Code Switching


A couple weeks ago we were having dinner with some friends.

The wife is Chinese, the husband is American, and they just moved back here this past fall after 12 years in the US along with their 6 year old daughter S.

S is of course bilingual, but like many kids raised in the non-mother-tongue country prefers to speak English. As do mine.  So they all chatter away in English.

Well, after the meal the mom suddenly noticed that all the kids were sitting near the couch, and muttering to each other in Chinese.

“I didn’t do it.”

“Neither did I.”

“Who did?”

“I don’t know.”

“Did she do it?”

“My mom will be mad.”

Then they started back on the Barbies again, and started playing, still in Chinese.
Suddenly one of them said, “Why are we speaking Chinese?  We can speak English now.”
“Ok, let’s do it.”  And they switched back into English again.

The final piece to the puzzle?

After we left, my friend was tidying up, and noticed one of the remote controls was face down splattered with spaghetti and sauce, covered with a napkin.


If we speak in Chinese, nobody will realize that something happened.

Brain plasticity and bilingual childhoods are fascinating phenomena.


4 responses »

  1. Love it Eva!! Plus it is what I am studying right now in Child Psych!! Chinse is now the “secret language” for the kids. I guess that saves them the time if making up a language that is all their own.

    • Hope school is going well for you! Child psych is pretty fascinating, especially observed close up. I told someone the other day I am dealing with 2 year old tantrums, 4 year old whining, 6 year old sneakiness and 8 year old manipulation…but thankfully in between they are laughing and loving on us and each other!

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