Family Language Alive - Children Learning Chinese

Situation #2.2: My child knows Chinese. She understands me when I speak to her, but I don’t know why she answers in English…

September 26, 2010

2.2 Main Article

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Situation #2.2: My child knows Chinese. She understands me when I speak to her, but I don’t know why she answers in English.Reality: This is an extremely common pattern in most bilingual families, especially when your child uses only English outside of home or when there are siblings of varying ages in the home. Your child has what is called receptive bilingualism. She may be able to reactivate the language again when the opportunity comes. If this arrangement works for your family, it is definitely better than no Chinese at all. However, speaking is crucial to further understanding in the language. Oral proficiency will help immensely in reading and writing Chinese in time. The need is even greater when typing in Chinese later on (e.g. by use of pinyin). And it is certainly an edge in the job market if one can speak two languages fluently. If the opportunity exists, the child should be given every chance to speak in Chinese as much as she can. Be aware that it is most effective if it is something she desires to do greatly (e.g. wanting to speak to someone she wants to communicate and Chinese is the only way). If she does not practice enough, there may come a time when it becomes too difficult for her to overcome the initial stage of embarrassment and lack of confidence when she does decide to speak the language again, especially when she is older and becomes more self-conscious.The same goes with writing. Sometimes, some refer speaking and writing as active bilingualism, meaning it requires one to produce (speech and meaningful words). Likewise, they refer listening and reading as passive bilingualism. The former skill sets are more difficult to achieve proficiently and are more likely to be lost if one does not practice the language frequently enough. Biliteracy, that is, reading and writing, however, is not a common goal for children in most families. Or, we can say that because these skills do not come about easily without wise and consistent planning, they usually are done without.

Considerations:

  • How often does she use Chinese when she speaks to me?
  • How are her writing and reading affected by the fact that she speaks Chinese less frequently nowadays?
  • How are her listening, speaking, reading and writing skills in Chinese balanced both at home and at school?
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