Childhood perception of languages

Douglas G. Wilson douglas at NB.NET
Thu May 3 19:46:43 UTC 2001

Once I read an amusing memoir by a Chinese-American immigrant scholar
(maybe Lin Yutang?). While a child living in married housing at a US
university (Harvard?) IIRC, he observed that (1) all children speak good
English, but (2) many adults speak something else, and furthermore speak
English very poorly. His childhood question was:

Given that everybody speaks English well in childhood, why do many people
later start speaking other languages preferentially, and forget how to
speak English?

For comparison, I recently made an inquiry of an intelligent 8-year-old
("F") of my acquaintance. This person is an intelligent educated US-born
American (with American parents), who speaks only English, but who takes a
course in basic Chinese. The result was amusing to me. [Exact wording not


DW: In your Chinese class, there are many kids with Chinese parents. Do all
the kids speak good English?

F: Yes.

DW: Do they speak Chinese too?

F: Not much.

DW: Do the parents all speak good English?

F: No.

DW: Why not?

F: I don't know, maybe because they like to speak Chinese instead.

DW: Do you think all the children in China speak English?

F: Yes.

DW: Do they speak Chinese too?

F: I think so.

DW: Which language do they learn first?

F: English, I think.

DW: But as they grow up they switch to Chinese? Why?

F: I don't know.

DW: You've spent time in Thailand, and you've played with Thai kids there.
Do they speak English?

F: Yes.

DW: Do they speak it well?

F: Maybe not so well.

DW: Why not?

F: Because their parents don't speak it much, probably, so they forgot how.



I was surprised.

-- Doug Wilson

More information about the Ads-l mailing list