Frequent communication with native speakers (parents, relatives, friends) is the best way to learn a language. However, many of us are not fluent in the language(s) that we want our children to learn. If we live too far from bilingual family members, we need help from language teachers and caregivers to raise multilingual children.
For families like ours who live in small, non-diverse towns, finding a child-friendly language teacher or caregiver can be challenging.
Initially, I wasn’t sure where to look and who to trust.
The good news is that after searching high and low, we have been able to connect with special teachers who have made a huge difference in our language learning journey.
Today, my 5-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son are chatting away with each other in English, Chinese, and sometimes even Korean!
In this article, I will explain how we looked for multilingual teachers. I hope these ideas can help you discover the right support for your family!
The wrong language teacher for a child
Professional language programs are typically flashcard and textbook-based, geared primarily toward adult learners in a classroom setting.
In my experience, professional teachers for adults are often a poor fit for children.
With all due respect for hard-working, intelligent teachers, sometimes classroom-based teachers are too accustomed to following a strict curriculum.
In fact, the wrong language teacher could result in negative associations with the language. Children may become unmotivated if they feel forced to learn the minority language.
Traditional teachers may expect a child to sit still in a chair and rote-memorize flashcards without adequate context. They may be unwilling to adapt to a child’s developmental level and unique interests.
The ideal language teacher for a child
In reality, the perfect teacher for a young child may not even have a teaching degree. Of course, an education degree and professional teaching experience would be a bonus.
However, important factors, such as observation and communication skills, must be considered.
The ideal language teacher for a child is someone who:
- Speaks the language fluently and clearly but can slow down to a child’s pace
- Is consistent with speaking the target language
- Enjoys playing and being active
- Observes and follows a child’s interests
- Likes to sing songs and tell stories
- Has experience working with young children
- Can be a friend
- Reads fluently and can be flexible about reading pictures and not just the text
Therefore, my advice is to have an open mind in your search for the best language teacher.
How to find a language teacher for your child
I’ve put together a list of several ways that we have looked for language teachers and caregivers.
In addition, I’ll share our personal experience with finding Chinese and Korean teachers for our kids.
1. Hire a nanny, au pair, or babysitter who is fluent in another language
If you are not fluent in the desired language, a multilingual nanny, au pair, or regular babysitter is the best potential language teacher for a young children.
This special caregiver can spend one-on-one time with your child in normal daily routine.
For optimal learning, acaregiver should come several days per week for a few hours per day – as much as your budget allows. Once a week is inadequate for language exposure.
We’ve had wonderful luck finding Korean-speaking caregivers through Care.com, and you can filter caregivers by language on their website.
For the first 2 years of my daughter’s life, my daughter had a native Korean-speaking nanny, one of the first people we interviewed!
We are still very close with my daughter’s first nanny, and we periodically FaceTime with her!
Between age 2-3, my daughter had an English-speaking nanny. I tried to find a Korean or Chinese-speaking nanny or babysitter, but quality of care is more important than language.
During that year, my daughter quickly forgot most of her Korean knowledge and became monolingual.
After that nanny moved away (when my daughter was 3 and my son was just born), we found our current Korean-speaking nanny who is now an important part of our family.
2. Enroll your child in a bilingual immersion school
For many families, a local immersion school is the best chance for their kids to become bilingual. These schools are generally available in large, diverse cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York City.
The Mandarin Immersion Parents Council has a full list of Mandarin Immersion schools in the United States.
Heritage Languages in America has a comprehensive list of schools and programs in numerous languages (eg, Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Hindi, Italian, Spanish, etc).
If you’re considering this option, be sure to read “Top 5 Myths About Mandarin Immersion Schools” from Mandarin Mama.
3. Ask your local religious organization about teachers and caregivers who speak other languages
When we first moved to our current town in California, I Googled “_____(city name) Chinese church” and “_____(city name) Korean church and emailed the church staff to learn about their congregations.
Since my husband and I are fluent only in English, we decided that it would be best for our family to attend an English-speaking church so that we could understand and learn from sermons.
Although we are not attending Asian cultural churches, I was connected to Chinese and Korean teachers through the pastors.
However, cultural religious organizations can be a wonderful support system for your family.
4. Check nearby schools for language teachers and classes
Look for potential language teachers at the local college, university, and high school!
Ask if they have experience and interest with working (eg, playing) with young children. These teachers could be instructors of piano, art, dance, or sports.
During my childhood, my first “Chinese” teacher spoke Mandarin during piano lessons. A few months ago, my daughter started piano lessons with a teacher who speaks Mandarin fluently.
Non-academic Chinese classes provides an 1 extra hour of Mandarin immersion each week in addition to learning music.
We also had the chance to attend an art class for local Chinese children. The teacher was fluent in Mandarin and engaged the students with painting instructions.
Due to lack of time, we were unable to continue those lessons. Otherwise, this would have been an attractive opportunity for my daughter.
In addition, you might be able to find a fluent high school or college student who might be interested in babysitting your child. This can be an inexpensive and fun option for your child to learn a second language!
I emailed our local university international student organization, but they informed me that the few Chinese students were trying to improve their English.
Parents in other cities might have better luck in finding great teachers and babysitters through local schools.
5. Explore local cultural restaurants and grocery stores for language teachers
Some of my friends have had success finding wonderful nannies and teachers by posting classified ads at H-Mart Korean market and Ranch 99 Chinese grocery stores.
When we first moved to our current small town, my mother-in-law took it upon herself to chat with a restaurant manager for potential Korean caregivers.
The neighborhood sushi restaurant is run by a Korean family, and we interviewed one of the moms who expressed interest in taking care of my daughter.
Although she was very sweet and had 3 teenage children of her own, she was inexperienced with toddlers and wasn’t a good fit for other reasons.
However, if you have a recommendation from a trustworthy friend, this is another option to explore.
6. Join a language-focused Facebook parenting group
If you use Facebook, search for a mom or dad group in your city. You might find other families that share your language interests and may have recommendations for teachers and caregivers.
My sister has used Meetup.com for group Chinese language practice sessions with other adults in her metropolitan city.
During past internet searches, I have seen large Chinese-American parenting/play-date Meetup groups in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York.
7. Arrange play dates in the minority language
If you are friends with another parent who is fluent in another language, ask them if they would feel comfortable speaking to your child in that language! They may be excited to share the language with a new friend.
However, be aware of 2 caveats with this option:
- Some Chinese parents have expressed discomfort with this option when approached by people of different cultures
- This option is often not successful if the community language preference is strong. Children will speak whatever language comes most naturally in order to connect with their peers.
Mandarin Mama explains other drawbacks of “language playdates” in this article.
8. Make friends with elderly persons who are multilingual
Last summer, we were able to meet a sweet elderly Chinese woman a few times at a park. Decades ago, she used to teach Mandarin to children, and she misses being around little kids.
Since my kids rarely get to see their paternal grandparents and my parents are deceased, this can be a wonderful way to learn respect for elders as well as the language.
Another option is to explore culture-based facilities (eg, Chinese-American nursing homes) that welcome young volunteers to keep them company!
9. FaceTime or Skype with relatives who speak other languages
FaceTime and Skype are wonderful ways to stay in touch with family! In addition, kids can practice the minority language with context: they can see their relative’s facial expressions and mouth movements during the conversation.
Every few weeks, my kids have fun catching up with my favorite auntie on FaceTime. Although my Auntie’s native language is Shanghainese, we speak Mandarin Chinese together on the phone.
Since Chinese is a diverse language, I’m glad that my children can hear her accent as well as the occasional Shanghainese words that slip in!
10. Learn a language online with a native teacher
Although learning is best in person and in real-time, online lessons may be the only option. Lessons with a tutor could be informal through FaceTime or Skype.
Here are the top 3 Chinese and Korean Online Tutoring Programs that I have been considering for my daughter and myself.
Based on personal experience and that of many families, online tutoring would not be a suitable option for most toddlers. However, older children, adolescents, and adult learners may benefit from online language tutoring.
When you interview potential candidates, make sure this person enjoys working with children! Be clear about your goals of language immersion and the importance of communication.
And if none of the above options are feasible…
11. Be your child’s language teacher!
If you have limited options like me, you can be your child’s language teacher!
Fluent parents should absolutely consider speaking to their child in the minority language, rather than depending on other teachers.
For non-fluent parents like me, if you have time, resources, and passion, you can learn the language with your child and teach them what you learn. I never imagined that I would be the primary Chinese language teacher for my children!
Although my daughter has a Chinese tutor, she sees her for only one hour per week during the school year. Therefore, she relies on me for daily exposure.
While my speaking and reading ability need significant improvement, I am modeling hard work and dedication. Like my daughter, your child will likely learn faster than you. Young minds are flexible and ultra absorbent!
In summary, you can find potential language teachers in unconventional ways!
Our multilingual learning journey
If you’d like to learn more about our family, these posts detail the beginning of our multilingual learning journey:
- One Person, One Language: Our Family’s Trilingual Schedule with 2 Toddlers
- How I Taught My Child 1000+ Chinese Characters as a Non-Fluent Speaker
- Chinese Reading Progress: Videos of My Daughter From Age 3-5 Years
- Redefining Mother’s Day with My Parents’ Language
How to raise multilingual children
- Teach Your Child A Second Language at Home: 5 Key Steps
- How to Get Your Kids to Speak the Minority Language
- Raising Trilingual Children as a Non-Fluent Parent: 8 Lessons Learned