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My husband and I can speak daily conversational Mandarin, probably at the fluency and vocabulary of a native 3rd grade speaker. So decent, but not great. We speak 99% of the time in Mandarin to our son (though we speak English to each other in front of him). As he is a toddler now and getting older, I find my limited vocabulary more of an issue than when he was younger (e.g. at the zoo, we see a polar bear... I didn't know "polar bear" in Mandarin and had to just call it... a "white bear").

I worry that I will cause him developmental issues since I've read that the amount you speak to children impacts their learning (more is better). Unfortunately, the studies I've seen are unclear whether it is purely volume or also diversity of words. Anyone with info or personal experience with this?

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Start carrying a little dictionary and show the kid you have to look up words anyway. That must be the best way to learn a better vocabulary. –  Barfieldmv May 3 '11 at 13:13

7 Answers 7

up vote 11 down vote accepted

I grew up in America, but my parents are both from Iran. My Persian is not terribly strong (probably 3-4 grade level as well), but I try to exclusively speak it to my kids. I find it challenging at times, particularly because there is much more English around them than Persian (friends, in-laws, TV, my wife). But the benefits for my children are worth the effort for me.

For me the goal is not necessarily to get them to the point of fluency (even though that would be nice). Language proficiency is a sufficient goal. They may not be able to carry on a technical discussion, but as adults they could perhaps know enough to carry on simple conversations.

Aside from my personal goals, there are linguistic and cognitive benefits to learning multiple languages from an early age. The cognitive benefits of learning multiple languages from an early age are explained by The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages:

Children who learn a foreign language beginning in early childhood demonstrate certain cognitive advantages over children who do not. ... Additionally, foreign language learning is much more a cognitive problem solving activity than a linguistic activity, overall. Studies have shown repeatedly that foreign language learning increases critical thinking skills, creativity, and flexibility of mind in young children. Students who are learning a foreign language out-score their non-foreign language learning peers in the verbal and, surprisingly to some, the math sections of standardized tests. This relationship between foreign language study and increased mathematical skill development, particularly in the area of problem solving, points once again to the fact that second language learning is more of a cognitive than linguistic activity.

Another study finds:

Italian psychologists Agnes Melinda Kovacs and Jacques Mehler have found that part of [bilingual childrens'] skill lies in being more flexible learners than their monolingual peers. Their exposure to two languages at an early point in their lives trains them to extract patterns from multiple sources of information.

Here are some things you can do:

  • Spend as much time as you can around native speakers (family, friends, church, temple, cultural organizations, etc.)
  • Make a concerted effort to improve your language skills by learning vocabulary that is pertinent to common dialog you have with your children (focus on commands, household objects, animals, etc.)
  • Keep a notebook near you and every time you can't remember a word you want to use with your child, write it down. Go ahead and use the English (or other language) word so you can complete your thought with your child. Then, after you learn the Mandarin word, make sure you use it from them on.
  • Find a list of most commonly used conversational words in Mandarin and make sure you know the first 300-500.
  • Put your child in language classes as soon as they're old enough (5-6 yo).
  • Play "What is this?" with your child. Point to things and have your child tell you what they are. Using flashcards works well too. I'm sure you can buy Chinese flashcards online.
  • Get some Chinese-language kids TV shows and cartoons that you can play for you child when he gets a little older.
  • Make a commitment to your spouse that you will only speak Mandarin in front of your child. Struggle through it and you guys will notice that you're getting better.
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Great answer. +1 –  Rachel Apr 2 '12 at 2:22

Personally, I feel the volume of words is more important, than the diversity, at least early on. This way, your child learns words faster, and when he hears the same words repeatedly, he can learn to use them quicker...

You will need to learn more diversity of words as he gets older, otherwise the language will not suffice, and you will end up using English more...

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You can get by with less than perfect. But you've already experienced a situation were you had to choose the "wrong" word. If that's rare then I don't see a problem.

However, since you say your level is around 3rd grade, I think that your son will catch up to your level quickly, and then it will become difficult for you. After all, as a parent and teacher you need to stay ahead. If you want to really only speak Mandarin to him although you don't feel sufficiently fluent, then I'd answer your title question as a yes that would be bad because you'll be running out of vocabulary too fast.

Even so: you've then taught your boy Mandarin up to a 3rd grade level, which is cool, and a good start into anything more later on -- if you can keep it maintained.

I've stated before that you've got to know all the words you're ever going to need, or else you'll be forced to fall back into another (or a simpler) language. I don't personally think that teaching a second language would work unless you're 97% fluent yourself, but your situation might be different, so don't feel put down.

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It may give him exposure but you will lose the natural "ear" you get when native speakers use the language, my wife speaks Mandarin (she is from Taiwan) to our kids and they've picked it up from her. My older doesn't like it when I speak because I miss tones and he just tells me to stop speaking Japanese.

You could try using Chinese kid's shows, to improve your vocabulary and give you something to speak about later, or there are books that teach Bo-Po-Mo that also contains songs and stories, that give more exposure. We also enroll the kids in a chinese school that does instruction one day a week, with homework, so there is more opportunity to practice. That may be useful for both of you, if such a thing is available in your area.

Not sure about the development issues, but I also found exposure was the better thing, its a matter of how receptive the child is and how you can keep them going.

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+1 for suggesting ways to augment what the parents are doing –  nGinius Apr 29 '11 at 18:13

I assume your child is also being addressed by someone else in English? If so, he's getting a very good diversity of words. I wouldn't worry about calling a Polar Bear a "white bear". It is a bear, and it is white... that's an opportunity to look up a word with him. You might just say "I don't know what the white bear is called. We should find out.", which I'm sure your Mandarin is sufficient for.

The idea is that a child should hear about 3 million words (that's volume, obviously) by age 3. But bilingual children develop advantages that monolingual children do not, so it's probably a benefit to child overall.

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What do you have to lose by letting him learn Mandarin early, and what do you have to gain?

The worst-case scenario, if he learns, is that he is a native speaker of a somewhat "imperfect" version of the language. However, that will still put him ahead of where he would be learning the language later in life—and with far less effort.

Any effort he would have to exert in correcting his learned mistakes is far outweighed by the effort of learning Mandarin at a later age.

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Linguists usually point out that amongst the accepted language learning drivers for kids you will find "input" and "output", as well as "motivation" and "social interaction". Input is what the kid hears, in terms of quantity (as you mentioned) but also quality (which also includes diversity).

The kid's brain is a statistical processor. If you make mistakes and they are not spotted by your kid, she will record them as proper language and use them in the future. Your accent will be used a reference.

Another drawback is that your kid gets much less input in the language that you are NOT talking to him.

I would not recommend that you speak in a language that is not your own native language. At the same time I would strongly encourage you to find other ways to make your kid bilingual - indeed there are obvious linguistic and non linguistic advantages.

You can check out www.vivaling.com/blog for more information.

Bernard (disclaimer: I work with VivaLing).

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