Raising Multilingual Children as a Non-Fluent Parent: 7 Lessons Learned

Raising multilingual children as a non-fluent parent – that pretty much sums up this year!

For the past 15 years, “Get better at speaking Chinese” has been my New Year’s resolution that got pushed to the wayside. 

During that time, my limited Chinese proficiency from childhood was dwindling.

Both of my parents passed away, and my job as a physician consumed all of my time and energy.

I also didn’t have any pressing need to use Chinese in my personal life since my husband is Korean-American.

However, 2017 was the year I could fill in this checkbox, because I’m doing it for my children.

Finally, I’m motivated to the task, and I’m lucky to have more time these days.

Quick recap of our multilingual family

English is the dominant language (small town, USA). My children’s minority languages are Chinese (through me) and Korean (through our nanny).

Big milestones this year are as follows:

  • Most of my conversations with my children are in Chinese (with the help of dictionary apps)!
  • 老大 (lǎodà / oldest child) reads Chinese very well (memorized ~700 Chinese characters?) and she’s learning to read Korean.
  • Most of 1-year-old 老二 (lǎo èr / second child)’s first words are in Chinese and Korean.
RAISING MULITLINGUAL CHILDREN AS A NON-FLUENT PARENT

Since we overcame many doubts and challenges this year, I wanted to reflect on what I learned as a non-fluent parent raising multilingual children:

1. All you need is one dedicated person to raise a multilingual child

My family lives in a small town with few people of Chinese or Korean heritage; we have no family in the area.

When we first moved here 2 years ago, I was very worried about the lack of an Asian community.

Since we’ve made great progress this year, I’m becoming more confident about being a one-woman band.

Technically, the minimum for passing on a language is one person (parent, grandparent, nanny), as in the one-person, one-language method.

Well, that and a supportive partner.

While my husband has elected to be relieved from Korean teaching duties (see #6 below), I am grateful for his support for our children’s Chinese learning environment.

This means he misses out on some conversations that I have with our kids, but 老大 tries to translate for him!

Consider this: The Risks of Overnurturing with Multilingual Parenting

2.  It is possible to teach your kid a language, even if you are not fluent.

When my 老大 was born, I had no plans to teach her Chinese.

Around age 2, I started to teach her everything I could say (which was not much at the time), and she learned my vocabulary in 2 months!  Then I had to learn quickly to stay ahead of her.

I found it easiest to learn nouns (eg, counting, colors, body parts, food) first, and spoke a lot of Chinglish (Chinese mixed with English), mostly English initially, and then gradually mostly Chinese.

My Chinese proficiency has improved through everyday conversations with my kids.  And they are learning naturally through this regular dialogue.

I’m also learning how to read Chinese with 老大, and she’s used to me pausing to check the Pleco or Google Translate apps.

老大 is now 4, and her Chinese pronunciation, tones, prosody, and reading has superseded mine.

Related: The Best Chinese and Korean Picture Dictionaries

3. If you are not fluent, try to outsource.

If you have the resources, try to invite at least one native speaker to be a regular part of your child’s life (eg, nanny, babysitter). 

So far, I’ve had no success in finding a native Chinese or Korean-speaking caregiver in our small town.

However, I am grateful for our loving nanny who is conversational in Korean and teaches the kids as much as she knows.

In addition, 老大’s wonderful, Beijing-born Chinese teacher comes weekly, and that one hour helps with correcting tonal or pronunciation mistakes that she picked up from me (whew!).

Outsourcing also allows your child to interact and befriend other people who share the language!

While I know that my kids love me so much now, they will care more about their peers and other role models as they grow.

Related: How to Find a Foreign Language Teacher for Your Child

4. Look around your house through the eyes of your child.  What percent of your home is visible or audible in the minority language?

Reducing English input

Last year, the answer would probably be <5%.  However, this year, I secretly banned English songs at home.

Because 老大 loved singing English nursery rhymes when she was 2, she did not want to hear Korean music or Chinese songs.

Don’t worry – I’m not saying that I want to take away her joy!  I explained to 老大 that she gets to sing English nursery rhymes in preschool and praise music in Sunday school.

However, home is the only chance for learning Chinese and Korean.

Surprisingly, 老大 understood this decision because she knows that my husband and I are not fluent.

This year, I’ve also donated any electronic toy that talks or sings in English.  Apologies to my kind friend who gifted the talking picnic basket, but it was sabotoging our Chinese learning environment!

Increasing Chinese input

In addition to “passive learning” of Chinese through music and audiobooks, I realized I needed to do this with Chinese words as well.

When I started leaving 老大 notes around the house and giving “name tags” to 老大’s stuffed animals, she was very curious to learn those Chinese characters.

Over the past year, I have also amassed tons of Chinese children’s books, and our home is now a print-rich environment in Chinese!

Explore this: Luka Reading Robot is a Game Changer for Bilingual Chinese-English Families

Need to work on Korean input

Unfortunately, we don’t have that many Korean books, as it’s hard for me to find the right ones for 老大.

Plus, since I have to focus on Chinese resources, I have little time to think about Korean ones.

That will be a major goal for 2018 – to give Korean learning a fair shot for my kids.

5. Make learning at home as fun as possible for your multilingual children!

Once kids start (monolingual) elementary school, minority languages are a high risk of attrition.

Since children are constantly making new and exciting memories in the dominant language (eg, English), they also need special experiences in the minority language through music, games, play, art, sports, and hands-on activities.

老大 and I had a special year bonding together through these various experiences!

6. Speaking a non-fluent language is hard when you’re sleep-deprived or frustrated!

Although I started introducing Chinese to 老大 at age 2, most of our conversations were in English until a year later when I was on maternity leave with 老二.

Since I was spending all day with 老大, maternity leave transformed our mostly monolingual home to a multilingual one.

However, it’s just so hard to think in a non-fluent language when you haven’t slept in months!  Same thing when you’re upset and just need to say what you need to say!

The words just don’t flow out the same in a non-fluent language.

Due to lack of time and sleep, my husband has decided to generally speak English to our children.

He’s an incredibly busy, caring, and hard-working physician who often speaks in Spanish to his patients and comes home after the kids are asleep.

With limited family time on the weekend, straining to think in Korean is not a worthwhile stress!

7.  If you don’t have a community that supports raising multilingual children, find it online.

I wish my parents had community support when they immigrated here. 

For our modern times, I am grateful for Facebook groups and a lovely Instagram community!

I have learned so much from parents with children older than mine, as well as parents just figuring out if this journey is for them.

These multilingual families have been a tremendous source of support for our family’s languages and cultures.

Try this: 有道 Youdao Dictionary Reading Translation Pen for Chinese-English Learners

When I first considered raising multilingual children a few years ago, I had questions and doubts about each of these points.

I know that it’s a long road ahead, but I’m really happy about how far we’ve come.

I’ve since heard many parents ask the same questions, and so I hope it is helpful to read what we learned.

How was language learning for your family this year?

What are your resolutions for next year?

Please feel free to share in the comments below!

Helpful tips on raising multilingual children

新年快乐!(Xīnnián kuàilè!)

새해 복 많이 받으세요! (Saehae bog manh-i bad-euseyo!)

Best wishes for a Happy, Healthy, and Multilingual New Year!


21 Comments

  1. Amazing testimony of a non fluent mandarin parent! Kudos to learning 3 languages simultaneously too. Love your learning spirit and creative ways! To a greater learning aptitude in 2018! 新年蒙恩!
    Cheers,
    Angie

  2. Your effort is truly inspirational and I’ve enjoyed reading your blog of fun projects to do with toddler/baby. I’ve considered adding Spanish into our Mandarin/English household though I’d like my 4yo to first accumulate enough traditional Chinese characters to read. Did you teach your 4yo to read?

    1. Hi Lucy! Thank you so much for reading and for your kindness! Yes, I have been teaching my daugther how to read – I am learning simultaneously but often have to check the dictionary for the pinyin/definition in order to tell her what a character means. But her memory is better than mine, and I estimate she know a couple hundred more characters than me currently. I do not plan to teach pinyin until sometime during elementary school

      I think it sounds like a great idea to introduce Spanish if you have the time and resources! Toddler brains are amazing and can handle learning multiple languages. 🙂 Keep me posted on what you decide! 🙂

  3. Hi Betty,
    May I ask when did your children start talking in sentences or putting two words together? My daughter is 2 & 1/2 now, we are hoping she could pick up 3 languages so I spoke Madarin to her, my husband speaks Cantonese and she leaned English from school once a week or watching nursery rhymes. I notice she rarely speak two word phrases and often times it’s single words. I been encouraging her to talk more in sentences and I see some improvement in these couple weeks. We are really worry that she may have speech delay and would like to know if you have encounter the same thing while raising your kids. Thanks a lot for reading my comments!!

    1. Hi Maggie! Thank you for taking the time to visit my website and sharing your story! Both of my children are early speakers, but every child develops at their own pace and there is a wide range of normal. Generally, language milestones should be the same in multilingual children as monolingual children. For example, the average 2 year old knows 50-200 words. This can mean 100 Chinese words plus 100 English words, or 2 English words plus 80 Chinese words. In addition, 2-year-olds are usually speaking in 2-word phrases (eg, more apples), regardless of # of languages. Sometimes it can be hard to tell how many words a child knows if the parent is not fluent in all of the child’s languages. And many times, a delay is temporary and the child catches up. These would be great questions to discuss with your pediatrician. Hope that helps!

  4. Hi Betty,
    May I ask when did your children start talking in sentences or putting two words together? My daughter is 2 1/2 now, we are hoping she could pick up 3 languages so I speak Mandarin to her, my husband speaks Cantonese and she learns English from preschool once a week also by watching nursery rhymes on TV. I recently notice she rarely speaks in two word phrases and most of time it’s single word. In the past couple weeks I have been encouraging her to spoke in two word phrases and she has gradually connecting two words together but I am still worry that she may have speech delay. I am wondering if you have encounter the same thing while raising your kids? Thank you for taking your times and reading my comments, love your blog!!!

    1. sorry for the duplicate comments, please disregard the first one I thought the first comment didn’t go through.

  5. Thank you so much for your experiences! My daughter is 1.5 years old and I am committed to speaking Chao Zhao Hua and Mandarin to her. Chao Zhao Hua was the Southern dialect I grew up speaking, however I am finding that it’s a struggle with only myself speaking it. My Mandarin is also lacking, since I do not use it much. My husband and our current nanny only speaks English. My husband has been making a point to learn Chinese from our daughter, so that he can speak with her. We are lucky where the local indoor play space have been offering 45 min weekly Chinese classes. I love that you are posting signs in Chinese for your little ones. I will start that this year as well. How are you switching from one language to another? To you say to the kiddies that you are speaking Chinese/Korean/English, etc?

    1. Hi Jenny! Thank you for the kind feedback and sharing your family’s language journey! I think that is so wonderful that your husband is trying to learn Chinese from and with your daughter!! We do the OPOL method, so the kids associate Mandarin with me, Korean with their nanny, and English with everybody. When I switch between Chinese and English, such as when i’m taking to my husband for example, I don’t really clarify since kids will figure it out. The only times when I make a point of clarifying the language are (1) I will gently ask my daughter to repeat something back to me in Chinese if she says it in English, more of a reminder that we are practicing Chinese together at home, and (2) When 1 yo 老二 hands me a Korean book, I point out that it is a Korean book but that I will read it to him in Chinese. Hope that helps! 🙂

  6. Wow… Your amazing. I’m trying to do Chinese, English, Japanese and a little of sign language. Funny thing is I am dyslexic and struggle with just my dominant language English. I am glad to know that you are also learning with her. Thank you so much for your wonderful tips. It makes me more hopeful that my daughter will be okay with languages even if I am not. Don’t love technology? Thanks Zhen.

    1. Thank you so much for reading and sharing your language goals! That’s wonderful that you are also trying to teach sign language too! I truly believe that our kids can have a chance at learning languages regardless of our challenges 🙂

  7. So inspirational! I am in the same boat, basic conversational Cantonese, but since having my son something inside me is saying carry on and keep trying! He has picked up lots, but sadly my partner has asked me to speak English with him when he is around as he is feeling excluded 🙁 I empathize with how he is feeling so have agreed to this. I work part time so still have two full days a week with my son and also drive him to nursery which takes about an hour each way, but sometimes the constant chat (now that time is precious!) is exhausting especially when my language is limited! Thank you for all your tips! Will definitely be putting some into place at home!

    1. Thank you for reading and sharing your story! I know what you mean about the motivation we get from our children. I’m inspired to hear your determination and balancing it with work, commuting, and family needs. 加油!

  8. Holy cow, I am so happy to have found you! My son just turned 7 months and I recently have been thinking/worrying about how I could start laying the foundation for teaching/learning Chinese as a non-fluent parent. I haven’t read every post on your website yet but you bet I WILL! I just wanted to express how thankful I am that someone like me is sharing their experience. Thank goodness for internet! And, for people like you!

    1. Hi Amy! It’s so nice to hear from you! Thank you so much for the kind message 🙂 I hope that you will find the resources that you will need for your baby as he grows! Please let me know if I can help in any way!

  9. Just stumbled on your blog when I was searching for how to get my kids onto Chinese audiobooks….it’s a real challenge to get them to hear Chinese well despite being Chinese ourselves. We think and speak too often in English in our multilingual country since English is the common code. Just feel it’s a pity for kids to miss out on the richness of Chinese thought and culture….thanks for all the great tips for getting started on Xinmalaya. Definitely raring to give it a go now!

  10. I know this is an older post, but SO lovely to hear about your experiences as someone going through a similar journey! (except with Lithuanian, not Chinese or Korean). Have you found any awesome online groups of non-fluent parents raising bilingual kids? My three biggest frustrations are Lithuanian just NOT being a super common language in the U.S, finding other parents who are making language-teaching a huge priority in their home, and finding resources to help me teach my kids.

  11. Can you speak or write a little more about add a 3rd language. My kids are perfectly bilingual, French and English, but I am having a hard time with Mandarin which is our 3rd language that neither me or my partner speak. I am out sourcing, my daughter’s school have 1h30min of Mandarin per week, my son with be going to a Mandarin School next year. I have a hard time getting them Mandarin motivated at home.

    1. Hi Natalie, thanks for reaching out! Congratulations on your success with balancing French and English! Are you able to increase the amount of Mandarin tutoring for your children to at least a few times per week? Other ways that you can increase Chinese exposure include music (many options here) and audiobooks. We also like storytime shows on YouTube . Momentum takes time to build, and if you are able, I would try to learn some Mandarin along with them. Even a few phrases and simple songs can show them you are interested, too. Please let me know if I can help with anything else!.

  12. Hi !
    Thank you so much for your website, and for sharing your tips, it’s very helpfull. I’ve got trouble to find Chinese books in Europe with affordable postage fees (if anyone knows about online seller, please, let me know)
    I’m french, and I raised my kid talking to him partly in english, even I am not native at all. I wondered a lot about it, some people were even saying that doing so would bring language troubles (which is stupid, a lot of countries are bilingual, but it got me worried at the time). Now, my son is 12, he entered a very selective international school where all the kids come from english/american native families. He chose to begin to learn Chinese in middle school, which is a complete challenge for him and me. But learning a third language is easier for him, thanks to this bilingual education.
    So my advice to young parents would be : do what you can, it will always be better than nothing. A new language, no matter how you master it, is an opening to the world, to other cultures, and it will be a treasure for your child and probably for you too (I discovered a lot in american literature, and now I am learning Chinese – mostly thanks to him – which is a complete new and wonderful adventure)

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