Note: The following article was written as a project for SLS 380, instructed by Steven Talmy of the Department of Second Language Studies at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa. Please pardon any errors or omissions. Refer to the References section for additional information on the topic.
Language Mixing among Bilingual Children
The subject of language mixing is of great interest
to researchers who study childhood bilingual development and to parents of
bilingual children. A large amount of the research in this area has attempted
to explain language mixing as a natural result of predictable developmental
stages. In addition, researchers have attempted to address concerns about
developmental problems related to language mixing.
For the parents of bilingual children, language
mixing is often seen as evidence of confusion due to the simultaneous
acquisition of two languages; therefore, language mixing is a problem that must
be corrected. Unfortunately, this attitude may sometimes lead to monolingualism
in the attempt to correct this misperceived problem.
My own personal interest in this topic stems from my
desire to raise my newborn daughter Hannah as a bilingual speaker of English
and Japanese. Throughout her development towards bilingualism over the next
several years, Hannah will probably mix her two languages. I would like to
prepare myself for this eventuality through this research project in the process of conducting my study, I will keep in
mind several important research questions:
• How common is language mixing among bilingual
• How valid is Taeschner's bilingual development
• Is language mixing a problem?
Language mixing is the term used to describe the
phenomenon of communication though the usage of two languages as if they were
one language. In the literature available on childhood bilingualism, it is
difficult to find an exact definition for language mixing. In fact, several
sources make its definition unclear and confusing. Within the seven sources
used as reference for this paper, only one contained a clear and exact
definition of language mixing. Arnberg states:
"Language mixing refers to the young child's mixing of both languages within the same utterance before the child is really aware of having two languages in its environment." (1987:27) (emphasis in original)
This definition will be applied throughout this paper whenever the term language mixing is used, unless otherwise noted.
This definition of language mixing makes it clear that
the mixing occurs among children during the time before they differentiate and
separate their two languages. The mixing is unconscious and is used by the
child without regard of their interlocutor's understanding of both languages
(Arnberg, 1987). The children are simply using words that they have acquired to
communicate their needs at the given moment.
The term language mixing is also used in reference to
adult bilinguals. However, in this reference, the definition is entirely
different. When used to explain the speech phenomenon of specific adults,
language mixing is a conscious use of a blend of two languages where
interlocutors understand both languages. An example of adult language mixing
would be the Puerto Rican community in New York which mixes English and Spanish
(Baker, 1996). Language mixing should not be confused with language switching,
which is an entirely different matter that this paper will not cover.
The confusion over the definition of language mixing
results from the misuse or misrepresentation of the term by reputable
researchers in the field of language acquisition. The most notable example
comes from Baker when he states, "Language mixing is given other labels:
transference (i.e. transfer between the two languages); code switching (a term
regularly used by researchers); and a related term, interference between
languages," (1995: 77-78).
Having established this paper's working definition of
language mixing, the next step is to briefly explain its occurrence during the
development of the child's languages.
bilingual development model
Several researchers have attempted to develop a model
to explain the processes involved during the simultaneous acquisition of two
languages in early childhood. The most comprehensive to date come from Baker
(1995) and from Taeschner (in Harding &, Riley, 1986). However, Teaschner's
1983 model is considered to be the most influential (Dopke, 1992).
Taeschner's model of early childhood bilingual
development proposes that children pass through three phases throughout the
process of acquiring their languages. While each phase includes certain
characteristics, the lines between the phases are unclear. The ages of children
in each phase may vary as well as the characteristics. Some children may stay
in one phase longer than other children, and some characteristics may be
carried over into another phase.
In the first phase, the bilingual child has one
lexical system which represents both of the languages that they are acquiring.
Where pairs of words from the different languages have the same meaning, the
child has not made this distinction. The child often uses the two words as if
they have completely different meanings. For instance, a child may use “bowl”
for their food bowl and osara (bowl) for
all other bowls (Harding &, Riley, 1986).
Additionally, in this phase, children often blend
words from the two different languages into one word for one specific meaning.
An example given by Harding &, Riley is the utterance "bitte-please" (1986: 51).
During the second phase of development, the child is
beginning to separate their vocabularies. They begin using the appropriate
language for each parent. The child has separated the pairs of words into their
own respective language instead of combining them into one meaning. However,
the child's language still usually reflects one grammar system. An example of
this grammar system would be the child uttering, "That is dish
doggie," instead of, "That is doggie's dish." (Baker, 1995).
In the third phase of language development, the child
has achieved almost complete separation of the two languages. The child becomes
increasingly aware that they have two distinct languages. In addition, the
child will usually speak to people in the appropriate language. During this
phase, the child also begins to differentiate between the two grammar systems
of their languages. However, this process may develop over several years in
some cases. (Baker, 1995).
Taeschner's bilingual development model is useful for
observing the stages that may occur during the process of a child acquiring two
languages. Keeping these phases in mind, I studied several bilingual children
to determine if they could be placed within this model. The results point out
some of the advantages and weaknesses of a construct such as this.
As a part of my research into language mixing among bilingual children, I conducted three case studies of bilingual children. The subjects were chosen at random from among my acquaintances. I had no prior knowledge of their language mixing. All of these children currently live in Honolulu, Hawaii, with their families. In addition, all of these children are bilingual in the same two languages: English and Japanese.
I spent approximately one hour with each of the three
families at various locations, interviewing the parents and observing the
children. The main interview questions were:
• What is the bilingual child's age?
• What are the mother's and father's first languages?
• What is the family language spoken most often?
• In which language is the bilingual child most
• Does the bilingual child mix their languages?
• If so, how often? in what contexts? and, do you
perceive this to be a problem?
I also asked other questions relating to day care, children's
playmates, the frequency of reading in either language, and any other
strategies used by the family to promote bilingualism.
Subjects' Biographical Data
Sky (1, 11) is a bilingual male whose parents are
Japanese nationals. The first language of both parents is Japanese. They have
lived in America for approximately five years and could be considered to have
intermediate English speaking ability. The family language used almost
exclusively, except for a few borrowed English words, is Japanese. Sky's father
informed me that the family goal is to raise Sky as a productive bilingual.
Sky is most dominant in Japanese. Sky's mother is his
primary care-giver. She spends time each day reading to him in Japanese. Sky
also watches Japanese animation on television and on video. He watches very
little programming in English. According to his parents, he is exposed to
Japanese an estimated 80 percent of the time. The other 20 percent of the time
is spent playing with his English-speaking friend next door.
Sky's parents informed me that he usually mixes his
two languages only when he is playing, with the exception of using borrowed
English words that he has learned from his parents. They assume that the
reasoning for this is due to the time that Sky spends every day playing with
his English-speaking neighbor. Although Sky's parents do not feel that his
language mixing is a problem, they said that on occasion it causes confusion
when he goes to his auntie's house; she speaks Japanese and very little
English. While his auntie baby-sits him, Sky sometimes mixes his languages to
the extent that his auntie cannot understand him.
During my observation of Sky, I was able to find two
examples of his language mixing. Both of these examples involved play. The
first example was when he was given a box of miscellaneous toys. He immediately
picked up a small toy truck and said, "Oh, chuck!" Next he found a
car to which he said, "Ca!" Then he began to crash the two toys into
one another while yelling, "Bon! Bon!" (the Japanese equivalent of
"Bam!" or "Bang!"). His mother responded to his noise with,
"Sky! Urusai!" ("Sky! Be quiet!") Sky then replied,
"Chuck urusai." ("Truck is noisey.")
Sky's second example of language mixing occurred just
before leaving the interview site. When Sky understood that he was about to
leave, he went to his father and produced the following speech stream:
"Papa, dako! Antony uchi ikitai. Won play Antony
uchi." ("Papa, pick me up. I want to go to Anthony's house. I want to
play at Anthony's house.")
It is possible that Sky began this speech stream in
Japanese because he wanted something from his father that he intimately
associated with his Japanese language; he wanted to be carried. Sky then mixed in
English when he thought about playing with his friend.
Based on this very limited information, Sky appears
to fall within Taeschner's first stage of bilingual development (in Dopke,
1992). He uses both lexical systems as one language, and he speaks his mixed
language to different people. However, further observation is required to
verify this categorization and Sky's amount of language mixing.
J.C. (2,9) is a bilingual male whose father was born
and raised in America and whose mother was born and raised in Japan. His
father's first language is English, yet he also speaks Japanese at an advanced
level. The first language of J.C.'s mother is Japanese. She also speaks
intermediate-level English. She has lived in America for approximately four and
a half years.
According to J.C.'s mother, the family language used
most frequently is English. However, she said that had not always been the
case. Until just before J. C. turned two years old, the family language was
mostly Japanese. Once J.C. began attending an English-speaking day care center,
he started speaking almost exclusively in English. Consequently, his parents
made the switch to English as the dominant family language.
J.C.'s mother also said that she stopped reading to
him around this time. She was concerned that he would get too confused if he
was being read to in English at the day care center and in Japanese at home. In
addition, J.C. no longer watches Japanese television or videos. He now watches
almost exclusively English programs. On the other hand, his mother said that
she has tried to continue speaking to him in Japanese as much as possible
whenever they are alone.
J.C.'s mother also informed me that the family has no
explicit goal to raise J.C. as a bilingual, although she would like him to be
bilingual. This family seems to be more concerned that J.C. develops his
English speaking skills. As a result, J.C. is exposed to English a majority of
Currently, J.C. speaks mostly English, although,
according to his mother, he understands 100 percent of what is said to him in
Japanese. To clarify this point, J.C.'s mother asked him, "J.C. Onaka
suita? Hirogohan o tabetai?" ("J.C. Are you hungry? Do you want to
eat lunch?") J.C. responded, "No. I want some juice." He
understood her question in Japanese yet answered in English.
In addition to his English vocabulary, J.C.'s mother
said that he also uses a large number of Japanese words where there is no
English equivalent or where he has learned to use a specific word for a
specific purpose. His language mixing seems to fall within these uses. Although
J.C. clearly seems to be dominant in English, I would consider him bilingual
based on his understanding of spoken Japanese and his use of many Japanese
lexical items. However, J.C. most likely faces a high risk of losing his
Japanese- speaking ability unless his family takes corrective steps to reverse
During my observation of J.C., I was able to observe
only one example of language mixing. Noticing a scrape on J.C.'s knee, my wife
asked him, "Ita so, J.C. Doo datta?" ("Looks painful, J.C. How'd
you do that?") J.C. replied, "Itai! I fell down." ("It
hurts! I fell down.")
Based on such limited information, it is difficult to
determine that either J.C. does not mix his languages very often, or that he
was just quiet on this particular day. However, it seems that J.C. could be
placed within Taeschner's second stage of bilingual development (in Dopke,
1992). He seems to have separated the languages at this point, although he
still mixes the two languages when he uses words that he has learned to use for
specific items and in certain contexts.
Shinya (3,7) is a bilingual female who was born in
Japan and moved to America with her parents approximately two years ago. Her
father was born and raised in America, and her mother was born and raised in
Japan. The first language of Shinya's father is English, and he also speaks
intermediate Japanese. He lived in Japan for almost four years as an English
instructor at Kanda University. The first language of Shinya's mother is
Japanese. She also speaks English at the intermediate level and has lived in
America for approximately two years.
The family uses a mixed language strategy at home.
According to Shinya's parents, they both speak English and Japanese to Shinya
and to each other throughout the day. There seems to be no clear association in
this family with language use and activity, situation, or time of day. However,
the parents informed me that on a daily basis each parent reads to Shinya in
their respective first language. In addition, Shinya enjoys both English and
Japanese television programs and videos.
This family has an explicit goal to raise Shinya as a
productive bilingual. However, Shinya is most dominant in English. This is
probably due to the fact that she attends an English-speaking day care.
Although Shinya's parents believe that they speak to her in Japanese and
English an equal amount of the time when they are with her, they estimate that
she receives only 20 to 25 percent of her language input in Japanese because of
her exposure to English at the day-care.
With regards to language mixing, Shinya's case seems
most interesting. According to her parents, Shinya never noticeably mixed her
languages until the past six months. However, recently they have noticed Shinya
mixing her languages, especially in the evening when it approaches time for her
to go to bed. Her mixing occurs most frequently while her parents are reading
her bed-time story.
As an example her mother said that recently she was
reading one of Shinya's favorite Japanese stories about a rabbit. After reading
a section where the rabbit jumps into its hole, Shinya asked her mother,
"Doshite ushisan likes to live in the ground?" ("Why does Mr. Rabbit
like to live in the ground?") In this example Shinya seems to begin her
question in Japanese as a continuation of her mother's speech but finishes in
English for another reason.
When asked if they perceive Shinya's language mixing
to be a problem, both parents replied that it did not bother them. In fact,
they seemed to find humor in her language mixing. They also made mention of
their belief that language mixing in her case was natural. Their main interest
was regarding Shinya's beginning to mix her languages so late in her
development. Her parent's attitudes may be the result of her father's training
as an English teacher and knowledge of childhood language development.
During my observation of Shinya I was able to find
several examples of her language mixing. The first example occurred soon after
she arrived at the interview site. At one point, she jumped onto a futon where
my two month old daughter was sleeping. Shinya's mother told her, "Abunai.
Akachan wa nette iru no." ("Be careful. The baby is sleeping.")
Shinya replied, "Akachan? Oh, akachan is sleeping." ("Baby? Oh,
the baby is sleeping.")
In the next example, while we were eating dinner,
Shinya's mother asked her, "Shinya, dooshite supagetti o tabenai no?
Supagetti wa oishii." ("Shinya, why aren't you eating the spaghetti?
The spaghetti tastes good.) Shinya's reply was, "No! Spaghetti wa mazui! I
wanna eat more corn." ("No! The spaghetti tastes bad! I want to eat
In a third example, just before leaving the interview
site, Shinya jumped onto her father and said, "I wanna go home, Papa.
Nemutai. I wanna go to bed." ("I want to go home, Papa. I'm tired. I
want to go to bed.")
In each of these examples, Shinya mixed lexical items
from Japanese into her predominantly English speech streams. Throughout this
brief observation period, only these few examples of language mixing occurred.
Most of her speech streams were in English only. It is interesting to note that
her language mixing occurred when her speech was directed at her parents. At no
time during the interview did she mix her languages while speaking to the other
people in the room.
Shinya seems to fit within Taeschner's third stage of
bilingual development (in Dopke, 1992). She appears to have control of both
languages and separation has occurred. Shinya also seems to know which language
to speak with which person.
Her situation is most interesting to me because she
has only begun to mix her languages after reaching three years of age. She
seems to have skipped the first and second stages of Taeschner's model and
landed solidly in the third stage. While Shinya's case may not be consistent
with Taeschner's model, it is somewhat more consistent with Goodz's research
(in Genesee, 1994). In this research, Goodz found that language mixing among
bilingual children occurred very little at younger ages, but it peaked between
31 to 36 months old (66). Shinya would have been approximately 37 months old
when her parents began noticing her mix her languages. In light of this,
Shinya's case deserves further study.
It is difficult to reach any clear conclusions about
language mixing and bilingual children after conducting such a brief study.
This area of language research is so varied and complex that it deserves
extensive examination into all facets of the subject. However, my limited
language study has produced some important points to consider.
Among the subjects I studied, language mixing among
bilingual children is a common phenomenon. This is interesting to note because
the subjects were chosen at random among my acquaintances, and I had no prior
knowledge of their language mixing. Although all three subjects mixed their
languages, they all varied in the amounts of their language mixing, the
contexts of their language mixing, and the developments of their language
mixing. These findings highlight the need for further research into this area.
Research questions that should be asked include:
• What are factors that
cause some children to mix their languages more than others?
• Why do children mix their languages in specific
• Why do some children
vary so greatly in their language development with regards to language mixing?
The attitudes of the parents of bilingual children
are very important when it concerns language mixing. The perception of language
mixing as a problem can negatively effect the child's bilingual development. As
was the case with J.C., once he began speaking English more and mixing his two
languages, his parents' concern caused them to radically alter their family language
pattern. This has resulted in J.C.'s lower fluency in Japanese.
I would stress the need for more public awareness
about childhood bilingual development, in particular the issue of language
mixing. If parents understand that language mixing is a natural part of their
child's language development, maybe parents will be less inclined to react
negatively and instead provide more support for their developing child. Then
perhaps the future will see more bilingually productive adults.
While conducting my research into the study of
language mixing, Iachieved high levels of confusion over its definition and its
distinction from language switching. Several
researchers seem to use the two terms interchangeably. This presents a problem
for the novice.
A study of the relevant literature would be
interesting to search for the uses of language mixing and language switching. If this study were conducted, perhaps findings would
encourage researchers in the field of bilingualism to be more careful in their
choice and use of these terms consistently.
Regarding Taeschner's bilingual development model and
those of other researchers who have attempted to conveniently spell out
particular phases that children grow through in the process of simultaneously
acquiring two languages, these types of models appear to provide only a rough
guideline for parents and other researchers to follow. While Taeschner's model
seems to include many bilingual development issues and to describe a process
through which bilingual children may go, I feel that models such as this
over-generalize the subject. Taeschner's model makes no exceptions for children
such as Shinya whose parents claim that she did not mix her languages until
reaching the age of three.
I would suggest that much more extensive research
into the subject of childhood bilingual development is necessary. In addition,
perhaps in this case what is needed is a more comprehensive presentation of
information, issues, and possible results instead of a simplistic model that
does not account for exceptions. I feel that this would be a more useful tool
for other researchers and for parents of bilingual children who are looking for
answers to their questions regarding their children's bilingual development.
Arnberg, L. (1987). Raising
Children Bilingually: The preschool years. Clevedon:
Baker, C. (1995). A
Parent's and Teacher's Guide to Bilingualism. Clevedon:
Baker, C. (1996). The
development of bilingualism. Foundations of Bilingual Education and
Bilingualism (2nd Ed.), (pp. 76-93).
Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
& Andersson, S. (1999). Growing Up with Two Languages: A practical
Guide. London: Rutledge.
Dopke, S. (1992). One
Parent One Language: An interactional approach. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing.
Goodz, N. (1994).
Interactions between parents and children in bilingual families. In F. Genesee
(Ed.) Educating Second Language Children: The whole child, the whole
curriculum, the whole community. New York:
Harding, E. & Riley, P. (1986). The Bilingual Family: A handbook for parents. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.
contents (c) 2001 Shawn Ford/ Webb-Ed Press