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Chinese/ English Bilingualism: My Daughter Learns To Speak Mandarin

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“I am worried that the taxi driver may take us where she says to go rather than me because she speaks better Chinese.”

My wife was talking about our three and a half year old daughter. Petra now speaks Chinese, and has recently invented a new game where she tells taxi drivers to take us to different places than where my wife or I tell them to. She thinks this is funny.

Our daughter has learned the benefits of being able to speak the dominant language of the country she is in, and now that she’s picking up Mandarin fast she is having a lot of fun messing with people, making friends, getting what she wants, and, yes, surprising the Chinese.

To put it simply, Chinese people don’t expect this little white, foreign looking thing to stride up to them and speak their language. When it happens, they seriously gasp with surprise and get really excited. The kid seems to enjoy this new type of attention better than the type she used to receive:

It sounds unbelievable, but it is not uncommon here for grown adults to come up to Petra, pinch the fat on her arm or do something else that she obviously doesn’t like, and then laugh when she cries out in pain or anger. They then often try to do it again, clearly either not getting the message or finding her reaction humorous. Petra wails and they laugh like it’s the funniest thing they’ve ever seen. The first few times I saw this I gaped in disbelief — Is this person trying to bother my kid? — but it become a regular pattern.

Haha, we made the white kid scream, how funny!

If you can’t speak the dominant language of the country you’re in you are going to be treated like vegetable lasagna. You will not be taken seriously, you will not be respected. In China, this can be taken to the extreme. Before Petra could speak Chinese, the people here would treat her like a zoo exhibit. They would poke and prod her, grab her, try to pick her up, make her cry, and then laugh about it. Seriously, many people here would act like animals when seeing this little light haired, white child. But the kid eventually learned how to fend these people off, she learned their language.

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People in the streets don’t dare bother her now, if they do Petra tells them, in no uncertain terms, how much she doesn’t like them and that she wants them to go away. It works marvelously, and I have to say that after being in China for 14 months, the kid is now being treated with respect.

She earned it.

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After ten months of just listening and demonstrating very little ambition to learn Chinese, my three and a half year old daughter had me worried. One of the reasons we chose to set up shop in China was so she could learn to speak Mandarin, but almost a year had gone by and she showed very little inclination to do so. She learned how to fend people off of her in the streets and a few stray words, but that was about it. I would try to speak Chinese to her, and she would just wail a request for me to shift to English.

“No Chinese! Speak English!”

She just wasn’t having the whole polyglot thing.

Our goal as parents was to raise an extreme polyglot. English, Spanish, and Chinese would be the first block of languages we would encourage her to learn, then we would move on to French and Arabic. Once learning these languages she would then be able to speak with the majority of the people on the planet. This seemed to me like an incredible tool set to provision our child with.

More on Vagabond Journey: The top 5 languages to learn for world travel

Foreign languages are incredibly difficult and time consuming things for people to learn. They are more like arts than subjects of study, as they demand way more bodily resources than just rote memory. I figure that if my kid wants to be an engineer when she gets older she can just go and study engineering for a few years, but if she wants to engage in an occupation that demands knowledge of foreign language then she’s in for a much more involved and difficult endeavor. That’s why I want her to learn as many foreign languages natively as possible.

I don’t want her to have the same struggle that I have.

More on Vagabond Journey: Read Petra’s multilingual learning plan

I want my kid to be able to rattle off in four or five different languages as an adult and have little clue as to how she learned them. The agony of endlessly pouring over language books, dictionaries, worksheets, and audio files is something I don’t want my kid to associate with education. Learning is supposed to be fun, slaving over a foreign language as an adult is not fun. It is tiring, frustrating, and a lot of work.

I want her to learn languages as a child, as a child learns languages.

I want my daughter to learn as many languages as she can through listening and speaking, as children do; not through translating, as adults do. I want her to match sounds to actions, things, emotions, places, and not to words printed in a book. I want Petra to learn at least three languages before she can read at an advanced level. This is important. Once you approach a foreign language through reading it, the way your mind absorbs it is different. Once you can read, you begin learning language visually and cerebrally rather than auditorily and subconsciously.

But it seemed for a long time as if the kid wasn’t having it. Oh well. Planning travels from now on would be a lot easier without having to always go back to Mandarin speaking countries (there are only a few).

Then one day something happened: she began talking. It was almost like a switch was flipped. Within a couple of months, Petra went from being vegetable lasagna to being a Chinese speaker.

I first noticed this when I was watching her on a playground a couple of weeks ago. We were there by ourselves when another father brought his daughter over to play. The girl appeared to be around a year or so older than Petra. When the girl approached, Petra yelled at her in Mandarin.

“I don’t want to play with you!” my daughter roared.

This did not impress me, she already had a handle of basic commands. So I scolded her and told her to go apologize to the little girl, who had by this point run into the arms of her father, totally punked out by the little laowai. Petra gave her a hug and invited her to come and play. The girl agreed.

What came next impressed me.

I was hovering nearby, sort of daydreaming, when I realized that Petra and this little girl were having an actual conversation. I cued in on them:

“Do you want to ride my scooter?” Petra asked.

“No,” the little girl replied, “I have one like that at home.”

Petra noticed me listening. “She said she has a scooter at home,” she told me in English.

That was what she said.

I listened closer. My daughter invited the little girl to bring her scooter over to our house. The little girl asked where it was. Petra tried to explain it. Then Petra asked the little girl what she did today, and the girl told her that she rode her bike.

My daughter then looked up at me and then perfectly interpreted their conversation into English.

At one point later on, Petra walked up to me and repeated a sentence that the girl said with perfect pronunciation. The only thing was that she didn’t know what it meant. I told her, she repeated the sentence again to herself, and the return to the little girl with a reply.

At another point, Petra ran over to me with a complaint.

“She’s not saying the right words,” she said with a laugh.

Petra was just introduced to the Taizhou dialect. Petra, apparently, thought the girl was stupid and couldn’t speak her own language right or something. She has yet to understand that China is one of the most linguistically diverse countries on the planet, and while she can speak to almost everyone using Mandarin she is not always going to understand what they are saying when speaking their local languages.

She continued hanging out with the little girl, having conversation and playing as the language barrier crumbled.

It turned out that the kid was learning Chinese all along. She was learning in her own way, the way that children learn language, the way babies learn language.

While the kid initially had very little interest in speaking Chinese, she did take to Chinese language children’s songs. So she would learn these songs and sing them perfectly, although she didn’t learn what the words meant until later on. This musical practice seemed to have helped get her the hang of the sound patterns and beat of this language, and made learning it seem like less of an effort.

When learning to speak, babies and young children mock the sounds of the real language and speak gibberish for a while, getting the sounds and patterns mastered. Petra would did this with English and then did it with Chinese. It was remarkable to watch her doing it with the latter language, as she was older yet doing something that I’ve only known babies to do. She would play with her toys by herself and speak to them in Chinese sounds rather than English words. She would also try speaking to Chinese people in the streets in very convincing Mandarin sounding gibberish, which really freaked them out. Eventually, Petra got very discouraged that nobody could understand her first attempts at Chinese:

My daughter wants to speak to other kids here in China, but they have no idea what her English words mean and she cannot understand their Chinese. Often, Petra resorts to making Chinese sounding noises in an attempt to talk with her peers. Good try, but of course it doesn’t work. The kids often just ask me what language she is speaking when affronted by her gibberish, and I must tell them that I, too, have no idea.

Eventually, this gibberish turned into actual words.

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Since that day in the park I’ve really been pushing Petra to practice her Chinese. She showed an aptitude and desire for learning this language, and she has the pronunciation of a native speaker.

I’ll rephrase that, she basically is a native speaker.

“Her pronunciation is perfect,” her teachers at school and people in the streets often exclaim with surprise.

It’s true, she is learning this language as a Chinese kid would, rather than a foreign language student. I offer her one M&M for each new Chinese word she tells me she learned, but she has yet to redeem this prize a single time. If there is one thing this kid loves, it’s M&Ms, but she is learning this language so naturally it doesn’t even seem she is conscious of it.

Every afternoon that I am in Taizhou with my family, the kid and I sit down at the living room table and practice Chinese after she gets out of school. When we ride on buses or are walking down the street or in parks, we play little language games:

“I’m going to say something in Chinese and you are going to guess what it is in English.”

Or we point out things and teach each other the Chinese words for them. If neither of us know, we look it up on my mobile and learn together.

Language learning has become fun for her. It’s become a game that she can use to better navigate the country she is growing up in.

“She even corrects my Chinese now and tells me that I’m saying things wrong,” my wife once said, beaming with both pride and embarrassment.

I have to admit that my three and a half year old kid sometimes corrects my Chinese as well. Sometimes we get into debates about word meanings, and she busts out with, “Well, my friends at school say it like this.” More often than not, she is correct.

What is amazing is how quickly this happened.

“After the spring festival she really started speaking Chinese,” one of her teachers said.

She was also surprised that the kid went from being able to say virtually nothing to being competent in a matter of two months.

But sometimes Petra says things that just don’t make sense, but this is an essential part of learning a language naturally.

“I want to go to a beautiful where,” she told a taxi driver last night.

She knows that the Chinese word na li, which means “where,” has something to do with places, but she doesn’t yet understand its exact parameters. She can ask people where things are perfectly, that’s a phrase that she has mastered, but when separating the individual words out of this phrase and repurposing them in other sentences she sometimes makes mistakes.

Children are imperfect language learners, they learn less through translation (i.e. this word in English means that word in Chinese) than listening and observing. They learn through exploration, through trial and error. They copy the word combinations they hear and then try out these words in different contexts, making many mistakes along the way, until they delineate their precise meanings.

Correction is important in this process. My daughter’s friends in school and her teachers correct her regularly, and I do as well when I hear her screw up. In the taxi, I told her the proper word to use, and she repeated the phrase, “I want to go to a beautiful place,” over and over again until she embedded it in her memory.

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Last week I was hovering over Petra as she was playing with a little Chinese girl. She broke out a deck of cards and spread them out on the floor face down. She then proceeded to teach the little girl the rules of concentration. I was unsure if I could have explained it as well as she did.

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Last weekend my wife’s company put on a promotional performance at the main shopping mall in the city. Hundreds of people showed up to watch the show. My wife’s kindergarten had nothing to do with the event, so we were just hanging out, as we knew the people involved.

Deciding that she didn’t want to be a spectator any longer, Petra pushed her way through the crowd to the side of the stage. She got the attention of the MC, and indicated that she wanted to be a part of the show. A few moments later the kid was on stage.

“Say hello to everybody, Petra,” the MC spoke.

The kid grabbed the mic and said ni hao.

The MC giggled and, seeing an opportunity for entertainment, endeavored to test Petra’s Mandarin. People here seem to think it’s cute and nothing short of amazing watching a foreign kid speak their language. But I got nervous, this could have been embarrassing. But my daughter fielded all the questions adeptly and responded in perfect Chinese.

Another year in China and the kid will be fluent.

Watch a video of Petra speaking Chinese

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Filed under: Language, Petra Hendele Adara Shepard, Travel With Family

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 76 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3053 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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