How do I teach my kids a second language?
This is the most common question I hear from parents, so I’m bringing it down to the basics and sharing a printable 5-step action plan with you all!
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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How to teach a
second target language
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.
At the time of this article, my 4-year-old daughter speaks Chinese fluently and reads 800+ Chinese characters despite my lack of fluency and literacy.
My tips are based on my family’s Chinese learning strategies and the advice I have received from other multilingual families.
5 Key Steps for teaching a minority language at home
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!
A printable action plan will be provided at the end of the post!
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 simply 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 and many other languages.
- Sign up for online Chinese and Korean language tutors
For more ideas, please explore 10+ ways to find a foreign language teacher for your child.
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 expose 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 blocks, drawing, and completing puzzles.
For Chinese, many 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. Here are more free Chinese stories and tips on how we use audiobooks to learn Chinese.
For Korean, we are gradually learning about more resources in our bilingual 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
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 may prefer the English words over what you say. Therefore, if your local library has a limited selection of multilingual books, I highly recommend creating a language library at home.
Most of our books are from online Chinese bookstores and Korean bookstores.
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.
Check out our Educational Activities Library for a variety of ideas!
Start your family’s bilingual / multilingual journey with this printable 5-step action plan!
You can download the printable 5-step language learning to-do list and action plan in English, simplified Chinese, and traditional Chinese by clicking one of the following links:
- English Language Action Plan
- Simplified Chinese Language Action Plan
- Traditional Chinese Language Action Plan
If your family speaks another minority language, I strongly advise that you make a to do list in your target language (eg, visual cues)!
Recommended articles about raising multilingual children
For more advice on raising multilingual children, I highly recommend the following posts:
- Raising Multilingual Children As a Non-Fluent Parent: 7 Lessons Learned
- How To Get Your Child To Speak the Minority Language
- 15 Ways to Get Your Child to Read Throughout the Day
- Raising Bilingual Children – Who Should Speak What? (Huffington Post)
- How To Create a Chinese Language Ecosystem (Cebilingual.org)
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