Currently, we have two children, a 5-Year-Old and a 19-Month-Old.
Observing our children this far has been interesting. Our oldest was two years old when we came to China and she could speak English really well. She could speak in sentences and had a quickly growing vocabulary. When we arrived in China, she would mock Chinese words if someone was trying to teach her a new word, but she obviously opted to speak in English. The sudden “culture shock” of everyone around her changing to speaking only Chinese made her more bashful than she was normally. She didn’t have a good attitude about it at first and it was probably scary for her. She only knew two kinds of people existed, you were “Chinese,” or you were “English”.
As time passed, we encouraged our daughter to learn Chinese. It was a struggle at first for her. Those who watched her while we were in language school also had a slight struggle since there was a language barrier. She eventually learned the essential words but still was shy to speak the language to people she knew only spoke Chinese. She then had a tutor that would sit down and go over flash cards with her and play with her. She started to enjoy Chinese more and more. Her tutor could speak both languages and so our daughter would often switch between the two with her or she would respond in English to a question asked in Chinese.
After two years of living in China, we returned to the States for three months where she had no problems communicating in English. She loves to talk. When we came back to China, we weren’t sure how much she would remember since she didn’t speak Chinese for 3 months. Once we arrived back, it was like she just turned it back on and starting speaking Chinese again. Some of it did take a while to come back but she was eager to learn this time and had a good attitude about it. She started playing with the neighborhood kids and we enrolled her in kindergarten and now her Chinese is really starting to take off, though her English is still more advanced.
Now, you will find here switching back and forth between the languages often. I can speak to her in either language and usually, it is fine. If she doesn’t understand a Chinese word, she will ask in Chinese “what does that word mean”? If she doesn’t know the word in Chinese, she will just substitute it with an English word or vice versa.
Our second daughter was born in China. As soon as she was born she heard Chinese and English almost simultaneously. As she has grown up in China, only spending 3 months of her 19 months alive in the States, she has heard an equal amount of Chinese and English. Her first words “Mama”, “Baba” and “Bye Bye” can actually be considered first words in both languages. The “baby talk” that she does sounds Chinese as you can hear her make noises with tones. She is starting to build a vocabulary of words that she can say in both Chinese and English words with the amount of words being the same. She doesn’t speak in sentences yet in either language. But she does understand when you speak to her in Chinese or English. I will say “come here” in Chinese and she comes over to me. I will say “go to your room” in English and she goes to her room.