When I was seriously considering teaching my three-year-old and one-year-old Chinese, I often questioned if I was being realistic. Should I just give up? Or should I leave it until both kids are older and more independent? After all, raising bilingual kids is no walk in the park. It takes diligence, consistency and patience. There is a high level of work—mentally, socially and emotionally—and there is a high level of investment—financially and time-wise. I worried about not being able to keep up with my kids’ learning on top of all my parenting obligations. I questioned whether I would become a better parent after this or if I would eventually turn into a tiger mom.
I needed a realistic plan to move forward. Now, having led our family’s bilingual journey for some time, I have come up with four key strategies that make our family’s bilingual journey manageable. If you’re on the same path or contemplating the same journey, these may help you too.
Plan by season
I hear the phrase “it’s just a season” a lot whenever I talk to friends about the challenges of raising little humans. But I think life in general follows this concept of seasonality as well. I love how Christy Wright talks about life balance in her book “Take Back Your Time.” She defines life balance as doing the right things at the right time. It is not about doing everything for an equal amount of time all the time.
You might be in a season of raising a newborn baby and a toddler, and you cannot put much time into doing language-learning activities. Guess what? That’s okay because this is only a season. It is okay to shift your focus to what is important to you in that time period and pivot as life changes. For me, I did not do much teaching with my daughter when my son was first born. Baby boot camp round two was hard enough, and both my husband and I were in survival mode (we still are sometimes). Yet, one thing we did not drop was reading. I made sure my daughter was still reading Chinese books daily. Once things settled down, I slowly added teaching back into our routine.
Follow the topics your child learns at school
Don’t reinvent the wheel. Parents spend enough mental energy on plenty of things so I don’t try to come up with my own curriculum. I am thankful that my daughter’s preschool has a weekly newsletter to inform parents what their children are learning in class. I use that as my guide to prepare the same materials and activities in Chinese. This way she’s learning the same concept in both languages and she’s able to better relate to them both.
Start with simple concepts and build from there
Piaget is the authority in child development. His theory of cognitive development suggests that children go through four stages of development and each stage builds upon each other. Learning a language should be the same. We start with simple concepts like numbers, shapes and colors, and build to more complex concepts like objects and commands.
It is also important to keep things simple at the beginning so your child can gain confidence in learning a new language.
Maintain a regular language-learning schedule
Your day-to-day might look different depending on the season but the key to raising bilingual children is consistency. There might be some weeks where you have time to come up with new activities and other weeks where you simply don’t. Even doing simple activities with your child is beneficial to their bilingual journey as it maintains consistency in learning and involves all four crucial areas of foreign language learning. According to the Center for Literacy and Learning and many other language experts, these four areas include “reading, writing, listening, and speaking.” A simple activity like a coloring sheet with an outline of a bear and the Chinese letter for bear at the bottom can engage all four areas as you read bear in Chinese to your child (reading and listening), and he/she repeats after you (speaking), and traces the character with his/her crayon (writing).
Personally, I aim for two activities per week during a normal season and I like to use activity worksheets to teach my preschooler since they are easy to prepare, low-maintenance and involve little clean up. I can print out multiple copies of the same activity and store them in my folder. When she needs something to do or when I think it is time to revisit a certain topic, I have them ready to go.
I know it can be overwhelming when you first start your bilingual journey with your kids. I was there too, and I am still navigating through it as my children progress in their learning. But whenever I see my daughter pointing out Chinese characters I taught her or writing my Chinese name on her coloring sheet, I feel so rewarded. Raising bilingual children is not easy but with determination and thoughtful planning, anything is possible.