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The Matthews Family (Yip & Matthews, 2007)

Virginia Yip and Stephen Matthews are linguists at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and the University of Hong Kong respectively, who are raising their three children, Timmy, Sophie, and Alicia, bilingually in Cantonese and English. Virginia is a native speaker of Cantonese and Stephen a native speaker of British English. The family initially adopted the OPOL strategy but with Alicia, the thirdborn, the mother occasionally used English because the children received more input in Cantonese than in English. The parents speak mainly Cantonese with each other with frequent code-switching, a characteristic feature of educated Hong Kong speech (Li & Lee, 2006). The Matthews children are growing up in an extended family situation, with frequent opportunities to interact with their Cantonese-speaking maternal relatives. At home, regular input in English was provided only by the father and the family’s Filipina domestic helper. At home, the children received more input in Cantonese than in English and preferred to speak Cantonese.

A former British colony for more than 150 years, Hong Kong recognizes English, Cantonese, and Mandarin as official languages. However, English is used only in secondary and higher education, the higher courts, and international companies, and is rarely heard on the street, in markets, and shopping malls (Yip & Matthews, 2007). Even though Hong Kong was a British enclave up to mid-1997, the number of native English-speaking residents has never exceeded 5%, and over 95% of the population in Hong Kong are ethnic Chinese, the majority of whom speak Cantonese (Li & Lee, 2006). Although the use of Mandarin has increased since the handover of sovereignty to China in 1997, it is rarely spoken in the home (Yip & Matthews, 2007). The predominant mode of communication in Hong Kong is Cantonese.

The three Matthews children attended preschool in Cantonese and English and primary school in English. Despite the similar language histories, the children’s speech data reflect birth order differences (more on birth order later in this chapter). Since Timmy is the firstborn, he had no siblings to talk to for the first three years of his life, and his language input came largely from his adult caretakers. Sophie and Alicia, on the other hand, had older sibling(s) who provided significant additional language input. There were also personality differences reflected in the language data. Timmy and Alicia are more reserved while Sophie is an extrovert, the “talking girl” of the family (Yip & Matthews, 2007: 65). Under normal circumstances, Sophie would speak in either language with minimal prompting, which made for easier data collection.

The children’s development in both languages was observed and recorded at weekly or bi-weekly intervals for periods of one to two and a half years: Timmy from 2;01;22 (years; months; days) to 3;06;25, Sophie from 1;06;00 to 3;00;09, and Alicia from 1;03;10 to 3;00;24. On average, each recording session consisted of an hour of audio- and in some cases video-recordings of the children engaged in their daily activities such as playing, reading, and role playing. The parents also kept a diary of the children’s language development.

Yip & Matthews show that from the outset, the children’s Cantonese and English constituted two separate systems—two different grammars were applied in the production of the two languages. However, they found strong evidence for interaction between the two developing grammatical systems. For instance, Timmy’s Cantonese utterances were influenced by English syntax, as in (a):

(a) M4hou2 baai2 keoi5 dail laal

don’t put her down SFP

“Don’t put her down!” (referring to a child being carried) (Timmy 3;09;09)

(Yip & Matthews, 2007: 216)

Here, the pronoun keoi5 “her” separates the verb baai2 “put” from the particle dail “down.” The correct Cantonese structure requires keoi5 “her” to be placed after the particle, as in baai2 dail keoi5 (literally “put down her”).

Around the same time, Timmy produced English sentences such as (b), which were influenced by Chinese syntax:

  • (b) Why no light? You turn on it. [i.e., Mid-Autumn Festival lantern] (Timmy 3;04;05)
  • (Yip & Matthews, 2007: 2l6)

Yip & Matthews note that while syntactic transfer occurred in both directions, the predominant direction of transfer was from Cantonese to English, consistent with the fact that the children were more dominant in Cantonese.

While both monolingual and bilingual children produce non-target structures during their development (e.g., missing objects, as in “I want to put.”), Yip & Matthews show that their bilingual children produced them more frequently and over a longer period than did monolinguals. The bilingual children also produced some structures which their monolingual peers simply did not. For example, Timmy produced (c), in which a prepositional phrase hai2 ji1jyun2 follows the verb:

(c) Ngo5 saang1-zo2 hai2 ji1jyun2 go2dou6

I born-PFV at hospital there

“I was born in the hospital.” (Timmy 2;08;07)

(Yip & Matthews, 2007: 190)

But the target order in Cantonese requires the prepositional phrase to precede the verb, as in (d):

(d) Ngo5 [hai2 ji1jyun2 go2dou6] saang1 ge3

I at hospital there born SFP

“I was born in the hospital.”

(Yip & Matthews, 2007: 190)

To monolingual Cantonese speakers, non-target utterances like (c) could be a cause for alarm since monolingual Cantonese-speaking children never produce sentences with such word order. Indeed, there are countless stories of bilingual children who have been referred to speech therapists for their perceived “deviations” in language use (as we saw in the case of Mario Fantini’s Spanish-accented English). All too often, these referrals result in recommendations for parents to address the child in only one language (usually the socially dominant language) so as not to confuse the child with input from two languages. But what Yip & Matthews’s study shows is that these divergences are merely a reflection of a monolingual bias and that they constitute normal stages in bilingual children’s development.

Yip & Matthews’s study focuses on the children’s preschool years, and it remains to be seen how the children’s languages will develop during their elementary school and teenage years. If the other two case studies are any indication however, the Matthews children will continually move in and out of bilingualism depending on their need and desire to communicate in either language. Sure, they may take slightly longer to arrive at target-level proficiencies in each language than monolingual children, but with adequate exposure and support, they will become competent bilinguals able to skillfully navigate both of their worlds. This does not mean however, that the three children will develop equally. Each child is different, with his/her unique preferences and talents. Despite the fact that they are growing up in the same family, personal factors may influence an individual child to develop or neglect either language at different times. In the next section, we look at one such factor—birth order, a child’s place relative to other children in a family.

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