5 tips for raising bilingual kids, for heritage and non-native families

Posted by Habbi Habbi on

As moms and founders of Habbi Habbi, we get a lot of questions about raising bilingual kids and what we have learned from our work in the bilingual education space. Whether it's raising bilingual kids in Chinese, Spanish, French, Korean, Hindi, or other - some principles are consistent, and we thought it would be helpful to distill our research into a few simple, tactical tips. We hope these bilingual learning tips are helpful on your language learning journey - whether you are a heritage family, already going to immersion school, or a non-native family just getting started! 

1. Start with home: Create an immersive bilingual environment 

This of course could involve a host of different physical tools (like bilingual books) and also verbal habits (like speaking to kids in the target language or creating spaces and opportunities to do so). Regardless, the general idea is to maximize exposure - with as many touch points as consistently as possible. Here we list some examples of both tools and habits you may try. (And of course have to mention our Reading Wand & Books here - which enable exposure through independent or joint play) - but there are plenty of free resources as well, including our Printables)!  

  • Labels - Label your house with your own labels (or feel free to try out our free Habbi Habbi printable flashcards). 

  • Posters - another way to create a visual environment, like labeling

  • Strategic book / toy placement - Put books you'd like them to reach for on low shelves. We put our Habbi Habbi books on the lowest shelf in our playroom. We heard one family strategically place them at the bottom of a bed side table, because that is where their daughter was reaching for favorite items.  

  • Bring books & Wands in car - Why not make use of all time? Even if it is 5-10 minutes on the way to and from school, it is still another 5-10 minute opportunity to expose kids to more words (and an opportunity to make a consistent habit!) 

  • Using target vocabulary in daily activities - There are so many opportunities on when you can use target vocabulary. Maybe you talk about favorite foods consistently during meal time ... or about house vocabulary as you reach for the objectives ... or about days of the week and months of the year at the start of the day or season.  

2. Bring in culture: Language is more than a subject 

We deeply believe sustainable learning is driven by internal motivation. So we try to help our kids understand context and culture, so they care too. For example, in one of our homes: 

  • Stories … Chinese is not just a language; it is our ‘heritage.’

  • Travel … Chinese is not just a language spoken at home; it is spoken by 1B+ people across the world.

  • Food … Chinese is not just a subject at school … it is a culture with subcultures of delicious cuisines.

  • Music … May start with nursery rhymes now but could grow to be Jay Chou (or modern day equivalent!)

  • Pop culture … This could be technology, music, fashion, and more. 

  • Perhaps most important - people … not just family but new friends as part of the greater global Chinese diaspora.

    [Note: This reminds us of our discussion about not only being bilingual but bicultural with Dianna (Read More Here). We loved our chat and hearing how she became quadrilingual and how she so easily moves between cultures - whether that means adopting a northern Beijing accent, southern Taiwanese accent, or speaking Cantonese.] 

3. Engage people: Can you build a bilingual community? 

This topic is one where some families may be more advantaged than others. Some are lucky to speak it themselves and can play the “One Parent One Language” role. Some are lucky to have family members who are native speakers that live close by or a video call away. Others are lucky to have the resources to introduce a bilingual nanny or caretaker into their kids’ lives. 

Regardless of your situation, try to be intentional about: 

  • Who is in their life 

  • What is the role they play 

  • Have an explicit conversation upfront about how you hope they can add to the language component   

    [Note: For those lucky enough to have a bilingual caretaker at home, we share more tips about ways to leverage and maximize bilingual support to increase immersion at home. You can read more here: Looking for a bilingual nanny? 5 ways to increase immersion at home.

4. Participate yourself: Even if you don't speak it 

What you do signals how important this is for your kids. If you try to learn or even speak a few words, they will know it is important to you, too. 

This does not mean that you have to be a native speaker - it just means that you have to show that you are interested. This could look anything like: 

  • Asking your child how to say something in the target language? 
  • Opening a target-language book - not for your child but for yourself. [We always tell our Habbi Habbi families ... if your child hasn't picked up a book, why don't you take out one book you think is fun, turn on the Reading Wand and start tapping? See how long it takes for them to come join and play with you.] 
  • Sing a song or learn together with your child in the target language? 
  • Explore a recipe in the target language 
  • Ask a question about the culture(s) associated with the target language? 

We love the way our friend Naomi of Ninos & Nature put it: 

“A lot of the parents I meet are so intimidated - which is totally understandable. And when you dig in, they’re intimidated because they don’t know how to participate. They are worried about teaching their kids the wrong thing, about their pronunciation, etc.  

But I always tell them this: You have an entire lifetime to perfect your pronunciation but a very small window of time to expose your child’s brain to the fact that life can exist in multiple languages - so jump in as soon as you can and just get started.” 

5. Return to 'why': Remind yourself why this matters 

It’s not easy. There are days where we, as parents, are too tired. There are days where other activities seem more important. There are days they will just refuse, because they like speaking English more, especially after they start school. [Read more about our reflections after starting school here: My kids want to speak English now that they're in school. 5 things we're trying to keep up their Chinese.

On these days, we try to remind ourselves - this is a marathon and not a sprint. It’s ok that the journey is not smooth or perfect. The most important thing is that it continues. 

At this point, your “Why” (as Naomi puts it) is really helpful to return too ... “Why is this important to you?” 

In moments of stress, exhaustion, frustration, pushback, or even despair, go back to your own “Why.” If you’re really clear on why it is important to your family, you will stay the course! 

Thanks for reading! We have lots more (fun stuff!) to share here at Habbi Habbi. Check out our free bilingual printables, tips for incorporating language learning at home, and of course our magical Reading Wand, books, puzzles & flashcards. Available in Spanish and Mandarin Chinese; Coming soon in French, Korean, and Hindi. We hope you enjoy! ❤️ H&AL

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