Can a person have more than one native language?

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The following paragraph began as a comment to this post:  "How to maintain first and second language skills" (4/25/19)

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 a 6th 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. There are undoubtedly many other students like him, since China has so many international primary and secondary schools. 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 that of a real native speaker.

The commenter is 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.

I think that the information provided by my colleague in the quoted comment is of extraordinary importance. I urge all Language Loggers to carefully read what she says and to try to put it in the context of what is happening language-wise in the PRC (and Taiwan) today, plus try to figure out why it is happening.

The craze for English in China is conspicuous at all levels of society, especially among elites and wealthier segments, despite the occasional warnings from government that too much emphasis is being put upon it.

In contrast, this afternoon I had tea with a colleague from India who declared without any hesitation whatsoever that English and Hindi are both his native languages.  That may well be, but the circumstances under which he acquired two native languages are quite different from the situation in China, which my PRC colleague referred to as having an "almost monolingual Chinese environment".  My Indian colleague grew up for the first six years of his life in a household that spoke exclusively Hindi language — similar to my son growing up in a household that spoke exclusively Mandarin, albeit with a mixture of accents and topolectal usages.

When my Indian colleague went to elementary school in America, he very quickly acquired English, again just like my son, but his family continued to speak exclusively Hindi at home.  Even when they would go back to India for extended periods, there is so much English spoken and written there that he had plenty of opportunities to continue to perfect his English, while maintaining his Hindi.

Here I would like to cite a story about language learning from an ancient Chinese thinker, Mencius (372-289 BC).  It comes from the "Teng Wen Gong (Duke Wen of the State of Teng)" chapter (the 3rd), part II:

Mèngzǐ wèi Dài Bùshèng yuē:`Zi yù zǐ zhī wáng zhī shàn yǔ?  Wǒ míng gào zi. Yǒu Chǔ dàfū yú cǐ, yù qí zǐ zhī Qí yǔ yě, zé shǐ Qí rén fù zhū?  Shǐ Chǔ rén fù zhū?'


Mencius said to Dai Bu Sheng, 'I see that you are desiring your king to be virtuous, and will plainly tell you how he may be made so. Suppose that there is a great officer of Chu here, who wishes his son to learn the speech of Qi. Will he in that case employ a man of Qi as his tutor, or a man of Chu?'

Yuē:`Shǐ Qí rén fù zhī.'


'He will employ a man of Qi to teach him,' said Bu Sheng.

Yuē:`Yī Qí rén fù zhī, zhòng Chǔ rén xiū zhī, suī rì tà ér qiú qí Qí yě, bùkě dé yǐ; yǐn ér zhì zhī Zhuāng Yuè zhī jiān shù nián, suī rì tà ér qiú qí Chǔ, yì bùkě dé yǐ. Zi wèi Xuē Jūzhōu, shàn shì yě. Shǐ zhī jū yú wáng suǒ. Zài yú wáng suǒ zhě, zhǎngyòu bēizūn, jiē Xuē Jūzhōu yě, wáng shuí yǔ wéi bùshàn? Zài wáng suǒ zhě, zhǎngyòu bēizūn, jiē fēi Xuē Jūzhōu yě, wáng shuí yǔ wéi shàn? Yī Xuē Jūzhōu, dú rú Sòng wáng hé?'

曰:「一齊人傅之,眾楚人咻之,雖日撻而求其齊也,不可得矣;引而置之莊嶽之間數年,雖日撻而求其楚,亦不可得矣。子謂薛居州,善士也。使之居於 王所。在於王所者,長幼卑尊,皆薛居州也,王誰與為不善?在王所者,長幼卑尊,皆非薛居州也,王誰與為善?一薛居州,獨如宋王何?」

Mencius went on, 'If but one man of Qi be teaching him, and there be a multitude of men of Chu continually shouting out about him, although his father beat him every day, wishing him to learn the speech of Qi, it will be impossible for him to do so. But in the same way, if he were to be taken and placed for several years in Zhuangyue*, though his father should beat him, wishing him to speak the language of Chu, it would be impossible for him to do so. You supposed that Xue Juzhou was a scholar of virtue, and you have got him placed in attendance on the king. Suppose that all in attendance on the king, old and young, high and low, were Xue Juzhous, whom would the king have to do evil with? And suppose that all in attendance on the king, old and young, high and low, are not Xue Juzhous, whom will the king gave to do good with?  What can one Xue Juzhou do alone for the king of Song?'

*Name of a district in the heart of the capital of Qi.

Source: Chinese Text Project, "Téng Wén gōng xià 滕文公下" (Duke Wen of Teng, B), 11.

The linguistic environment of an individual makes all the difference in their ability to acquire and maintain a first and / or second language.



  1. David J Moser said,

    April 26, 2019 @ 10:57 pm

    Interesting post, and a very difficult question to frame and answer adequately. Just one point about Chinese-English bilingualism, at it has to do with the Chinese script. My daughter was born and raised in Beijing, and went to both local and international schools. She had all the appropriate opportunities to become perfectly fluent in both languages, but to this day her English is much better than her Chinese. Part of the reason: She never liked to read in Chinese. She actively resisted it. "Just too many characters", "Too hard to read", "Not fun" were her typical comments. The non-phonetic and time-consuming script turned her off so much, and the threshold for English reading was so much lower, that she is now fairly fluent in spoken Chinese but never reads. And thus her spoken Chinese remains stunted, and not up to her level of cognitive development.

  2. Paul said,

    April 26, 2019 @ 11:27 pm

    Here's a question I've always had: can someone not have a native langauge? I'm Singaporean, and was brought up by Chinese immigrant parents, so up until about age 6 I was speaking mostly Mandarin. Then after starting primary school, I learned English pretty rapidly, and my Mandarin deteriorated. So now I'm much more comfortable in English, though my Mandarin is still adequate. But I don't see myself as a native speaker in either langauge… is this possible?

  3. Victor Mair said,

    April 26, 2019 @ 11:27 pm

    @David J Moser

    Respect the "dawtaw"!

    Someday I want to meet your daughter and genuflect before her to honor her gumption, grit, and strong sense of selfhood. And I want to salute her father and mother (you and your wife) for respecting their girl and letting her express her own personality and abide by the dictates of her instincts and intelligence.

    Sān jūgōng 三鞠躬 ("three bows")!!!

  4. Jenny Chu said,

    April 27, 2019 @ 12:02 am

    @David J Moser – I'm in a similar situation with my kids, and yes, the annoyance of reading and writing Chinese is an important factor in their not speaking it "natively".

    But … honestly, the other BIG reason is that every cultural force seems to be ranged against it. Nobody defaults to speaking Chinese to my fair-skinned children. I saw this starting from when the kids were babies, and comprehension could not possibly have been an issue. Even their teachers at primary school, who should have known better – they were explicitly informed that I wished the children to learn Chinese – would often try for a moment to give an instruction in Chinese, and if my kid didn't INSTANTLY understand, would give up and switch to (often very bad) English. But guess what: they only did this with my kids and not the others! Not for the Asian-looking kids. No, for those kids, the teacher would say the sentence again (in Chinese) or try to explain it using simpler words. So even in a so-called "Chinese speaking" environment, my kids weren't actually getting as much Chinese exposure as the other kids!

    Compare this to the opposite situtation, a Chinese kid in an English-speaking environment. My childhood friend, an ABC raised in Pennsylvania, was subject to the desperate attempts of her family to get her to retain Chinese (Chinese school on Sundays, for example) even as every cultural force around her focused on English. By the time we met when we were 9, she was already doing the thing where mom speaks Chinese and the kid replies in English. That's never once happened to me in the opposite direction – I mean, I've never once had my kids answer me in Chinese to a question or comment in English.

    Btw: context is that we live in Hong Kong and the primary school was Cantonese medium-of-instruction; my husband and I are native English speakers who speak Cantonese, but badly.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    April 27, 2019 @ 12:04 am


    Definitely possible.

    I had a classmate in graduate school who was born in Hong Kong and went to second- or third-rate English schools there, so his English was not very good and neither was his Chinese (Cantonese). After that he went to a mainly English-medium college in Japan, so he picked up some Japanese there, but not much, and his English stayed at about the level it was when he was in those inferior English schools in Hong Kong.

    It didn't matter whether I spoke to him in English, Japanese, or Mandarin, he wasn't fluent in any of them. I heard him speak Cantonese with some Cantonese classmates, but he didn't seem entirely comfortable in that language either, though I think that spoken Cantonese was probably his best linguistic medium. I do know that his written English always left much to be desired and required a lot fixing to be publishable.

  6. Fré Hoogendoorn said,

    April 27, 2019 @ 12:14 am

    I've always considered myself to have two native languages; I always tell people (who ask) that English is my first language and Dutch is my mother tongue. I was six years old when we emigrated to South Africa, where I learnt English very quickly; I don't actually remember doing any learning at all. I returned to the Netherlands when I was 19, having had all my schooling and two years of attending University in English. At home, we still spoke mostly Dutch, although I would speak in English with my brother.

    When I continued at University, now in Dutch, I found I had to learn quite a bit of vocabulary that was new to me, as my spoken Dutch covered mostly general home and family situations and not so much the more technical vocabulary associated with the subjects I had previously had in English. I taught myself proper Dutch writing style by reading several style guides. Helping out at a Dutch language magazine also helped. For a time I also worked as a translator, in both directions.

    I have always been very happy to count both as native languages and me and my wife (who is Afrikaans) are currently raising our daughter in three languages. I only speak English to her, my wife Afrikaans and she learns Dutch from the environment.

  7. Jenny Chu said,

    April 27, 2019 @ 12:16 am

    @Paul – is what we are speaking of the inability to speak any language *fluently* or *natively*? Certainly there are many people (often Singaporeans) who cannot speak either English or their so-called "mother tongue" fluently. Many cannot write professionally in either, let alone both. But should we say, therefore, that they speak no language natively?

  8. Tom Dawkes said,

    April 27, 2019 @ 2:06 am

    My grand-daughters have a British mother (my daughter, a TESOL teacher) and an Italian father. They live in a Tuscan town and visit us for several weeks each summer. They speak both languages with equal ease, and no-one hearing them speak English would doubt that they had grown up in the UK. They undoubtedly have two native languages.

  9. Lilyami said,

    April 27, 2019 @ 3:01 am

    Non-linguist here: what about people who have only one language and speak that badly? Can we say that they have no native tongue? I would say that of course they do.

  10. Michal said,

    April 27, 2019 @ 3:33 am

    What is a native language in the first place or as Drax would have it – why is a native language?

    My 8-year-old Australian-born son's first language was Polish (which we speak at home). He quickly picked up English when he started going to daycare and how it's English which is his dominant language, and while he is proficient in Polish (his chronologically first learned language) it's quite obvious to any fluent Polish speaker that it's not his "native" (whatever that means) language.

    So what is his native language? His fluent, letter-perfect English he learnt as his second language or somewhat imperfect Polish which he has learnt as his first language? Or perhaps both of them are his native languages?

  11. cliff arroyo said,

    April 27, 2019 @ 4:00 am

    "native langauge" like "native speaker" is not a rigorous concept… it's a heuristic for ways of thinking about the relationship between a person and the language(s) they speak and it doesn't apply equally to everyone.

    Those grow up in the context of migration, post-colonialism, minority communities (and some other cases) may not fit into convenient boxes. Either their primary language is not the first one they acquired/learned or their linguistic competence might be split among more than one language (with one being more dominant in domestic/affective situations and another in professional or impersonal contexts).

    In the case of the young Chinese man it would be interesting to see the results of a professional assessment of his language skills. My working hypothesis would be: He has no single native language. He's dominant in a type of 2nd language English (that is most of his contact with speakers are with non-native speakers) and has native but underdeveloped/non-cultivated ability in spoken Chinese (presumably something like putonghua).

  12. cliff arroyo said,

    April 27, 2019 @ 4:03 am

    "carefully read what she says and to try to put it in the context of what is happening language-wise in the PRC (and Taiwan) today, plus try to figure out why it is happening"

    Isn't it just plain old class warfare (waged, as is the usual case, by the elite against the rest of society)?
    There are plenty of examples of elites who use foreign languages (or languages most people have limited access to) in order to give their children a competitive advantage against the children of the less well off.

  13. cliff arroyo said,

    April 27, 2019 @ 4:06 am

    "So what is his native language? His fluent, letter-perfect English he learnt as his second language or somewhat imperfect Polish"

    This is why I like separating out order of acquisition from questions of dominance.

    In terms of acquisition he's Polish L12 (first acquired but less fluent) and (Australian) English L21 (second acquired but most fluent).

  14. Michal said,

    April 27, 2019 @ 4:16 am

    "In terms of acquisition he's Polish L12 (first acquired but less fluent) and (Australian) English L21 (second acquired but most fluent)."

    OK, so what is his native language?

  15. cliff arroyo said,

    April 27, 2019 @ 4:28 am

    "OK, so what is his native language?"

    Like lots of children of immigrants he doesn't fit neatly in that box, why try to force him in? It shouldn't be his problem that the terminology is limited and doesn't neatly fit all cases…

  16. JPL said,

    April 27, 2019 @ 4:47 am

    Bilingual acquisition is a phenomenon that has been studied for quite some time by the (first) language development people. The social circumstances determining the patterns of use of each language may vary considerably. What Tom Dawkes describes above is an example. In multilingual social contexts I would expect bilingual acquisition to be common.

  17. Beyond Language Learning said,

    April 27, 2019 @ 6:24 am

    @David J Moser
    I wonder how much the availability of more graded reading content in Chinese that limits the number of new characters while being interesting to read could help with that kind of situation, where someone can fall back on reading in English, as well as help Chinese learners in general and even native Chinese speakers with reading.

    I recently thought about this more when I discovered the Mandarin Companion novels, which are Western novels adapted to Chinese settings using limited sets of characters, vocabulary, and structures that are repeated a lot in various ways. I checked out a few of the "Level 1" novels along with the audio for them and found them easy to follow at my level and very interesting, to the point that at times I was so absorbed in the stories I forgot I was reading Chinese. The repetition of a limited set of characters, words, and structures made it easy to start to pick these up from context alone. (My background with Mandarin is basically that I tried to pick up the language in a somewhat childlike way by first watching TV shows and videos in the language and guessing at meaning, then later listening to Chinese tutors talk about various subjects. Prior to that I had studied characters using Heisig's Remembering Traditional Hanzi, and once I had some understanding of Mandarin I started to connect what I had heard with the written characters)

    There doesn't seem to very much interesting graded reading content like these novels even for a language with as many speakers as Mandarin. It seems like an abundance of fiction and non-fiction content like this at a range of levels could make developing literacy in Chinese much easier and more enjoyable too.

  18. Kristian said,

    April 27, 2019 @ 7:16 am

    In Michal's example, my opinion is that he has two native languages, but that if one has to be chosen, then it's English. He's a native speaker of English, after all, and if he continues to live in Australia, the dominance of his English will increase. The only reason not to say that English is not a native language of his would be if one is somehow fixated on the word native and insists that it has to the chronologically first language, but that doesn't make sense since that is not what "native" means, and the whole term is a bit inaccurate, since no one is born speaking a language.

  19. Victor Mair said,

    April 27, 2019 @ 7:24 am

    I often pondered what language my grad school classmate thought in, and wondered how the fact that his non-native command of all of them affected his ability to analyze and conceptualize, and simply to express himself. I found that to be an interesting conundrum. Since English was the language of his elementary, middle school, college, and graduate education, as well as his professional language thereafter when he taught in an American university, it was probably the closest thing to a native language that he had. But I remember that he often asked me how to say things in English and for help in smoothing out his academic papers. That lasted for the rest of his career for as long as I knew him, which was decades.

  20. Beyond Language Learning said,

    April 27, 2019 @ 7:27 am

    @Victor Mair
    I respect your sentiment of respecting the daughter for being strong-willed, and the parents for not making her do something she found difficult and unpleasant. But I can't help but see the other side of the coin, which I find tragic here. This is how there seems to be a lack of means, such as lots of interesting graded content (like the kind I mentioned in my other comment), that might make developing literacy in Chinese much easier and more pleasant than it is now, so people wouldn't have to force themselves or be forced to read in order to succeed.

    More generally speaking, you conclude your post noting that "The linguistic environment of an individual makes all the difference in their ability to acquire and maintain a first and / or second language." In my opinion far more could be done to help create linguistic environments that would support people's language acquisition, especially when it comes to second languages. For example, there seems to be very little media that provides interesting comprehensible input for adult second language learners at the beginner level (I experienced this the hard way when I began my acquisition of Mandarin by watching Chinese TV shows and cartoons and guessing at meaning, because I couldn't find any content that was more comprehensible).

  21. Ralph Hickok said,

    April 27, 2019 @ 7:36 am

    A late friend of mine grew up in what amounted to a French-Canadian ghetto in Lowell, Massachusetts, in the 1920s. His father spoke French and his mother was Polish. Both languages were spoken in his home and, by his account, he was fluent in both as a child. He learned English in a parochial school that existed basically for that purpose: To teach English to the many children who came out of French-speaking households. By the time I met him, he was about 40 and he spoke English with no trace of an accent and he was still fluent in both of his "native" languages.

  22. Kristian said,

    April 27, 2019 @ 7:43 am

    @Tom Dawkes
    What language do your grand-daughters speak to each other?

    I was born in Finland but brought up in the United States (from the age of three; we moved away when I was a teenager). My parents spoke Finnish and we mostly spoke Finnish to them, but for as long as I can remember I have spoken English with my sisters. In fact speaking Finnish to them feels indescribably weird.

  23. Tom Dawkes said,

    April 27, 2019 @ 8:01 am


    In fact the girls use both English AND Italian to speak to each other: I'm not sure if it depends whether I or my wife are around, but certainly whether at their home or at ours they use both, nor does it seem to be a case of the topic determining the language. They certainly do not seem to code-switch by intermingling Italian and English.

  24. Tom Dawkes said,

    April 27, 2019 @ 8:23 am

    On the question of speakers who do not acquire a native command of any of the languages they speak, a sad state of affairs is recorded by the American linguist Leonard Bloomfield in “Literate and Illiterate Speech”, an article in the journal American Speech (Volume 2, number 10, 1927, pp. 432–43).
    He refers to several members of the Menomini, a Native American nation in Wisconsin, comparing their language capacities, and reports of one:
    "White-Thunder, a man round forty, speaks less English than
    Menomini, and that is a strong indictment, for his Menomini is
    atrocious. His vocabulary is small; his inflections are often
    barbarous; he constructs sentences on a few threadbare models.
    He may be said to speak no language tolerably. His case is not
    uncommon among younger men, even when they speak but little
    English. Pehaps it is due, in some indirect way, to the impact of the
    conquering language."
    [Source: A Leonard Bloomfield Anthology. Chicago UP, 1970. Page
    91. Google Books]

    Bloomfield later published an extensive grammar of Menomini.

  25. Tim Morris said,

    April 27, 2019 @ 11:31 am

    As many people have said, there's a wide range of possible situations, and "Can a person have more than one native language?" is probably only answered by "No" if you define "native language" to produce the answer "No." Many people in border communities acquire two languages in childhood and speak them well without conscious reflection, because they've always moved on a daily basis between two communities (particularly when they grow up in mixed families). But the later fluency in different specialized dialects and formal registers of each language that comes with immersion in a national educational system may be much harder to maintain in both languages.

  26. thaomas said,

    April 27, 2019 @ 12:35 pm

    While I doubt it is possible to be equally fluent in all dimensions of two languages, It seems as if something definitely went wrong if learning a second language at school would lead to a deterioration of a first language learned at home.

  27. Victor Mair said,

    April 27, 2019 @ 2:16 pm

    From the Chinese colleague who is the source of the quotation with which this post begins:

    Your comment on a person that may not have a native language interests me in particular. My daughter's English teacher once said that native language was the ceiling of language learning. The statement is reasonable. How well a person uses one's native language largely decides the level he could reach in learning another language. It worries me that giving up Chinese as native or first language in the almost monolingual Chinese environment may end up building up the ceiling fairly low for those young people picking up English as their first language. It is by no means an effective and efficient way of language learning.

  28. JJM said,

    April 27, 2019 @ 3:39 pm

    Here in Canada, there are many, many families where the children have grown in both English and French from birth (our current prime minister is a good example).

  29. Alex said,

    April 27, 2019 @ 4:22 pm

    @Cliff Arroyo

    "Isn't it just plain old class warfare (waged, as is the usual case, by the elite against the rest of society)?
    There are plenty of examples of elites who use foreign languages (or languages most people have limited access to) in order to give their children a competitive advantage against the children of the less well off"

    There is language used as class warfare here in China, However the language used is not English.

    From wiki not verified deeper
    The Korean alphabet faced opposition in the 1440s by the literary elite, including politician Choe Manri and other Korean Confucian scholars. They believed Hanja was the only legitimate writing system. They also saw the circulation of the Korean alphabet as a threat to their status.[18] However, the Korean alphabet entered popular culture as King Sejong had intended, used especially by women and writers of popular fiction.[21]

    King Yeonsangun banned the study and publication of the Korean alphabet in 1504, after a document criticizing the king was published.[22] Similarly, King Jungjong abolished the Ministry of Eonmun, a governmental institution related to Hangul research, in 1506.[23]"

    One can say the say thing about using the characters here. Id have to assume if the rumors that it was Stalin who convinced Mao not switch to characters, I have a feeling I know why.

    Its amazing that many Chinese parents need to hire tutors to teach their primary school and older children the "native" language.

    I have a more detailed follow up for this and many other subjects touched upon such as David Moser's experience. I've been here 11 years and raised two kids born here in a dual language household. Im fairly gregarious and curious by nature so have had long conversations with locals from all walks of life here about their native language experience.

  30. Miles Archer said,

    April 27, 2019 @ 4:52 pm

    I have a good friend who was born in Odessa, Ukraine/Soviet Union and moved the US when he was around 11 years old. He speaks Russian with his parents and since they moved near him, he sees them more than once a week.

    He barely has any accent in English anymore. When I first met him, freshman year of college, he would occasionally mix up V and W sounds especially when wodka was involved. Now if people think he has an accent, they pick New Jersey.
    I remember him telling me that his Russian, while native, is frozen in time. He says people have told him he talks like a 11 year old boy. He uses lots of loan words from English where there's almost certainly a proper Russian alternative.

    I'd say he has two native languages. I've known other immigrants who moved to the US when they were about that same age and I'd say they had two native languages.

  31. Dave Cragin said,

    April 27, 2019 @ 6:01 pm

    I see the Chinese interest in English in a positive ways. The internet, plastics, and PCs were all a "craze" at one point. While the hype has declined, they still remain an essential part of the world economy. English has already attained this stature in the world; it's the language of business, science, air traffic control, and often the language of international exchange between non-native English speakers. The Chinese know this.

    Chinese traveling elsewhere can see the deep English skills of non-native speakers. Two German friends, who've never lived in an English speaking country, have such English skills that they read English books for pleasure. And not just simple texts: One recently recommended I read "The Unfolding of Language" and the 2nd seems to have read every book I've read, including those of Nasim Taleb.

    While Nasim Taleb's books are quite insightful, they're not an easy read, even for a native speaker. Yet, my friend does so for fun. Notably, English is his 3rd language, behind Russian & German.

    To attain this level of English, it's understandable that the Chinese feel they need to invest extra effort. I personally benefit from this because I have more language partners than I have time.

  32. V said,

    April 27, 2019 @ 6:17 pm

    Victor Mair: "I often pondered what language my grad school classmate thought in […]"

    I find the concept of "thinking in a language" completely alien. I was educated in Bulgarian and English simultaneously, and I don't perceive thinking as being connected to language at all.

  33. V said,

    April 27, 2019 @ 6:52 pm

    I don't mean to imply that I am radically anti-Sapir-Whorf-hypothesis, and I indeed think there is probably, maybe, some merit to the weak version of it. And indeed I thought it made sense, as a teenager. But my personal experience makes me doubt it more and more.

    But we are talking about language acquisition, not the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

    My _intuition_ is that are two completely separate domains. You think, and that has nothing to do with language. Then you express your thoughts in a manner that fits the concepts and cultural assumptions of your interlocutor, whatever their "native language" may be. This might even lead to apparent paradoxes where you could phrase the same statement in, say, four different ways, two in one language, two in the other, depending. A pair of them, in the two different languages, might be more similar in meaning than the pairs which are in the same language.

    What you produce as an utterance depends on you proficiency in the specific register of the specific language you are communicating in with your interlocutor, and also your expectation of _his_ proficiency in that register.

  34. Victor Mair said,

    April 27, 2019 @ 7:18 pm


    That's interesting, since I definitely think in English, Chinese, Nepali, Japanese, etc. depending upon the type of thought I'm having. If I don't have a word or words in some language around which to build my thoughts, I can't formulate them. They remain inchoate and incoherent.

  35. V said,

    April 27, 2019 @ 7:51 pm

    Victor: I know a lot of people who claim that they think in language, but I can't imagine what it's like? I'm really, honestly, curious. Can you describe it?

  36. David P said,

    April 27, 2019 @ 8:17 pm

    @V: Thinking in language – For me, it's little conversations in my head. Some of my thinking is that way, some isn't.

    When I was about 9 we moved to Sweden from the U.S., and I became fluent in 10-year-old Swedish. When I was about 11 we moved back to the U.S., and I realized at that point that I was thinking (and dreaming) in Swedish. After I few months back in the U.S. I discovered that I was now thinking (and dreaming) in English again.

    My Swedish has largely faded, although when I visited there when I was about 22 it took only 2 or 3 days before it started returning, although with the limited vocabulary of a 10-year old (and, I am told, the sort of hick accent from the southern Sweden where I lived).

  37. Victor Mair said,

    April 27, 2019 @ 9:17 pm


    I already explained myself quite clearly, and David P has also explained what it's like.

    If I have an impulse or an inclination, but can't quite put my finger on it, if I can assign a word to it, then I know what the thought was about, and it might be better expressed in one language or another.

    Sometimes when I'm speaking to people, I'm having all these thoughts that I want to communicate, but they're coming up in my brain in the wrong language for the person I'm talking to, but the right language for exactly what I'm thinking. Then I have to work hard, including work around, to come up with a way to express myself to the person I'm talking to. It's a kind of in-brain translation process.

    Does that help?

    When I think in Mandarin, it's a very different experience from when I'm thinking in English. I have different kinds of thoughts depending upon which language is operating in my brain at a given moment.

    After I had lived in Nepal for a year, I became very fluent, and I would have dreams in Nepali. Very clearly there were Nepali conversations and dialogs in my dreams.

    Does that help?

  38. V said,

    April 27, 2019 @ 9:18 pm

    Victor: "I definitely think in English, Chinese, Nepali, Japanese, etc. depending upon the type of thought I'm having. If I don't have a word or words in some language around which to build my thoughts, I can't formulate them. They remain inchoate and incoherent."

    I have an idea, but can I comment in two days? I'm leaving on a hiking trip and Internet access is not guaranteed. Seriously.

  39. Victor Mair said,

    April 27, 2019 @ 9:22 pm


    You can comment whenever you have the time to do so.

    You've already told us your opinion. I'm not trying to convince you of anything. I'm just telling you how I think in different languages.

  40. V said,

    April 27, 2019 @ 9:32 pm

    Thanks, I think this was a huge misunderstanding.

  41. V said,

    April 27, 2019 @ 10:13 pm

    Sorry, I was physically assaulted (as in hit several times) a month ago (for being perceived as queer) and some research suggests this affects your personality, which I can definitely notice. I have become more paranoid and aggressive phychologically. I can't sleep normally without replaying that episode.

  42. Ouen said,

    April 28, 2019 @ 5:13 am

    People use the term ‘mother tongue’ in different ways. A folk linguistic use of the term that I often came across with older Chinese teachers was that your 母語 was the language of your 母國 (mother country). Therefore, they considered the mother tongue of overseas Chinese to be Chinese even if it wasn’t the language they were raised in. They were praised less for speaking well than Caucasian students in the case of some teachers.

    That is a particularly extreme form of a kind logic that assumes race is connected to language. Many people who ascribe to this kind of idea would not explicitly state it in such terms, and are probably aware that genes do not affect language learning, yet they show traces of this idea through some of their statements and attitudes. I was listening to two mothers having a conversation on a train before. One of the mothers had a mixed race child and she was saying her daughters Chinese was very poor, the other woman said 可能爸爸的基因比較強 (maybe daddy’s genes are stronger). Could this mindset be the reason that Jenny Chu’s daughter is spoken to in English by her teacher who does not do the same for her classmates?

    This inclination to associate race with language is particularly obvious to me in japan and China but it can also be seen in Europe and probably all around the world.

  43. Bill Benzon said,

    April 28, 2019 @ 11:38 am

    On the issue of "which language one thinks in" Sydney Lamb has some remarks in Pathways of the Brain (John Benjamins 1999) which I've discussed in an old blog post, "What's a Language? Evidence from the Brain", where I reproduce his diagrams. He begins by observing:

    Born in Russia, he lived in Czechoslovakia and Sweden before coming to the United States, where he became a professor of Slavic Linguistics at Harvard. Using the term language in a way it is commonly used (but which gets in the way of a proper understanding of the situation), we could say that he spoke six languages quite fluently: Russian, Czech, German, English, Swedish, and French, and he had varying amounts of skill in a number of others. But each of them except Russian was spoken with a thick accent. It was said of him that, “He speaks six languages, all of them in Russian”. This phenomenon, quite common except in that most multilinguals don’t control as many ‘languages’, actually provides excellent evidence in support of the conclusion that from a cognitive point of view, the ‘language’ is not a unit at all.

    Lamb goes on to remark, “What exists from a neurocognitive point of view is not so much one linguistic system as a group of interconnected systems, relatively independent from one another.” He goes on to suggest that Jakobson had basically one phonological system, the one from Russian, which he used for all his languages. Beyond that Jakobson would have had “separate systems of grammar and lexicon for Russian, Czech, English, German, French, and Swedish – with some overlap in these grammars and lexicons, not included in the diagram – along with his more limited abilities in various additional languages plus a conceptual system connected to them all.” And that conceptual system is, presumably, where one thinks.

  44. Anthony said,

    April 28, 2019 @ 9:52 pm

    Franz Liszt effectively had no native language. Born of German-speaking parents in Hungary, he spoke German as a child but forgot his German after being educated in French. His re-learnt German thereafter was seriously flawed, with French his working language. As a notable Hungarian he was expected to be able to address the public in Hungarian but could hardly manage it.

  45. JPL said,

    April 29, 2019 @ 3:23 am

    Many of the concerns discussed in this post have been extensively researched by Tove Skutnabb-Kangas, and probably others as well. I'm sorry I can't give specific references to articles right now; maybe tomorrow. But check out her writings.

  46. /df said,

    April 29, 2019 @ 7:09 am

    Coincidentally the BBC website recently reported on the Swiss cantonal capital Fribourg, where some bilingual speakers of French and Swiss German combine the two into a mixed language "Bolze" using words and phrases taken from both languages together. The BBC story and what looks like its inspiration are the linked from the Bolze Wikipedia article.

    Relevant to this posting, fluent bilingualism in the source languages is said to be a prerequisite for Bolze speakers, who therefore might be considered to have three native languages. But switching among French and German or both may not cause such mental dislocation as switching between the relatively less similar Mandarin (or Cantonese) and English.

  47. Coby Lubliner said,

    April 29, 2019 @ 10:25 am

    I consider myself a PBNN (primary-but-not-native) speaker of English. I have always distinguished between one's native (the first one that one speaks) and primary (the one that one is most comfortable in) language. That being said, countries such as Ukraine and Catalonia (by "country" I don't necessarily mean a sovereign state) have large numbers of denizens who have no recollection of ever not speaking two languages (Ukrainian and Russian, Catalan and Spanish) and who are equally comfortable in both, at least in speech. The language they prefer for writing depends on their schooling.

  48. Phil H said,

    April 29, 2019 @ 10:01 pm

    On the kids growing up in China problem: I believe that a big part of it is that they just don't have much to read. There's a reasonable range of comics now, and a few decent writers – Ren Rongrong is a genuinely great kids writer, and the Charlie IX series are really good sub-Harry Potter pulp for kids – but Chinese picture books are horribly didactic, and the 8-12 young learner literature is really sparse. I shudder to think what the teenagers' books are like. This is compared with English, where the literary (and not-so-literary!) riches are astounding, and can easily draw a child in. (Mine, for example, both loved Captain Underpants, which is a massively likeable and silly series for those just beyond picture books; then they move on to Harry Potter and Percy Jackson… and then they have the real classics still to discover!)

    As time goes by, more writers will emerge, but censorship casts a horrible chill over the entire Chinese literary scene.

  49. Phil H said,

    April 29, 2019 @ 10:11 pm

    On the native concept, it's massive contested in my industry (translation). I liked Cliff Arroyo's statement very much:

    '"native langauge" like "native speaker" is not a rigorous concept… it's a heuristic for ways of thinking about the relationship between a person and the language(s) they speak and it doesn't apply equally to everyone.'

    I personally think that any language acquired as a child counts as a native language, and the reason that it's still a useful term is that there are still many mysterious things about language. Native is like a descriptor for those bits of language you can't define, or write down the rules for. It's the instinct bit, that everyone seems to acquire as a child, but very few people can acquire as an adult.

    But there are many who think that "native" is such a woolly concept technically that it's not really useful; plus the fact that it is so easily abused for "nativist" exclusionary reasons; and so have called for it to be abandoned altogether. I have some sympathy with that view.

  50. Alexander Pruss said,

    April 30, 2019 @ 2:55 pm

    I (also a non-linguist) am dominantly speaking English, but it's not my first language, having living in English-speaking countries since age 9. The question of native language has come up a number of times, as every so often I have to fill out a form that asks about it for some reason. My policy is that on any paper form that asks for a "native language", I cross out "native", write "dominant" and then write "English", on the grounds that what the people designing the form really want to know is which of my languages is most fluent, not which one I happened to learn first.

    I don't think I've yet had to fill an electronic form that asked for a native language. I am not sure what I would do then. I think my philosophical views would call for me to put down what the form-designers *really* want to know–namely, the dominant language–even if they confusedly used the word "native".

    That said, I don't have any language where I *sound* native. My English has an odd mixture of Polish and Canadian accents that nobody can quite place, while my Polish is worse. So if form designers are looking for a language in which I sound native, perhaps I should humor and/or amuse them by putting down "None".

  51. Michele Sharik Pituley said,

    May 3, 2019 @ 12:15 am

    I have 2 anecdotes to add to the discussion:

    1) I have a friend who was born in South Korea and came to the US at the age of 11. Her parents speak Korean at home, live in a "K-town" area, spend most of their time with speakers of Korean, listening to/watching Korean media, etc., and thus have only very limited English. She went to an American school where they taught in English (not sure if there was any teaching of or in Korean) once she came to the US. She now speaks English with a Korean accent — but also speaks Korean with an American accent.

    2) My father was born in 1919 and his first language was Slovak, but when he came to the US in 1926 and went to school, he was teased mercilessly because he didn't speak English. He went home and informed his family that he would no longer speak Slovak, only English, and kept that promise until the day he died. He completely lost his Slovak. He was stationed in Germany with the US Army in the 60s, where he meet my mother (whose first language was Plaatdüütsch (Emslandish) but she also spoke other varieties of German, such as Swabish and "Standard" High German, as well as some English).

    When he was transferred Stateside, she came with him and I was born in the US (Ohio) in 1969. We spoke both German and English at home and I was bilingual, doing what I hear many bilingual kids do here in California — mixing both languages in a single sentence. When it came time for me to go to school, my father feared that I would be bullied and at an academic disadvantage or become "confused" because of my mix of languages, so he decided we would be an "English only" house. He sent mom to English language classes and we never spoke another word of German in our house again (apart from things like "Gute Nacht", "Guten Morgen", numbers, and other random bits (I still "krank" my knees when I hurt them)). So, I lost my German, and didn't learn it again until I went back to university in my 40s.

    Btw, I'm still not high-level fluent, but I get better every time I go back to Germany to visit my cousins. People I speak to when I'm out and about on my own always seem surprised when I "run out of my German" and revert to English or French and say they thought I was German because I "sound like a Berliner".

    Anyway, I consider English my native language, but German my first language because it's the language I heard in the womb.

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