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‘Daddy, do you speak English or American?’

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image Andrew Leong Murphy - Senior Language Instructor, Center for Languages and Professional Development, USJ.

My son was born in Macau and will be three-years-old in June. He is growing up in a very mixed language environment! He speaks English at home, and at nursery, while he speaks Cantonese with his grandparents (who he sees nearly every day), and is also learning Mandarin Chinese as well. It has been very interesting to see how well he has coped with being in an environment with so many languages! You might well think that his language development would be slower than other children, as he has to cope with such a multitude of different inputs, but his language development has actually been very fast so far.
His English is very good for his age, he never stops talking or reading. His English came very early – he was speaking, spelling and reading at a very young age. We were amazed when, going round a supermarket in England, just past his second birthday he was reading the signs on the aisle (simple words like ‘cheese’ or ‘fish’). He is now reading children’s books himself and spelling very well – certainly quite well advanced for his age.
He is also busy picking up the difference between British English and American English. For example, he will sometimes sing the ABC song and pronounce the Z ‘Zee’ (American English), and will look at me with a big smile – he knows I will say ‘zed’ (British English). He does the same with a few other words as well (‘Box’, for example), always with a cheeky look on his face! Indeed, he has started to ask people if they speak ‘American’ or ‘English’ – he knows that there is a difference between them in terms of pronunciation and usage!
His Chinese (both Cantonese and Mandarin) development is certainly a bit slower than his English. For a long time he would answer Chinese questions in English (he understood the question, but wanted to use English for the reply). However, he is certainly understanding (both written and spoken) much more now than before, and is using it much more. It is a bit behind a child who only speaks Chinese, but he is also far in advance of my Chinese level already!
It is always amazing seeing him play with other children, of different nationalities, when they don’t speak each others language. They seem to be able to communicate very well with each other – it certainly doesn’t interrupt their playtime. I am just waiting for him to start speaking to me in Portuguese, then I really will be confused!
What comes across though is simply that being in such a multi-language environment hasn’t slowed down his language development at all – he is fascinated with language (both English and Chinese) and seems to be so aware of the differences in the languages and definitely hasn’t been slowed down by living in such an environment, which is something I was worried about. He also doesn’t confuse the languages – he won’t start talking in one and finish in another. He is very clear about which one he is using! If he gets asked the same question in English and Chinese he will answer in English to the person who asked in English, and Chinese to the person who asked in Chinese.

©MDTimes/ University of Saint Joseph

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