5 easy, practical ways to build bilingual environment at home

Posted by Habbi Habbi on

EvelineEveline | Mom of 2 | Educator 
CBC - Born in Hong Kong, Grew up in Canada 
Familiar with: Cantonese, Mandarin (Traditional & Simplified), French, Japanese, Spanish, English 
Raising multilingual kids 

Interested in raising bilingual kids but not sure where to start? Feel like there are so many challenges in starting a bilingual journey? We are so inspired by Eveline - mother and educator who speaks 6 languages - her genuine love for language and easygoing perspectives on learning. Here, she offers a few surprisingly simple ways to get started. We hope you enjoy! 

What is your background and bilingual environment? 

I am Cantonese - I was born in Hong Kong and grew up there until I was 6 years old, then moved to Canada. I came to Canada with no English, so when I started school, I was in an ESL program for 2 years. I kept speaking Cantonese at home, but in early elementary,

I also attended a Taiwanese-run Mandarin school, so I learned zhuyinfuhao (a “phonetic” alphabet commonly used in Taiwan) then. In middle school, I went to a different Mandarin school where I learned pinyin. So in the “Chinese spectrum,” I am familiar with all 3 … Simplified (& pinyin), Traditional (& zhuyinfuhao), and Cantonese (my first language and the one I’m most focused on at home!). But beyond the Chinese languages, I speak a few others too. 

Multilingual! What languages do you speak? 

I also learned a little bit of French, Japanese, and Spanish. French I started in Grade 4 (in Canada, they start teaching you then). I chose Japanese in high school and later, did a co-op program in Japan, which I loved so much.

And then when I got my teaching degree, I did the first part of my practicum in Oaxaca, Mexico - so it was all Spanish. I did a homestay, and on top of teaching my classes, I helped my homestay family at their taqueria in the evenings, which was so fun and helped my Spanish a lot. As a side note, they don’t close until the last customer leaves (usually their friend), so I used to stay at the taqueria until 2am. It was quite an immersive and intensive Spanish experience!

In the final semester of my B.Ed, I studied French in Quebec City - where they only speak French (they know English but don’t speak it). It was good that I had a foundation from early schooling years, and that experience brought French back into my life. 

WOW. That’s a lot. What is your goal for language learning with your kids?  

Well, I focus on Cantonese first - because in my experience, I think it’s the hardest. It’s also part of my family and identity, so we start there. But we also have Japanese books and Chinese children’s magazines lying around.

We got the Habbi Habbi books in Spanish first, and now we have Chinese (by the way, it is so nice that the Wand can read both!). And of course, we have English books too. We probably have a mix of everything! And I think that’s ok. 

Some parents feel like they have to “choose” between Mandarin or Cantonese of between Simplified and Traditional. But you seem to do it all. Why? 

I get this question a lot. And I always answer, “Why not do both?” My perspective is … You don’t have to choose one or the other. At this point, it is about exposure - why not be open minded and do both?

For example, if we think about Chinese, I would love it if my kids could speak Cantonese and Mandarin and read in both Traditional and Simplified. Although my family is from Hong Kong (Cantonese / Traditional), I also spent time in Guangzhou (where they speak Cantonese, but everyone knows Mandarin and uses simplified).

You will find that those from Asia who are fluent might focus on one because they’re from the region, but can often read both. So my perspective is - Why do we have to choose?  

You have so much experience as a mom, educator, and student. What tips do you have for parents on building their bilingual environment?  

  1. Start early (0-5!) It’s easier to pick up when kids are young (their minds are like sponges and accents seem so easy). 
  2. Just start. Even if it’s just 1 character or just 1 page of one book. Or even just one sentence in one book. Taking that first step is important. 
  3. Be consistent. It’s ok if it is short or not a lot of content, but consistency is helpful and important - both in reinforcing what they learned but also in making it a consistent part of their lives. 
  4. Make it fun. Don’t force them and don’t have too many expectations. If it becomes a chore (like so many CBC / ABC experiences in Saturday Mandarin School), they won’t learn it in a sustainable way. Real learning needs intrinsic motivation. I think that’s why I learned so many languages … it’s not because anyone forced me but just because I was interested in a culture or I had to because I was living in that area. If I wanted to eat, connect with people, I had to (and wanted to!) learn the language.  
  5. Learn with them. We parents have to be on board and show that it’s important to us, too - not just something “for them.” And it’s ok if we know less. Just showing we have interest and place importance on that language - that says a lot to them. 

What bilingual routines would you adopt with just 5 minutes a day?  

I would say open up a book. One book. Any book. And just explore it with them. Actually that’s why I love the Habbi Habbi books - because they can explore themselves or we can explore together. And anyone (no matter their language background) can get started, because of the Wand. 

And no matter what book it is, I always tell parents - it doesn’t even matter if they’re not as interested in reading the words. Just see what they like about it… it could be the pictures… or if there is a musical element like with your Wand, it could be the music. The most important thing to me is that they have a positive association with books! 

Love it. So much of language learning is just about consistency. 

Yes! Like the philosophy behind the Habbi Habbi Reading Club - Summer Reading challenge. The threshold to participate is so easy, because the goal is just to encourage consistency. And the challenge is for a 2 week period, so it’s manageable.

Just open your Habbi Habbi book every day. It doesn’t have to be reading the whole book or memorizing a sentence. In fact, it doesn’t even have to be a different book or a different spread. It just has to be consistent and fun! 

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