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We are an unusual case, I believe.  I speak Chinese at a very elementary level but have managed thus far to raise a very verbal 2 year old with my English-only husband.  Her primary language is Chinese and she has not been hindered in her language development thus far — at 18mo we counted 250 words between Chinese and English, mostly in Chinese, and she was speaking in sentences by 22mo, using tense, possessive, relative terms, and now at 26mo uses sentences with multiple components (x… because y). 

Her English is far behind, and she uses Chinese grammar mostly, with a mix of English and Chinese in her sentences to the English speaking parent.  Native speakers tell me she speaks like a child of a native speaker.  My elementary Chinese is supported by baby/toddler language classes and a playgroup that meets once in a fortnight, if that.  I do not speak English to her, and we read only Chinese books and sing Chinese songs together.

However, she is asking me to speak to her in English now.  “just a little,” she says.  She is realizing that my language is limited.  I don’t anticipate that she will be speaking Chinese a year from now; I’m surprised we’ve gotten this far.  But having gotten this far, I’m all the more disappointed to start transitioning into English.  My goal initially was to lay a foundation so that she could learn Chinese more easily later on.  It’s incredible to see her perceiving her world through a language that is not how I view the world!

What is the best way to do this?  To start speaking “Chinglish?”  To continue to keep the two languages as separated as possible?


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Dear R.

Wow! I’m impressed with what you have done so far with Chinese! You are definitely to be commended!

I know from experience that even if your child is fluent in the non-English language at 2 years, if you stop now, she will most likely forget everything. So please try to keep it up even a little bit!

I read (in The Bilingual Edge) that children need 20% of their waking hours to be in the second language in order to continuing acquiring the language. For a 2 year old, that would be about 2 or 2.5 hours per day. So, whether you continue to speak to her in Chinese or someone else does, you should try to get in 2 hours a day. Here are some suggestions to meet that:

1. Continue your own language learning. Take adult classes that are appropriate to your level. Try to make friends with Chinese parents. Depending on your religious affiliation, you could attend a Chinese church or other religious gathering (with the added advantage that there are often children’s classes or childcare in Chinese). Some communities have parenting classes in various languages, sometimes sponsored by the public library. Even if you already know the parenting stuff, you would benefit from being with other Chinese moms and learning parenting vocabulary in Chinese.

2. Read books to your daughter in Chinese. If you don’t feel comfortable, practice ahead of time. This will benefit you and her! If you have a Chinese friend willing to record the books on tape, you could listen to them as you practice to make sure you get the pronunciation and to aid in fluency as you read. If it is offered in your area, take her to Chinese story time at the library.

3. Hire a Chinese babysitter–a teenager or college student (and make it clear that she should only speak Chinese) to come for 1-2 hours a day. Or some people have had success with a “grandma” type babysitter. Have the babysitter do fun things like take her to the park or to get ice cream, so she associates Chinese with fun times. As your daughter gets older, you can have the babysitter do more games. “Candyland” and picture Bingo are great games to play in a second language. Teach them to the babysitter and only let them play in Chinese. It’s a great way to reinforce vocabulary as well as learn about sequencing, following directions and other social conventions.

4. Now that she is over the age of two, you can start to introduce t.v. or DVDs on a limited basis. Try to have only Chinese toddler DVDs around. So if she begs for a movie, you can pop in a Chinese one. Try to watch with her and comment on the different scenes. Personally, I wouldn’t introduce computer games until the age of 6, but I know other parents who have had great success with them at a younger age. In order to be useful, the games should be language-rich, not just graphics and sound effects.

5. Depending on your community, once she gets to be 4 or 5 year old kindergarten age, you might be able to find immersion programs or Saturday Chinese school programs.

6. You didn’t mention whether you are from a Chinese background or not, but if you have any Chinese relatives, try to enlist their help too.

Again, I think you’re doing a great job. With some support from others, you can continue to expose your daughter to Chinese, whether or not you feel comfortable continuing on yourself.

Best wishes!


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