Two Siblings, Two Languages

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.



  1. So glad to hear it works so well for you. Wonderful to have two languages and two parents who speak them well. Fascinating how your son divides up his “Speak Chinese to” “Speak English to” people, and his anger when you transgressed the familial rules. And yes, amazing the ease at which they can translate the meaning/sense vs struggling with translating actual words. Congratulations! Would that we had three parents in our household! :D

  2. I so want our kids to play together! :)

    We speak only English at home, except when the ayi is here then she speaks Chinese to the kids and to me. At school, the kids only speak Chinese, except for 20 minutes of ‘english’ lessons a day.

    We also see the simultaneous translation a lot, and have seen the kids say something to the ayi in Chinese then turn around and say the same thing to me or my husband in English.

    They often play together in Chinese, even when home alone together, because this is the language of their friends at school, and the language of their playing. I have read that peer groups influence language choices more for bilingual kids than their parents. Based on what you wrote and our experience too, it seems accurate.

    There is something else which seems critical, specifically with Chinese and English. Grammar is much more basic (or efficient if you will) in Chinese, meaning that you can express quite complex ideas with a simple sentence in Chinese. As a result, I often see the kids expressing grammatically perfect sentences in Chinese, speaking politely and perfectly to express an idea which in English they might struggle to say as eloquently. I have talked to friends with older bilingual kids, and they have experienced similar things but noted it that it changes a bit at 5/6 years old as at that stage their comprehension of English ‘catches up’ grammatically to that of an earlier stage of Chinese.

    Please keep writing your observations on these topics!!

  3. Really very interesting! I wish I had been brought up bilingual! :-P My 9yo son is starting to pick up a few simple Mandarin phrases from my Taiwanese fiancée which makes it fun. We try and speak a lot of mandarin at home so I can learn more!

  4. [...] Two Siblings, Two Languages — An interesting look at a topic that has always interested me: what happens when you’re [...]

  5. I found your post from the Blog Carnival. It is fascinating to see how bilingual siblings interact. My boys are about the same age as your children and right now they both always talk to each other in Spanish. I hope that it continues that way!

  6. We have a similar situation at home, two daughters, 5 and 7. They are both better a both languages than either of us and it’s interesting to see which language they use with other. The older initiates with Mandarin more and then the younger usually follows.

    We spend summers in Beijing and after a few weeks there, the Mandarin being 7×24, I notice everyone’s English drops off dramatically even though everyone knows the language. My Chinese improves, but not enough to close the gap ;-)

    It seems the spoken Mandarin is firmly set – the quest for reading and writing fluency continues. Our local schools are great so we’re not planning to have them in immersion classes next year. The big question – what kind of program could we tap to create a daily reading and writing curriculum for them at home – any suggestions?


  7. Interesting read. And good for you for having a solid plan to keep those kids using both languages. It’s definitely a commitment.

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