Family Language Alive - Children Learning Chinese

Situation #2.1: My child is picking up so much English in school. It is so difficult for him to shift speaking Chinese at home…

November 5, 2017

Code-Switching Between Chinese and English: Is It Okay to Continue the Mix in Chinglish, Hongish, Jiazati (夾雜體)?

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Code-switching is an intentional switching between two or more languages. Often the grammar rules are deemed interchangeable and applied to both ends, without awareness at times. It just flows naturally, as one learns to make use of the languages being explored.


One can be aware of the following when switching takes place in a child’s conversation, but we should never laugh at his usage (unless laughing about it together as to appreciate the fun of language making!) Treat it as part of the learning process, as the child misses and turns to find the right path in life, just as we all do. We can repeat the correct usage in the next sentence, or opportunity. And never say, you’re wrong and immediately supply an answer. It is best for the child to arrive at a conclusion and own the learning.


  1. Ordering of subordinate phrases (things that start with if, when, after, etc) or prepositional phrases (in, at, under, etc): Usually these do not have the same ordering in both languages.
    • I will watch TV when I get home. 回家之後,我就會看電視。
    • You will find him in the kitchen. 你會在廚房找到他。
  2. Affirming a negative yes-no question: In Chinese, you affirm by saying ‘對呀’, ‘係啊’, but in English, we respond ‘no’ to such a query.
    • Ping: 是不是 outside 沒有餐具呀?
    • Lan: Yes! (Thinking: Affirmative, there is no cutlery.)

    So Ping is asking ‘Is there no cutlery outside?’ But since she mixes Chinese and English, it seems the receiver Lan has the liberty to reply in Chinese or English. But what makes it confusing is that Lan answered in English, but responded in a Chinese mindset in grammar. So now Ping will wonder, ‘Yes, there are cutlery’ (in the full English sense) or ‘Yes, you’re right, there is NO cutlery.’ (in the full Chinese sense.)

  3. Doing an English grammar “play” on Chinese words, such as plural, tense, comparison:
    • 你可不可以take the 杯s out 在抬呀? (Can you take the cups out onto the table?)
    • 我已經 un扣 ‘ed 了[咗啦] (I have already unbuttoned.)
    • What is your 靚-est one? (What is your prettiest one?)

Language is merely a description of what people use to communicate and express one’s thoughts. There is certainly a most used format, so the system can work well to help us maintain a standard to facilitate understanding. But, remember that language still changes over time. It is simply a code, like a score for a piece of music composed by an artist. The expression conveyed is the essence, not the accuracy of the score recorded. It is only normal to test out the tunes. Would a masterpiece come about on a first try?


Using a mixed system for expression may very well be a positive reflection of a child’s identity, living in a bi-cultural setting, benefiting from a diversity of differences. Let us learn to enjoy the privilege!


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