I have been reading the posts on this site for a while, and they are amazing! Thanks for the effort.
I got some questions regarding my son. Background about us: My wife and I were born and raised in Asia, and we’re native Mandarin speakers. We are currently living in North America. My English is more fluent than my wife’s. We speak Mandarin at home.
My son has watched a lot of YouTube English baby song videos, and I taught him several English picture books. He really likes them. And I think he’s more sensitive to English, comparing to Mandarin, because he already picked up a lot of English words, but not many Mandarin words.
I think the reason is he has received more English input than Mandarin input. We don’t have many Mandarin-speaking friends here, so to help my boy play with other kids, we don’t want him only to know how to speak Mandarin. I guess that’s why we didn’t enforce “Mandarin only at home” policy like some parents did.
But I have some concerns:
Since we’re not native English speakers, even we can handle it for now, I’m worrying later he cannot learn native expressions from us, which might be a bad thing for his English.
Should we continue to speak English as long as the kid wants, or should we speak Mandarin to him only?
Thank you for your question. The language learning concerns you have for your bilingual son are commonly shared by parents who are non-native English speakers living in an English-speaking society. Let’s take a look at a breakdown of the language environment for your son to start with:
Language Environment at Home
Chinese (Mandarin) is the family language used between parents at home.
English is the language that you use to read picture books for your son. Your boy also enjoys watching many English language baby/toddler singing videos.
Language Environment outside of Home
Chinese (Mandarin) is not used in the community. There are not many Chinese-speaking friends in the community. English is the community language.
Currently language preference for your boy
English is your child’s preferred language at this time from your message. Your boy has picked up many English words. As for Chinese, his Chinese vocabulary is not on the same scale as his English and you mentioned that it might be because he has more English language input than Chinese language input.
Overall language input
English appears to be the “fun” language for your son. This is the language he associates with your English story time and baby songs from online programs.
I don’t have the information of the usage of Chinese language in his daily life from your message.
Do you and your wife both speak Mandarin Chinese to him outside of the English story time with you? This is an important question since it will give you an insight into how much English and Chinese language input he has from you and your spouse on a daily basis. You can add it to the above language environment analysis and see a rough percentage usage of both languages. This is a good reference for you when you set up a family language plan.
Concern about English
Young children play together before they can speak a language fluently. You can see that when you visit a baby or toddler playgroup in your community. Young kids interact with each other with or without words. As a child gets older and equips with more developed language skill s/he will use words to interact with peers in the play group.
Teaching your son English at home will help him to communicate with other children who use the community language. It will also help him feel at ease when he is in a social event in the community. At the same time, he is learning from his peers. His English language skills will grow proportionally with his increasing exposure to the language from English language programs, playdates, and schooling.
At this time, your son has been exposed to authentic content input in English from the storybooks and shows you share with him. Authentic texts are defined as “those written and oral communications produced by members of a language and culture group for members of the same language and culture group” (Galloway 1998; Shrum & Glisan, 2010). You are a bilingual parent who is fluent in Chinese and English. Your concern of not being able to teach him native English expressions when he is older will not be an issue as he will enter schools and continue his English language learning with native-speaking teachers and classmates. In the school system, TESOL (Teaching of English as Second Language) teachers are not all native English speakers. Their bilingual ability can guide the students on their ESL journey. Students who enter the ESL program at a young age in a school will gradually move on to regular English programs with their native-speaking peers as they progress.
At the same time, monolingual parents can teach their child a second language by learning the target language themselves and combining the support of books, songs, online programs/resources, and a tutor. Language learning has different stages and you will be growing and learning with your boy together.
Concern about Chinese
Mandarin Chinese appears to be your boy’s first language and the language your family uses at home. Your concern is that if your son does not learn Chinese now it might be hard for him to learn later.
In my teaching experience, I have seen American-born Chinese students learn Chinese well at an older age, such as when they are in middle school, high school, or in college. They have various Chinese language proficiency levels when either one or both of their parents are native Chinese speakers. These are heritage language learners. When a heritage language student comes in with an intermediate or higher level of proficiency they usually have been using Chinese and have been given Chinese language input from their home environments and beyond.
There are also students who reach a novice level of Chinese proficiency because of their formal Chinese study and/or cultural ties to the language. The family language of these students can be a mix of Chinese and community language, or only the community language. Students whose parents are native Chinese speakers can be very motivated to learn more about their heritage language and culture. Some continue learning Chinese after high school and work their way to even higher levels fluency. Therefore, no matter if it is Chinese or not, it is just like learning another language and an older child will go through the same language learning process.
I refer to the language proficiency levels as defined by the ACTFL language proficiency guideline.
Raising a bilingual child
Your child has an advantage with two native Chinese-speaking parents. He can learn Chinese at home from both of you and he can learn English from one of you. While you are living in North America he can also learn English from community programs, his friends, and school.
His English language input will be very high once he starts school. On the other hand, his Mandarin Chinese language input will rely on the consistent language input from you and your spouse. There are many Chinese learning resources available online and offline. You can also order Chinese children’s books online. You can select craft projects to work with him. You can choose age-appropriate Chinese children’s shows for him. The most important thing is to provide your son sufficient comprehensible Chinese language input, to interact and have fun with him in Chinese daily, and to create the need for your son to use the Chinese language.
Review and evaluate your current language input for your son and set up a family language strategy accordingly. A good article that I like to share with parents who are new to the bilingual family journey is “What Parents Want to Know about Bilingualism” by Dr. François Grosjean, psycholinguist and professor emeritus at the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland. I hope you find it resourceful.
Best wishes to you and your family.
Let’s always keep learning fun!
– Galloway, Vicki. Constructing cultural realities: “Facts” and frameworks of association. In J. Harper, M. Lively, & M. Williams (Eds.), The Coming of Age of the Profession: Emerging Issues in the Teaching of Foreign Languages (pp. 129-140). Boston: Heinle and Heinle, 1998.
– Shrum, Judith and Eileen W. Glisan. Teacher’s Handbook. Contextualized Language Instruction. 4th Ed. Boston: Heinle, 2010.