What young children do when they hear a foreign language

My young nieces live in a Chinese-speaking household, which is great for them because it means that when they grow up, they will be fluent in two languages. But it makes things a bit tricky at the beginning.

The niece who is the subject of this story had just turned two at the time this story takes place, so her language skills even in Chinese are pretty rudimentary. Her language skills in English are restricted to a collection of set phrases like Excuse me!, I'm sorry!, What'you doing?, I want ice cream!, and any catch phrase from the character Dora the Explorer.

(I'm also fairly sure she doesn't know what What'you doing? actually means. She'll come into a room and say, What'you doing? and then appear completely uninterested in the answer. I think she believes it to be a form of greeting and not an actual question.)

She also loves to answer the phone, and this usually isn't a problem since most callers are relatives who can speak Chinese. But occasionally, it'll be somebody who speaks only English. (In general, these are just telemarketers, since most members of the household use their mobile phones as their main number.)

Sometimes she'll run to the phone, pick it up, say "喂" (Hello), listen for a few seconds, and then just hang up.

— Who was that on the phone? we'll ask.

"人" is her one-word reply.

It's hard to explain why this is a funny answer.

The word 人 means man, person, so her response was a casual "A person." The offhand way she says it expresses her attitude that "The purpose of the telephone is to amuse me, but this was just some guy who provided no entertainment at all."

The 人 phase lasted for only a month or so. In the next phase, she still picked up the phone and hung up when there was somebody speaking English on the other end, but when we asked her who it was, she gave a more detailed reply:

"有人說ABC", which translates roughly as "It's some guy speaking A-B-C." ("A-B-C" being her word for the English language.)

Comments (27)
  1. Marquess says:

    So, she'll handle the telemarketers from now on?

  2. she believes [What'you doing?] to be a form of greeting and not an actual question

    She is absolutely correct.

  3. coldacid says:

    Heh, kids say the darndest things.

  4. Roger says:

    My friend's kids in Sri Lanka can count in English, Sinhalase and Tamil.  Despite the nearest Spanish speaking country being in another continent they can also count in Spanish.  Yes, Dora strikes again.

  5. Louie says:

    I'm fairly sure people in general don't know what How are you? actually means. They throw the sentence and then appear completely uninterested in the answer. :)

  6. dalek says:

    My nephew, almost four years old, has Dutch as his native Language. He can speak a little English already as well, although counting in English has it's limits. It doesn't go beyond five. Why? There is no Thunderbird Six!

  7. SMW says:

    The problem is people who think that the greeting "How you doin'?" is not a rhetorical question…

  8. xix says:

    I usually reply to the "how you doin'?" question now with "Do you really want to know?  This could take some time, and probably upset you a bit".  It tends to prevent further conversation quite effectively.

  9. Rick C says:

    "It tends to prevent further conversation quite effectively."

    Talk about the social skills of a thermonuclear device!

  10. Jeroen Pluimers says:

    Answering the "how are you doing" question is a perfect sieve to find out the people who are really want to make a conversation or not.


  11. anon says:

    I didn't know your niece could speak little square characters!

  12. Miles Archer says:

    How you doin is a normal greeting. The polite response is Good, and to ask how they are doing. Works as well as hello, good morning, or any other greeting.

  13. Nicole DesRosiers says:

    I think that "How're you doing?" is a phrase which is socially equivalent to "Hi", but "What'you doing?" isn't.

  14. Stefan Kanthak says:

    Exponential Thermostellar Bombs are known to be intelligent, you may teach them even social skills.

  15. Anonymous Coward says:

    Xix, I'll file that one for future use.

    Anon, it's a kind of Morse, except with squares. (Or you could install some fonts with broader Unicode coverage, like Arial Unicode.)

    On second thought, there's a more serious point to be made there. The relation between Chinese characters and sounds is even more tenuous than between English spelling and sounds, so she can't really say 人, but she could say ‘ren2’ (where 2 marks the tone). Writing down the utterances of adult Chinese in hanzi may be acceptable, but those of kids surely not. (Also, there's the issue of this blog's target audience. I can read these, but I think most of the people here can't. Even if Raymond thinks the actual sound has no more meaning to them than the character, most people would disagree.)

    P.S. Why is it that half the time when you click the Post button, instead of posting the message, it just reloads the page, so you have to click Post a second time?

  16. Steve D says:

    For a while my wife would just pass call centre calls to my young son who was quite happy to just listen to them for a while and even attempt conversation with them.  He was proud of getting his own calls.

    I can trace my rudimentary Spanish counting skills back to Sesame Street rather than Dora. :-)

  17. CodeOrDie says:

    I was not raised in English either. My understanding is:

    "How are you?" -> "Hello."

    "What are you doing?" -> "What you are doing is not immediately obvious and my curiosity is piqued. In fact, after you tell me what it is you are doing, I might want to try it too. So, please explain."

    The one I've always had trouble with is:

    "What's up? -> ???

    Is a thought out answer expected? I typically reply "The sky." I got that from an Archie comic book, I think. And, yes, I realize it's a strong contender for the lamest joke in mankind's history.

  18. Anonymous says:


    I am a native English speaker.  (And an American, to be more specific, as usage can differ.)  Here is my translation of some of your phrases:

    "How are you?" -> I don't really care how you're doing, so I expect you to answer that you're doing well even if you're not.

    "What's up?" -> I don't really care what you think is happening, so I expect you to say not too much, or "the usual", or something like this.  Even if you have something interesting to say, I'm probably not prepared to hear it.

    What are you doing? -> Depends on tone…  When I read this unqualified, I think of a somewhat interrogative tone that's used to threaten or demean someone, or get them to stop what they're doing.  But your definition is accurate as well.

  19. Cheong says:

    I found it's very interesting that my niece also said Chinese version of "What'you doing?" a lot back when she was about 2 years old.

  20. Keith Perhac says:



    I am American, and my friend is British. It drives him nuts whenever I ask "What's Up" because he has no clue how to respond.

    After about a year or so he finally became able to (haltingly) respond "Not Much," and was very proud of himself. ;)

  21. Larry Lard says:

    @Keith Perhac – your friend should know better: we had those Burger King adverts over here a few years ago, and now everyone knows that the correct response to "What's Up" is simply "What's Up".

  22. Anonymous says:

    I'm kind of shocked at the amount of updog in this thread

  23. Superdude says:

    "How do you do" -> "Do what?"

    "Hasta la Vista" -> "OS Suxxor."

  24. chandra babu says:

    I was amazed so many times the way you interpret little things and convert into wit.

    Here is the sample

    "The purpose of the telephone is to amuse me, but this was just some guy who provided no entertainment at all."

  25. dinker says:

    Phatic communication serves a social purpose.

  26. My interpretation of "What'you doing?" was "Whatcha doing?", socially acceptable responses to which include:

    * Not much.

    * Hey.

    * 'Sup.

    * (involved secret handshake)

    * (nod of acknowledgement, possibly accompanied by a grunt)

    A response of "why, thank you for asking… how kind of you to take an interest… as it happens, I was trying to decide what we should have for dinner next week, so I'm glad you dropped by; do you happen to have any ideas on the matter?" would deservedly earn a blank stare.

  27. m.azunite says:

    common characters, but un-common use,  

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