so I think it’s time to refresh things a bit and spend some time in Germany. By the way, her best friend (she calls her her twin) is Scottish-Chinese, bilingual too, not sure if that fact is part of the bond between them.

  4. 4
    Jay Sheldon // September 1st, 2012 at 4:02 am

    I’m still a beginner at bilingual parenting, and currently live in the ‘minority’ country (China) so this isn’t an issue for me *yet*. Do you think it would be almost as good for her to retain receptive bilingualism *at her development level* (so she can understand cartoons aimed at 5-year-olds when she’s 5), because it would then be pretty easy for her to convert that into productive bilingualism if/when she has the chance of Chinese immersion / play friends?

    Interested to hear what people think. (I like your blog very much, by the way!)

  5. 5
    Lina // September 5th, 2012 at 7:24 pm

    @Jay: yes, it will be pretty easy for her to pick up Chinese since she is physically in China. The influence of the language environment is very important.

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