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The Effects of Native Bilingualism

Petra speaks in a smooth bilingual stream. How does this really work?

My daughter was at her ballet class — yes, she takes such things in China — and I noticed that she was talking to a little Chinese girl in English. That was interesting. She’s often very stringent about matching language she uses to the culture of the person she’s speaking with. She talks to Chinese people in Chinese; everybody else in English. She doesn’t like to mix up the order of things.

I was about ready to pass off her linguistic faux pas with the little girl as a mild intrigue until they deftly switched to speaking Chinese. Then they switched to English again, then back to Chinese, Anglo, Sino, Anglo, Sino. They were flipped across languages naturally, without hesitation or any breaks in the dialogue at all, as if they were talking in one fluid tongue. One would just say something in one language and the other would follow suite for a little while, then one of them would make a switch and the other would follow suite. This wasn’t an issue of one asking a question in Chinese and the other replying in English or simply substituting out select words; rather, some topics were just discussed in Chinese and others in English.

I am unsure why they chose to speak in what language when they did, and it truly seemed that if I were to stop them mid-dialogue and ask what language they were immediately speaking neither would be able to tell me. They were just engrossed in the conversation, and it’s my impression that they were more focused on what the words they used meant rather than how they sounded.

Both girls were bilingual, cultural hybrids — Petra has spent most of her life in China and the little girl spent a good deal of time in the USA. They were essentially mirror images of each other.

I’ve always known that Petra was able to transition between English and Mandarin smoothing, without missing a beat and without and frustration. She can also interpret between the two languages and hold duo lingual conversations seemingly without effort. But to see her with another girl who could do the same really magnified this ability.

Sometimes people comment about Petra speaking Chinese as a second language and I correct them: she didn’t learn Chinese as a second language. We got to China early enough for her to learn Mandarin as a young child learns its first language — through sound patterns, not through translating through using another tongue as a guide. She learned Chinese through babbling Chinese sounding noises, not from learning that yǐzi means chair and màozi means hat. She is bilingual. As odd as it sounds, Chinese Mandarin is one of her native languages — and she speaks it indistinguishably from a young Chinese speaker.

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When I learn foreign languages I do so by using English as a medium. I learn words by knowing how they translate from my native English. I go through word lists

This is how adults learn language. Regardless of what the marketing material of language learning programs like Rosetta Stone claim, adults cannot learn a language any other way. To put it bluntly, no adult is going to sit in a room for eight months babbling Chinese sounding noises like my daughter did. Our self-awareness, culture, and minds are different from a young child, and we can’t learn like they do. Our adult minds are set, they are rigid, and though I want to have some kind of “lifestyle hacking” argument here and say that these well worn claims are BS, I can’t.

I know that I am hardwired to English. When I think it is in English, when I dream it is in English, when I react it is in English. When I try to do otherwise it comes off as an exercise, not something that will evolve into a habit.

I asked my daughter the other day what language she thinks in. She said both. I asked her what language she dreams in. She said both. I looked at her mystified. How could this be? How does she select one over the other? How does it run together smoothly without conflict? I really can’t fathom how native bilingualism works, but I assume it must be very much like how it was when my daughter was talking with that little girl at the ballet studio in tongues.

Filed under: China, Language Learning, Petra Hendele Adara Shepard

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3563 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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