Bilingual kids, semi-lingual adults

There are two things I want to discuss here. The first is how to raise kids to become bilingual, and the second related topic is about so-called ‘semi-lingualism’ in teens and adults: people who are 90% fluent/literate in two languages, but without having achieved full fluency/literacy in either.

I know there are alot of bilingual families out there. What are you doing to boost your child’s English skills while living in Taiwan? I have a book “Growing up with two languages” by Una Cummingham-Andersson and Staffan Andersson which I have found very useful.

Some basic points in the book stress that becoming bilingual doesn’t ‘just happen’ simply because the child has parents who speak two different languages. You do have to work at it very hard. This is difficult because I am working for most of the day like a lot of people. Tapes, books and the like help, but without going to an international school, which is unbelievably expensive, I just don’t see how my son’s English is ever going to reach the level of a native speaker back home in England.

In the book, the authors state that it is almost impossible to become truly bilingual unless the child spends equal time in both countries. However hard you try there will always be gaps because of the limited exposure to the language. The authors talk instead about majority language (ML) and minority language (ml) depending on where the child is. For example, my son’s ml is English and his ML is Chinese because the ML of Taiwan is Chinese.

The nightmare scenario for me would be for us to move back and then find that his Chinese gets worse while he is still playing catch up with his English.
I have met several teenaged students who were born in Taiwan, moved overseas when they about nine or ten and then moved back here. While they sound like a native English speaker, they often have a poor grasp of grammar, their written English is atrocious and to top it all off they tell me they can’t write in Chinese, though they seem to be fluent in spoken Chinese, albeit with an overseas accent. I would hate for my son to grow up semi-literate in two languages like this. Actually, in the book the notion of semi-lingualism is dismissed, but I’ve seen it and it’s ugly.

I would be interested to hear your comments, thoughts, advice. Cheers.

It will happen and there is nothing you can do about it outside of your kids spending half the year in Taiwan and half the year in an english speaking country, and then its iffy. That doesn’t stop people from trying though. I know 6 or 7 families here in the US in my town that this issue came up (including my own). They lost most of their Taiwanese within a year or two. They spend a lot more time with their peers and other english speakers than the couple hours max with their parents (and I speak very little Taiwanese: language is not one of my strong points). My advice: Don’t sweat it!

Get your child to respond to you in the language you talk to her at the time. I just visited my friend in Thailand, he is German and his wife is Thai and they have a 3 year old daughter. Problem is that she started to speak 3 different languages (German, English, Thai) - but in one sentence. This is in particular difficult to understand for people who speak only one of those languages.
Now they try to stick to one language at the time as to not confuse her and they want her to respond in the same language.
Her dominant language is Thai, probably due to the environment and because dad spends less time with her (since he has to work), her spoken English and German aren’t nowhere as good as her Thai but she understands all of them well.

Keep your kids reading - line the walls with bookshelves. It’s the best way to promote good spelling, grammar, literacy, and creativity.

What your doing is correct. Their fluency will gain over time. Naturally one language will dominate, but if the foundation is solid in the other(s) the you must trust that thier intellegence will carry them the rest of the way as they age. The suggestion from Opus is spot on too. Teach them to read. 30 minutes a day reading to them from those books will have a very lasting effect.


I would suggest that it isnt helpful to boggle the kids with too much knowledge about the ML ml business. Keep the learning of the other language as fun as can be. They dont realise why they need a second language but will able to learn it for you if they enjoy it. I have thought about mixing both languages infront of the child when they are very young. After all, Taiwanese children learn how to speak Taiwanese and Mandarin, so they can get the third in no sweat!!! You get my point. I see my g/fs 2 and a half year old nephew gaining an ability in 3 languages. But sustainability is a problem, as schools wont offer anything other than an outside environment for the child. By that I mean that being at school they will learn different routines from the ones you set at home. If you cant afford a good school then chose from the rest very carefully. Good cheap schools do exist. What age are the kids?
I guess the big thing is not to force them to learn, but to show them that its useful to be skilled in both languages as it will give them lots of advantages in the future.

Multiple langiages in one sentence is not a problem in young kids, it will sort itself out. I remember one time in the U.S., my son was about 4…he was in the pool with his cousins and everyone bailed out saying “time for the filter to do its job.” He said I pied in the pool." He meant, “I farted in the pool,” a very amusing thing for a 4 year old…they herad “I peed in the pool,” not so amusing for 12 year olds.

I don’t know about complete fluency/literacy in all languages. I think I could work for a hundred years and still screw up English. I figure that fluent communication in two languages is sufficient.

This is what worries me. You may be able to communicate fluently in English and Chinese but still have awful writing, poor vocabulary, and only be able to use basic grammar in both languages. That is precisely what I want to avoid. This is what I mean when I talk about semi-lingual adults - they know 90% of two languages.

I would much prefer my son, whose three by the way, to be 100% in one language (native speaker) and 75% plus in the second mother tongue.

Patterson, thanks for your input but why do you think I would “boggle my son’s mind with knowledge about ML/ml business”? What do you take me for? A moron? :unamused:

This is what worries me. You may be able to communicate fluently in English and Chinese but still have awful writing, poor vocabulary, and only be able to use basic grammar in both languages. That is precisely what I want to avoid. This is what I mean when I talk about semi-lingual adults - they know 90% of two languages.

I would much prefer my son, whose three by the way, to be 100% in one language (native speaker) and 75% plus in the second mother tongue.

Patterson, thanks for your input but why do you think I would “boggle my son’s mind with knowledge about ML/ml business”? What do you take me for? A moron? :unamused:[/quote]

Well, define 100% proficiency…I don’t have 100% proficiency in English, was a perfeshunuhl writer, but that’s why they make this strange class of critters called ed-dee-tors :smiley:, to let me write and fix the mistakes later. I’m not particularly concerned about my son, he got dropped into Chinese grade school with no background a couple of years back and I’ve let his English reading slide because he’s been swamped at school. I’m seeing the time cresting the horizon to start to work with him in English. As far as being able to effectively communicate in both languages, he’ll be fine, both in speaking and writing (I say this as a kid who spent the first 4-5 years of life in Spanish speaking countries). I know very few Chinese with 100% fluency in written Chinese and I know very few gringos with 100% fluency in English (maybe none, in both cases). Don’ worry so much, it’ll all work out…do your best on the English side, and the Chinese side is already gonna be there. 'eel be fine :smiley::D.

I gotta say this…

just to be irritating…


Byao hsian tse me duo :smiley: (where is the smiley for a tonge sticking out, dangit :slight_smile: ).

At this point, I am thinking that in the next month or two, it may be time to beef up the collection of Oxford readers, my son loves 'em. Getting him to finish the Harry Potter series shouldn’t be a problem. He loves to write stories, so improving THAT should be easy also.

[quote=“Spack” You may be able to communicate fluently in English and Chinese but still have awful writing, poor vocabulary, and only be able to use basic grammar in both languages. That is precisely what I want to avoid. [/quote]

Well, Spack, I have to say that if you leave out the Chinese part of the above quote, you’ve got almost 80% of U.S. university freshmen accounted for. Grammar, vocabulary,and writing must be worked at, in any language or any number of languages.

I believe the one parent one language approach works well, better if you both can speak English to your child. But even you’re the only English speaker and you work a lot, you child WILL learn to speak to you in English if you insist. Communication is what counts; the rest is book learning.

This is a HUGE concern for me too. I get it in the neck all the time with my son only speaking a limited range of English and then, for the most part, he will only want to speak Chinese or Taiwanese. English gets “Pthhhhhhh” sounds and sends him running for the DVD player. Luckly I have stocked up on English VCD’s and DVD’s and he will happily sit there and watch them. Ice Age is a huge hit and I can’t stop him saying “Where’s the baby?” “Here he is!”. The Lion king has him crawling on the floor being a lion and screaming “Roar” “Lion” . I also have the Horse King - “Spirit” but that’s in Chinese.

Luckily I work from home so my son gets much more exposure to English than he would if I were at the office all day. I wonder how dads who work at the office all day manage

I am glad housecat mentioned one person one language. This is an important topic that runs through the book I mentioned. Parents must pick a system, such as OPOL or minority language at home (ml@h) or their own concoction if it works for them, and stick to it. We tend to do OPOL, with Mum sometimes speaking ml@h when I am present. It may sound complicated but we dont consciously think about it; we just do it.

Regarding 100% proficiency, it was a mistake of me to try to quantify it in the way. Clearly it’s a question of quality. I merely hope that my son’s English can reach its maximum potential so that he can (a) enjoy the language and literature for its own sake, (b) have the opportunity to go to university © have the option of living and working in UK as a native rather than a funny-sounding alien, (d) avoid sounding like a retard in social situations.

I am not worried about his Chinese as we are living in Taiwan right now, but if we went back to UK I am certain it would be difficult keeping up his Chinese

Hey, Spack - as one who grew up in this very situtation that you are talking about, I would say that it’s important for your child to be able to hear and use both langauges at home. Also, it would be wise to have your child take classes in both langauges if possible or at least give him exposure to fun activities with other kids that are held in both languages. Yes, the international schools here are expensive, but many families send their kids to Taiwanese schools and then have them attend English classes after-school. That’s always an option.

I went to an international school and had Mandarin lessons after-school. But I often skipped Chinese class after a day of using English at school precisely because I thought that it wasn’t “cool”. Of course I regret not having taking Chinese classes more seriuosly because now my foundation in reading and writing Mandarin is still very weak.

My advice would be to allow your child to develop his Mandarin and even Taiwanese and build up a solid foundation in those languages now because he is living here now. English is the easier of the three languages to learn and with repeated exposure to English from you, books, tapes, videos, and perhaps even classes, he’ll be fine.

And as one who grew up with only one language (regrettably so), though my mother is Hakka Taiwanese (continuously learning English) and father German American (stubbornly avoiding Mandarin), I heartily applaud those of you who want your children to grow up learning the native languages of their parents.

In college (university), when I confronted my parents with the question of why must I struggle so hard to learn a language that I felt I should have been born with, the answer was simply, “We live in the States, why do you need to learn Chinese? Everybody speaks English here!” I was royally miffed (then) and frustrated that they never had the foresight to raise their kids (particularly me!) in a bilingual/trilingual environment. But after a while I realized I was being silly. They hadn’t a clue that I would be interested in returning to Taiwan, much less live here for so long. (ha! were they SHOCKED!)

So in my book, folks, any effort you make towards educating your children with more than one language would be fabulous. Regardless of their levels of future proficiency and no matter how much they may end up complaining about having to study twice as hard as other kids, it will still be for the better. And all in all, most kids will be thankful for it, whether they know it or not. Believe me. :sunglasses:

The literature says that nobody has ever learned a foreign language from TV. (except for 1 or 2 people)

[quote=“twocs”]The literature says that nobody has ever learned a foreign language from TV. (except for 1 or 2 people)[/quote]What literature? Please give references.

While my friend learned Catalan from watching TV, she was already fluent and accurate in Spanish and Portuguese, and in any case has an exceptional ability to learn languages.

But I have met people here in Taiwan who have become fluent in English, mainly from watching English language movie channels. Of course they had had some English teaching, but the high levels of fluency came from watching and practising along with the TV. This was active involvment and speaking practice- not just switching on the TV and switching off their brains. Note I said fluent, not accurate: I think that high levels of accuracy in a foreign language (as opposed to a language learned from early childhood) most often require a significant amount of formal study.

While most people would probably not want to make it their primary source of instruction, TV can be a significant and useful factor in the learning of any language.

I think maybe setting boundaries will help them clarify when to use the language. Many of the children at my school (English-immersion) speak only English at school and mostly Chinese at home. I have only two trilingual students, one speaks English (school), French (mother), and Mandarin (father) and the other speaks Japanese (mother), Mandarin (father and classmates), and English (teachers and classmates). The first is 6 years old and rarely mixes his languages except with French-English false cognates and the second one, who is only 3, mixes all three languages although not common collocations such as “Good morning” and “Zhe shi shenme?”. At 3, many bilingual children are still learning that there are the two language sets and that with certain speakers or situations you use “kitty” while with another set of speakers you use “maomi”. Honestly, I would not worry about mixing languages at that age. I think it usually irons itself out, especially if there are set boundaries that the child can understand as to when to use language a and when to use language b.
There are lots of factors that influence internal motivation for learning a language, especially prestige. I am sure that parents would really like for their children to learn and show their enthusiasm, but some children rely a lot on their peers’ opinions and feelings. If their friends, who are their main source of social interaction and who provide their affirmation of belonging and fitting in, do not see the target language as being prestigious, then the child will tend to follow the opinions of the peers as they are a part of daily interactions. So far in Taiwan, I have seen where one child can make or break an English-only environment through their influence on the other children in the class. But then, what do I know? I was monolingual until I began formally studying a second language at the age of 12.

Do none of them speak Taiwanese at home? Not even with their grandparents? :?

I’m just curious - was this influence for good or evil? :slight_smile: How did he/she manage this?