Raising multilingual children as a non-fluent parent – that pretty much sums up this year!
For the past 15 years, “Get better at speaking Chinese” has been my New Year’s resolution that got pushed to the wayside. During that time, my limited Chinese proficiency from childhood was dwindling. Both of my parents passed away, and my job as a physician consumed all of my time and energy. I also didn’t have any pressing need to use Chinese in my personal life, since my husband is Korean-American.
However, 2017 was the year I could fill in this checkbox, because I’m doing it for my children. Finally, I’m motivated to the task, and I’m lucky to have more time these days.
Quick recap of our family: English is the dominant language (small town, USA); my children’s minority languages are Chinese (through me) and Korean (through our nanny). Big milestones this year are as follows:
- Most of my conversations with my children are in Chinese (with the help of dictionary apps)!
- 老大 (lǎodà / oldest child) reads Chinese very well (~700 characters?) and she’s learning to read Korean.
- Most of 1-year-old 老二 (lǎo èr / second child)’s first words are in Chinese and Korean.
Since we overcame many doubts and challenges this year, I wanted to reflect on what I learned as a non-fluent parent raising multilingual children:
1. All you need is one dedicated person.
My family lives in a small town with few people of Chinese or Korean heritage; we have no family in the area. When we first moved here 2 years ago, I was very worried about the lack of an Asian community. Since we’ve made great progress this year, I’m becoming more confident about being a one-woman band. Technically, the minimum for passing on a language is one person (parent, grandparent, nanny), as in the one-person, one-language method. Well, that and a supportive partner. While my husband has elected to be relieved from Korean teaching duties (see #6 below), I am grateful for his support for our children’s Chinese learning environment. This means he misses out on some conversations that I have with our kids, but 老大 always tries to translate for him!
2. It is possible to teach your kid a language, even if you are not fluent.
When my 老大 was born, I had no plans to teach her Chinese. Around age 2, I started to teach her everything I could say (which was not much at the time), and she learned my vocabulary in 2 months! Then I had to quickly learn more to stay ahead of her. I found it easiest to learn nouns (eg, counting, colors, body parts, food) first, and spoke a lot of Chinglish (Chinese mixed with English), mostly English initially, and then gradually mostly Chinese. My proficiency has improved through everyday conversations with my kids. And they are learning naturally through this regular dialogue.
I’m also learning how to read with 老大, and she’s used to me pausing to check the Pleco or Google Translate apps. 老大 is now 4, and her Chinese pronunciation, tones, prosody, and reading has superseded mine.
3. If you are not fluent, try to outsource.
If you have the resources, try to invite at least one native speaker to be a regular part of your child’s life (eg, nanny, babysitter). So far, I’ve had no success in finding a native Chinese or Korean-speaking caregiver in our small town. However, I am grateful for our loving nanny who is conversational in Korean and teaches the kids as much as she knows. In addition, 老大’s wonderful, Beijing-born Chinese teacher comes weekly, and that one hour helps with correcting tonal or pronunciation mistakes that she picked up from me (whew!).
Outsourcing also allows your child to interact and befriend other people who share the language! While I know that my kids love me so much now, they will care more about their peers and other role models as they grow.
4. Look around your house through the eyes of your child. What percent of your home is visible or audible in the minority language?
Last year, the answer would probably be <5%. However, this year, I secretly banned English songs at home. Because 老大 loved singing English nursery rhymes when she was 2, she did not want to hear Chinese or Korean ones. Don’t worry – I’m not saying that I want to take away her joy! I explained to 老大 that she gets to sing English nursery rhymes in preschool and praise music in Sunday school. However, home is the only chance for learning Chinese and Korean. Surprisingly, 老大 understood very quickly, I think because she knows that my husband and I are not fluent.
This year, I’ve also donated any electronic toy that talks or sings in English. Apologies to my kind friend who gifted the talking picnic basket, but it was sabotoging our Chinese learning environment!
In addition to “passive learning” of Chinese through music and audiobooks, I realized I needed to do this with characters as well. When I started leaving 老大 notes around the house and giving “name tags” to all of 老大’s stuffed animals, she became very curious to learn those words. Over the year, I have also amassed over 1000 Chinese children’s books, and our home is now a print-rich environment in Chinese!
Unfortunately, we don’t have that many Korean books, as it’s hard for me to find the right ones for 老大. Plus, since I have to focus on Chinese resources, I have little time to think about Korean ones. That will be a major goal for 2018 – to give Korean learning a fair shot for my kids.
5. Make learning at home as fun as possible!
Once kids start (monolingual) elementary school, minority languages are a high risk of attrition. Since children are constantly making new and exciting memories in the dominant language (eg, English), they also need special experiences in the minority language through music, games, play, art, sports, and hands-on activities. 老大 and I had a special year bonding together through these various experiences!
6. Speaking a non-fluent language is hard when you’re sleep-deprived or frustrated!
Although I started introducing Chinese to 老大 at age 2, most of our conversations were in English until a year later when I was on maternity leave with 老二. Since I was spending all day with 老大, maternity leave transformed our mostly monolingual home to a multilingual one.
However, it’s just so hard to think in a non-fluent language when you haven’t slept in months! Same thing when you’re upset and just need to say what you need to say! The words just don’t flow out the same in a non-fluent language.
Due to lack of time and sleep, my husband has decided to generally speak English to our children. He’s an incredibly busy, caring, and hard-working physician who often speaks in Spanish to his patients and comes home after the kids are asleep. With limited family time on the weekend, straining to think in Korean is not a worthwhile stress!
7. If you don’t have a community that supports your language and culture, find it online.
I wish my parents had community support when they immigrated here. For our modern times, I am grateful for the following Facebook groups:
- Raising Bilingual Children in Chinese/English
- Raising Bilingual Children in English & Korean
- Raising Bilingual/Multilingual Children
These groups have been a tremendous source of support. I have learned so much from parents with children older than mine, as well as parents just figuring out if this journey is for them. I can’t thank them enough for their priceless advice and encouragement!
When I first considered raising multilingual children a few years ago, I had questions and doubts about each of these points.
I know that it’s a long road ahead, but I’m really happy about how far we’ve come. I’ve since heard many parents ask the same questions, and so I hope it is helpful to read what we learned.
If you’re not sure where to start with language teaching or you’re experiencing challenges, I highly recommend this article: Teach Your Child a Second Language at Home with 5 Key Steps.
How was language learning for your family in 2017? What are your resolutions for 2018? Please feel free to share in the comments below!
새해 복 많이 받으세요! (Saehae bog manh-i bad-euseyo!)
Best wishes for a Happy, Healthy, and Multilingual New Year!