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Shawn Ford
ESL 380
Summer '00

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 children?

• How valid is Taeschner's bilingual development model?

• Is language mixing a problem?

Definition of language mixing

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.

Taeschner's 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.

Case studies

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 dominant?

• 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

Subject's Name

Subject's Age

Developmental Stage

Bilingual Development

Father's L1

Mother's L1

Family Language


(1, 11)

Stage I

Japanese dominant






Stage 2

Mostly English






Stage 3

English dominant







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 the time.

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 this trend.

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 more corn.")

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 contexts?

• 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: Multilingual Matters.

Baker, C. (1995). A Parent's and Teacher's Guide to Bilingualism. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Baker, C. (1996). The development of bilingualism. Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism (2nd Ed.), (pp. 76-93). Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Cunningham-Andersson, U. & 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: Cambridge UP.

Harding, E. & Riley, P. (1986). The Bilingual Family: A handbook for parents. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.


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contents (c) 2001 Shawn Ford/ Webb-Ed Press