Years ago, I never imagined that my kids (5-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son) would be chatting away with each other in English, Chinese, and sometimes even Korean! Although I grew-up with Mandarin Chinese and dialect-speaking parents, I am at best only proficient in the language. My Korean-American husband does not feel comfortable speaking Korean to our children. Despite our limitations, we want our kids to have a chance at learning their heritage languages. However, options are limited when living in a small, non-diverse town in the United States. Frequent communication with a native speaker is the best way to learn a language, and we had to search around to find the right language teachers.
The ideal foreign language teacher for a child
Professional foreign language programs are typically flashcard or textbook-based and geared primarily toward adult learners in a classroom setting. However, the right foreign language teacher for a young child is very different. The ideal foreign 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
- 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
In my opinion, the perfect teacher for a young child does not require a teaching degree. Of course, an education degree and professional teaching experience would be ideal. However, with all due respect for hard-working teachers, sometimes classroom-based teachers are used to following a set curriculum and may not be willing to adapt to a child’s developmental level and unique interests. Therefore, my advice is to have an open mind in your search for the best language teacher.
How to find a foreign language teacher for your child
I’ve put together a list of several ways that we have explored foreign language teacher options. 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
If you are not fluent in the desired foreign 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, this person should come several days per week for a few hours per day – as much as your budget allows. Once a week is not enough. We’ve had wonderful luck finding Korean-speaking caregivers through Care.com, and you can filter caregivers by language on their website.
Previously, my daughter had a native Korean-speaking nanny for the first 2 years of her life. 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, so my daughter was monolingual that year and forgot most of her Korean. 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. We are still very close with my daughter’s first nanny, and my daughter periodically chats with her in Korean over FaceTime!
2. Enroll your child in an 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 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 or caregivers who speak other languages
Since my husband and I are fluent only in English, we decided that it would be better for us to attend an English-speaking church so that we could understand and learn from sermons. However, 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.
Although we are not attending these cultural churches, I was connected to Chinese and Korean teachers through the pastors. Regardless of our decision, I recommend exploring cultural religious organizations which may be a wonderful support for your family.
4. Check nearby schools for language teachers and classes in other languages
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. This month, my daughter is starting piano lessons with a teacher who speaks Mandarin fluently. I actually approached this teacher 3 years ago to be my daughter’s teacher, but she only teaches kids 5 and up. Her honesty was appreciated, and it’s important to that the teachers are well-matched to the child’s age!
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 there were not many Chinese students, and those students were trying to improve their English. However, 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
Some of my friends have had success finding wonderful nannies 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 local sushi restaurant is run by a Korean family). We interviewed one of the moms who expressed interest in taking care of my daughter as she had 3 teenage children of her own. Although she was very sweet, she was not experienced with caring for a young toddler, and it wasn’t a good fit for other reasons. However, it’s an option to consider, especially if you have a recommendation from a trustworthy friend.
6. Join a regional Facebook or Meetup parenting group
If you use Facebook.com or Meetup.com, 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 area. 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, please be aware that this option may not be 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 in this article.
8. Make friends with the elderly
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 (my parents are deceased), this can be a wonderful way to learn respect for elders as well as the language. We met her through a friend. However, some cities have 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, and we speak Mandarin Chinese together.
10. Take online classes
Although learning is best in person and in real-time, online lessons may be the only option. The lessons with a tutor could be informal through FaceTime or Skype. Professional organizations, such as DuoLingo, Tutor Ming, Lingo Bus, Panda Tree, iTalki, Better Chinese, and Mandarin Training Center are also worth exploring.
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 this.
When you interview potential candidates, make sure this person enjoys working with children! Be clear with your goal of foreign language immersion and the importance of communication
And if none of the above options are feasible…
11. Be your child’s teacher
If you have limited options like me, you can be your child’s foreign 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.
I am aware that my speaking and reading ability are suboptimal, but I am modeling hard work and dedication. Like my daughter, your child will likely learn faster than you (young minds are flexible and absorbent!). Regular audio exposure through media (eg, music, audiobooks) will be necessary for native-language input, but you can be study partners together.
Read How I Taught My Child 1000+ Chinese Characters as a Non-Fluent Speaker to learn details about how I taught my daughter to read Chinese!
In summary, you can find potential language teachers in unconventional ways!
If you’d like to learn more about our family, these posts detail the beginning of our multilingual learning journey:
- A Letter to My Parents: Why I’m Teaching Your Grandchildren Chinese
- Our Language Journey – How It Began
- Redefining Mother’s Day with My Parents’ Language
- One Person, One Language: Our Family’s Trilingual Schedule 2017-2018
For more advice on raising multilingual children, please refer to the following posts:
- Raising Multilingual Children As a Non-Fluent Parent: 7 Lessons Learned in 2017
- Teach Your Child A Second Language at Home: 5 Key Steps
- How to Get Your Kids to Speak the Minority Language
- How to Learn Chinese as a Busy Parent
- Raising Bilingual Children – Who Should Speak What? (Huffington Post)
- How To Create a Chinese Language Ecosystem (CEBilingual)
- Raising Multilingual Montessori Kids (Montessori Nature)
- The Do’s and Dont’s of Raising Bilingual Kids (Bilingual Kidspot)
- How To Jumpstart Your Kid’s Chinese (Mandarin Mama)
As always, please let me know if you have any questions, and I’ll try my best to answer them! Please leave a note in the comments!
You can also follow me on Facebook where I share my latest posts as well as favorite articles about children’s education, Chinese resources, and hands-on activities from other websites! In addition, on Instagram, I share activity highlights and how we integrate Chinese & Korean learning in our daily life!
Happy learning, friends!