When our son was born five years ago, my husband and I decided to use the One Parent One Language method to teach him Mandarin. This made sense for us since we have different native tongues yet we both understand both languages. So far, for both our kids, it has worked beautifully. When L began to talk (not until the age of two), he first said more words in English but clearly understood Chinese. By the time he was two and a half or three, he was carrying on conversations with us at the dinner table, turning to Baba to say something in Chinese and then turning to me to finish the sentence in English. He got furious when I crossed the lines of our system and spoke Chinese to him, and refused to acknowledge that I did understand when he talked to his dad. So he would often interrupt conversations in Chinese to turn to me and translate. Interestingly, he has never minded the rare moments when my husband speaks English to him and I can only guess it’s because, living in an English environment, he hears his father use it more regularly in daily life. He now acknowledges that we all speak both languages but is very proud of the fact that he speaks both better than either of us.
Now that he is fully bilingual, it’s been interesting to see how and with whom he chooses to speak Chinese. At his immersion school, he speaks Mandarin with his teachers, though not often with his classmates, who are mostly native English speakers. Even he and his very best friend — who is also fluent in Chinese, and with whom he has been in a Chinese-speaking childcare environment since they were one year old — always speak English together when playing in or out of school. At his old daycare, the main teacher spoke about 80% Chinese with the kids, but L knew that she understood English, and so for the first year he refused to speak Mandarin to her. Yet with her assistant, who did not speak any English, he spoke only Chinese. For the most part, he has divided his world up into people with whom he speaks Mandarin, and those with whom he speaks English, and very rarely do those boundaries blur.
So too, with our little one, who is now almost two. She is much more verbal than her brother and has been speaking since before she turned one. At eighteen months, she began to designate one language each for me and my husband and now only speaks to us in our own native tongue. She also translates for me when she talks to her dad. Since she started talking so much earlier than L, it’s been fascinating to see the language development so clearly at that age. Sometimes we are floored by her understanding of both languages and her ability to move from one to the other. The other day, for example, she walked into the kitchen and asked her father what he was doing. He responded, “我做一点点工作。” She then immediately came back to me and said, “Baba’s working a little bit.” How did she even know that “一点点” would translate into “a little bit,” much less be able to turn it around into a grammatically correct sentence right away? And the first time she used what is now her favorite expression, 一模一样 (“exactly the same”), she was simply repeating after her brother. At the time, I thought, how cute that she’s trying to say such a complex phrase that she doesn’t even understand, until she turned to me, pointed to the picture L was looking at, and said, “Mama, the same!” Watching the skill with which these little people can absorb and manipulate two very complex and very different languages is truly a wonder.
And now that they both are speaking (non-stop, I might add), it is beautiful to see them communicate between themselves. Together, they switch between English and Chinese, starting a conversation in English, ending it in Chinese, moving back and forth midway. Even when they are fighting. With his sister is the only time I have seen L do this; she is the one person that he has not regimented into one language or another. He knows that in our family, they are the only ones who share the ability to use both languages equally well, and that bonds them. And she learns from him, following his lead as he moves between the two languages, and the two worlds being created in their minds.