I had a random day off from work and took my kids out for a walk around the neighborhood. Baby 老二 (lǎo èr / second child) napped peacefully in the stroller while 老大 (lǎodà / oldest child) skipped and twirled on the sidewalk.
I never thought I’d be spending my free time at a dead-end, but we actually spent several hours at this one spot.
A few days ago, I snapped this photo of 老大 approaching the dead-end with excitement, sunglasses in one hand and windmill in the other.
She saw a lizard scurrying into a hole and wanted to see where it went. Somehow, her imagination lead her to build pretend campfires with the bush branches and rocks on the side-walk, and we had fun throwing rocks between the bars of the fence.
Only with young children can we discover joys and new beginnings in roads that seem to be ending.
This moment represents our unlikely Chinese language journey.
From Dead Ends to New Beginnings
Before 老大 was born, I didn’t speak Chinese for several years since my parents passed away in my 20s.
I also completely forgot how to read Chinese.
Due to the lack of diversity and family in our area, not to mention my busy working-mom schedule, the idea of 老大 learning Chinese seemed impossible.
I never dreamed that she would be conversational in 3 languages (English/Chinese/Korean), let alone learning how to read at age 3!
Now, I realize this dream could be a reality for 老二 as well!
Hopes of raising trilingual children
I am Chinese American, and my husband is Korean American. Neither of us are fluent in our heritage languages. In fact, we are kind of crappy at it and embarrassed to speak around native Chinese or Korean speakers.
Yet, we are hopeful that our 2 kids (age 3.5 years and 6 months) will learn despite our limitations!
We are attempting the one parent (or caregiver) one language (OPOL) approach:
- Chinese – me
- Korean – nanny
- English – dad/family language
Why I began to relearn Chinese with my children
When 老大 was an infant, she had a wonderful native-speaking Korean nanny and many of her first words were Korean. Then at age 2, we moved and had an English-speaking nanny who was also wonderful! However, watching her rapidly lose her Korean skills was so sad, so I thought, “maybe we can try Chinese.”
The problem was that we had just moved to a small Californian beach town with very few Chinese people. I had hoped to outsource to a babysitter or nanny, but we couldn’t find a fluent Chinese caregiver.
At that time, the only local Chinese teacher was not comfortable with young children. Therefore, my children’s chance at growing up bilingual depended on me.
I didn’t want her to miss the chance to learn her grandparents’ language, just because I could not speak it.
Bumpy, difficult start to learning Chinese
At first, 老大 was uncomfortable with me suddenly speaking in unfamiliar words; she probably sensed that I felt awkward about it as well!
I was so discouraged when she said “Mommy, no more Chinese please”.
Smoother roads ahead
Around this time, I was found the Raising a Trilingual Child blog and emailed the author, Galina, who was so responsive! She insisted that I should not give up and encouraged me to continuing speaking Chinese despite my limitations. At least 老大 would get passive exposure.
With her encouragement and reaffirming my motivation, I started to thinking about ways to make Chinese as fun and enjoyable as possible for both of us.
Every week, I tried to learn a new Chinese song and play her favorite games, such as hide-and-seek. Soon enough, 老大 out-learned everything I knew SO quickly! The toddler brain is just amazing for languages!
My next challenge was to keep learning more so that I would continue to have something to teach her. Between age 2-3 was a big struggle, and I was constantly looking words up in my Chinese dictionary. 老大 surprised me by watching me look up works and started memorizing Chinese characters!
At age 3, after happily learning 100 characters, she hit a phase where she was very resistant to learning new ones.
I realized I needed to prepare an environment that gave 老大 plenty of room for independence but would make her naturally curious about Chinese speaking and reading. I started brainstorming activities to make Chinese learning more enjoyable.
Our first hands-on Chinese reading activities
Here are pictures of some of our first activities! They are not photogenic because I took them before I planned to share this blog. But they were very effective because we bonded over these hands-on, meaningful memories!
Shape names in Chinese written in the shape
Reading sentences about shapes in Chinese
Reading Chinese and playing with stickers
Learning about cars and boats in Chinese with stickers from the dollar store and origami paper. Random Disney stickers from the mail – does anybody else get these unsolicited stickers in the mail?
Build-a-Chinese-sentence caterpillar craft
My daughter cut out these large circles and traced over the Chinese characters. Then she put the Chinese characters in the correct order.
Chinese reading and matching activity on the easel
My daughter thought it was so funny to ready about things that are smelly!
Clothing matching activity in Chinese
Review of Chinese characters about clothing and taping matching clothing cut outs to the cards.
Breakthrough after initial challenges with teaching Chinese
After a few weeks, we had a breakthrough when my daughter started asking me to write surprise messages. She would actually get upset if there wasn’t something new in the morning! And she’s learned SO much that the messages are turning into little stories.
Fast forward to now with 老大 at age 3.5, we do activities a few times a week and read Chinese everyday together. We have since found a fantastic native Mandarin speaking teacher from Beijing who comes once a week.
In addition, we have an amazing Korean-American nanny who speaks conversational Korean and has worked very hard to re-teach my daughter Korean. My daughter’s Korean teacher also continues to tutor once a week. 老大 loves her nanny and teachers, and I am very grateful for them!
Here’s a video of my daughter reading a short Chinese story that I wrote. The Chinese story was personalized and based on our family trip to the zoo!
I am so inspired by 老大 and how she made something that seemed so futile and hopeless into an amazing experience!
Although I’m proud of each milestone, it is so hard for me to keep up. Therefore, a few nights a week, I am trying to practice her books so we can read them together.
I’m motivated by the hope that my kids will be at least conversational in Korean and Chinese to connect them with their heritage, befriend more people around the world, and, most importantly, share God’s words with new friends!