China Elevator Stories

Bilingual toddler speak 101: How to say no to your mum so she’ll listen

I’m surprised over how skilfully my toddler son combines both of his mother tongues.


Ruth Silbermayr
Ruth Silbermayr


What happens if your bilingual toddler really wants you to listen to his “no’s”?

He won’t just say a simple no or one of those sequences of no’s toddlers are famous for. He’ll combine both languages (in our case German and Chinese) to emphasise that he really means it. “No, no, 就不no” (“nein, nein, 就不nein”) was what he recently told me when he really didn’t want to get dressed, making me laugh over his skilful combination of the words no in both languages, using a double negative and  for emphasis. To be exact, a double negative creates an affirmative in German, but I’m quite sure he meant to say no.

Chinese children's book - Ruth Silbermayr

Learning two languages at once means that he mixes both languages. He’s gotten better at separating the two languages, but to him, both of the two languages are his mother tongue. He doesn’t separate them like somebody who grew up monolingual would do when they learn a second language.

One person one language?

He knows I understand Chinese and hears me speak it with his dad, so he sometimes creates his own sentences using both languages. People often emphasise the one person one language approach, and how that way the child will be able to distinguish and use both languages really well without code-switching*. Now, I’m not arguing the advantages of this approach, I’m sure it works very well for many families. Putting the one person one language strategy into practice, however, is not always as easy as it sounds. For example, what do you do if you want your partner, in-laws, or another caregiver who doesn’t speak your mother tongue to understand what you’re saying to your child? Do you translate directly after telling your child, or – if you need them to understand and react promptly – just tell your child in their mother tongue? Like, you know, in situations where your mother-in-law helps you look after your son while you’re cooking and you don’t want your hungry toddler to take ceramic bowls and throw them onto the floor?

Also, every multilingual household is different, so there’s no one single approach that fits all. There are parents with the same mother tongue who want their child to grow up with another language (or two). There are parents with different mother tongues who speak a common language differently from those mother tongues. There are parents with different mother tongues who speak one of those mother tongues together because one partner doesn’t speak the other one. These are only a few of the different circumstances, there are also parents who grew up multilingual themselves, single-parents with all different kinds of language backgrounds, and so on.

Embracing bothness in the use of language

In our home, language means creativity and fluidity, and – particularly in the case of our son – language is bothness, not two halves put together. That’s why I don’t tell him to only use either German or Chinese. I will, however, sometimes repeat what he just said in German so he’ll still get the hang of it.

Which language approach do you use at home?

Explanation: Code-switching is the alternation of two or more languages within a single conversation or sentence.

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