How to maintain first and second language skills

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In the comments to "Cantonese as a Second Language" (4/22/19), there's an interesting discussion going on about how to maintain and / or acquire competency in more than one language.  This post started out as a comment to that thread, but it soon grew too long, so I've separated it off here.

My son was born in Taiwan and spent the first two years of his life in Taipei in an all-Mandarin household with lots of members (father, mother, grandfather, grandmother, and two aunts), and plenty of other relatives in the Taipei area (more uncles, aunts, cousins, etc.) — all mainlanders.  They all spoke Mandarin with him.

We moved to America (Boston area) when TK was two years old, and the core of the family moved with us, so the Mandarin-speaking nucleus of the extended family was still intact.

For the next four years, most of the people we visited with and his closest playmates also all spoke Mandarin.  During that period, he continued to speak almost exclusively in Mandarin.

Many of TK's older Chinese relatives had thick Shandong accents, and the younger ones spoke Táiwān guóyǔ 台灣國語 (Taiwanese Mandarin), and there were also varying amounts of Sichuanese thrown in to the mix, because the family had spent about a decade in that province during WWII and picked up a fair amount of Sichuaneseisms there and in the communities they lived in after they moved to Taiwan toward the end of the 40s.

Despite all the topolectal influences swirling around him, my son spoke only perfect, exact Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM), because my wife spoke that to him, and I followed suit.  My son's MSM at age three was so good that he could correct his Grandma's pronunciation.  I shall never forget when she was telling him the story of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs", she pronounced the heroine's name with a Shandong accent so thick that you could cut it with a knife, something like "bei4shyueh3 gung1choo4", and little TK merrily and enthusiastically chirped with perfect MSM tones, vowels, and consonants:

"Bù, wàipó.  Bùshì 'Bei4shyueh3 gung1choo4'.  Shì 'Báixuě gōngzhǔ'."

"不,外婆,不是'Bei4shyueh3 gung1choo4'. 是'白雪公主'."

"No, grandma.  It's not 'Pansis Sney Wit', it's 'Princess Snow White'."

I could tell endless stories of this sort about TK's fantastic Mandarin at age two (here's one), and also about my mother-in-law's linguistic inventions and adventures trying to communicate in America when she had only a smattering of English (e.g., "Radcliffe" became  "Dawtaw Hawfo" — see if you can figure that one out).

TK's Mandarin from ages two to six was so good and so confident that my sister Heidi, when my wife and I were working at the Middlebury Summer School of Chinese in 1972, came to help us by babysitting TK and learned quite a bit of the language from him so that now, nearly half a century later, she can still say with exquisite pronunciation:

wǒ yào táng
wǒ èle
wǒ yào niàoniào
māmā zài nǎ'er


I want candy
I'm hungry
I have to peepee
Where's Mom?

At age six, like most other children in America, TK went to elementary school, and then he learned English rapidly.  But his Mandarin to this day is still pretty good, because he had such a solid foundation, and we often were in situations, whether in America or in Taiwan or in China, where everybody was speaking Mandarin.

As for Chinese characters, we never forced TK to learn them, but he already recognized a few before we left Taiwan and he did acquire some literacy by attending weekend classes while he was in middle school.  When he was in his early 20s, TK spent a year in Hangzhou and learned to read and write with characters fairly well then.  We still have a precious scroll on which he wrote a long, loving poem to his Mother — all in Chinese, and illustrated with beautiful Chinese-style water colors.

I think that the lesson to be learned from my son's experience with Mandarin and Chinese characters may best be exemplified by one of my favorite Chinese expressions:  "Tīngqízìrán 聽其自然" ("Let nature follow its own course; let it be").  Never compel a child to learn a language or a script.  If it's meant to be, provide a nurturing environment, and just let it happen.


  1. Jenny Chu said,

    April 25, 2019 @ 10:24 am

    A proud parent, happy with the results, will say that he let it all happen naturally. That was my approach, too, until confronted with son #2 who did not want any of it to happen!

  2. Philip Taylor said,

    April 25, 2019 @ 10:41 am

    Married friends (Greek, Polish, respectively), resident in the UK, brought up their son to be tri-lingual, each speaking to him in their own native language and allowing him to learn English from friends and at school. At the age of ten he was denied entry to his school of choice because his English was inadequate. I do not seek to drawn any conclusions from this other than that "let[ting] nature follow its own course" may not always lead to the most desirable outcome.

  3. Brett Reynolds said,

    April 25, 2019 @ 11:59 am

    Which accents are "thick" and which are not, and who gets to decide?

  4. Victor Mair said,

    April 25, 2019 @ 12:10 pm

    An accent is thick if it is markedly different from the national standard.

    Note that my son, who knew the national standard by the age of three, instinctively corrected my mother-in-law. My mother-in-law herself was quite aware of her heavy Shandong accent and made jokes about it herself. She taught in Taipei's elite First Girls High School; students there would have been trained to tell the difference between MSM and regional accents.

  5. Thaomas said,

    April 25, 2019 @ 1:21 pm

    Pretty much parallels our experience in Spanish and English with our daughters.

  6. Michael Watts said,

    April 25, 2019 @ 1:45 pm

    "Radcliffe" became "Dawtaw Hawfo" — see if you can figure that one out

    Looks like "daughter Harvard"?

  7. Victor Mair said,

    April 25, 2019 @ 2:00 pm

    @Michael Watts


  8. Chandra said,

    April 25, 2019 @ 2:26 pm

    Given that L2 fluency declines as the age of the beginning learner increases, and that early fluency in L2 has been shown to increase the likelihood of later competence in additional languages, I would say that in cases where children don't have the opportunity to be organically exposed to other languages, enrolling them in language programs is advantageous.

    Certainly if the children in question don't do well, or strongly object to continuing after a time, they shouldn't be forced to persevere. But for example in my case, I'm very glad my parents enrolled me in French Immersion as a Kindergartner despite not specifically requesting my approval, otherwise I would not have had many of the job opportunities and life experiences that I have had as a result of that education.

  9. Jon Forrest said,

    April 25, 2019 @ 6:32 pm

    Sometimes kids start off speaking a foreign language but then drop it, to their future dismay.

    An example of this is the daughter of friends of mine. The mother is Swedish, and the father is Finnish-American. He actually looks more Scandinavian than his (ex-)wife but he only speaks English. The mother started off speaking only Swedish to the daughter, which she understood perfectly. But, the mother eventually switched to speaking only English to the daughter (this was in the USA).

    Fast forward 18 years. The daughter is now a 6ft tall very Scandinavian looking beauty with dual citizenship (USA & Sweden). She goes to Sweden to work as an au-pair. She has no trouble finding jobs in households where parents want their kids to be exposed to English. However, the daughter at this point has no Swedish at all, and, in fact, is rather bad at learning languages. But, since she has a Swedish passport she doesn't have to hassle getting a work permit. This is in contrast to her au-pair friends, who are generally bi or tri lingual and who have no problem with Swedish, but who have to constantly be worried about getting a work permit. The daughter now regrets loosing her Swedish when she was little.

  10. cliff arroyo said,

    April 26, 2019 @ 2:16 am

    "he was denied entry to his school of choice because his English was inadequate. I do not seek to drawn any conclusions from this"

    A good thing, too, because there's no real information there and no explanation if the problem was basic fluency or if his score on some test wasn't high enough (a problem he might share with many monolingual speakers of the same age).

  11. Philip Taylor said,

    April 26, 2019 @ 3:33 am

    The problem was a lack of basic fluency.

  12. cliff arroyo said,

    April 26, 2019 @ 3:48 am

    "The problem was a lack of basic fluency"

    This sounds very weird… Who was he playing with? What school did he go to? Children usually prioritize the language of the playground over mom and dad's language(s) how does a child go through several years of school in the UK without achieving basic fluency?

  13. Philip Taylor said,

    April 26, 2019 @ 3:52 am

    That is what his parents would like to know, but they accept that by bringing him up in a bi-lingual environment that deliberately excluded the language of his birth-country they may well have harmed his chances of being accepted at the school of his (and their) choice.

  14. cliff arroyo said,

    April 26, 2019 @ 4:17 am

    "they accept that by bringing him up in a bi-lingual environment that deliberately excluded the language of his birth-country"

    They deliberately excluded English? What language did they use when the three of them were together? 'Deliberately excluded' would suggest they attempted to actively restrict his access to English…

    "may well have harmed his chances of being accepted at the school of his (and their) choice"

    Well if he's only ten years old there's plenty of time to bring his English up to basic fluency.. it's not like not getting into a first choice school at that age will determine his whole future.

  15. Philip Taylor said,

    April 26, 2019 @ 5:33 am

    "They deliberately excluded English? What language did they use when the three of them were together? 'Deliberately excluded' would suggest they attempted to actively restrict his access to English…". At home, yes, English was excluded — they spoke to him solely in Greek and/or Polish. Outside of home, he could use whatever language he wished.

    "Well if he's only ten years old there's plenty of time to bring his English up to basic fluency.. it's not like not getting into a first choice school at that age will determine his whole future". He is now fifteen, and an apparently intelligent young man; it is, perhaps, still too soon to know what long-term effects there might be. Nonetheless, for two highly-intelligent and well-educated parents, the shock of their English-born son being deemed inadequate in English at the age of ten was a very considerable shock. I have many friends who have brought up their children to speak two languages — that of one or both of the parents, plus that of the birth country — but I know of only this particular family who actively sought to exclude the birth-country language from all use at home.

  16. Kristian said,

    April 26, 2019 @ 5:55 am

    But he went to an English school until the age of ten, spoke English to other children, and was exposed to English media?

  17. cliff arroyo said,

    April 26, 2019 @ 6:10 am

    "they spoke to him solely in Greek and/or Polish."

    What language did the parents use with each other?
    Did both parents speak both Greek and Polish? Did the son have to translate a lot?
    That's weird, what language did they use at the dinner table?
    I'm trying to visualize a situation where the mother wants to address both husband and son at the same time? Did she repeat everything twice? Did the father?

  18. Philip Taylor said,

    April 26, 2019 @ 7:17 am

    I do not know to what extend the mother is able to communicate in Greek, but the father can most certainly communicate in Polish as well as in perfect unaccentuated English.

  19. Philip Taylor said,

    April 26, 2019 @ 7:22 am

    Kristian, yes to the first two; I have no knowledge of his exposure to English media during his formative years. Given the widespread availability of satellite television, it is by no means certain that he was exposed to English-language television at home, but he may well have been, although I cannot say for certain that they own and watch television at all.

  20. B.Ma said,

    April 26, 2019 @ 7:44 am

    I was denied entry to the school of my parents' choice when I was 8 because both my English and Chinese (Mandarin) were inadequate! Note that English is my first language and we only spoke Cantonese outside the home.

    Firstly, I didn't want to go there but I didn't deliberately flunk it. What actually happened is that I was quite a shy child, and nobody explained what I was supposed to do, whereas the other children attempting the entrance exam had all done these sorts of tests in their education up to that point.

    I have a friend born in the UK whose Cantonese is much better than that of all my other UK-born southern Chinese friends, and he attributes that to being forced to speak it at home to the exclusion of English (his parents said "you can speak English at school"). His spoken English is perfectly fine with a Birmingham accent, but he isn't very good at reading or writing. However monolingual English speakers may not be good at reading and writing too.

  21. Victor Mair said,

    April 26, 2019 @ 8:42 am

    From a Chinese colleague in the PRC who has a PhD in the history of Chinese drama and a daughter in middle school about whose education she takes great care:

    How can a person acquire not just one, but two or more native languages? Now in China, some parents aspire to help their children learn both Chinese and English as their native languages. But, considering the drastic differences between the two languages, it seems to be quite a difficult goal to achieve, to use both languages equally well. A very interesting case I met is 6 grader from an international school, a Chinese boy who spoke fluent English but stammering Chinese. He had to stop to organize his Chinese when trying to express complicated ideas. His parents are both native Chinese, and they sent him to an international primary school. He might not be a single case. Their parents must have taken great effort making English the first language of their children. But why? And in the almost monolingual Chinese environment, I wonder if English as their first language could be as equally efficient as a real native speaker.

  22. Victor Mair said,

    April 26, 2019 @ 8:47 am

    I think that the information provided by my colleague in the previous comment is of extraordinary importance. I urge all Language Loggers to read what she says carefully and to try to put it in the context of what is happening language-wise in the PRC today.

  23. Phil H said,

    April 29, 2019 @ 10:29 pm

    The story relayed by VM's colleague sounds like a "home language" situation. My wife is similar with her Minnanhua – she can use it perfectly in the home, with her family, but outside the home, in more formal environments, she cannot stop herself dropping into Mandarin.

    My kids have had English-medium and Chinese-medium schooling, with me as their source of English at home. It's interesting that perhaps because of cultural distance, the way things are explained in their Chinese school are often so different from the way I'd say them in English that I often prefer to have them talk to me in Chinese about the concepts. They are too young to translate effectively between conceptual systems, so if I speak English to them about the things that they are learning (e.g. early concepts about the organization of writing taught in grades 1-3), it's hard for them to understand.

    When they were at an international school, my wife (whose English is OK) had similar problems understanding the concepts they were being taught, simply because they're different. That quickly forced a split between their home and schooling languages, whichever language they were being educated in.

    I made very considerable efforts to overcome these barriers, and apply my professional skills as a translator to them – but these are resources that the vast majority of parents do not have, so it's easy to see how the school language can diverge from the home language.

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