If you are a speech-language pathologist, have you noticed that in recent years there has been some Mandarin-speaking children on your patient list? If you are a parent of a Mandarin-English bilingual child, do you at times worry about your child’s language development? Both of you may wonder: what does a typical language profile look like for US Mandarin-English bilingual children? It may be hard for you to find relevant studies, but luckily we have just published some data to address this question.
We had 21 Mandarin-English bilingual children from the central Texas. Mandarin was their first language as both parents were Mandarin-speaking, and they started learning English later when they started school. We presented a wordless picture book to children and asked them to tell us a complete story. We asked them to tell stories in both languages: Mandarin and English.
In order to tell stories, these children, who were around 7 years old, had to use their all their language skill. This was not an easy task for a child who just entered school because they may not be fluent in one of their languages depending on when they started learning English and whether they used Mandarin at home. The stories really provided us a way to describe children’s language performance. We looked at macrostructure – the global structure of a story. For example, whether the child included main characters in the story, whether there was an event that initiated the story, whether the development and the consequence of the event were stated, and whether the characters had any internal responses corresponding to the event.
We also examined what specific linguistic features were used in each language – microstructure. As you may know, Mandarin and English are very different. One big difference is that English uses affixes (e.g., plural –s, past tense –ed), whereas Mandarin does not. Mandarin has a classifier inserted between a number and a noun when people count objects (e.g., san ZHI qingwa – three ZHI frogs), but English does not. There are many other differences and these are just some examples. In each language, we selected 17 features to present children’s overall microstructure in that language.
Then we compared children’s performance between the two languages on macrostructure and microstructure. We knew that these children at the time of testing listened to and spoke more English than Mandarin daily, so we considered experience in our data computation. After statistically accounting for current language experience, we found that macrostructure was comparable between the two languages. That says if children know that they need to include these key elements into a story, they can do it in both languages. However, we saw a big difference in microstructure, with English significantly better than Mandarin. Children could easily produce many English features, but could not produce most Mandarin features.
Does this relate to their imbalanced cumulative language experience in English and Mandarin? The answer is YES. Age, associated with cumulative language exposure, was only related to macro- and microstructure in English but not Mandarin. Probably, to maintain Mandarin as a heritage language, these bilingual children needed to gain more exposure and to practice Mandarin more often. Another thing we considered was that increased English experience may interfere the growth of Mandarin, as the two languages are typologically distinct.
A caveat I would like to note is that these children were from Texas, and we did not know if these results could apply to children living in other places where Mandarin has stronger community support for use (like New York, California……). We will strive to find the answers for you in our future studies.
If you want to read the publication, here is the link: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/323641964_Narrative_skills_in_two_languages_of_Mandarin-English_bilingual_children