This guide to teaching babies Chinese, Korean, and other languages is what I wish I had when my first child was born. Raising a bilingual baby is much more complicated than speaking a language. In a monolingual country like the United States, a multilingual journey requires deliberate long-term effort, preparation, and commitment.
Overcoming doubts about raising a bilingual baby
When our first child was born, my husband and I were exhausted and working erratic hours. We were not sure if our kids would learn other languages.
Our own parents were fluently bilingual but failed to pass their languages to us. How could we possibly stand a chance?
My husband realized that he would not have the energy to speak Korean, & I had forgotten how to speak Chinese at that time.
Parenting a baby is physically and emotionally demanding, and we were barely surviving in just one language! After moving to a different city, we parted ways with our beloved Korean-speaking nanny. Within weeks, my first child became monolingual again.
By the time my second child was born and my oldest child was nearly 3, I had more insight about our goals and capabilities. I knew raising multilingual children would be a worthwhile, meaningful endeavor for our family.
Raising a Bilingual Baby: 5 Things Parents Should Do
I hope this post can help highlight the 5 most important tasks needed for starting the bilingual journey during the baby years!
If you have older kids, a more relevant article will be Teach Your Child a Second Language at Home with 5 Key Steps. But feel free to keep reading this post if you’d like! 🙂
More tips about raising bilingual children
- 7 Reassuring Facts About Raising Bilingual Children
- Teaching Minority Languages to Kids: A New Approach Can Help
- The Risks of Overnurturing with Multilingual Parenting
Determine who will speak what language to the baby
The first step is to create a language plan with your spouse, relatives, and other caregivers!
Talk to your family about your hopes for raising a bilingual or trilingual child.
Even if spouses and grandparents are monolingual, they can still be supportive of raising a bilingual baby.
Important questions to discuss:
- Who should speak what language(s)?
- What are realistic goals for each language? (Read this Letter to Parents from Dr. Oliver Tu)
- Do you need to take lessons (eg, online tutoring) to improve your fluency in the target language(s)?
- Can you hire a fluent caregiver to help raise a bilingual baby?
- What physical resources do you need for each language?
- How much can you budget for resources in the minority language (eg, books, travel, caregivers)?
In the past few years, we have outsourced Korean to nannies. After long work days, my husband does not have energy to speak Korean.
On the other hand, I have been motivated to relearn my mother tongue, Chinese, along with my kids. Regardless of our differences, we have been supportive of each other.
Prepare your home for the minority language
After you and your spouse have decided about languages, the next step is to prepare the home for your bilingual baby.
If you live in a monolingual community, creating an environment that nurtures the minority language(s) is crucial.
What does a prepared environment look like?
- Music and books should be readily available in the minority language.
- Labels in the target language contribute to a print-rich environment which in turn provides visual reminders for language goals.
- Artwork and decorations that celebrate your culture(s) and languages.
- If the family is struggling with the minority language(s) distractions in the dominant language may need to be removed.
Although babies can learn multiple languages simultaneously, families may wish to defer teaching the dominant language.
During the infant, toddler, and preschool years, a strong foundation in the minority language(s) can be established before learning the dominant language. Generally, the dominant language will catch up quickly during the school years.
Talk to baby in the target language consistently
Starting from the first day of life, babies are constantly learning about their parent’s sounds, facial expressions, and body language.
Speak the minority language consistently to create a habit and establish a language relationship.
- Talk to them with clear, descriptive, and positive vocabulary while giving them a bath or taking them for a walk in the baby carrier or stroller.
- Narrate your actions, such as drinking water, eating food, and picking up your baby. Share your observations, such as color, counting, texture, sound, and other findings.
- While speaking, be sure to point, hold, and touch objects so that your baby learns what you are saying. Visual and tactile input reinforces each spoken word!
- Use real words and avoid baby talk.
- Baby sign language can also help improve communication! This video from teacher Ms. Jenny Zhan shows common signs and Chinese words related to mealtime.
Sing songs in the target language
Children are naturally drawn to music, and singing is a fun way to expose your child to various tones and rhythm in your language!
Make up dances and hand motions to favorite songs!
If you need need a refresher on classic nursery rhymes, check out:
Read baby board books in the target language
Last but not least, create a daily routine of reading baby board books in each target language, especially the minority language.
Since babies are curious about the world, look for books with realistic photos, such as pictures of animals and other babies!
Other tips to consider:
- Remember that little ones are normally active and might only sit for a few minutes at a time!
- Touch-and-feel sensory books or those with sturdy flaps are opportunities for participation!
- Beware of overstimulating media; books with crisp, simple visuals & few images per page are great for babies.
- Make books accessible, such as in a floor basket or front-facing wall shelf. Over time, babies can practice getting books and sitting for longer periods as they grow!
What do you don’t need to raise a bilingual baby
I have good news for you! Despite all of the advertisements out there, I’m putting my pediatrician hat on to tell you that you don’t need a million toys!
You also don’t need to create any special activities at this age. Everything is naturally exciting and new for babies and young toddlers!
And please don’t park your baby in front of the television. Infants and young toddlers need interaction with real life which includes quiet exploration.
With the exception of video-chatting with relatives, screen-time can negatively affect development and attention span.
What should I do when my bilingual baby becomes a toddler?
Reassess your language goals, resources, and support system!
If raising a bilingual child remains an important goal, continue bonding in the minority language!
Keep singing and reading to your child, and talk to your child while doing everything from chores to adventures outdoors.
As time permits, fun memories can be created with simple activities, such as:
- Going on a scavenger hunt (free printable in Chinese, Korean, English)
- Giant color sorting
- Matching animal photos
- Leaf sorting and learning about the parts of a flower
- Make rainstick sensory bottles
- Line and letter sticker tracing – pre-writing skills for kids
And regular household chores (Montessori practical life skills) are often exciting for toddlers! Talk in the minority language while your toddler learns to:
- Sort tupperware
- Throw clothes in the hamper
- Wash fruits and vegetables (eg, water play!)
- Wipe the table
- Sweep the floors
Remember: the best guide is your child and his or her interests, and take it from there!
Do as little or as much as you can manage for your family’s bilingual journey!
What if we’re not yet ready to raise a bilingual baby?
Please remember that the best time to start is different for every family.
If the stars don’t align at this time, look for opportunities in the future.
Remember, your baby has plenty to learn everyday. You can still plant a positive seed so they have respect for other languages.
Although acquiring a new language is often more challenging at older ages, kids and adults are learning languages around the world at various ages! Many parents in our generation are learning and re-learning our mother tongue with our children.
Read How To Get Your Child To Speak the Minority Language for a detailed example of making the transition later in childhood.
Do you have questions about raising a bilingual baby?
Please leave a comment below! I’d love to hear about your questions, concerns, and experiences. This journey is more doable and rewarding if we can encourage each other!