Bilingual toddler speak 101: How to say no to your mum so she’ll listen

bilingual toddler speak 101

What happens if your bilingual toddler really wants you to listen to his “no’s”?

He won’t just say a simple no or one of those sequences of no’s toddlers are famous for. He’ll combine both languages (in our case German and Chinese) to emphasise that he really means it. “No, no, 就不no” (“nein, nein, 就不nein”) was what he recently told me when he really didn’t want to get dressed, making me laugh over his skilful combination of the words no in both languages, using a double negative and for emphasis. To be exact, a double negative creates an affirmative in German, but I’m quite sure he meant to say no.

Learning two languages at once means that he mixes both languages. He’s gotten better at separating the two languages, but to him, both of the two languages are his mother tongue. He doesn’t separate them like somebody who grew up monolingual would do when they learn a second language.

One person one language?

He knows I understand Chinese and hears me speak it with his dad, so he sometimes creates his own sentences using both languages. People often emphasise the one person one language approach, and how that way the child will be able to distinguish and use both languages really well without code-switching*. Now, I’m not arguing the advantages of this approach, I’m sure it works very well for many families. Putting the one person one language strategy into practice, however, is not always as easy as it sounds. For example, what do you do if you want your partner, in-laws, or another caregiver who doesn’t speak your mother tongue to understand what you’re saying to your child? Do you translate directly after telling your child, or – if you need them to understand and react promptly – just tell your child in their mother tongue? Like, you know, in situations where your mother-in-law helps you look after your son while you’re cooking and you don’t want your hungry toddler to take ceramic bowls and throw them onto the floor?

Also, every multilingual household is different, so there’s no one single approach that fits all. There are parents with the same mother tongue who want their child to grow up with another language (or two). There are parents with different mother tongues who speak a common language differently from those mother tongues. There are parents with different mother tongues who speak one of those mother tongues together because one partner doesn’t speak the other one. These are only a few of the different circumstances, there are also parents who grew up multilingual themselves, single-parents with all different kinds of language backgrounds, and so on.

Embracing bothness in the use of language

In our home, language means creativity and fluidity, and – particularly in the case of our son – language is bothness, not two halves put together. That’s why I don’t tell him to only use either German or Chinese. I will, however, sometimes repeat what he just said in German so he’ll still get the hang of it.

*code-switching is the alternation of two or more languages in a single conversation or sentence

Which language approach do you use at home?

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Hi, I'm Ruth, welcome to China Elevator Stories! I have been living in Kunming and Shenzhen in the past and am now staying in Northeast China with my Chinese husband and our baby and toddler son. Join us on our journey bridging worlds!


    • My husband speaks Mandarin with a little Northeastern influence, and my in-laws mainly speak the local dialect (it’s quite similar to Mandarin, but the dialect still has plenty of different words and grammar also sometimes differs from standard Mandarin Chinese).

  1. I loved this post, Ruth.

    Children can be so much fun to observe. Each one develops in his own particular way. Our children studied in international schools from nursery school almost all the way through high school. Most of their fellow students did not speak English, the language of instruction, when they arrived. Almost without exception, they learned English very quickly. But there were differences, even within the same family. I remember a German family down the street from us. One boy lost his German accent very quickly; the other, never did lose his. The first boy always spoke to his parents in English; the second, in German.

    Parents and schools will develop whatever systems they choose, but in the end, the child will make his own choices.

  2. Jon

    Thanks for sharing this. We just had our daughter and have been talking about what language to speak at home for a while. I grew up in Hong Kong, so I speak Cantonese. My parents are from Shanghai and forced us to speak Shanghai dialect at home only, so I speak that. And I learned Mandarin from my Taiwanese friends when I moved to the U.S. My wife doesn’t really want me to speak English with our daughter cause of my accent, haha. But my Mandarin has the Taiwanese accent. Cantonese is not as popular and forget about Shanghai dialect. We will probably end up with English/Mandarin and I like your approach of “bothness”

    • First of all, congrats to becoming parents!

      I wouldn’t worry about the Taiwanese accent. Speaking Mandarin with an accent will still be worth so much more (also to connect with you, as would be Cantonese or Shanghai dialect) than not being able to speak it at all. Our son speaks the local dialect, I’m sure he’ll still have time to practice standard Mandarin Chinese when he’s a little older.

      I’ve heard of people changing languages every 1/2/3 … days if they can speak more languages themselves. E.g. Monday is French-day, Tuesday is English-day, etc. Maybe that would be an option you could consider too. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing.

      The concept of “bothness” stems from Jason S.C. Fung, you can read up on it here if you’re interested:

      • Jon

        Thank you Ruth! It’s a surreal time! haha. That’s a good great suggestion. I will try to do that and thank you for the reference also.

    • Your daughter won’t end up speaking English with an accent just because you do. If the parent’s language is broken/not perfect in any way, the child will still speak it fluently and without accent.

      For more, check out “The Language Instinct” by Steven Pinker.

  3. Cat

    Interesting read. It’s not the same situation but the family I stayed with in Taiwan had a toddler when I was there he could only count to two in Chinese – he wouldn’t say three. They recently told me he learned to say “thank you” in English before he learned to say three in Chinese (even though everyone in the house speaks to him pretty much exclusively in Chinese!) Kids do strange things – I was convinced he just didn’t like the number three! On a separate note – as someone who is learning Chinese it was fascinating watching a toddler learn it, I think it would be even more interesting watching them learn two languages at once!

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