Raising Up a Bilingual Child

I always knew I would raise my child to be bilingual, because roots are so important to me. Chinese (Mandarin and Hakka dialects) was my first language. My husband is Caucasian, and very on board with raising our son to be bilingual. I appreciate him so much, especially when he remains unaffected by me sounding like a broken Chinese record at times. (Think about how often we have to repeat things to our kids before they listen. Then think about that being verbalized in a language you don’t know fluently. All day. My husband doesn’t even bat an eye anymore, and I love him for that.) While we were dating, he picked up a couple words and phrases in Chinese. Now, we joke that our son leveled up and surpassed him in Chinese.

My 2.5 year old practicing Chinese with his flashcards. Another great resource are cartoons or music in other languages.

Lost in translation
Here in KC, English will probably always be what he hears the most. Since I don’t have any family in KC, English is also what is spoken to him the most. My saving grace is the fact that I am primarily a SAHM, so I can speak Chinese to him at home. But because I don’t get to practice my Chinese as much with other speaking partners, I’m sometimes a bit rusty on certain words. I’ve had to text family members a few times, asking how to say certain things in Chinese. And I’ve been known to describe things or conclude that certain words just don’t translate/exist. How do you say flamingo? Oh, you mean the pink bird with long, skinny legs. What’s “elbow” in Chinese? Umm, the part where your arm bends. Otter? Uh, Chinese people don’t talk about those.

Stick to the plan
The key is coming up with a language plan and being CONSISTENT. It sounds easy enough, but you will want to give up after the 10th time your child ignores you in the 2nd language, yet responds immediately in English. It is expected. Trust me, your child will never hear enough of the second language compared to how much English he/she will hear in their life. This is especially true once they start school. My husband and I established that our language plan would consist of me speaking/responding to our son ONLY in Chinese. This was pretty easy in the first year of his life, before play dates started surfacing. It’s different now. More often than not, I find myself busting out in English when we are around other kids and adults. Unless he’s in trouble. Then I always default to Chinese, because he listens better. I call it my secret weapon to obedience. When you’re mad, Chinese definitely sounds meaner than English. On the playground, sometimes even other kids freeze and quiet down when I’m reprimanding my child. Something as harmless as, “Sit down!” can come across like, “Put your butt in this chair, or you will regret it!” 

Celebrate the little victories
Teaching your child anything new, let alone a language, is rarely gratifying. You’ll often question your effectiveness and sanity. I’ll spend a week teaching my son new Chinese vocabulary, when it only takes a few times of repeating a new word in English for him to start saying it nonstop. (Chinese is hard, and pronunciation is everything! Did you know there are four tones to each character/word?! Welcome to my daily headache.) Don’t be discouraged; look for the silver lining. Is your child responding to the second language, even if just by action and not speech? That’s progress! My son may not always speak to me in Chinese, but he always follows Chinese instructions. I’ve also observed that he processes new words by saying it twice, once in Chinese and once in English. It’s like living with a walking Google Translate. I’ll take it. 

Our little mixed family.

It will be worth it!
Language is so important. It is the foundation for interactive communication, and a means for preserving your heritage. Don’t buy into the myth that learning multiple languages causes speech delays or confuses kids. In fact, it allows children to use their brain in complex ways to distinguish languages by sound. And it only makes sense that it will take them longer to learn vocabulary because they are learning twice as many words from multiple languages. Kids are smarter than we think, and it’s best to start young! I take pride in the fact that my son knows our family language. I know this hard work is not in vain, and someday he will be proud, too.

Are you teaching your child(ren) a 2nd language? Any tips to share or hardships you’ve faced?

Chinese school resources in the KC Metro:
Kansas City Institute of Chinese Language and Culture
The Chinese School of Greater Kansas City

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