H [of H&AL] | Mom of 2 | Raising bilingual kids in Chinese (Mandarin) & English
Grew up in the US | Worked in Asia for 7-8 years
Native in English | Fluent-ish in Mandarin (but wish I was so much better)
Learned Traditional when young & Simplified when older
Back to school or maybe even just starting school? For families trying to raise bilingual kids, one key question is "How do I maintain bilingual learning" (knowing that kids will naturally starting speaking English)? While I certainly don’t purport to have all the answers, I am trying a few things with my eldest (5-yr old daughter) and sharing here, in case it is helpful food for thought!
Objective: If English exposure has increased, find ways not to “decrease” English, but to “increase” ChineseWhen my daughter was born, I started her in an exclusive Chinese-speaking environment. My husband and I would speak only Mandarin, and we would ask family / caregivers around her to do the same. Now that she’s speaking and reading English, creating an “exclusive Chinese environment” seems unrealistic, especially given that we are native English speakers and live in the US. So my objective now is not to “decrease” English but to find ways to “increase” the Chinese, Specifically, this means:
- Increasing exposure - trying to find opportunities for her to hear and speak Chinese
- Increasing motivation (& affinity) - giving her reasons to *want* to speak Chinese - in a way that doesn’t feel forced. (As a kid, I felt like Chinese school was a chore; will share more about my own non-linear Chinese language journey later!)
Tactic 1: Create more opportunities to SPEAK with native and heritage speakers
I always notice my daughter speaking more Chinese when her grandparents are around - for obvious reasons. They are native Chinese speaker (Mandarin, Taiwanese, Hakka, Shanghainese). I am a native English speaker. So at some point, is it awkward to force her to speak to me in Chinese, if she naturally finds me more proficient in English? Maybe yes, maybe no. As a baby (when her vocabulary was more limited), it worked. But as she gets older, I expect this will gradually change.
Her grandparents on the other hand ARE native speakers. And even if they can’t be there 365 days a year, there is always phone, Facetime, Zoom, and other chat tools. We feel lucky to have them in our lives and during the pandemic, got into a habit of calling both sets every evening around dinnertime, which created dedicated Chinese conversation time without feeling forced. In addition to grandparents, there are other types of native communities … pen pals, relatives abroad, native-speaking neighborhoods, care-givers, teachers, grandparents - of your kids’ friends, and more.
This tactic may seem so basic and so obvious, but because things are so English-dominant in the US, I find this tactic is more about being intentional … identifying native-speakers in our lives and then creating consistent and habitual ways for my kids to engage with them.
Tactic 2: Maximize other types of Mandarin audio to increase LISTENING comprehension
A lot of parents talk about this, and it’s true. If I’m going to be engaging in screen time - Youtube, Netflix, TV, movies - I try to make it Chinese. (Their favorite shows have been: Spirit, Super Wings, and Robocar Poli). Do they sneak in some English shows when I’m not looking? Yes. Do I wish I were more diligent about it? Yes. But I *try* as a general principle to make sure that when she turns on the TV, she picks something with Mandarin audio and subtitles.
There’s also non-screen audio, which I rely on heavily for younger kids (to avoid screen time). This, of course, involves Habbi Habbi. Our house is littered with the full Habbi Habbi library, which we have on our shelves, available for independent play. Our favorite "#habbihabit" though is to use them during meal time. When my daughter was young (~1-3 years old), she would get distracted easily, so we used to give her the books to tap, while we shovel food in her mouth. While it might not have been the best "meal behavior," we found it so efficient in maximizing exposure while ensuring she was fully fed! She has since grown out of this habit now that she is older, but we now do the same thing with our toddler son. (We tell ourselves it is better than watching TV, to make ourselves feel better!)
We also have other books the grandparents have brought from Asia … Traditional Chinese books from Taiwan, Simplified Chinese books from China. We have a lot - and they’re all out on the shelf, with their English books, for them to pull out and play with. If we find they're pulling more English (which is the case with my daughter now that she can read more English than Chinese), we try to be more proactive as parents in suggesting and picking books together. "Let's pick a Chinese book." (Though if it is one of us reading with her, it has to be a book with pinyin or Habbi Habbi where we can use the Wand, since I can't read enough Chinese characters!)
My daughter also loves listening to stories before bed. After our typical bedtime routine, I turn on an audio device to play stories in Chinese. I’ve tried everything from pre-recorded stories on her 火火兔 (huǒ huǒ tù) - a popular electronic rabbit that plays both music and stories. We also download stories and play them on an old iphone on airplane mode. If I can’t find enough good, ad-free content, I may go old-school and buy a CD player and stories on CD. Some friends of ours (whom I think are the closest to truly “bilingual”) listened to 孙悟空 (sūn wù kōng) growing up and credit it with their excellent pronunciation, so I plan on looking for that, too!
Tactic 3: Increase vocabulary by starting the (intimidating) task of READING Chinese
When I first had kids, I thought... if they can converse fluently (not just “home speak” but fluent enough to work in Asia), that is a win for a third generation ABC. I used to think of reading as a “nice to have.” But in creating Habbi Habbi, I have spoken to many truly multilingual parents, and I have realized that I can’t expect her to become truly “fluent” without reading. Specifically, it was this conversation I had with Yoshito (quadrilingual, French-Japanese teacher) where I realized that if I just focused on listening and speaking, my kids could be conversationally fluent - certainly a great milestone - but would not be able to move beyond that.
Now, learning how to read seems like a huge task, given that Chinese is character based (and not phonetic), and I myself don’t know enough characters to read anything beyond children's books. Having asked many other parents, there doesn’t seem to be a trick or way around it - kids just need to memorize 3000 characters to have enough vocabulary to read basic things. So, I decided that it's something I wanted our faimly to take on ... and started a levelled reading book-set (for less than $40) called 四五快读 (sì wǔ kuài dú), and so far it’s going ok! (See here for 30-second clip of our progress so far.) I will report back as we go through it more. So far, we’ve gone through the first two readers and will just have to keep going - consistency!
Tactic 4: Travel (when it opens up) for cultural CONTEXT
This is a little unrealistic now, given borders are still closed, and quarantine periods are 2-3 weeks in Asia. But when borders open, I plan to integrate more trips to Asia to reinforce Chinese - not only speaking, but people, food, culture, and everything that comes with total immersion. (There are SO many multilingual stories we have done where our interviewees have talked about the power of travel and local immersion; Diana, Eveline, and Liz’s stories stand out here.)
We recognize that travel (the expense and time required) is an immense privilege. I know because growing up, we didn’t travel back to Taiwan regularly for those reasons. But if we are lucky now to have the capacity to do so, I will make it a priority.
When people ask “where?” - I plan on bringing them across Asia, prioritizing Mandarin speaking areas - Taiwan (my family is from there), Shanghai (I worked there; my husband's family is from there), Beijing (I lived there), Singapore (many friends there), and more.
When people ask about the different accents, I don’t worry about it… in fact, I think it’s helpful for my kids to hear different regional accents. It’s the world we live in, and I want them to be able to understand and communicate with folks from different regions. I also think it helps them calibrate their own accent when they hear different people speak.
Tactic 5: Nurture motivation & independence so that language learning is SELF-DRIVEN
Reflecting on my own language learning journey, my biggest takeaway is that sustainable language learning is driven by internal motivation. I can try to force it at home or through school, and this may help my kids reach a very basic level …but from what I hear from others, there comes an age when ‘forcing’ kids is unrealistic and other activities compete with (or crowd out) formal “Chinese learning time.”
So, my final ‘tactic’ is more overarching … it is about showering my kids with different influences, one or many of which I hope will spark their own motivation to love and learn Chinese. This includes things like …
Not just speaking Chinese but also asking and hearing about grandparents’ stories. “Chinese” (Mandarin / Taiwanese / Shanghainese) is not just a language; these are also our “heritage.”
I mentioned travel earlier … Chinese is not just a language we speak at home. It is spoken by over a billion people, in different parts of the world.
Food … Chinese is not just a subject at school. It is a culture that is delicious and full of rich sub-cultures and cuisines.
Chinese music … It may start with nursery rhymes now but eventually could be artists like Jay Chou (or whatever the modern day equivalent for him is!)
Chinese dramas … Not for toddlers but eventually could be screen time I support! My first drama was Meteor Garden, and I credit that with sparking interest in wanting to be able to know Chinese better!
Other Chinese pop culture … fashion, technology, and more. We love the way Diana talks about a cultural renaissance that is happening.
And perhaps most important - people … this includes not just family but also new friends part of a greater global Chinese diaspora. There are those that look like them (ABC, CBC, BBC) from the western countries like the US, Canada, UK, Australia … but also those part of a greater global Chinese diaspora … I have found the most truly 'bilingual’ folks from places like Hong Kong, big cities in China, Singapore, southeast Asia, and more. (I met many friends from these places in college, and their friendship and influence was essential to my own Chinese learning journey, which I will share more later!)
These are some interim thoughts (that will undoubtedly evolve, change, get more nuanced) from a mom who obviously cares about language learning enough to build a product that makes it more accessible for other families! Please do share with us your perspectives and feedback! It’s an ongoing conversation, and we love learning from your stories. :)
Some products link to Amazon.com with an affiliate link. We did not select these products because they were on Amazon. We wrote this post based on our experience, and tried to share links in case useful. There is zero pressure to make a purchase, and zero pressure to use these links. If you do, Habbi Habbi may earn a small % from qualifying purchases. And we may use our affiliate funds to go on a boba date after a long day at the warehouse. :)