I had a random day off of work this week 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. I snapped this photo of 老大 a few days ago approaching the dead-end with excitement with 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.
This moment represents our Chinese language journey.
Before 老大 was born, I didn’t speak Chinese for several years because my parents passed away in my 20s. I also completely forgot how to read Chinese, so I initially hadn’t considered teaching 老大 Chinese. It really seemed impossible, and 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!
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
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!). So we started weekly private lessons with a Korean teacher who taught her Hangul and many songs. But because there was no reinforcement during the week, 老大 almost forgot how to speak Korean.
I was so bummed about her loss of Korean that I thought I might try teaching her the little Chinese that I knew. 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”.
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, so at least 老大 would get passive exposure. With her advice, I started introducing Chinese by singing and playing 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 the dictionary. 老大 was used to me looking up words all the time and started recognizing characters!
At age 3, after remembering about 100 characters, she hit a phase where she was very resistant to learning new ones. Luckily, I found an amazing Facebook group, Raising Bilingual Children in Chinese & English, where parents worldwide were encouraging each other through the same challenges! I was so inspired by this community to brainstorm ways to make Chinese learning more enjoyable, and CHALK Academy was born.
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 and leaving her notes and messages around the house! Here are pictures of our first activities! They are not photogenic, but they were very effective!
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 several times a week and read Chinese everyday together. We have since found a great Beijing-native teacher 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 story I wrote about 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! I’m proud of each milestone, thought I realize it is unrealistic to expect that they will be anywhere near true trilingualism. It’s so hard for me to keep up, so a few nights a week, I am trying to practice her books so we can read them together. But I hope my kids will be at least conversational in Korean and Chinese to connect them with their heritage, befriend more people around the world, and appreciate hard work and perseverance!