More musings on the peculiar linguistic status of languages acquired in childhood

As I noted yesterday, languages which I acquired as a child occupy a different part of my brain from languages I acquired as an adult. If you speak to me in a childhood-acquired language, the information goes directly into my brain via some sort of low-level connection, and I barely even recognize what language it is you're speaking. On the other hand, if you speak to me in a language I acquired as an adult, it requires a conscious effort to process the information. (I don't have to translate what you speak before I can understand it, but the act of understanding requires a bit more effort.)

I got to experience this phenomenon with my Chinese-speaking nieces. If you spent time in their home, you'll hear three languages spoken. The adults speak to each other in their local Chinese dialect, they speak with the children in the regional Chinese dialect, and of course there's English. (The adults also speak Mandarin Chinese but you don't hear it often in the house.)

Since none of the Chinese dialects I know overlap with the dialects spoken by the children, my conversations with the nieces are in English. Over time, I started learning the regional dialect, and whenever possible, I would use it when speaking with the children. (I.e., when what I wanted to say had nonzero intersection with what I knew how to say.)

But even when I spoke with the nieces in Chinese, they always responded in English.

One day, I asked one of the nieces a simple question in Chinese, something like "Do you want to drink some water?" She looked at me and said, "大姑丈講中文!" I give her sentence in the original Chinese because it is ambiguous. I interpreted it to mean, "Uncle, speak Chinese!" And I was confused, because, well, I was speaking Chinese.

It was later explained to me that my niece meant the other interpretation of the sentence, which is "Uncle is speaking Chinese!" In other words, she was expressing surprise that I was speaking Chinese. I'd been doing this for months, but this was the first time she noticed.

Comments (19)
  1. DWalker says:

    I had a friend whose daughter grew up completely bilingual in English and Spanish.  When she was young (I forget how young), she (the daughter) apparently didn’t quite realize this, although she sort-of knew about languages.

    We once asked the daughter (in English) to ask someone else (Maria) to do something, and we told her to ask Maria in Spanish.  The daughter went to Maria and said, in English, "can you please do such-and-such.  But do it in Spanish".

  2. Cheong says:

    I can imagine this is one of the "wow" moments for them. :)

    Something similar has happened to me before, when my family was visiting my relatives living in Taiwan. My brother and sister is known to be able to speak Mandarin, but they thought I can speak Cantonese and English only (I hadn’t spoken Mandarin in the previous 3 visits, when I was in my childhood, my respiratory system has never been in good state, so the action of speaking itself would require great effort. And I can’t speak Mandarin well).

    One night when we were having dinner, when I intercepted in their dialog, they look quite amused. :P

  3. DEngh says:

    My stepmother is from Brasil.  When my half-brother was young (2-5), he’d use whatever word was closest in meaning to what he wanted when he was saying something.  Sometimes we’d get statements where every other word switched from English to Portugese.  For those of us learning Portugese as non-infants, it was hard to keep up sometimes.

  4. minorlinguistics says:

    The cutoff for learning a language natively is somewhere around 10 years old.  After that you do translate internally – you think in your native language(s) even as your speak in a foreign language.

    I have a client who is a Panamanian Jew.  I have heard him switch between English, Spanish and Hebrew in a single sentence.

  5. "If you speak to me in a childhood-acquired language, the information goes directly into my brain via some sort of low-level connection, and I barely even recognize what language it is you’re speaking."

    interesting, this happens to a lot of people (me included) who have learned English as adults

  6. Eric Lippert says:

    I noticed a similar effect once when staying with a bilingual English/German speaking family with small children. One time mom said something in German, which I do not speak at all, and the seven-year-old handed her the scissors. So I asked him "what’s the German word for ‘scissors’?" and he looked at me with the most puzzled look on his face. No idea what I was talking about. He clearly could correctly respond to "give me the scissors" in both English and German, but had not yet made the connection that for basic nouns there were one-to-one mappings between the English and German words.

  7. Larry Hosken says:

    Yeah, I learned BASIC back when I was a kid and it’s always seemed natural to me.  But languages that I’ve learned since then require conscious thought, like I’m stuck working things out from first principles every time.  Like CSS selector syntax–that stuff with the class names makes no sense, could be totally disambiguated with some well-placed GOTO statements.

  8. configurator says:

    I recently moved to France and am learning the language at the moment. Yet sometimes when I speak my native tongue I find myself translating some parts from French. It seems I think in whatever language I’ve talked most today, be it English, French, or Hebrew.

    And let me tell you something, it gets quite confusing to think in a language I barely speak – half the words are in other languages I don’t even know, like Italian, Spanish or even latin…

  9. nix says:

    I lived in Japan for many years and am (was?) completely fluent.  I never had any problem knowing to speak Japanese to workmates and English to friends.  Except of course when alcohol was a factor, i have many memories of semi-drunken moments when I had spoken what i thought was English to a friend and have them say, "Why are you talking to me in Japanese"

  10. I work in it as in.. Italy. says:

    @Eber and Raymond

    I think it depends not on when you learn a language but how much you have to rely on it.

    Most computer scientists, programmers, etc. have to learn english to do practically anything and so they end learning english in a different way than the average adult.. they start *thinking* in english versus interpreting it.

    Curiously, if I read something on the Internet or in a computer book and you ask me after, say, one hour in which language it was written, I often can’t remember.

  11. Drak says:

    I learned to speak English when I was about seven and we moved to an English speaking school. I was able to learn enough English in about 3 months to be able to complete the school year (before that I only spoke Dutch).

    Then in middle school I learnt to speak German, and now I can think in all 3 languages. Which one it is depends mostly on context. Right now I’m thinking in English because I’m typing this in English. There’s no real translation from Dutch to Englsih going on.

    And although I’m fluent in both English and Dutch I am sometimes caught out when trying to translate a word or short phrase. At those times I just can’t recall the proper translation (which usually comes about 3 hours later in an AHA moment).

    The brain works in mysterious ways :)

  12. Drak says:

    It’s quite funny what happens if you feed Raymond’s chinese sentence to different translators:

    Yahoo!Babelfish says: ‘The big uncle speaks chinese’ (seems accurate)

    iGoogle says (when using chinese->english):

    Large chinese-speaking 姑丈 (which makes me think 姑丈 is a bad word, which it isn’t :P)

    iGoogle says (when determining the original language, and coming up with Japanese):

    Great mother講中sentence length

  13. MadQ says:

    Whenever my father and my brother and I were together, we used to speak a mishmash of several languages (German, Dutch in various dialects, English, Pidgin English, with some Italian, Arabic, Yoruba, Hausa, and Ibo thrown in for good measure.) Some things and concepts are just easier to express different languages. The three of us have confused quite a few people in our time. I still get the occasional strange look from someone when I accidentally lapse into it without noticing.

  14. J says:

    I love these stories. Thanks Raymond!

  15. Mihai says:

    Some (many) years ago I went to the CS university library (in Romania) and consulted a book (something about the assembly for x86 processors).

    After returning the book, they asked if I want to answer a survey: what book did I read, for how long, and in what language.

    Although spending about 3 hours with the book, I did not know in what the language was. Had to go back can check it to see it was English.

    That is not my native language, and I have learned it late (16 years old). On the other side, I had problems understanding some of the English in movies.

    So I suspect it is not so much the age, but "familiarity". I knew well the "tech English", not "real English" :-)

  16. mpz says:

    Hey, it’s my favorite subject, language acquisition!

    I don’t think adults are completely incapable of learning a language like children do; it’s just that most language education aimed towards adults is based on a grammatical approach, where you learn a bunch of grammar, then a bunch of words, mash it together and hope you get it right. This has the advantage that you can converse acceptably well in most languages in 6-12 months of education, because you’re building on the natural language knowledge you already have. However, the disadvantage is that if you continue your journey with this approach, you will never quite reach that "native" level of language ability and will often rely on thinking in your primary language and translating from there.

    Instead, I’ve learned at least one language to a highly fluent degree at an adult age by simply relying on insane amounts of input, like children do. Once you build up an internal "corpus" of text in your head, you can quite naturally and often even subconsciously generate native-like speech, because you can rely on all these tens of thousands of speech patterns that are ingrained in your brain. The problem is that this will take a lot of input and a lot of time (I estimate Japanese took me five years of daily 1-5 hour sessions of watching TV shows etc.) and usually time is what adults don’t have. Not to mention patience.

    I do not mean to discredit the grammatical approach completely; I will freely admit to checking up on some grammar points, but the learning itself comes from the repetition of input.

  17. MadQ says:

    @mpz: I agree; my (German) mom learned Dutch and spoke like a native (and without accent) by watching the Dutch version of Sesame Street on TV.

  18. Charlene says:

    This is kind of interesting.  My Grandparents on my Father’s side were first generation German-American.  My Uncle had married a German woman.  

    One day when I was about 5 years old, my Aunt said in German Something like "Wir sind alle barfuß" (although according to Babelfish it should be "Alle wir sind barfuß" which definitely would have made less sense with the similarities between the German words and the English).  My Mother who spoke no German was there also.  My Aunt realized that she had spoken in German when my Mother reacted somehow to show confusion.  But I hadn’t even noticed that my Aunt had spoken German.  I didn’t know German then, although it is possible that I knew more than I thought because as you get older you don’t remember everything that happened before about 6 years old.  I don’t know how much time I spent with my German Aunt.  My Grandparents always spoke English.

    I love to learn foreign languages but I have the hardest time with vocabulary.  I did in English as well growing up.

  19. Drak says:


    Babelfish is definitely wrong there. What it proposes doesn’t sound like it makes a lot of sense (‘All (of us) we are’ instead of ‘We are all’)

    Not that I’m natively German, but it just doesn’t sound right :)

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