· chinese tips · 4 min read

Chinese+ Bilingual Babies: Which language is their mother tongue?

Explore the fascinating world of Chinese bilingual babies and uncover the nuances of their mother tongue acquisition. Dive in now!

Explore the fascinating world of Chinese bilingual babies and uncover the nuances of their mother tongue acquisition. Dive in now!

Is your baby a language genius?

There are more and more bilingual families now. Babies in those families often amaze their parents with their exceptional language learning abilities. Parents often feel, “Oh my! Our baby can switch between two languages at will. What a genius!”

This kind of amazement is particularly evident in “Chinese+ families”.

”Learning Chinese felt like climbing Mount Everest for me, but my baby grasps it as easily as picking a grape. “

Your baby will most likely have Chinese as their mother tongue!

But the question is: which language will the baby learn as their mother tongue?

If we take the example of a “Chinese+ English” family, it can be said with certainty that your baby will most likely learn Chinese as their mother tongue.

Or at least have a greater advantage in Chinese compared to English. This means that the baby’s Chinese will be better than their English. And this “mother tongue question” has nothing to do with whether the mother is Chinese or not. The same goes if the father is Chinese.

Because for the baby, Chinese is the easier than English.

(Of course, the premise of this judgment is that the baby receives a similar “language exposure”—that is, the duration and content of speaking English and Chinese by the parents to the child are basically the same.)

Why does the baby find Chinese easier than English?

For adults, the intuitive impression of an unfamiliar or vastly different language from their mother tongue is often: this new language is very complex or very difficult.

That is to say—you already have a mother tongue.

But for a baby who is just starting to speak, they have no idea what “mother tongue” or “foreign language” means.

What the baby initially learns to say is definitely words or phrases, not complex sentences. So if the baby is learning “first words,” is it easier to learn English words or Chinese words?

For example, when a child says “baba” (daddy) or “jiujiu” (uncle), which is easier, Chinese or English? It seems like this judgment is relatively easy, right?

Why DOESN’T the baby find Chinese tones difficult?

Friends who have learned Chinese will surely say when they see this, “You didn’t consider Chinese tones! Cheating!”

But in fact, babies, whether they are from China or abroad, don’t “consider” tones at all when they learn to speak. Tones are zero difficulty for them because they are just imitating. The feeling that tones are difficult only applies to adults who already have a mother tongue.

Of course, English is more difficult than Chinese! 😄

To be honest, when compared to all human languages, there will be both relatively difficult and relatively easy aspects.

However, for a baby, speaking English, that is, the pronunciation of English, is much more difficult than that of Chinese.

If we compare Mandarin with English specifically, the characteristic of “speaking Mandarin being easier” stands out even more.

Mandarin, due to its historical development, was originally a system “specially simplified for foreigners.” 😄

Its pronunciation (excluding tones) is much simpler than English. For example, it only has 381 “effective syllables.” Do you know how many syllables there are in English? 😄 (The answer is at the end of the article.)

Moreover, Chinese not only has fewer syllables, as everyone knows, each Chinese character is a syllable and a word (generally speaking 😄). Whereas most English words are polysyllabic.

So for a little baby, speaking polysyllabic words in English is certainly more difficult than speaking monosyllabic words in Chinese. Even if sometimes you have to use reduplication to say it like the examples mentioned earlier, one syllable is still easier than two syllables, right?

In summary

For babies in the process of forming their mother tongue, the presence or absence of tones does not affect the difficulty of language learning, but the quantity of syllables in the language and the quantity of syllables in vocabulary do. English has a greater number of syllables and more multisyllabic words, so babies naturally find it easier to learn and master Mandarin.

(How many syllables in English: According to different definitions and statistical methods, the minimum number of syllables in English is said to be over 4000. The number calculated by B. Barker of New York University in 2009 is 15,831.)

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