CHAPTER 11 181
Parents’ use of discourse strategies in dual-lingual
interactions with receptive bilingual children
Sagami Women’s University
The burgeoning body of research focusing on bilingual children’s language production
gives the impression that children who receive bilingual exposure naturally speak both
of their languages. However, some bilingual children only produce one of the two
languages that they understand. This phenomenon is more common than one expects.
In an extensive survey in the Netherlands, De Houwer (2007) found that a quarter of
children who were exposed to another language in the home only spoke Dutch.
Likewise, survey studies in Japan have shown that roughly one in three English-
Japanese bilingual children spoke only Japanese (Billings, 1990; Noguchi, 2001;
Yamamoto, 2001). These numbers may be even higher, given the fact that parents who
were keener on bilingualism were likely to have participated in those surveys (Billings,
1990). When parents speak one language, and children use another language, parent-
child interactions become dual-lingual. This paper focuses on Max and Nina, two
bilingual children in Japan who mainly used Japanese to their Italian-speaking and
English-speaking fathers respectively, and specifically examines how parental use of
discourse strategies affect parent-child interactions and the children’s degree of
Receptive bilingualism in children
A receptive bilingual is a person who ‘understands a second language, in either its
spoken or written form, or both, but does not necessarily speak or write it’ (Baetens
Beardsmore, 1982:13). Receptive bilingualism is also known as passive bilingualism,
but the term has been criticized due to arguments that language decoding involves
neurological processes that are hardly passive (Baetens Beardsmore, 1982). For
children who receive bilingual exposure in a family setting, receptive bilingualism
would refer to the production of one language despite the comprehension of two.
Nevertheless, does receptive bilingualism imply zero production of the weaker
language? If children are consistently receiving input at home over a prolonged period,
it is hard to envisage that they do not produce their weaker language at all. Receptive
bilinguals can probably produce some minimal words or phrases in that language when
interacting with their caregivers, for example, polar responses to yes-no questions
(Slavkov, 2015). In Döpke’s (1992) study, three German-English receptive bilingual
children spoke some German, but it made up less than 10 percent of their speech to
their German-speaking parents. Likewise, whereas the English-Gaelic bilingual child in
Smith-Christmas (2016) spoke English most of the time, he used Gaelic selectively to
request for something, gain attention, or to mitigate an admonishment. Quay (2012)
In E. Babatsouli (Ed.), Crosslinguistic research in monolingual and bilingual speech (pp.181-200). Chania: ISMBS
182 Crosslinguistic Research in Monolingual and Bilingual Speech
also considered the minimal production of English and German by a Japanese-English-
German trilingual child as receptive trilingualism.
The input environment has a direct bearing on bilingual children’s degree of
bilingualism. Some active bilingual children may stop speaking their weaker language
when input factors change drastically in favor of their stronger (and usually societal)
language, i.e., when they begin daycare (Slavkov, 2015) or elementary school (Uribe de
Kellett, 2002). Differences in the input environment between siblings in the same family
also make receptive bilingualism a potentially more common occurrence among
younger children. In Japan, there is a higher percentage of receptive bilingualism in
later-born children compared to firstborns and only children in English-Japanese
bilingual families (Noguchi, 2001). The younger siblings of the English-German bilingual
children in Döpke (1992) were also receptive bilinguals or English monolinguals. Later-
born children potentially receive less exposure to their weaker language than first-born
children because their older siblings tend to speak the stronger language to them and
socialize their parents into using more of it (Bridges & Hoff, 2014; Kopeliovich, 2013;
Receptive bilingualism may arise when children grow up in environments where their
parents did not care what language the child spoke because both are understood (De
Houwer, 2006). However, it occurs even when parents put their most concerted effort
into bilingual childrearing. Neither parents’ consistency in language use (Döpke, 1992;
Mishina-Mori, 2011) or involvement in child-centered activities such as book-reading
(Smith-Christmas, 2016) guarantee active bilingualism. Moreover, children may not
speak the language, even if they are learning to read and write in it (Smith Christmas,
Receptive bilingual children can become active bilinguals when their language
environment changes. Their weaker language may be reactivated in a matter of days, as
demonstrated by Slavkov’s (2015) study of Sophie, an English-Bulgarian child aged 2;3.
Sophie’s Bulgarian utterances only made up 1% of her speech before a 10-day trip to
Bulgaria but increased to almost 100% by Day 7 of her stay. Bulgarian utterances not
only made up most of her speech, but they were also longer and more complex. The
reactivation of Bulgarian was not difficult for Sophie, possibly because she had only
been passive for only seven months before visiting Bulgaria. After this trip, the child
successfully maintained an active command of Bulgarian. There are also reports of
language recovery in other bilingual children. English re-emerged in a Hebrew-English
bilingual child (age 3;3) after he spent four weeks in a Canadian English camp (Karniol,
1992). Language recovery was also documented in an older child. Uribe de Kellett’s
(2002) second child, Ana Sophia, was an active English-Spanish bilingual until she
stopped speaking Spanish in elementary school. However, her Spanish was reactivated
when they returned to Colombia for a six-week visit. While only a third of Ana-Sophia’s
utterances were Spanish in her first two days in Colombia, they made up 91.4% and
100% of her utterances by Days 17 and 28 of her stay.
These results indicate the possibility of language recovery for receptive bilingual
children who were initially producing both of their languages. However, some bilingual
children may only speak one of their languages at the early stages of language
development and remain this way. While language activation by bilingual children who
have only displayed receptive skills from the onset of speech is yet undocumented in
J. Nakamura 183
bilingual research, it may be more challenging than language recovery due to the long
period of language inactivity. Nevertheless, whichever the circumstance, the potentiality
of active bilingualism at a later age is arguably sufficient ground for parents of receptive
bilingual children to continue providing input in the weaker language.
The role of parental discourse strategies in bilingual acquisition
Discourse strategies are conversation patterns that convey parents’ wishes and
expectations regarding language choice (De Houwer, 2009). While termed as
‘strategies’, they may not always be used consciously by parents (Lanza, 2004). Some
discourse strategies are used explicitly to request weaker language production, but
others are less deliberate. Döpke (1992) introduced ‘insisting strategies’ that impose
varying degrees of constraint on the child. High-constraint strategies demanded content
responses, whereas low-constraint ones required polar responses or no response.
While Döpke (1992) focused on the constraint of the discourse strategy on the child,
Lanza (2004) examined the extent to which they negotiate a monolingual context, i.e.,
the exclusive use of a parent’s language, or a bilingual context, i.e., the use of two
languages in interaction. Both Döpke’s (1992) and Lanza’s (2004) discourse strategies
overlap and are used in this study.
Table 11.1 Parents’ discourse strategies (Döpke, 1992; Lanza, 2004)
Type of strategy
Instruction to translate
As Table 11.1 illustrates, the strategy that places the highest constraint on the child is an
‘instruction to translate’ (Döpke, 1992). A parent may say what does Daddy say? to
request for the reproduction of an utterance in the appropriate language. Other high-
constraint strategies that negotiate a monolingual context are the ‘minimal grasp’ and
‘expressed guess’ strategies. The ‘minimal grasp’ strategy involves feigning non-
comprehension to compel the child to use the weaker language (e.g., what? or hmm?). In
using the ‘expressed guess’ strategy, the parent guesses the child’s preceding utterance
(e.g., do you want juice?). ‘Adult repetition’ strategy is a less restrictive strategy where
the correct language form is modeled for the child (e.g., I want juice). In the low-
constraint ‘move-on’ strategy, the parent simply continues with the conversation.
Finally, in the ‘codeswitching’ strategy, the parent switches to the child’s language.
The ‘instruction to translate’, ‘minimal grasp’ and ‘expressed guess’ strategies are
termed as ‘constraining’ strategies because the child’s utterance is queried, and a
response is required (Chevalier, 2015). Contrastively, the ‘move-on’ and ‘code-
switching’ strategies are ‘non-constraining’, because a response is unnecessary. An
‘adult’ repetition’ strategy can be constraining or otherwise. This strategy imposes a
constraint on the child if the parent highlights the language choice as a problem and
expects a response. However, in an ‘incorporated adult repetition’ strategy, the parent
continues with the conversation after modeling the language. Therefore, this particular
184 Crosslinguistic Research in Monolingual and Bilingual Speech
type of ‘adult repetition’ strategy functions somewhat like the ‘move-on’ strategy,
because the child does not need to attend to his choice of language.
Parents of active bilingual children tend to make use of ‘constraining’ strategies to
negotiate a monolingual context. The parents’ language is conveyed to the child as the
appropriate language to use. Active bilingualism in Siri, the Norwegian-English subject
in Lanza (2004), and in Keith and Fiona, the English-German bilingual subjects in Döpke
(1992), was attributed to their parents’ use of the ‘instruction to translate’ and ‘minimal
grasp’ strategies. Contrastively, parents whose children produce little of their weaker
language tend to use ‘non-constraining’ discourse strategies, which create a bilingual
context where language mixing is permissible. The frequent use of the ‘move-on’ and
‘code-switching’ strategies by the Japanese mothers of the English-Japanese bilingual
subjects in Kasuya (1998) and Mishina-Mori (2011) did not encourage the children’s
use of Japanese. Corroborative evidence was also found in trilingual acquisition studies.
The use of the ‘instruction to translate’ and the ‘adult repetition’ strategies by the
English-speaking aunt of Chevalier’s (2015) Swiss German-French-English subject, Lina,
contributed to the child’s greater production of English. However, the frequent use of
the ‘move-on’ strategy by Lina’s French-speaking father did not promote her production
of French. A change in the use of discourse strategies can positively affect language
production. In Juan-Garau and Pérez-Vidal (2001), a high level of mixing by Andreau, a
Catalan-English bilingual child, was attributed to his English-speaking father’s tendency
to use the ‘move-on’ strategy. However, when the father began using the ‘minimal grasp’
strategy more frequently, the child spoke more English.
Nevertheless, children also play an active role in their bilingualism (Said & Zhu, 2017;
Tuominen, 1999). The use of discourse strategies may not influence the children’s
linguistic outcome as much as parents may like, because the language context is
mutually constructed by parents and children in interaction. Slavkov (2015) described
how his English-Bulgarian subject countered her Bulgarian-speaking father’s discourse
strategies by ignoring his requests for translation, moving on with the conversation,
declining invitations to switch languages, and displaying negative emotions whenever
discourse strategies were used. These counter-strategies left her father with little choice
than to persist with the low-constraint ‘adult repetition’ strategy, and even start using
the ‘move-on’ strategy. ‘Constraining’ discourse strategies also cannot promote
language production in bilingual children who do not have adequate linguistic ability to
respond (Mishina-Mori, 2011). Moreover, while younger children may be more
compliant, older children may not feel obliged to respond, particularly if they are aware
that they are understood by their parents. As De Houwer (2006) noted, receptive
bilingual children generally do fine communicatively, so there may be little incentive for
them to switch to their weaker language when requested by their parents. Being
accustomed to using their stronger language, they may even use it even when they
know the equivalent forms in their weaker language. Furthermore, even when the
bilingual child is responsive to ‘contrasting’ strategies, overall language production may
not be affected. One of Kasuya’s (1998) Japanese-English bilingual subjects, Ray, spoke
Japanese whenever his Japanese parent used ‘constraining’ strategies but produced the
least Japanese among her four subjects.
Overuse of high-constraint strategies also hinders conversation flows and creates
breakdowns in communication (Lanza, 2004). Cumulatively, the excessive use of
‘constraining’ strategies may cause communication problems, or worse, even make the
J. Nakamura 185
child reject the language altogether. Moreover, parents may not always be aware of the
discourse strategies that they use (Curdt-Christiansen, 2013). Even when parents know
that discourse strategies are important for promoting the use of the weaker language, it
may be difficult to put them into practice, particularly during busy times of the day or
week (e.g., getting ready for school) and in more complex situations (e.g., talking about
problems at school). The use of discourse strategies is also a reflection of the parents’
interactional style, or in broader terms, their approach to parenting, which they may be
unable or reluctant to change. Döpke (1992) noted how the mother of one of her
subjects used only low-constraint strategies, because she was afraid of jeopardizing her
relationship with the child. Therefore, parents who have specific views about how they
should interact with the child may find it difficult to use ‘constraining’ discourse
Dual-lingual parent-child interactions
Saville-Troike (1987) described the use of different languages by speakers who have
receptive abilities in each other’s spoken languages as ‘dual-lingual’ interaction. Dual-
lingual interaction is unlike ‘bilingual’ interaction, where both speakers are equally
adept at speaking two languages and alternate between them in conversation. It also
differs from ‘dilingual’ interaction, which is the use of different languages by speakers
who do not understand each other. Therefore, when bilingual children comprehend but
do not speak their parent’s language, both parties engage in dual-lingual interaction. In
the family, dual-lingual interaction has also been described as a ‘parallel’ mode of
communication that reflects the caregiver’s ‘maintenance-oriented’ (Garafanga, 2010)
or ‘stand-your-ground’ (Smith-Christmas, 2016) approach to the child’s receptive
bilingualism. In Smith-Christmas’ (2016) study, a grandmother continued speaking
Gaelic to her English-speaking grandson, even when he requested her to speak English
or did not understand what she said. The grandmother felt that her input was necessary
to develop his Gaelic, but the child did not speak much of the language despite her
De Houwer (2015) argued that dual-lingual conversations are potentially problematic.
The refusal of both parent and child to use a common language reflects ‘frustrated’ or
‘conflictive’ bilingual development, as opposed to ‘harmonious’ bilingual development
where the acquisition and use of two languages are positive experiences for the family.
Parents who invest a lot of time and effort in bilingual parenting inevitably expect their
children to speak both of their languages. However, when their bilingual parenting goal
is not realized, they probably experience a range of negative emotions, including guilt,
failure, and embarrassment, which can threaten their socioemotional well-being (De
Houwer, 2017). Furthermore, the continuous use of a language without child reciprocity
requires more agency and effort, which inevitably causes frustration. In Smith-
Christmas (2016), the Gaelic-speaking grandmother found it ‘demoralizing’ after some
time that her grandchildren did not speak her language. Dual-lingual interactions also
make it difficult for some family members to communicate with the child. Lina, the
trilingual child in Chevalier (2015), was so accustomed to using Swiss-German to her
French-speaking father that, during her French-speaking paternal grandmother’s visits,
she would also respond in Swiss-German to her, even though her grandmother could
not comprehend the language.
186 Crosslinguistic Research in Monolingual and Bilingual Speech
Dual-lingual interactions have serious long-term implications when parent and child
have limited comprehension of their weaker languages, and communication becomes
more complex and non-contextual with age (e.g., discussing school matters). When
there is a lack of understanding between parent and child, dual-lingual conversations
may lead to dilingual or minimal communication. Wong-Fillmore (2000) described how
relations deteriorated in a Chinese migrant family in San Francisco because the parents
and grandmother understood little English, and their adolescent children understood
little Chinese. Likewise, Tseng and Fuligni (2000) found a higher level of parent-child
conflict in East Asian, Filipino and Latin American adolescents in the US who spoke
English to their parents than those who spoke their parents’ native languages.
Moreover, children’s persistent use of the societal language can make parents abandon
their own language and cause a language shift as seen in how French-speaking children
in Belgium prompted their Kinyarwanda-French bilingual parents to speak French
through the use of ‘medium requests’ (Garafanga, 2010).
The present study
Despite the commonality of receptive bilingualism, there is a paucity of research on
language use by receptive bilingual children, and the interactions that they have with
their parents. While many studies have examined parental use of discourse strategies
with very young bilingual children, it remains unclear how parents interact with older
bilingual children, i.e., age three and above, who show little production of their weaker
language from the start. An investigation is necessary because parental discourse
strategies may work differently on older children, given their ages and orientation
towards dual-lingual interaction. This study contributes to our limited knowledge of
receptive bilingualism in children by addressing the following research questions:
1. How do receptive bilingual children use their weaker language?
2. How does the parents’ use of discourse strategies contribute towards the child’s
3. To what extent are ‘constraining’ discourse strategies effective in eliciting the
production of the weaker language?
A case study approach was adopted for this research, because the dual-lingual
interactions that take place between receptive bilingual children and their parents
could be studied intensively using rich and in-depth data. The participants of this study
were Max and Nina (aged 7 and 4 respectively at the start of the study). They were the
second children of two exogamous families who were acquaintances of the researcher.
Both children were born and raised in Tokyo, Japan. They received bilingual exposure
from birth in the One-Parent-One-Language (OPOL) setting. Max’s Italian father spoke
Italian to Max whereas Nina’s American father spoke English to Nina. Max also received
some Italian input in his weekend literacy classes. Both children’s Japanese mothers
spoke Japanese to them. According to Max’s and Nina’s fathers, both children did not
produce much of their weaker language from the onset of speech. At the start of the
study, they estimated that Max and Nina spoke 99% and 95% Japanese to them
J. Nakamura 187
respectively. Both fathers are long-term residents in Japan and have conversational
ability in Japanese. Therefore, they were able to comprehend their children’s Japanese
utterances without much difficulty.
Both of Max’s parents mainly communicated in Japanese with each other. Japanese was
also the language used by Max and his parents to his older sister, who had physical and
cognitive disabilities that affected her speech. Therefore, in Max’s family, Italian was
used only by the father to address Max. Compared to Max’s family, Nina’s family had
more exposure to the minority language (English), because Nina’s older sister was an
active bilingual who spoke English to their father, and to a lesser extent, their mother.
Nina’s Japanese mother was a fluent English speaker, so Nina’s parents spoke English to
each other at home. However, interactions between Nina and her sister were
predominantly in Japanese. Table 11.2 summarizes the languages used among family
Table 11.2 Language use in the family
Child → Father
Child ← Father
Child ⇆ Mother
Child ⇆ Sibling
Father ⇆ Mother
Japanese, some Italian
Father ⇆ Sibling
Mother ⇆ Sibling
Japanese, some English
Max and Nina also received exposure to their fathers’ languages during trips to Italy or
the US. Table 11.3 shows the number of trips the children had taken since birth and the
duration of their stays. Max had visited Italy four times in the past three years. His
shortest stay was nine days, and his longest stay was 17 days. The entire family usually
visited Italy together, so Max was still exposed to Japanese through his Japanese-
speaking mother. It was only during his last trip that he visited Italy exclusively with his
father. Nina and her entire family had visited the US six times before this study started.
They made bi-annual visits since the child was aged 2;5. However, their stays were quite
short, i.e., mostly a week long. While Nina’s Japanese mother and sister spoke Japanese
to Nina, both of them were fluent in English and spoke English while in the US, so the
child was possibly exposed to less Japanese during these trips.
Table 11.3 Trips to the fathers’ home country
188 Crosslinguistic Research in Monolingual and Bilingual Speech
Before data collection, the researcher had preliminary interviews with the fathers to
understand more about the children, the family’s background, and language use in the
home. The researcher also informed the fathers that parent-child interactions would be
the focus of the research and obtained their written consent to participate in the
research. She met again with them at the end of the study to share and discuss the
results of the study. Notes were taken during the interviews.
The fathers were asked to make audio recordings at home in situations where they
spent the most time with their children (e.g., playing, baking or doing homework). Audio
recordings were made instead of video recordings to make data collection as
unobtrusive as possible. The fathers made recordings at different times depending on
their schedules. Max’s father made a total of six recordings totaling 285 minutes over
eight months, whereas Nina’s father made eight audio recordings totaling 180 minutes
in two months. Details of the recordings are shown in Table 11.4.
Table 11.4 List of audio recordings used for analysis
Playing Scrabble, looking at a book
Drawing and writing Italian
Playing games (Waterworks)
Doing writing, making crepes
Playing games (Jenga)
Playing games (Chutes & Ladders)
Playing games (Go Fish)
Doing button art
Playing games (Chutes & Ladders)
Playing games (Go Fish)
Playing games (Uno)
Playing games (cards)
Data transcription and coding
Audio recordings were transcribed by two multilingual research assistants who had
native or high proficiency in Italian, English, and Japanese. The transcripts were coded
using CHAT and quantitatively analyzed using CLAN (MacWhinney, 2000). All parent
and child utterances were coded as Japanese, English, Italian, or mixed. Child utterances
were coded based on interactional categories adapted from Döpke (1992). They were
also coded as ‘original’ when they demonstrated spontaneous and independent
language use. Rote-learned utterances were coded as ‘routine’ (e.g., reading, counting,
and singing). Minimal utterances that accept or reject their fathers’ conversational
moves (e.g., no in English) were coded as ‘polar responses’. When the children merely
repeated their parents’ preceding utterance, their utterances were coded as ‘imitations’.
Another category is ‘reiteration’, where the children repeated their preceding
J. Nakamura 189
utterances. ‘Translations’ were reproductions of Japanese utterances produced by the
children or their fathers into Italian or English or vice versa.
The fathers’ discourse strategies were also coded according to the types shown in Table
11.1. The children’s speech was analyzed per turn instead of per utterance, because
parents do not usually react to each of the child’s utterance. Instead, they tend to
address either one of the utterances or the child’s overall choice of language in a
conversational turn (Chevalier, 2015). Therefore, in this study, the fathers’ response to
the children’s Japanese or mixed utterances in a single turn was coded into the six
categories shown in Table 11.1. Only parental utterances that demonstrated an
understanding of the children’s Japanese utterances and continued the topic of
conversation were considered as a ‘move-on’ strategy (Lanza, 2004). New topic-
initiating parental utterances following the children’s Japanese utterances were not
treated as a ‘move-on’ strategy and were removed from the analysis.
Figure 11.1 shows the fathers’ and children’s language production. The results indicate
that both fathers spoke their native languages consistently to the children. Max’s
father’s utterances were 97.3% Italian (ITA), whereas 98.6% of Nina’s father’s
utterances were English (ENG). However, their use of Italian or English was largely not
reciprocated. Max and Nina mainly spoke Japanese; it made up 73.9% and 55.8% of
their total utterances respectively. These percentages were lower than estimated by
Max’s and Nina’s fathers at the start of the study (99% and 95% respectively). Contrary
to their estimation, the children showed some production of their weaker languages.
Italian utterances made up 19.7% of Max’s total utterances, whereas English utterances
made up 40.3% of Nina’s total utterances.
Figure 11.1 Language use in each language
190 Crosslinguistic Research in Monolingual and Bilingual Speech
While these findings suggest that Max and Nina were speaking their weaker languages
to a certain extent, further analysis revealed some differences in how their languages
were used in interaction. As shown in Figure 11.2, child utterances were coded into the
following six types: ‘original’, ‘routine’, ‘polar response’, ‘imitation’, ‘reiteration’, and
‘translation’. The results show that ‘original’ utterances were most frequently produced
in Japanese. They comprised 88.5% and 75.6% of Max’s and Nina’s Japanese utterances
respectively, indicating that the children used Japanese spontaneously and
independently. In contrast, original and intentional language use was lacking in the
children’s weaker languages. Only 34.1% of Max’s Italian utterances and 13.4% of
Nina’s English utterances were ‘original’ utterances. Although English made up 40.3% of
Nina’s total utterances, 40.4% of them were ‘routine’ utterances. She often counted in
English and used a rote-learned question (e.g., do you have an x?) to request for cards,
when playing Go Fish (a card game) with her father. She also produced many ‘polar
responses’ in English (38.7%), particularly the word no. Nina’s contrastive use of
English and Japanese is illustrated in Excerpt 2 (below). Compared to Nina, Max
displayed more spontaneity in his use of Italian. Despite having a lower percentage of
utterances in his weaker language compared to Nina (19.7% of total utterances), 34.1%
of Max’s Italian utterances were ‘original’. However, Italian also often appeared as
‘routine’ utterances (23.9%), particularly when he was trying to construct Italian words
in a Scrabble game. ‘Imitations’ were also quite common in Max’s Italian utterances
Notes on abbreviations: original (OR), routine (RO), polar response (PL), imitation (IM),
reiteration (RT), and translation (TS).
Figure 11.2 Types of utterances produced by Max and Nina in each language
Table 11.5 summarizes the fathers’ use of discourse strategies according to type. The
results were similar; both fathers predominantly used the low-constraint ‘move-on’
strategy (approximately 93% of all discourse strategies used), and occasionally used the
‘codeswitching’ strategy (slightly more than 4% of all discourse strategies used) in
response to their children’s Japanese utterances. Their ‘codeswitching’ strategies were
usually one-off repetitions of the children’s preceding Japanese utterance. Both fathers
J. Nakamura 191
reverted to their native languages right after that, so there was little risk of them
shifting to Japanese.
Table 11.5 The fathers’ use of discourse strategies
Notes on abbreviations: instruction to translate (IT), minimal grasp (MG), expressed
guess (EG), adult repetition (AR), move on (MV), and codeswitching (CS).
The overwhelming use of the ‘move-on’ strategy maintained the dual-lingual nature of
parent-child interactions. Excerpt 1 (below) illustrates Max’s father tendency to
continue with the conversation regardless of Max’s choice of language. In this excerpt,
Max (MAX) and his father (FAT) were looking at different types of trees in a catalog to
choose one for their home. The main tier (marked with an asterisk) represents the
utterance, whereas the secondary tiers show the English translation (marked
with %com) and the type of discourse strategy used (marked with %cod). The ‘move-
on’ strategy was coded as $mv, and the use of Japanese was italicized.
Excerpt 1 (from Max-2).
1. *MAX: nani miru no?
%com: what are we looking at?
2. *FAT: mah, devi guardare sopratutto questo.
%com: well you mostly need to pay attention to this
3. *MAX: ue?
4. *FAT: si perché noi qua abbiamo cosi poco spazio che.
%com: yes because we have so little room
5. *MAX: koko? doko? tate ka?
%com: here? where? vertical?
6. *FAT: ah in alto.
%com: ah, at the top
7. *MAX: mukou daijoubu?
%com: is it ok there?
8. *FAT: qua di lato pazienza.
%com: on this side is fine
In Line 1, Max asked in Japanese about where he should look in the catalog to find the
tree measurements. His father used the ‘move-on’ strategy by telling him in Italian
where to look (line 2). Max then asked again in Japanese if he should look at the top of
the tree diagram (line 3) to which his father replied in Italian (line 4). Max’s further
questions in Japanese (lines 5 and 7) were also responded in Italian (lines 6 and 8).
Max’s consistent use of Japanese and his father’s consecutive use of the ‘move-on’
192 Crosslinguistic Research in Monolingual and Bilingual Speech
strategy created a perfectly dual-lingual interaction. The ‘move-on’ strategy was also
prevalent in interactions between Nina and her father. Excerpt 2 illustrates their dual-
lingual interaction while playing Jenga, a tower building game.
Excerpt 2 (from Nina-1).
1. *NIN: papa mo ikko yatte ii yo.
%com: papa can do it.
2. *FAT: okay. alright. thanks for letting me join in this game today.
3. *NIN: papa kowarechau kamoshirenai.
%com: papa it might break
4. *FAT: you think? I think I am going to win.
5. *NIN: <no> [/] no! me!
6. *FAT: really? well this should be interesting. you know I don't think I
ever played against you in this game
7. *NIN: kore ne itsumo mama to yatteiru kara yatta koto ga aru da yo.
%com: I always play this with mummy so I have played it before.
8. *FAT: I know.
In this excerpt, Nina (NIN) urged her father (FAT) in Japanese to remove a block (line 1).
Nina’s father used the ‘move-on’ strategy in line 2. In line 3, when Nina expressed her
concern in Japanese that the tower might break, her father used this strategy again (line
4). He also teased Nina that he was going to win the game, which made her protest in
English by exclaiming no and me (line 5). Nevertheless, she subsequently reverted to
Japanese in line 7, and this Japanese utterance was met by her father’s third ‘move-on’
strategy in line 8. While Excerpt 2 is not completely dual-lingual, it shows the father’s
consecutive uses of this strategy. It also illustrates Nina’s contrastive use of her two
languages. While her Japanese utterances were spontaneous and longer, (lines 1, 3, and
7), her English utterance was limited to a short polar response (line 5).
‘Constraining’ strategies that negotiate a monolingual context, i.e., the ‘instruction to
translate,’ ‘minimal grasp’ and ‘expressed guess’ strategies, were rarely used by both
fathers. As Table 11.5 illustrates, Max’s father only used the ‘instruction to translate’
strategy six times (1.5% of total discourse strategies). Likewise, Nina’s father only used
the ‘expressed guess’ strategy in six instances (1.5% of total discourse strategies). The
‘minimal grasp’ strategy was not used at all by either father. They never pretended they
did not understand their children’s Japanese. Max’s father also never used the
‘expressed guess’ strategy. Likewise, Nina’s father never prompted Nina to translate
using the ‘instruction to translate’ strategy. However, there was some use of the ‘adult
repetition’ strategy (1.3% and 1.0% of all discourse strategies used by Max’s and Nina’s
fathers respectively). Further analysis was conducted to determine the extent to which
‘constraining’ strategies, i.e., the ‘instruction to translate’, ‘expressed guess’ and
‘minimal grasp’ strategies, as well as the ‘adult repetition’ strategy successfully elicited
production of the weaker language.
Table 11.6 shows that these discourse strategies were largely ineffective. Out of the four
instances where Nina’s father used the ‘adult repetition’ strategy, three were
‘incorporated’ strategies (in parentheses) where he continued with the conversation.
Excerpt 3 shows Nina’s father’s use of the ‘incorporated adult repetition’ strategy
J. Nakamura 193
(coded as $ar). In this excerpt, Nina produced a mixed utterance where the Japanese
word ‘make’ was inserted into an otherwise English utterance to convey that her father
(addressed in this excerpt as ‘Jaja’) lost the game. Nina’s father rephrased her utterance
in English. However, he did not pause but kept talking. Therefore, Nina was not cued as
to her choice of language was an issue.
Excerpt 3 (from Nina-5)
1. *NIN: Jaja is make.
%com: Jaja lost
2. *FAT: Jaja lost. I can imagine why. miss spinderella spins a six. everything
you spin is a six.
The only ‘adult repetition’ strategy that was not incorporated by Nina’s father was
successful in eliciting an English utterance from the child. In Excerpt 4, Nina could not
produce the word ladybug. However, when her father prodded her (line 3), Nina could
produce the Japanese term, tentomushi (line 4). Her father then used the ‘adult
repetition’ strategy by providing her with the correct English word in (line 5). The
father did not continue the conversation right after this strategy was used and waited
for Nina to produce the word ladybug, which she did successfully in line 6.
Excerpt 4 (from Nina-4)
1. *FAT: what is that?
2. *NIN: wakanai.
%com: I don’t know.
3. *FAT: what's that in Japanese? you know what that is don't you?
4. *NIN: tentomushi
5. *FAT: in English we say a ladybug.
6. *NIN: ladybug
7. *FAT: yep.
Table 11.6 Weaker language production in response to parental discourse strategies
No. of times
No. of times
However, none of the six ‘expressed guess’ strategies used by Nina’s father led to child
production. The child mostly gave polar responses in Japanese whenever this strategy
was used. Excerpt 5 shows how Nina perceived her father’s ‘expressed guess’ strategy
(coded as $eg) as a genuine question in a card game. She gave the Japanese polar
194 Crosslinguistic Research in Monolingual and Bilingual Speech
response, un (yes), instead of rephrasing her question using the appropriate English
term (line 3). Nina’s interpretation of her father’s question indicates the
plurifunctionality of requests for clarification (Lanza, 2004). Given that Nina was
accustomed to dual-lingual interactions, she did not interpret her father’s question as a
request to use the English term clubs instead of the Japanese term mitsuba. Her
interpretation of her father’s ‘expressed guess’ strategy was similar to that of Tomas, a
younger bilingual child in Lanza (2004), who also did not perceive his English-speaking
mother’s discourse strategies as an indication to switch to English in many instances.
Excerpt 5 (from Nina-8)
1. *NIN: do you have a mitsuba?
%com: do you have clubs
2. *FAT: you want clubs?
3. *NIN: un.
4. *FAT: okay.
Max’s father had slightly more success than Nina’s father in his use of ‘constraining’
strategies. His ‘instruction to translate’ strategy managed to elicit Italian from the child
three out of the six times it was used. Excerpt 6 shows how the ‘instruction to translate’
strategy (coded as $it) was used successfully. In this excerpt, Max’s father was helping
Max with his writing homework. When Max said in Japanese that he would draw a
picture of an egg (line 1), his father instructed him to translate tamago (egg) into Italian
(line 2). Max obliged by producing the Italian equivalent ouvo (line 3). Max’s father then
asked him again to produce the Italian equivalent of e wo egaku (draw a picture). When
Max did not seem to have understood his request (line 5), his father repeated it (line 6).
This led to Max’s production of the term scrivere (write) in line 7. Further prompting in
lines 8 and 10 by his father also enabled the child to produce the Italian words disegno
(drawing) and disegnare (draw) in lines 9 and 11.
Excerpt 6 (from Max-3)
1. *MAX: tamago no e wo egaku.
%com: I will draw a picture of an egg
2. *FAT: tamago si dice?
%com: how do you say tamago?
3. *MAX: uovo.
4. *FAT: e wo egaku invece di dice?
%com: and how do you say e wo egaku?
5. *MAX: uh?
6. *FAT: e wo egaku invece?
%com: how do you say e wo egaku?
7. *MAX: scrivere?
%com: to write?
8. *FAT: scrivere e quello che hai fatto qua. ma questa cosa qui si chiama di.
%com: to write is what you did here. but this is di.
J. Nakamura 195
9. *MAX: disegno.
10. *FAT: questo qua e un disegno. l azione di fare il disegno. dise.
%com: this is a drawing. the action of drawing is. dise
11. *MAX: gnare.
12. *FAT: disegnare.
While the ‘instruction to translate’ had some success with Max, his father’s use of the
‘adult repetition’ strategy did not encourage Italian production. In the five instances in
which this strategy was used, only one was incorporated. The remaining four were not
incorporated into his speech, i.e., Max’s father did not continue the conversation
immediately after using it. Nevertheless, Max was unresponsive to this strategy. Excerpt
7 shows how the ‘adult repetition’ strategy was used. In this excerpt, Max and his father
were calculating scores after a game. When Max announced his father’s score in
Japanese (line 1), his father rephrased it in Italian (line 2). However, Max did not repeat
his father’s score in Italian but immediately announced his score in Japanese (line 3).
The father then used the ‘move-on’ strategy by declaring himself the winner in Italian
(line 4). Max did not respond to the ‘adult repetition’ strategy, because he was probably
more interested in announcing the scores and finding out the winner of the game.
Excerpt 7 (from Max-3).
1. *MAX: papa hyaku rokujyuu ni.
%com: papa one hundred sixty two
2. *FAT: cento sessanta due.
%com: one hundred sixty two
3. *MAX: hyaku jyuunana.
%cod: one hundred and seventeen
4. *FAT: ho vinto io.
%com: I am the winner
Previous studies on receptive bilingualism have examined bilingual children who lost
productive ability in one language but regained it after being immersed in the language
during a trip to the home country (Slavkov, 2015; Uribe de Kellett, 2002). Such positive
reports from parent-linguists are important in demonstrating the potentiality for
receptive bilingual children to become active bilinguals later on. Nevertheless, there is
receptive bilingualism of a more persistent type, i.e., bilingual children who produced
very little of their weaker language from the onset of speech and are already
accustomed to dual-lingual interactions at older ages. This study contributes to our
understanding of this type of receptive bilingualism in its investigation of language use
by two receptive bilingual children, and the role that parental discourse strategies play
in parent-child dual-lingual interactions.
Despite the fathers’ reports that their children spoke Japanese to them most of the time,
the results revealed that 19.7% and 40.3% of Max’s and Nina’s total utterances were
Italian and English utterances respectively (c.f. Figure 11.1). These percentages suggest
196 Crosslinguistic Research in Monolingual and Bilingual Speech
that the children were using their weaker languages to some extent, despite their
fathers’ perception of them as receptive bilinguals. Further analysis on Max’s and Nina’s
language use revealed that many of the children’s Japanese utterances to their fathers
were spontaneous and independent ‘original’ utterances, indicating that the language
was used freely to express their thoughts and feelings. Contrastively, utterances in their
weaker languages were mostly rote-learned, elicited, or mimicked as evident in the high
proportion of ‘routine’ utterances, ‘polar responses’ and ‘imitations’ in the children’s
speech (c.f. Figure 11.2). The low percentages of ‘original’ utterances in Max’s Italian
and Nina’s English utterances suggested a lack of spontaneity and independence in
language use. The children’s inability to speak Italian or English freely and
spontaneously probably resulted in their tendency to use Japanese for expressing their
thoughts and feelings. The difference in how these two languages were used in
interaction demonstrates that Nina’s and Max’s abilities in their weaker language were
largely receptive. This finding suggests that both quantitative and qualitative aspects of
the children’s language need to be considered when assessing children’s receptive
bilingualism. Döpke’s (1992:23) observation of how some bilingual children ‘never
progressed past a limited amount of actively used words, and a set amount of rehearsed
phrases’, is perhaps an appropriate description of how receptive bilingual children use
their languages in interaction.
Despite the children’s receptive bilingualism, the fathers’ effort to speak their native
languages is commendable, because they continued providing linguistic input in Italian
or English to their children from birth until their present age. They did not switch to
speaking Japanese in the prolonged period in which dual-lingual interactions took place.
Nevertheless, their constant endeavor to provide Italian or English input was
insufficient by itself to promote active bilingualism. While the fathers consistently used
their languages, the children were not prompted to produce them. Analysis of discourse
strategies revealed the fathers’ prevalent use of the ‘move-on’ strategy (approximately
93% of responses to the children’s Japanese utterances) and the occasional use of the
‘code-switching’ strategy (approximately 4%). While previous research shows that the
use of the ‘move-on’ strategy led to language mixing in young bilingual children (e.g.,
Juan-Garau & Pérez-Vidal, 2001), the predominant use of this strategy with the older
passive bilingual children in this study seems to have created and perpetuated a dual-
lingual context, where it was acceptable for Max and Nina to respond in Japanese to
their fathers’ Italian or English utterances. It is suspected that the fathers may have
created a bilingual context by letting their children speak Japanese to them in the early
stages of the children’s language development. Subsequently, their continued use of the
‘move-on’ strategy contributed to the dual-lingual nature of their present interactions.
‘Constraining’ strategies, i.e., the ‘instruction to translate’, ‘expressed guess’, and
‘minimal grasp’ strategies and the ‘adult repetition’ strategy made up only about 2.8%
and 2.5% of the total discourse strategies used by Max’s and Nina’s fathers’ respectively.
A possible explanation for the infrequent use of ‘constraining’ strategies in the data is
that the fathers may have wanted to demonstrate as much interaction as possible with
their children instead of interrupting the conversation flow. However, parents’ use of
discourse strategies does not probably change whether they are observed or otherwise
(Tare & Gelman, 2011). As argued by Mishina-Mori (2011), it would be unrealistic for
parents to use ‘constraining’ strategies when they are aware of their children’s limited
productive ability. Therefore, it was more likely that Max’s and Nina’s fathers did not
J. Nakamura 197
frequently employ ‘constraining’ strategies, because they knew that their children
would not be able to respond to them.
The fathers’ overwhelming use of the ‘move-on’ strategy revealed a discourse style that
focused on continuing the conversation instead of aligning the children’s language use
with their own. Dual-lingual interactions worked quite well, because the fathers and
children generally understood each other. However, frequent use of ‘constraining’
discourse strategies would require conversations to be halted temporarily. This would
contradict the fathers’ child-centered style of discourse, which was revealed in the
interviews. Nina’s father said that he always tried to have fun with Nina and believed
that she would eventually speak English just like her older sister, if she enjoyed their
time together. Likewise, Max’s father feared that excessive use of ‘constraining’
strategies would take away the ‘joy of talking’ in the child and make him unresponsive.
He felt that it was more important to encourage Max to communicate even if it was in
Japanese, particularly because he wanted Max to be able to share his experiences at
school. Therefore, the fathers’ present use of discourse strategies was related to the
children’s lack of productive ability and their emphasis on communication with their
The low proportion of ‘constraining’ discourse strategies did little to encourage the
children to speak Italian or English. Whenever they were used, they had little effect on
weaker language production. Max was unresponsive to the ‘adult repetition’ strategy
when he was preoccupied with something else (e.g., announcing scores on a game in
Excerpt 7). However, in doing a writing task in Italian in Excerpt 6, Max seemed more
settled and willing to respond to his father’s ‘instruction to translate’ strategy,
indicating that the effectiveness of a discourse strategy was child-dependent. As Max’s
father shared in the interview, he usually had to read the child’s mood when deciding
whether to make him speak Italian. Children assert their agency in interaction (e.g., Said
& Zhu, 2017; Tuominen, 1999) and Max’s willingness and reluctance to respond to his
father’s requests to speak Italian at various times demonstrated his agentive role, and
how the language context was co-constructed by the parent and child in interaction.
Nina’s father also had little success in his use of discourse strategies. The ‘adult
repetition’ strategy was not effective on Nina, because it was usually incorporated into
his speech. Out of the four instances where the ‘adult repetition’ strategy was used,
three were incorporated. After providing the English equivalent of Nina’s Japanese
utterance, Nina’s father immediately carried on talking without expecting her to
respond, which made such ‘incorporated adult repetition’ strategies quite similar to the
‘move-on’ strategy that he often used. Contrastively, in the only instance where the
‘adult repetition’ strategy was not incorporated, Nina was able to produce an English
Overall, the few ‘constraining’ discourse strategies and ‘adult repetition’ strategy that
were used by the fathers had limited success in promoting weaker language production.
Even when they elicited some Italian or English words from the children, single words
such as ladybug (Excerpt 4) or uovo (Excerpt 6) were hardly adequate for carrying a
conversation. They probably do little to increase the proportion of ‘original’ utterances
that demonstrate spontaneous and independent language use.
Would a trip to the home country help Max and Nina activate their weaker language?
The two children had made prior trips to Italy and the US, and while their fathers
198 Crosslinguistic Research in Monolingual and Bilingual Speech
reported greater use of English or Italian during their trips, they did little to activate the
children’s bilingualism upon their return to Japan. Perhaps, this was because the length
of their trips was quite short (c.f. Table 11.3). In particular, Nina did not stay in the US
for more than a week during her biannual visits. Also, Max did not make any trip to Italy
until age 5;3. Furthermore, the presence of their Japanese mothers during their trips
may have weakened their Italian or English language immersion. Even when Max
traveled exclusively with his father to Italy and spent 12 days there on his last trip,
there was no marked increase in his Italian production thereon. In the recording at age
8;3 that took place four months after this trip, 89% of Max’s utterances to his father
were Japanese. These findings suggest that the trips that the children had taken so far to
Italy or the US did not change their degree of bilingualism. Unlike in Slavkov (2015) and
Uribe de Kellett (2002) whose subjects were able to regain production of their weaker
language from a trip to the home country, the children had been largely receptive in
their weaker language from the onset of speech. Therefore, it was probably more
challenging for Max and Nina to activate their weaker language. Perhaps if these
environmental factors were further intensified through extended stays and greater
exposure to monolingual speakers, the children would use more of their weaker
language to their fathers. There is also a likelihood that Max and Nina may be more
willing to speak their weaker language to monolingual speakers on their Italian or US
trips than with their bilingual fathers in Japan. It is possible that the children may have
had the ability to use English or Italian but were merely too accustomed to interacting
dual-lingually with their fathers. Receptive bilingual children’s use of the weaker
language to monolingual speakers of the language instead of their bilingual parents is a
subject for future research.
The inability or reluctance of some bilingual children to speak one of their languages is a
phenomenon that baffles researchers and parents. The present study sheds light on this
relatively unexplored area of child bilingualism in its investigation of two receptive
bilingual children who spoke very little of their weaker language from the onset of
speech and mainly interacted with their fathers dual-lingually. With regard to the first
research question on the children’s language use, the results showed that they produced
their weaker language to some extent. Nevertheless, in contrast to the many
spontaneous and independent Japanese utterances, the children’s weaker language
productions were mainly rote-learned, elicited or mimicked. Concerning the second and
third questions on the use of discourse strategies and its effect on weaker language
production, the results revealed that the fathers’ prevalent use of the ‘move-on’ strategy
perpetuated dual-lingual interactions, and contributed to their children’s receptive
bilingualism. The children were mostly unresponsive to the fathers’ occasional use of
‘constraining’ discourse strategies and the ‘adult repetition’ strategy. These findings
reiterate the importance of using these discourse strategies in the early years to
establish active bilingualism. Once parents and children become accustomed to
interacting dual-lingually, it may be difficult to reverse this mode of interaction.
J. Nakamura 199
This paper was extended and updated from a short paper published in the Proceedings
of the International Conference on Monolingual and Bilingual Speech 2017. The author is
deeply grateful to Max’s and Nina’s families for participating in this research, Siriwan
Nakada and Roberta Olla for their help in the transcription and coding of the speech
data, and the editor and anonymous reviewer for their constructive comments on an
earlier draft of this paper.
This work was supported by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science under the
Grant-In-Aid for Young Scientists (B) (16K16867).
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