How do I teach my kids a second language?
This is the most common question I hear from parents, so it’s about time that I write about the basics and share an action plan. Raising multilingual children in monolingual countries like the United States is not easy, and many parents aren’t sure when or how to begin. To make matters more challenging, kids tend to favor whatever language his or her friends are speaking (eg, English in our case). Therefore, if you want your child to learn a second language, daily support is necessary at home.
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When giving advice about this topic, I prefer to use the term “target” and not second language, because target suggests that goals are in place to prioritize the minority language(s). In our family, the target languages are Chinese and Korean. My 4-year-old daughter currently speaks Chinese fluently and reads 800+ Chinese characters despite my lack of fluency and literacy. So, my tips are based on my family’s Chinese learning strategies and the advice I have received from parents in a Facebook support group for English/Chinese-speaking families.
In this post, I will give specific resources related to our family’s languages. However, please note that the 5 key steps in teaching your child a minority language apply to any language. To improve the chances of learning the target language, a language-rich environment is necessary. I highly suggest making a to do list and tackling at least two of the steps each day!
1. Speak the target language (eg, Chinese, Korean)
If you speak Chinese or Korean and want your child to learn it, the first thing to do is to just start talking! The sooner the better, and try very hard not to switch back to the dominant language. If the parent switches to English, then naturally the kid will also switch. Consistency is necessary so that it’s habit to think and reflex to reply in the minority language.
Parents who don’t speak the target language will need to outsource:
- Hire a caregiver who speaks the language.
- Ideally, this person should come several days per week for a few hours per day. Once a week is not enough. Neither is Saturday Chinese or Korean school.
- We’ve had wonderful luck finding Korean-speaking caregivers through Care.com. You can filter caregivers by language on their website.
- Enroll in an immersion school.
- The Mandarin Immersion Parents Council has a full list of Mandarin Immersion schools in the United States.
- Heritage Languages in America has a list of Korean schools in the United States.
2. Listen to Chinese and Korean music
Singing and dancing are so fun for kids! At home, we mainly listen to Chinese or Korean music, which I realize may be too restrictive for many families, but it’s made a huge difference for us. Of course, we love English music, too! However, since my daughter is learning new English songs in preschool and Sunday School, we’ve decided to focus on Chinese and Korean songs at home.
For families with young children who are just starting out, my recommendations for clear and pleasant children’s music include the following:
If you have older children, definitely look for Chinese and Korean pop music or whatever they are interested in – you’ll need to choose music that suits their preference.
3. Listen to Chinese and Korean audiobooks
Unless you live in a community that shares your target language, your children probably won’t hear many other people speak the language. Therefore, audiobooks are important to exposed your children to a variety of native speakers. We listen to audiobooks in the car, and my daughter also listens to them when she is building with her blocks, legos, and puzzles.
For Chinese, the two best audiobook apps are free! Ximalaya broadcasts a variety of Chinese books. 咔哒故事 is actually a picture book app, but since we have limited screentime, we generally listen to stories without looking at the iPad.
For Korean, we don’t have many options but are gradually learning about more resources in our Facebook group.
4. Build a Chinese and Korean home library
In addition to “passive learning” of speaking/comprehension through normal conversation, music, and audiobooks, children also need to see the language. Visual cues serve as prompts for speaking the language! If you live in an English-speaking community, street signs and household labels are in English. Therefore, you will need to make sure words in the target language are visible.
The 2 main ways that we make Chinese and Korean visible is by:
- Showing the front covers of books
- Writing large Chinese and Korean words on our easel or other things around the house
If your local library has a limited selection, I highly recommend creating a language library at home. It’s so important to read to your child everyday and have options that they are interested in! Let them take the lead in choosing a favorite book for story time. Sure, you can translate English books to a different language, but your child will likely want to hear the English words and not whatever you are saying. You can find a list of Chinese bookstores in our FAQs.
5. Do fun activities in Chinese and Korean with your kids
My most important advice for teaching a minority language is to make it as fun and natural as possible with real interaction!! Since kids are making exciting new memories at school and extracurricular activities with their friends in English, we need to think about how we can engage our children and make special memories at home with the target language.
When my daughter was two, I started incorporating Chinese learning while playing hide-and-seek! It was a simple, low-stress way to learn many common words. Then, when I realized how much my daughter loved art, we mixed Chinese literacy with our crafts. Whatever it is that your child likes (eg, soccer, jumping, puzzles, imaginative play), integrate learning with those interests! If you’re lucky enough to have sports, dance, or other lessons in the target language, take advantage of those opportunities. Kids will learn more from those experiences than being forced to plow through a textbook.
Below is a photo of a fun activity that we did with the iSuper Science Chinese books!
You can download the printable 5-step language learning to-do list and action plan here! However, since it is in English, I highly recommend making your own to do list in your target language if possible (eg, visual cues)!
For more advice on raising multilingual children, I highly recommend the following posts:
- Raising Multilingual Children As a Non-Fluent Parent: 7 Lessons Learned in 2017
- 10 Ways to Get Your Child to Read Throughout the Day
- Raising Bilingual Children – Who Should Speak What? (From huffingtonpost.com)
- How To Create a Chinese Language Ecosystem (From cebilingual.org)
- Raising Multilingual Montessori Kids (From montessorinature.com)
- The Do’s and Dont’s of Raising Bilingual Kids (From bilingualkidspot.com)
- How To Jumpstart Your Kid’s Chinese (From mandarinmama.com)
As always, please let me know if you have any questions, and I’ll try my best to answer them! Please leave a note in the comments!
You can also follow me on Facebook where I share my latest posts as well as favorite articles about children’s education, Chinese resources, and hands-on activities from other websites! In addition, on Instagram, I share activity highlights and how we integrate Chinese & Korean-learning in our daily life!