Many people have asked how our family balances 3 languages (English, Chinese, Korean) as working parents of a 4.5-year-old girl and 20-month-old boy.
A few years ago, before committing to this journey, I remember wondering how languages other than English would ever fit it into our family schedule!
Now, our kids are exposed to all 3 languages regularly. However, since we are all native English speakers and live in an English-speaking community, it takes conscious effort for other languages to matter.
Our routine has changed from year to year due to work changes, moving, transitioning from 1 to 2 kids, stopping Korean lessons, and my daughter’s first year of preschool. Honestly, most of the year was survival mode and getting used to being productive with a baby in tow!
Despite the variability that comes with life, I think we are doing okay because our home environment supports the minority languages. Korean did suffer a bit this year due to the addition of English-speaking preschool to the schedule, and Chinese progress was slower than the previous year. However, Chinese and Korean exposure has been natural and fairly consistent throughout the week.
In this article, I will share our general trilingual schedule for the 2017-2018 school year and how it breaks down by language.
Please note that I believe that each family should follow their own rhythm and children’s interests. These are just examples; our schedules will differ from yours since we each have unique circumstances!
Quick recap of our family
- English is the dominant language (small town, USA); my children’s minority languages are Chinese and Korean.
- Our kids are exposed to all 3 languages almost daily through the one person, one language method (OPOL)
- Dad: English with very intermittent Korean
- Mom: Chinese (limited conversational proficiency)
- Nanny: Korean (conversational proficiency)
- 4.5-year-old 老大 (lǎodà / oldest child) enjoys reading Chinese (800+ characters), and she can read Korean (though she is resistant to it). She speaks and understands all languages, but English and Chinese are preferred.
- 20-month-old 老二 (lǎo èr / second child) had a huge language milestone burst last month! He is now speaking 2-4 word phrases in each language and seems to have a fairly equal amount of vocabulary in each language.
- My husband works full-time outside of the house; I work from home.
For the 2017-2018 school year, my daughter attended preschool 3 mornings per week. Our son is with our nanny for most of the day. This was our weekday schedule for the past school year:
- 7am: Kids wake up; son nurses; daughter explores new Chinese DIY activity or does activities on the shelves in the kids’ area; husband goes to work
- 8am: Breakfast & get ready for the day
- 9am: Daughter goes to school or kids play outside; mom starts work
- 10:30am: Snack
- 12pm: Lunch/son’s nap time
- 1pm: Pick up daughter from school; outside play or planned activity with nanny
- 3:30pm: Shower/snack
- 4pm: I am done with work; nurse son while my daughter can choose to watch a Chinese show for 30 minutes or play
- 4:30pm: Activities in the kids’ area; dinner prep
- 5:30pm: Dinner
- 6:30-7:30pm: Clean up (wash dishes, kids put toys away, everybody Swiffers); evening walk if there is time
- 7:30pm: Get ready for bed; story time and prayer
- 8pm: Bedtime (sometimes my husband makes it home in time)
We have a Montessori-inspired home, so the kids are involved with practical life skills (aka chores). This saves a lot of time for me, and they often like to help!
For example, my daughter folds and hangs her clothes, and she puts away her toys. My son helps me prep meals (washing / ripping kale is sensory play for him!), and he practices water pouring and scrubbing beside me when I am washing the dishes.
Although I wrote “nurse son” on my schedule twice, it’s actually more like a million times a day when I’m home! Sorry if this is “TMI”, but nursing is very time consuming, and I’m physically incapacitated to get other things done around the house!
Each day around anticipated longer nursing sessions, I try to have something ready for my daughter to do. Otherwise, she will often feel left out and jealous of her brother.
Most evenings is just me with the kids. After the kids go to bed, I try to study Chinese, brainstorm/prep new Chinese activities, and work on this website.
One evening per week, my husband and I have bible study over the phone with my brother-in-law who is a pastor. This is our only regular weeknight commitment.
Each week, we aim to fit in one date night (usually ends up being every other week), but otherwise we are usually up until 12-1am doing work on our computers.
On the weekend, our only scheduled event is church on Sunday mornings, and we attend an English-speaking church. The rest of the time is for free play (usually outdoors), though I try set up at least one new Chinese literacy activity.
Sometimes we have birthday parties on the weekend. On Saturday/Sunday mornings, my daughter has the option to watch 30 minutes of a Chinese show.
OPOL language schedule for 老大 and 老二
Here’s a visual breakdown of our kids’ language schedule during the week:
- 4.5-year-old 老大 has ~91 waking hours per week
- Red = Chinese = 35 hours (38%)
- Blue = English = 37 hours (41%)
- Yellow = Korean = 19 hours (21%)
- 20-month-old 老二 has ~84 waking hours (nap around 12-1p daily)
- Red = Chinese = 35 hours (42%)
- Blue = English = 20 hours (24%)
- Yellow = Korean = 29 hours (34%)
The color-coding indicates which language is dominant and depends on which adult is with the kids. One weekend per month, my husband works, so that is additional “Chinese time” with me.
However, the language immersion is never 100% in any language. The kids always hear English in the community, and my husband, nanny, and I communicate in English.
In addition, the kids are listening to Korean and Chinese music and audiobooks at various times of the day. Regardless of who they are with, they have a CD player in their play area, and they choose which songs they want to hear and start singing and dancing!
For one hour per week, my daughter has a one-on-one Chinese lesson which helps to refine her tones and pronunciation, but the bulk of the kids’ Chinese learning is through me.
As you can see from the overall breakdown, due to preschool, my daughter has the least exposure to Korean.
Language exposure is rarely equal, so our kids, like most people, will have a dominant language. Now that my son is verbal, my children will decide which language to speak to each other. At this time, it’s usually English or Chinese.
Although my son theoretically hears English the least, he has a very strong bond with my husband and picks up tons of English vocabulary during their short time together.
It’s pretty funny actually: my son will randomly try to speak in a low voice and say something in the same manner as my husband!
This leads to the point that quality of language exposure is just as important as quantity. My kids don’t hear “that much” Chinese especially compared to fluent bilingual families. But I think the reason for the language preference is that they have a need to use Chinese because I try to be as consistent as possible.
In addition, the language is relevant to them because we are integrating reading while playing, creating art, doing STEAM activities. Therefore, they are forming new, meaningful memories in this language.
Exceptions to OPOL
As show in the table, family time is mainly English. However, my kids and I are used to speaking to me in Chinese, so we often repeat everything in English so that my husband is included in the conversation.
The main exception to OPOL is regarding serious discussions, such as conversations about Jesus and the Bible. We want to make sure we understand each other, and my husband and I need to be on the same page. So for our family, these moments are suboptimal for language immersion.
We generally work on a theme for 2-4 weeks at a time (depending on interest), and we read books and do activities related to the topic. I choose themes based on the season and interest.
For Chinese & Korean learning, we focused on mostly learning how to identify and describe things. The priority has been communication, listening, and observing. We also learned new words related to each theme, but we have not formally started writing lessons.
Here are the topics that my daughter learned over the past year with links to related Chinese activities I have made:
- August: Sports & Recreation
- September: Food
- October: Human Body
- November: Clothing & Textiles, Thanksgiving
- December: Christmas, Winter
- January: Chinese New Year
- February: Valentine’s Day, Solar System
- March: Transportation
- April: Geography
- May/June: Nature
We also attempted Singapore Math (1A/B set), but it’s hard to sit through a workbook due to my active son. Each hands-on activity may take just a few minutes to complete or over an hour if my daughter really enjoys it.
For my 20 month old son, we are focusing on colors, shapes, and animals. I am using a Montessori approach for his learning, so we are focusing on the concrete concepts and learning how to describe things in our environment.
Although my daughter probably could have done some of the activities on my website at this age, my son is definitely not ready for them.
With a silly 20-month-old in the mix, it has been nearly impossible to have a structured plan since he started walking at age 10 months! When he was an infant, my daughter and I would enjoy long, uninterrupted activity and reading sessions, and she learned hundreds of Chinese characters rapidly.
Now, we have to be flexible, and I am still learning how to maximize teaching of 2 kids with different developmental levels and interests. My daughter is not learning quite much as she did last year. However, I’m trying not worry too much about it, because eventually my son will be able to sit still longer and participate in reading activities.
Therefore, some days, we read only one book. Some days, we read several. Sometimes my daughter reads on her own. Sometimes she only wants to hear me read. Sometimes we take turns reading. Sometimes we don’t read and just make up our own stories.
In any event, the kids have easy access to books including the bathroom and car, and are thus encouraged to look at books spontaneously throughout the day.
Exposure to media
At home, all media (music, audiobooks, shows) are in Chinese or Korean. This was an executive decision that I made when my daughter was 3, and this choice has made a huge difference for passive language exposure.
We have no digital toys that speak English. Kids get to hear English music on Sundays at church, and my daughter learns English songs at school.
The kids have free access to Chinese and Korean CDs, but other media is used sparingly. Chinese YouTube and other shows are for short duration for my daughter due to consequences explained in this TEDx video. I used to leave out all of our Chinese and Korean sound books for my 4.5 year old daughter.
However, they are overstimulating and distracting for my 20 month old son, so I now keep them in storage so there is more opportunities for natural conversation and play. I also hide our Qiaohu reading pen during the day, because it distracts our kids from meaningful engagement with our nanny in Korean.
A few more thoughts about our trilingual schedule
I would like to conclude this post by sharing that I am self-conscious about the fact that our family is lucky to have options and resources. We are very privileged compared to the life of my parents who were first-generation immigrants and couldn’t afford childcare. However, my goals for this post and website is to help families find ways for language learning to be enjoyable, practical, relevant, and applicable to your family.
I am truly humbled and feel blessed when I hear questions and encouraging comments from other families. Every family is unique, and it will take time and prayer to figure out the right rhythm that works. Please let me know if you have any questions in the comments below or you can email me!
My daughter just finished preschool, so now it’s officially summer break! Our nanny and I are working on a summer schedule, so stay tuned for a post about our summer plan soon!
Teaching kids how to read Chinese
- When and How to Introduce Chinese Characters to Kids?
- 5 Basic Tips for Memorizing Chinese Characters
- Create a Print-Rich Environment with Labels that Promote Literacy
- How I Taught My Child 1000+ Chinese Characters as a Non-Fluent Speaker
- 5 Ways My Child and I Are Learning Mandarin Chinese from Audiobooks
- When Should My Child Learn Hanyu Pinyin?