My 6-year-old thinks I’m a baby — at least when I speak Mandarin.
“I like it when you speak Chinese,” she recently told me.
“It’s a little awkward. It’s like a baby. And I like babies.”
Chinese is the blonde, blue-eyed girl’s first language. Lily, who was born in Beijing, started to speak English later, after mixing the two tongues. (Her mother isn’t Chinese.)
“Baba (Daddy) eats jirou (chicken). Baba looks at xiongmaode (the panda’s) hand.”
By age 3, she’d separated the languages.
直到3岁，她才能区分两种语言。Her 2-year-old brother recently acquired his first several words — nearly all Chinese.
He nai (drink milk), baobao wo (hug/hold me), jiejie ku (sister is crying).
“喝奶，抱抱我，姐姐哭。”He uses both “ball” and its Chinese equivalent, “qiu”.
“No” is one of his few — and favorite — English words. It’s worth noting, Chinese doesn’t have a direct equivalent to “yes” and “no” but uses other grammatical constructions to affirm and negate.
My Chinese is perhaps less like a toddler’s and more like an immigrant’s (a concept my daughter hasn’t developed. She must soon to explain her parents.)
也许，我的中文说得并不像小孩，而更像是外来的移民。移民这个概念我的女儿还不清楚，不过她肯定很快就能替父母解释了。I’m certified as intermediate in reading and writing, since I passed the national Chinese Proficiency Test’s Level 4 before Lily was born. (Level 6 is the highest.)
And my spoken Chinese is multiplications better than my character proficiency.
I can converse about, say, (basic) economics but with grammatical flubs, tone errors and a funny accent. The second two are common among native Chinese with less-than-perfect Putonghua (standardized Mandarin).
我可以谈论基本的经济学，但是语法错误，四个声调弄混，口音滑稽。而后面两个问题在普通话不标准的中国人中也很常见。There’s a theory that language shapes how we perceive the world.
I’ve observed, for instance, that after using only Chinese for a period, two things happen.
First, I start to think simple thoughts in Chinese. I notice because I sometimes talk to myself. Say I’m traveling and haven’t spoken English in days — I’ll mutter “Wode shouji zai nali?” rather than “Where’s my phone?”.
第一是我开始用中文来表达一些简单的想法。因为我有时会自言自语，所以注意到了这点。比如我在旅行，而且几天没说英语了，我会嘟囔着“我的手机在哪里？”而不是“Where is my phone”。
Second, I think about the world differently in such ways as, in my mind’s eye, “opening” rather than turning on the light — a direct translation into English that retains the Chinese language’s conceptualization of the phenomenon.
I was wondering how this works for Lily, since she’s a native speaker of both but acquired Chinese first.
我想知道Lily是不是也有这种感受，因为中英文都是她的母语，只是她先学会了中文。She says she only thinks in English and translates in her head.
She claims to never dream in Chinese, which I sometimes do.
That seems counterintuitive.
这似乎和直觉相悖。She told me in English the other morning: “I’m not afraid of the cold. I’m afraid of being hot.”
某天早上，她用英语告诉我：“Im not afarid of the cold. Im afraid of being hot.（我不怕冷，我怕热）。”
This is a direct translation into English. Chinese typically conveys an aversion to temperature extremes using the word for fear (pa), rather than a synonym for dislike.
And I’ve noticed how our family mixes the languages at home.
而且我注意到我们在家里也会混合两种语言。I’ll ask my wife: “Mind if I kai (open) the kongtiao (air conditioner)? Did you mai (buy) the piao (tickets)?”
我会问我的妻子：“Mind if I开空调？Did you买票？”（介意我开空调吗？你买票了吗？）
My daughter only calls me Baba— never Daddy — whichever language or mix we’re using.
不过，不论我们用哪种语言交流或是混合使用，我的女儿只叫我“爸爸”，从来不会叫“Daddy”。That said, I’m still a baby to her.
Perhaps I am —in the way of rediscovering the world like children do, through another language. It’s like “opening” the light that illuminates a new perspective.
About the author & broadcaster
Erik Nilsson is an American journalist who has worked in China for over 10 years. His work has won various honors, including the Chinese Government Friendship Award — the highest honor the country bestows on foreigners. He has traveled to every provincial-level jurisdiction except Chongqing and Guangdong, covering such stories as the Wenchuan and Yushu earthquakes, nomadic communities’ development and civil society.