Concerned parents often ask me: “Why is my child not paying attention to books in the minority language?”
These parents are from countries like the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, and Singapore where English is the dominant language and monolingualism is the norm.
Since reading is one of the most important strategies for raising multilingual children, parents worry when books in Chinese, Korean, or other languages don’t spark interest like English books.
Reader question: Why is my child not paying attention to books in the minority language?
I’m sharing this common question from an email I received and have removed names for privacy.
Many of you will find similarities to your situation, even if your home languages are different.
This message is from a Chinese-Australian mother of a 6-year-old boy:
“I need some guidance on how to read Chinese books to my son, as I really love reading and would like the same for him and also embrace the idea of a Chinese library at home.
When I’m reading Chinese to him, he doesn’t really listen or engage. He will either wait for me to finish the reading so he can finish the duty of hearing.
Or he will just interrupt me by asking “what does it mean” over and over again while I’m reading.
I don’t know whether there is a better way to read to him.
Is this is a normal response from kids when hearing foreign languages and should stick with it?
Since he doesn’t know the content of the books (or only gets the brief idea), he seems to easily lose interest of the Chinese books we read together.
To give you a bit of background, he just turned 6 this month.
I’m a native Chinese speaker and my husband is an Australian who can only speak English, but we are always conscious about teaching him Chinese when the time is right.
Since he started kindergarten this year, I started re-introducing Chinese to him. But very little was achieved.
The problem is with me as I’m not consistent or persistent in speaking Chinese to him at home, which is why I found your blog helpful!”
What to consider when your child seems uninterested in listening to minority language books
First of all, kudos to all parents taking the leap on speaking and reading in their minority language!
I know it’s not easy, especially in the beginning.
Getting consistent is the hardest part with any new habit, especially when a language is introduced later in life.
When your child is not paying attention to books in the minority language, consider these 6 questions:
- How are your child’s speaking skills in the minority language?
- Are the books too difficult for your child?
- Is the content interesting?
- Are the illustrations abstract or realistic?
- Are you excited about reading minority language books to your children?
- Are your child’s attention problems due to lack of physical activity?
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1. How are your child’s speaking skills in the minority language?
Your child’s verbal skills in the minority language are related to their ability to participate in story time.
Differences between my son and daughter
Since my son was exposed to Chinese, Korean, and English at birth, he is excited and attentive during story time in each language.
On the other hand, when my daughter first began to learn Chinese around age 2, she would zone out during my initial attempts at reading Chinese books.
Frequently, she would ask me to stop reading the Chinese book and run to grab an English book instead.
When she’s enthralled in her favorite books, she will even forget to eat breakfast and other important tasks!
However, she now struggles to sit through new Korean stories.
As her Korean speaking skills have regressed with decreased immersion in the language, her interest in Korean books has declined as well.
How to improve your child’s verbal skills in the minority language
Since books are 2-dimensional, they can sometimes be abstract for new language learners.
Therefore, whenever possible, language learning for beginners should involve something tangible that the child can hold, feel, and explore.
For example, if you are talking about seeds in Chinese, go to the kitchen and cut open fruits and vegetables!
When introducing new Korean words about clothes, explore the closet and supplement with a printable learning activity about clothes.
Let your child use sight and touch to help them understand new vocabulary, like t-shirt (티셔츠) and pants (바지), and describe the shape, materials, and design in detail.
2. Are the books too difficult for your child?
When an older child starts to learn a new language, stories in that language will likely be simple compared to those in the dominant language.
In the beginning, you might have to code-mix the minority language with English as a scaffolding strategy to boost listening comprehension.
Start by focusing on 2-3 key words and phrases, and gradually increase the amount of minority language in each sentence.
Be consistent, and use familiar vocabulary to boost confidence.
Also, not every word in the book needs to be read in the beginning.
If your child asks “What does this mean?,” this is a great opportunity to explore the question in the minority language.
To help your child better understand the meaning, you can dwell longer on topic and use pictures to define new Chinese or Korean words.
3. Is the content interesting?
Are the books in the minority language about topics that your child likes and can relate to?
When I first bought Chinese books for my daughter, I found stories about traditional Chinese festivals.
Unfortunately, neither my daughter nor my American-born-and-raised self understood the content.
She also quickly outgrew simple vocabulary books like “First Bilingual Book of Numbers (English / Korean)“.
Short stories like “春天的鳥巢 (Chūntiān de niǎocháo / A Nest in Springtime)” were cute but not very stimulating after the 8th read!
Since she is fascinated by science, we have collected many Chinese science books over the years!
4. Are the illustrations abstract or realistic?
Whenever possible, try to find books with realistic illustrations.
Life-like pictures are important visual cues for explaining and retaining new Chinese vocabulary.
Even though cartoons are popular, an abstract image can be confusing because kids might not even know what it represents in English.
Recently, I was reading a cute animal book with my 2-year-old son. We debated about whether the green animal was a hippo or an alligator, and my son had trouble believing me!
Although the book named the green animal 河马 (hémǎ / hippopotamus) my son insisted that the green animal must be an alligator because those animals – not hippos – are green!
Since there were lots of random colors on the other animals, we ended up switching to realistic books about animals.
As a result, he was able to focus on learning animals names and descriptions in Chinese.
Alternatively, you can use real life examples or realistic models to support abstract illustrations.
While reading a Chinese book about brushing teeth, the cartoon bugs can be visually distracting from discussions about the teeth.
To enhance understanding, we read the book with a tooth model.
5. Are you excited about reading minority language books to your children?
Our mood often sets the stage for our children.
When we appear confident, positive, and excited about reading minority language books, our kids will be more receptive to story time.
I tell my kids that books are the best gift for any special occasion, and they see me gifting books to other friends.
They know that I’m passionate about finding new Chinese and Korean children’s books for our family!
On the other hand, negativity can be easily sensed and contagious.
If we show frustration or nervousness, our children easily pick up those vibes.
Truth be told, when my husband occasionally reads Korean books to our children, he makes comments like “That book is way too long!”
However, he will then pick an equally long English book with sincere enthusiasm.
I also prefer to read English books, because it’s my native language.
Therefore, non-fluent parents like myself may need to practice reading stories in the minority language so that we are ready to engage our children.
If read-alouds are not your forte, watch how other teachers and parents bring stories to life on storytelling channels on YouTube.
Give yourself grace and time to practice implementing dynamic narration strategies with your children!
6. Are your child’s attention problems due to lack of physical activity?
Movement for children is as essential as breathing.
As with any sedentary activity, attention will suffer if they have been sitting too long.
As Scholastic points out:
“We don’t want to force our kids to sit and spend what should be reading time instead redirecting or disciplining them for doing what comes naturally. What message are we sending them about reading?”
Every child needs to play and run around outside. After getting their energy out, story time is more likely to be successful.
However, many children need to keep moving during story time. This is perfectly normal!
You can read to them while they play with Legos, eat a snack, or take a bath.
If they are required to sit for prolonged periods, such as in the car or plane, you can try listening to multilingual audiobooks for kids.
What if my child’s attention is short with activities in all languages?
If you have further concerns about your attention span during reading or other activities, please consult your pediatrician or family doctor for further evaluation and advice.
Have you had a similar experience when reading books in the minority language, Chinese, with your child?
Please let me know if these suggestions and questions help in any way!
I hope my answers can help you find solutions, and I’d love to hear if you have other advice to share to parents in similar situations!
I’m happy to help brainstorm more in the comments below!
Where to buy Chinese books for kids
If you’re wondering where to buy kids’ books, please click here for a list of the most popular online Chinese bookstores!
Tips for boosting minority language skills
- Raising Trilingual Children as a Non-Fluent Parent: 8 Lessons Learned
- How to Find a Foreign Language Teacher for Your Child
- 5 Ways My Child and I Learn Chinese from Audiobooks
- 15 Smart Ways to Motivate Your Child to Read
- Handmade Cards for Reading and Writing Practice (English, Chinese, and Korean)