Bilingual learning:
Make it fun, make it natural, make it daily

Bilingual Parenting Tips

Yvonne | Mom of 2 | Grew up in: Malaysia; Lives in: Australia 
Native language: English; Proficient in: Chinese, Malay 
Raising her kids bilingual in English and Mandarin Chinese

-

We recently met Yvonne, the mom behind Bilingual Kiddos and love how she is sharing her bilingual journey - from activities she does with her own kids to tips for us parents. We really enjoyed learning her approach to raising bilingual kids, especially her principle around keeping it fun! 

Let’s start with an introduction: Where are you, what is your bilingual background?  

I am Malaysian-Chinese and live in Australia. I speak English and have studied Chinese and Malay, but prior to having children, I didn’t speak it regularly. My husband and I speak to each other in English because that’s the most comfortable and because we live in Australia! This changed after having kids. I started this bilingual journey because I really want to pass on the Chinese language and heritage to my two sons (3 & 1 year old), and I realized that if I don’t start trying, no one will!  

How did you start? 

I really believe that learning a second language is all about communication and meaningful exposure - and needs to be done in a natural, engaging, and fun manner - not forced. To that end, I try to do things that are: 

    Based on daily life: This way it doesn’t feel like “learning” but rather like “using the language.” Some activities here could include: 

    • Daily activity naming: I created a summary of things that toddlers do on a daily basis - like “take a bath” or “brush your teeth.” As this is something that they do every day, it gives us an opportunity to name it frequently and reinforce those phrases in a very natural way. 
    • House labelling: I try to introduce Chinese characters naturally. So I take construction tape and label things around our house - like door (门 mén) or bed (床 chuáng) or fridge (冰箱 bīng xiāng). That way, when we go to the object, my sons will see it. Sometimes we may name it, sometimes they will just see it. I try not to do too many at once, so it isn’t overwhelming for my son and he thinks it’s a game.  
    • Make it fun: I’m a big believer of learning through play. You find different philosophies in Western vs. Asian countries. In Asian countries, kids are expected to read at a young age, so you’ll find the materials are very focused on character recognition and leveled learning. Western countries have more emphasis on free play. Perhaps it's because we live in Australia, but I try to have my kids learn through play, especially since they are young and just starting out. 

      Layer language on top of play activities: It probably seems very basic - but we just take normal play and we layer the second language on top of it. For example, when we do sensory / sorting activities which a lot of kids do, I label 5 boxes with 5 colors - I put it on the side and also on the bottom. So when they drop the pom poms into the right colored box, they can see and name the color. 

      • Play-based materials: This is actually one of the reasons I love Habbi Habbi and what you ladies have created. Your Wand & Books are play-based and meant to be fun, engaging, interactive. They think they’re just playing, but they are also getting exposure and learning.  

      Thank you! It was so important to us to make it easy & fun. That’s why we included music in every book and made every inch tappable with our Wand. 

      Yes! I value books as a two-way form of engagement (vs. something like TV and screens). I think books and reading in the second language are important tools, just as they are when learning a first language like English. 

      How do you incorporate Chinese books and reading with your sons? 

      I try to make it regular and give the Chinese books in our house more “space.” My sons gravitate to their English books because it’s the dominant language and because we have so many more. So I consciously try to give the Chinese books space, saying things like “What about this book?” 

      I also made my own bilingual book - which incorporates what I care about. I centered it around nursery rhymes because music is such a helpful tool for young kids. Furthermore it’s based on English nursery rhymes, so it is familiar and relatable - since many kids (and parents!) know the songs, like Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. 

      You have the benefit of having a basic Chinese language background. What do you think non-native families - especially those who can’t speak or read it - should do? 

      I would start with the parents asking themselves - do you want to learn the language alongside your child? Sometimes my son asks me, “What is this (English) word in Chinese?” and I really don’t know - so I say, “Let’s find out together.” By showing an interest, I signal to my sons that Chinese is important. 

      I think it’s ideal if we parents can find time - even if just a little bit - to learn with them. If not, then they can try to supplement by finding a partner for communication like a nanny or a language immersion school. But regardless of whether parents do get into all the details and learn with their kids, I think it’s so important to show curiosity, openness, respect, and interest in the language because that says a lot to our kids.

      If you step back, what role(s) do you think all of these materials have in building an immersive environment - books, toys, activities, etc.? 

      Ultimately, communication and usage of the language is the most important. I’m just trying to provide as much opportunity as possible for my sons to hear the language and repeat / speak it back. The question is how. And all these tools - whether books, toys, activities - are just tools to help them engage in it more frequently, in a way that is fun and engaging!

      -

      Written by H&AL of Habbi Habbi; first published on Red Tricycle | 20.10.12