How we Raise Bilingual Children

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Every time I show Nori chatting away in Chinese on Instagram stories, I get a lot of questions on bilingual parenting tips. It’s something I have had to make a conscious effort around and need to keep improving on myself, but it makes heart swell to hear her speaking fluently. And I’m hopeful Rio will pick it up as well once he starts talking!

It pains me to admit that growing up, I was embarrassed whenever my family would speak Chinese in public. At school, at extracurricular events, at the grocery store – I felt like it drew attention to us as different, as immigrants, and I always replied to my parents in English. I don’t know exactly when the shift started, but now I’m so proud to still be able to speak my native language and communicate with my family members, and now some of our business vendors too. I just hope that I can persist with passing down to my kids, and that someday they’ll also embrace it as a piece of who they are.

A lot of you have asked whether we’re teaching the kids Tagalog, a common language in the Philippines. Nick’s mom never taught him the language, but it’s never too late to learn so we’ve asked her to teach all of us when possible!

I’m certainly not a language or parenting expert, but I’ve just shared some things that we do at home. The tips below use Chinese as an example of our “minority language” just to illustrate how we approach it!

1. The One Parent, One Language method (OPOL)

This common method for raising bilingual kids works well for us (though every family situation is different!) but I have to say I am definitely not strict with it, which helps eliminate stress around the process. How it works:

If one parent speaks another language
Let’s say mom is bilingual in Chinese and English, dad only speaks English. Mom speaks to the child in Chinese, and for family conversations everyone speaks in English.

If both parents speak another language
Mom is bilingual in Chinese and English, dad is bilingual in Spanish and English. Each parent primarily speaks to the child in his or her own minority language, and for family conversations it’s a chosen language that everyone understands.

A lot of people are hesitant to do this method because it sounds rigid, or they aren’t fluent in the minority language themselves. I wouldn’t worry too much about either – just try your best and speak in the minority language as much as possible for frequent exposure. Even if my kid replies to me in English, I’ll continue to speak in Chinese, and sometimes we “code switch” (change languages) partway through the conversation and that’s OK.

2. Start young and speak often (no need to translate)

It’s never too early to start! When each child was born, I aimed to speak as much Chinese as possible with them. For various reasons, especially after my daughter started preschool, it ends up actually being around 50% of the time.

When speaking to my kids in Chinese, I just speak it directly and don’t repeat or translate what I said into English. You’d be amazed at how little ones can absorb and figure out the translation in an alternate language. By the time Nori was 20 months old she would translate things that I say in Chinese (like fruits) into English for her dad, and knew whom in our extended family to speak each language to. We had never explicitly told her when certain words we spoke to her were in Chinese versus English.

3. Partners can learn a new language too

I know many who message me are worried about their partners feeling excluded from conversations because they don’t know the same minority language. My husband only used to speak English, but has picked up a tremendous amount over the past 3 years just by listening to our kids and I speak. He now knows most everyday words and phrases in Chinese, and our kids always get a kick when he speaks to them in Chinese!

4. Normalize the minority language

Whenever I have a chance to speak Chinese in public with others (like at restaurants, or parents and kids that we meet at the playground) I always make a point to, so our kids can see others interacting with us in the minority language, in everyday situations. I also ask Chinese family members to mostly speak Chinese with them as another point of exposure.

5. Seek childcare in the minority language

If you’re looking into a nanny or daycare for your child, consider a nanny who speaks mostly the minority language or bilingual immersion daycares. I meet many kids in our neighborhood who have picked up their nanny’s native language, even if their parents don’t speak it!

I don’t worry at all about my kids learning English or falling behind in English, because as soon as they enter regular school they tend to pick it up quickly. No surprise, as soon as Nori started regular daycare her English quickly soared past her Chinese.

6. Sneak in learning and make it fun

Growing up I remember the dreaded Chinese school on Sundays, flashcards, and being forced to read the Chinese newspaper as “homework.” Although I’m thankful for that in hindsight because being able to read Chinese has been very useful, I honestly don’t have the energy to do that with my own kids and want the language to be more fun for them.

  • Do story times in the minority language instead of English. This doesn’t mean you need to buy books that are written in the minority language! In fact, I rarely do. I read to the kids every night before bed, and it’s usually English books that I just translate the storyline with (or embellish) using my own words in Chinese.
  • Use screen time to your advantage with shows or programs in the minority language. We love Peppa Pig in Chinese on YouTube and are looking for more Chinese kids series – let me know any other good ones!

If you speak multiple languages (or don’t, but your family does), I’d love to hear about your experience! How was it growing up and learning (or not learning) the other language? Did you lose a lot of your speaking ability as you grew older? Do you want your kids to learn a second language?

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32 Comments

  1. Eva wrote:

    Hi Jean. Its a good advices for multi language family. My family’s route is originally from China , then long time ago migrated to Indonesia. So, basically I was raised in Chinese family , but my native language is in Indonesian. Now, I live in California and my boys were born here. They speak Indonesian well and able to read write the language at the same time. My husband and me just speak Indonesian to them at daily basis at home. Surprisingly, I never teach my boys to write or read Indonesian especially my first son. I guess he is a fast learner one 👌 I strongly agree if our children able to speak more than one language. They can communicate with other family members and Its a good advantage for them.

    Posted 11.18.21 Reply
  2. Linda Stansfield wrote:

    Nori and Rio are simply the most adorable children. Love seeing their beautiful smiles!

    Posted 11.8.21 Reply
  3. Anonymous wrote:

    Really curious if you’re speaking Cantonese, Mandarin, or some other dialect with your kids. I remember you mentioning uour tailor only spoke Cantonese, so I had always assumed that was your dominant dialect, but with this post it seems like you’re speaking Mandarin??

    Posted 11.7.21 Reply
  4. Christine wrote:

    This article is just what I needed right now as I’m struggling to use our language to my toddler and baby !! I’m a Filipino, lived in Canada for 7 yrs and just recently moved here in US. I’m a trilingual (English, tagalog, cebuano) with a background of mandarin and fukien as I went to a chinese school from gr. 1 to senior high. So, the problem is, I cant speak any of these languages fluently, its like a little of everything which makes it challenging to teach my little ones. But anyway, it’s great to know that I don’t have to translate it coz sometimes I feel like I needed to.
    Anyway, looking forward for more posts of this journey of yours.

    Posted 11.6.21 Reply
  5. Angela Fang wrote:

    Hi Jean! I really loved this post, as a Chinese American who married a white man and now raising interracial kids! I’ve been following your journey for years when I lived in Boston (actually we lived in the South End and saw you and Nick around all the time!) and always identified with your posts, especially regarding infertility (my experience as well). Anyway, I’m wondering if you have any ideas for how to raise funds for establishing an Asian American Studies program at my alma mater (Dartmouth). I’ve been working with the Dartmouth administration and leadership and the Advancement office has finally helped us establish a fund to formally receive donations for this purpose. Dartmouth is one of the only Ivy League schools that doesn’t provide any sort of formal major or minor in Asian American Studies and I think it has a lot to do with the whitewashing of Asian American history and why we are sometimes perceived as minorities, and sometimes not. Being able to see and name other Asian American leaders in major companies and institutions is something I want my kids to be able to do, and part of that goal means advocating for the integration of Asian American history into mainstream curriculum. Do you happen to know anyone who is a “connecter” or someone who may know someone who is good at fundraising for these kinds of causes? Of course if you are interested yourself, I’d love to figure out how to leverage your expertise to advance this cause! Please feel free to email me at angfang@gmail.com. Thanks so much for reading, Angela Fang

    Posted 11.6.21 Reply
  6. Vi wrote:

    Hi,
    i am born in Taiwan, grew up in Hong Kong and had the pleasure of growing up with 4 languages. I went to a German school and now i have been living in Germany for many years.

    I am separated from my daughters father, so i have been teaching my daughter German, Mandarin and English.

    I admit having the help of youtube and netflix so she could watch in english while she went to a Chinese-German Nursery.

    Now she goes to a English-German speaking Pre-School, so now i am also looking for more Chinese things to watch next to Chinese Class once a week at home.

    Not easy to teach especially because never learnt how to read or write Chinese, but i just try to donky best.
    Languages open so many doors and its so nice to see the little ones learn so quickly and easily.

    We also watch peppa pig and baby bus

    https://youtube.com/user/babybus1000

    This link has many chinese cartoons as well.
    https://www.akid.tv/home

    We have also found a great online one on one Chinese Art Class . My daughter loves it and it’s another hour she is able to hear and speak in Mandarin :).

    As long as she has fun, i like to encourage it.

    Posted 11.6.21 Reply
  7. MyHanh wrote:

    Hey Jean,
    I hope you are all well. Thanks so much for writing this timely post. For me, and it seems similarly for others, passing on my native language is as much about my own identity as it is about my daughter’s. There are so many layers to this…what generation you are and how assimilated, what’s your partner’s background, were you adopted, do you have a good relationship with your family of origin, do you struggle with your own racial identity, do you have a support system, does your partner support this, your own level of proficiency, motivations for passing on the language, and on and on and on…
    I think what helped me *recently* decide to do this is one comment you made and I guess can be applied to raising children in general… you do the best you can. “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good.” 🙂
    Thanks always for great content, especially here on the blog, as I’ve taken a long break from IG, and sadly that means missing out on seeing Nori and Rio highlights!
    Sending love and a big hug!
    -MyHanh

    Posted 11.5.21 Reply
  8. Mara wrote:

    Always wished my mother spoke Finnish to me growing up, although only people in Finland speak it! Would love to be able to speak French better than I do (I am always studying on my own but need a French person to practice with), and would love to learn Chinese too.

    Posted 11.4.21 Reply
  9. T wrote:

    I’ve found setting realistic goals to be better for my mental health. Having my kids speak in just Chinese was much easier up to about the age of 7, but there’s definitely a vocabulary gap now. Realizing that my only goal is for them to be able to communicate comfortably in daily life and regular conversations was a huge lift off my shoulders. Trying to make the jump to “educated” language was stressing me out. I am sad though. My own Chinese level is fine, but if you asked me to speak like a newscaster and give a presentation on something like foreign or economic policy, I couldn’t do it. I could understand the news or speeches by politicians, but I definitely don’t speak like that. Whereas native educated speakers like my parents don’t have problems just like I wouldn’t in English. It does make me feel that each generation loses some of the language
    though and I worry about how my kids’ kids and their kids will be. My mom grew up speaking Taiwanese and didn’t pass it onto me or my brother because she thought Mandarin was hard enough, but now I think how painful it must be to communicate with your kids in not your mother tongue and to lose that part of yourself. I’m still more comfortable in English but I feel like if my kids didn’t have Chinese I’d also have just lost that part of myself and they would never know that part of me.

    Posted 11.4.21 Reply
  10. San wrote:

    We are a mixed Chinese / Caucasian household with a daughter slightly younger than Nori and a son the same age as Rio. All of your posts and stories have really resonated with us, from pregnancy/post partum, to childcare, meals, race, juggling multiple cultures and languages, etc. This post is particularly meaningful because I grew up in the same exact situation (resentful and embarrassed of my chinese family), and now desperately want to ensure that my children grow up immersed and proud of their heritage. I love hearing your suggestions, it reassures me that I don’t always have to be super strict or regimented. We will definitely try Peppa in Chinese. We also watch turn on Chinese audio for any movies when it’s available. A lot of the content on Disney + and the newer Netflix cartoons typically all have Chinese audio!

    Posted 11.4.21 Reply
  11. LA wrote:

    Love this post! Growing up I was only allowed to speak Tagalog at home and I think that really helped me with pronunciation and grammar. I don’t speak it as much now so I’m not as fluent but I can still carry a conversation. I didn’t know and appreciate what my parents did until I was much older. I love that I’m able to speak 2 languages!

    Posted 11.4.21 Reply
  12. Diana wrote:

    Mama Laoshi on YouTube is my go to for educational, engaging, and wholesome content. Mama Laoshi is a fellow mum herself and a good friend of mine. She is 100% dedicated to creating content she herself would be proud to show and teach to her daughter. That really resonates with me.

    Teaching your children to be bilingual is so challenging but I’m optimistic it will pay off in the end. After all, we aren’t just teaching them language, we are also passing along our culture to them.

    Posted 11.3.21 Reply
  13. Charlotte wrote:

    Thank you for sharing! Everything you wrote is what we do with our kids who are bilingual French/English. They are embracing their two languages and also can’t wait to speak a third one! It’s amazing how much they absorb! We also try to travel to Belgium twice a year to meet family but also to expose them to a French speaking environment. Their French is always improved after our trips. We also connected with French speaking families in the Boston area so our kids realize that French is also a language we use with friends. It’s nice to see them having their French speaking friends too!

    Posted 11.3.21 Reply
  14. I grew up speaking my native language before English, but my parents switched to English at home when I was in grade school based on a recommendation from a therapist. This was probably a common recommendation in American schools back in the 1980s. I wish we hadn’t done that because my vocabulary in my native tongue is pretty limited now. I don’t have kids, but I try to speak to my nephews in my native language and pass on what I know. Your post reminded me that I don’t need to translate for them.

    Posted 11.3.21 Reply
  15. Katie wrote:

    Thank you so much for putting together such a thoughtful post on this topic! This has been on my mind a lot, but my situation is a bit different: my husband and I both speak Russian fluently, but aren’t as comfortable with it as we are in English, so for our entire relationship we’ve spoken English with each other and Russian with our families. Now that we’re trying to start a family, it seems daunting to have to switch to (and sort of get to know each other again in) Russian… But we want our kids to speak it. Something’s gonna have to give!

    Posted 11.3.21 Reply
  16. Ngoc wrote:

    I left Vietnam when I was 7, but I am still fluent. My parents only spoke Vietnamese at home, because that is most comfortable for them. However, I have my mom to thank for still being able to read and write in Vietnamese because she brought children’s stories with her when we left Vietnam. Later, she would hand me stories from this small Vietnamese publication to read. Never as a chore, more of a “this story is funny” or “this is so cute!” Every week the newspaper posted different stories and I looked forward to it every Saturday. I used to feel ashamed whenever my mom spoke Vietnamese to me in public, but now I feel proud and immensely grateful that she provided me the opportunity to master two languages. Whenever I have kids, I do plan on speaking Vietnamese to them early on. Hopefully, I can address the insecurities I felt about my native language so they won’t feel the same way.

    Posted 11.3.21 Reply
  17. Christina wrote:

    It’s so fun to hear Nori speaking Mandarin with you and really makes me wish I had not lost fluency as I grew up. It was certainly my first language, but as we got older, my middle sister and I got accustomed to speaking English with each other and in response to our parents’ Chinese. Chinese school was pretty much useless, sad to say! As I’ve gotten older, I’ve tried to start speaking it more to my parents, but it definitely feels awkward at times and so much easier to just stick in the English word I want. But I will keep trying for sure. My youngest sister spent a summer in China doing an internship, and it massively improved her Chinese. I think immersion would certainly help mine, but I’m too chicken to consider that drastic a change given how used to my life now I am!

    Posted 11.3.21 Reply
  18. Helen wrote:

    I love that you wrote this! I think about this topic whenever I think of having kids. I’m sure there’s lots on it, but it feels more relatable and helpful having a blogger you’ve known and trusted for so long write about it. Love these ideas!

    Posted 11.3.21 Reply
  19. Betty wrote:

    Jean, I’m so glad to see you write about this today. Especially because of point #4 – normalizing the minority language.

    Recently, I had an identity crisis about this whole bilingual parenting thing – after almost 8 years of re-learning Chinese with my kids. Though it took some time to overcome initial resistance and awkwardness, I’m so thankful that being bilingual has been a very normal and fun part of their childhood so far.

    But we live in a very non-diverse town where our kids don’t get to experience seeing other people speaking other languages, similar to where I grew up. So I relate to your experience / regret about feeling embarrassed about our immigrant parents speaking Chinese back in the day. As my kids are older and notice that all of their friends speak only English, I have to catch myself from projecting my past insecurities onto them and show that I’m comfortable and confident with being bilingual here.

    Anyway, I hope more families are encouraged to try after reading this! It’s never too late for ourselves and our kids to learn.

    Since you asked for more show recs, check out Disney Plus which has a lot of classics (eg, Moana, Frozen, Finding Nemo, etc) dubbed in Mandarin. Netflix and Amazon Prime also have some shows with Mandarin and Cantonese options. I also put together a list of favorite Chinese shows on YouTube. https://chalkacademy.com/chinese-youtube/ My kids love Mama Laoshi, and I think your kids would, too!

    Look forward to following Nori and Rio’s journey led by their wonderful parents! 🙂

    Posted 11.3.21 Reply
  20. CharLATTE wrote:

    I made it my pandemic mission to pass German along to my two toddlers. They have caught on very quickly! I second Peppa Pig! Having German episodes available on YouTube has even expanded my vocabulary because I am not a native speaker 🙂 I also have had decent success buying used book lots on ebay in German to add to story time!

    Posted 11.3.21 Reply
  21. Jamie wrote:

    We love JoJo on Youtube it’s like cocomelon version in Chinese 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

    Posted 11.3.21 Reply
    • Oh goodness this is a tough thing for us. Our first had such terrible trouble speaking that our speech therapist asked us to stick with one language, which had to be English, since we all speak it. I still feel terribly about losing those early years of language immersion. We’re trying to make up for lost time now but over time we have both lost a lot of fluency since we don’t speak our other languages often in day to day life except with the little one on occasion. I grew up speaking Vietnamese and never had too much trouble with the basic conversational level but I wish I’d retained my immersive level fluency from childhood. Big regrets. I went to Chinese school briefly as a young adult but only got the barest basics there too. Meanspirited in-laws were so rude about my beginner Chinese that I quit learning, I was never embarrassed about making mistakes while learning when I was young. I’ll have to learn with the kids!

      Posted 11.4.21 Reply
  22. Mindy wrote:

    Thank you for sharing these tips Jean! I’ve been fortunate enough to grow up in a household that spoke primarily Cantonese and it’s definitely help me retain it to this day.

    I had similar experiences where I would resent or feel embarrassed speaking Canto in public but as I got older and hearing more people ask if I can speak it fluently and seeing how impressed they were when I said yes, it definitely added to the benefits of knowing more than one language.

    I remember because of the demographics of my neighborhood in NYC, our local public school actually has bilingual teachers/classes so my parents had enrolled both my sister and I in those classes which I definitely think helped ultimately. We also watched a lot of cartoons that were in dubbed in Canto (Doraemon, Sailor Moon, dramas) which I am still so fond of and feel nostalgic when I watch it even now! Because of these shows/dramas I watched growing up, I’ve grown to love them & continue to watch chinese dramas till this day.

    We couldn’t be more proud and happy we were able to uphold our parents’ primary language, hopefully one day, I will be able to pass it onto my children as well as they have passed it on to me and my sister.

    Posted 11.3.21 Reply
  23. Anonymous wrote:

    Really useful post! Thanks for sharing

    Posted 11.3.21 Reply
  24. Cynthia C. wrote:

    My daughter is turning 2 in January and we exclusively speak to her in Cantonese, plus she also goes to a Cantonese daycare. She has picked up some English, but we try to steer it back to Chinese. We’ve found that there are some shows on Disney+ where you can switch the audio to Cantonese or Mandarin, like Dug Days or Mickey Mouse Clubhouse. Or we have her watch the shorts, that don’t have any spoken words, and then talk her through them in Cantonese. Thanks for always sharing your insight!

    Posted 11.3.21 Reply
  25. ka yang wrote:

    I appreciate this blog so much. I have been repeating everything in both Hmong and English to my 3 yr old son but he’s picking up mostly English. It’s helpful to know that I don’t have to repeat everything twice.

    Posted 11.3.21 Reply
  26. Leslie wrote:

    I think raising your children to be bilingual is a beautiful thing!!! Being Latin American my parents always spoke Spanish in the house and exposed me to the richness of both of their countries – we spoke Spanish in the house, and I spoke English outside of the home, at school or friends. I never remember what it was like not to speak English but assume a combination of Sesame Street and pre-school created the fluently bilingual individual I am today. And, I am so grateful my parents instilled our language and culture in me – it truly enriches your life and I am able to move seamlessly through two cultures. And like you, I also at some point got over that feeling of being embarrassed and I fully embraced it – think for me it kicked in when I started my career after college that I had this amazing gift that I could use in my career. Having your children closer in age I think also helps for them to both use the language. I’m nearly 10 years older than my sibling and by the time he came around I spoke to him in English so his fluency is not where mine is – since I was an only child for so many years.

    I think what you’re doing is great and you’ll providing a wonderful legacy for your children! Keep it up!

    Posted 11.3.21 Reply
  27. Joan wrote:

    How wonderful that you’re teaching your children a second language. One of my greatest regrets is not studying a foreign language in my youth. Americans need to do better as the world out paces us in the language department.

    Posted 11.3.21 Reply
  28. Nada wrote:

    We are doing the same and lean heavily on transliterating books as well as Sesame Street in Arabic which amazingly is in 3 different dialects on youtube including our Egyptian dialect! Online bookstores are also a favorite for finding fun books too! It’s hard but I hope will be worth it.

    Posted 11.3.21 Reply
  29. miki wrote:

    Super useful post! I hope to raise my kids bilingual!
    Miki x

    Posted 11.3.21 Reply
  30. Laura LM wrote:

    When I was living with my parents, my Chinese was pretty decent (Cantonese was my first language, but English became dominant when I started school) and just had to throw in a few English words here and there to communicate. But after moving out and only talking to my parents once a week or visiting fit a long weekend, my ability to speak Chinese became pretty low. After my parents passed the last two years, I have a really hard time speaking Chinese (it’s hard to remember the right word) so others can understand me. But I can still understand Cantonese so sometimes it’s nice to see older Chinese couples at the grocery store or at a Chinese restaurant and eavesdropping just to hear a familiar tone.

    Posted 11.3.21 Reply

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