Bringing Up Bilingual Bebe
June 3, 2014 5:09 PM   Subscribe

Belatedly realizing that if we want my baby to grow up being able to speak a second language, I'm the one who's going to have to be the one to speak it to him all the time. I'm not great at this language. Practical tips on how to do this?

My first language was Mandarin Chinese but my fluency in English quickly took over by the age of 3. These days, I read Mandarin at the level of a kindergartner and my writing is even worse.

My spoken Mandarin is ok - I can handle conversations grounded in the vocabulary around home and family pretty well - eating, activities, endearments - and I enjoy speaking, especially in sweet, diminutive forms to children. But it takes some conscious effort for me - it's certainly not automatic. When I'm tired or stressed, it's just so much easier to speak English. And I feel like in some ways, I'm my 'true self' is in English - humor and wit and personality and all. I can't do that in Chinese - express myself the way I'd like, not just in meaning but in style and tone.

And in practice, "speaking to your child in one language all the time" is a little messy and confusing. I know I'm supposed to speak to Baby exclusively in Chinese, but then what about when my husband and I are hanging out with him? Do I switch to English with my husband and back to Chinese with Baby? What if I'm speaking to my husband but in that kind of performative way, for the baby to hear? What about when Baby and I are doing storytime, and we're reading books in English (I can't fathom trying to grind my way through a Chinese storybook) - am I supposed to do our commentary and asides in Chinese?

I guess I'm asking for best practices in teaching Baby a second language when I'm not effortlessly fluent myself, and tips for when to switch on and off ... because I don't know that I am capable of always being 'on' and I don't really want to be very hardass about it because life is short let's just enjoy each other, but I don't want to end up super confusing him, either. The grandparents help when they can in very regular and eager Facetime sessions but I'm basically on my own here. I don't expect Baby to grow up fluent but would like him to be able to have a basic level of spoken Chinese to tell his grandparents he loves them, tell me he's hungry or scared of the dark or whatever in a few years. Is this even possible? Baby is currently five months old. Thanks!
posted by sestaaak to Society & Culture (22 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
I am an Auntie to many bilingual kids.

First, I recommend that you take a refresher in Mandarin. What a wonderful language to have!

You speak to your baby primarily in Mandarin, but you can switch to English when you're all together as a family.

See if you can find a fluent, native speaker to spend some time with your child, perhaps someone can come and babysit for your date night or just play with your baby in your home while you do laundry. College kids are your best bet for this.

As your child gets older, formal classes are important, especially for grammar and literature.

Just be diligent about supporting Mandarin in your home. Grandparents can be really helpful too.

Mazel-Tov! What a mitzvah you're doing for your baby!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:17 PM on June 3, 2014 [3 favorites]

Look, babies are really really good at learning languages. Like, really good at it. They learn in horrible language environments. If they only hear non-native speakers of a language, they grow up speaking that language better than anyone they hear speaking it. They're amazing at it. So basically, do your best! Talk to the baby in Chinese when you can, don't when it's hard. If you have the opportunity to get baby more exposure, via hang outs with the grandparents or a once-a-week Mandarin playgroup or something, jump on it.

People sometimes freak out because it seems like bilingual babies acquire language slower, but a) it's kind of an illusion (the kid will hit e.g. the knowing 20 words stage with both languages combined, so they'll be a tiny bit behind on each language), and b) they catch up before you even know it anyway.

The biggest catch is just getting the kid to want to keep it up as kid gets older, so it might be hard when the kid is 3 or 5 or 10, but right now, just talk to your kid, as much as possible, in whatever languages you can, and they'll figure it out. I promise.
posted by brainmouse at 5:18 PM on June 3, 2014 [5 favorites]

Do I switch to English with my husband and back to Chinese with Baby?


humor and wit and personality and all

Too sophisticated for baby anyway. Don't worry about it.

For yourself: Start listening to podcasts, books, radio shows etc. so you'll become a bit more comfortable with the language.
For the baby: Have the grandparents record normal, everyday conversations and play them for your kid (familiar voices are important). Get some Chinese language CDs or DVDs for kids. Look for bilingual play groups in your area. Think about a bilingual kindergarten. If you have a nanny/babysitter (or will in the future) pick someone who is fluent in Chinese.

The goal is basically to develop the ability to understand the language and to speak it without an accent. The vocab can be leaned later. Good luck.
posted by travelwithcats at 5:19 PM on June 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Do your parents speak Mandarin more fluently?

I grew up (as the baby in your question) with the same sort of situation WRT French. I grew up within a Francophone culture, my dad spoke it to some degree, my mom not at all, but my grandparents were all French speakers. When I was right in the prime language learning phase as a toddler, my mom's parents moved to West Africa and spent a lot of time boning up on their French by practicing it with me. My dad's parents were more reluctant to speak French with me, but I was definitely immersed in it when spending time with them, as well.

I don't speak French fluently as an adult, so I don't know if just having grandparents who speak a certain language is enough. But if you are committed to speaking Mandarin to your child, your parents/in-laws are open to it, and you foster a love of the language in your child, the kid will probably grow up with at least some latent abilities with Mandarin.

Even though I never became bilingual, I have no trouble understanding French, can make the sounds of French that are usually difficult for English speakers, read the language well enough, and have a great accent. I have a lot of French vocabulary from childhood and typically find that the grammar makes sense to me on a fundamental level that isn't the case for other languages I've studied.
posted by Sara C. at 5:29 PM on June 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

I grew up speaking two languages and I didn't think it was confusing and there were no negative effects from mixing. So, I'm not sure how much you should concentrate on keeping consistent with one language. I have family members who grew up learning/speaking/mixing three languages with no problems. It won't harm baby for you to switch back and forth.

I'd get some recordings of children's songs and sing them to baby. You may also find children's cartoons that could be a supplement along with recordings of children's stories.

Don't worry about your skill level, teaching basic food and family vocabulary, simple phrases, and demonstrating sounds and rhythms will be good enough for baby for the first couple of years.
posted by quince at 5:34 PM on June 3, 2014

I grew up bilingual and bicultural as my parents spoke no English and we always used Cantonese at home.

My two cents is that if you just want your kid to have proficiency in Mandarin, speak to him in Mandarin and ask him to speak back in Mandarin. If you want him to attain literacy as well, take him to after-school or weekend classes. Otherwise, don't sweat it.

If you want your kid to have the cultural aspect as well, then I think you really need to be immersive and set up yourself as a bicultural role model for the Chinese side to make it easier for him. Things like music, movies, cuisine, festivals, current affairs and the likes in both languages. For example, 6/4 is tomorrow, would you want him to be culturally aware that he knows the significance of that date?
posted by tksh at 5:57 PM on June 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

We have bilingual kids (Japanese-English); our older son also attends French Immersion school, and hopefully our younger son will too (there is a waiting list).

I speak English and Japanese, and my wife speaks Japanese and English. Our household language is mostly Japanese here in Canada. We live most of the time in Canada but have returned to Japan for several months each year for the past ten years.

Interestingly, both of our sons were/are fluent in Japanese before kindergarten here in Canada, likely because they spent/spend most of their time with their mother, who is a homemaker.

I think it is fair to say that my older son kicks ass in English and Japanese. When we go back to Japan, he attends Japanese school. In recent years he is treated exactly like a Japanese student. He can write and read and speak Japanese at level; he often outperforms other Japanese students.

He also attended Friday "Japanese language school" here in Canada for about five years, where he was taught writing and conversation and reading etc etc.

But I also demanded that he learn kanji. I demanded that he have good penmanship (still an important part of Japanese culture, but not as much as before).

So, I think another reason is because I also speak and read Japanese. I love the language, and we have a ton of Japanese books all over the house. We also have a ton a ton a ton of manga comic books.

All of our television watching is in Japanese (Doraemon and Ultraman, for example).

We listen to Japanese music (my wife loves B'z) in the car, and when we return to Japan, we go to karaoke with our extended family - singing is a big part of Japanese culture - and our sons sing Japanese songs.

I've noticed that in other Canadian-Japanese pairs, he (a Canadian) typically has little interest in Japanese because she (Japanese) came here as an "English language student."

And about half the time the kids never really continue with Japanese. Sure they can understand basic conversation, but they don't progress (our son will be able to challenge 3rd-year university Japanese for example for credit when he enters university).

So both parents have got to love the language, and there has to be some sort deep interest beyond the language itself. I like history and folklore and art history and have a ton of books about that for example. It's not just Japanese textbooks.

So if you are trying to achieve fluency in a target language, both parents have got to love that language.

My wife can speak and read English, but it's not a passion for her. She prefers Japanese. So, with our younger son, his English is not all that developed (he just turned five).

It would be a bit of a worry for me if we lived in Japan full-time.
posted by KokuRyu at 6:26 PM on June 3, 2014 [8 favorites]

Also, I don't buy in to the idea that speaking two languages is confusing. It isn't at all, if you look up "code switching."
posted by KokuRyu at 6:26 PM on June 3, 2014 [6 favorites]

We are in the exact same situation.

I think it really does take a village. My hubby, who always spoke Mandarin at home until he moved out after college, finds it exhausting to speak Mandarin to our son all the time. It was much easier when our son was a baby and my MIL (who does not speak English) was living with us to help with daycare. But our son went to a regular daycare at 15mos, MIL moved out, and my hubby basically hasn't spoken Mandarin to him since. I think it was just easier when my hubby could participate in a conversation, as opposed to talking to someone who didn't talk back.

OTOH, I have a friend who is European who has raised her son with her native language as his primary language. But she's a SAHM, with him all day, she's a naturally very chatty person, and she regularly organizes playdates with other native speakers of her language. She's also actively engaged in a community group centered around the culture she's from, and even before her son was born she was a language teacher at the Saturday school. So her son was going to language classes and hanging out with her while she taught the big kids when he was an infant. She also usually goes home, with her son, for a few weeks every summer.

Full immersion in the non-native language was tough in their family, as dad works a lot and does not speak the language, so he didn't see his kid except for an hour or so at night, and they had a tough time communicating. I think dad felt a bit excluded, and their bonding was a little bit affected. Also, the child was delayed in speaking, until well past two years. That's been pretty common amongst the bilingual families that we know, and it tends to manifest for a few months in frustration and tantrums from the child in not being able to communicate. It also caused some difficulty in English-speaking playgroups, but not much. Eventually the kids do start speaking, and those frustrations fade.

So, two very different examples of how to teach a second language, concurrent with teaching the first language. I think if you really want your child to retain the second language you're going to need to be more committed than just speaking it casually at home.
posted by vignettist at 6:41 PM on June 3, 2014

Do you plan to use a babysitter or nanny much? If you're staying at home with baby, this may not be relevant, but my husband and I would love to have our baby speak Spanish, and neither one of us speak it well, but our nanny is a bilingual Spanish speaker and brings our daughter to hang out with her family. We're hoping it will rub off on her… not sure if Mandarin babysitters are possible in your area but just a thought to help reinforce your plan.

I actually want to learn Mandarin myself (although I find it very difficult to retain since my only background is Romance languages) and sometimes when I'm playing with baby I listen to the free Pop-up Chinese podcasts. If you're looking to improve your own Mandarin, they have advanced level podcasts and it's really fun to listen to in my opinion.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 6:43 PM on June 3, 2014

I am the parent of two bilingual children (English/Japanese). I am a native speaker of American English but am fluent in Japanese; Mrs. Tanizaki is vice versa. I would commend this previous comment by me to your attention regarding raising bilingual children. My experiences are very similar to KokuRyu's above. It is a lot of time, effort, and cooperation by both parents. Anecdata: my mother is a native speaker of Spanish; my father is not. Guess what heritage language I didn't learn at home?

Children do not magically learn languages; they do not do it effortlessly. In fact, a child is like any other person in that they will not acquire a language unless they have to. So, you are going to have to put in your time, every day. I know that Mrs. Tanizaki and I do.

I think it is great that you have realistic expectations. You have what I would call "kitchen Chinese" i.e. the limited vocabulary of the home where one learns the word for "spoon" but not "combustion". This is very common with people who speak L2 at home while living in an L1 culture. The issue is compounded by the fact that Mandarin is essentially a second language for you - you have to think to produce utterances and cannot express yourself with the nuance of a native speaker, so that is going to be the cap of your baby's proficiency unless he independently decides to study Mandarin later in life.

As far as the logistics are concerned, speak only Mandarin to your child. If you are with non-Mandarin speakers, switch back and forth. A big challenge is that your son is going to figure out that you speak English better than Mandarin, so he is likely to resist speaking Mandarin with you at some point. If my kids answer my wife in English, she will say back in Japanese, "use mama's words". I also speak with my kids in Japanese (although not 100% of the time) to reinforce things. For example, my daughter was playing with flowers tonight and I taught her that "petal" is 花弁 in Japanese.

You are going to have a big challenge with reading and writing if you cannot read and write yourself. If literacy is at all important to you, you should enroll him in Chinese school at the appropriate age. My children practicing reading and writing Japanese every day. Mrs. Tanizaki is a literate native speaker and I write kanji by hand at an above-average level even for native speakers (I have taken certification exams to this effect), so we can help the kids with their writing assignments from Japanese school. You are going to have to figure out how to deal with reading and writing if literacy is important to you for your son to have.

This task is a considerable challenge for literate native speakers. Your limited proficiency is going to make it all the more challenging. It will be a struggle not to give up because speaking Mandarin is not effortless for you.
posted by Tanizaki at 6:47 PM on June 3, 2014 [5 favorites]

From observing many bilingual English/Spanish children (and even my own non-Spanish-speaking daughter), for as many of those "performance"-type conversations as is practical, say things in BOTH languages. Learning numbers, colors, emotions? Instructions. Statements that are things like, "Oh, the puppy is happy. Let's pet him!" or "Daddy is washing the car" are basic enough for you and baby - your skill level, and baby's learning level.

By the time baby is ready for more complex, you probably will be, too.
posted by stormyteal at 7:22 PM on June 3, 2014

First off, this is a really good thing that you're trying to do for your child, especially this early. My mother had about the same kind of Chinese background as you do, but handed us over to kindergartens and schools that at least taught Chinese if not were almost all in Chinese. She also made us read Chinese children's books out loud even though she couldn't ever help with characters I couldn't recognise. So I'd read, '小花开得真 no idea 但是 I-don't-know mummy when is daddy coming home to help me...' and on and on. It was a pain for both of us, but at the very least I was never too far behind my friends from Chinese-speaking homes. At the same time, my mother's Chinese has improved so much since my childhood just by having two gradually improving conversation partners around all the time.

And then I lost a lot of Chinese fluency by going to a mostly English-speaking country for high school. So now I'm bilingual in the sense that I understand and can read decently in two languages, but I can't hope to convey the same kind of nuance or ease in Chinese as I would in English. But! Where my parents were not so good at helping in the actual language acquisition bit, they made up for in cultural acquisition. I enjoyed calligraphy and wushu and Chinese theatre and music and really miss it all, which is why I'm going to plunge my hesitant Chinese-speaking-self into Beijing for two months to study Chinese. Again, now in university.

I guess this comes around to the crux of the problem. You will have a hard time persisting at this if you just come at it from the point of view of wanting your child to know Chinese for some reason. It really irks me when my mum still tries to make me speak Chinese at home 'just because'. I've been able to keep at learning Chinese, honestly, only because I want to still be able to understand the nuances in Chinese lyrics and literature. Many of my friends who grew up learning Chinese perfunctorily (because all ethnically Chinese children in Singapore have to do Chinese) are uncomfortable with anything beyond ordering food. And they're okay with that, and their parents are not too fussed. In the end, you can't control how good your child will be at Chinese, and if it ends up being a point of frustration for the both of you, that probably will cost more than the benefits Chinese brings. But if you can find something to enjoy in Chinese and Chinese culture, it can be enriching for both of you, and will build the foundation if he/she wants to come back to it in the future.

And bilingual babies acquire language slower, maybe, but it opens up so much in the world. (Anecdotally also, most of my childhood acquaintances are at least functionally trilingual if not quadri-lingual.) Just with Chinese which my friends and I have different fluency in, it's comically frustrating to try and explain why a song is really moving or something. It's a really neat thing to be bi/tri/multilingual.
posted by undue influence at 7:34 PM on June 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Also, 加油!I too find it exhausting to speak or read Chinese for hours on end. Even the thought of it, overthought, can be too much. It gets better, and you shouldn't feel any shame for it or for taking a break. As for confusing him by switching, I'm pretty sure - I can check later tonight - that my parents spoke to or around me in four languages. I turned out okay, I think.
posted by undue influence at 7:39 PM on June 3, 2014

You will not confuse him by switching languages! Five-month-old baby brains are not all OH THIS IS ENGLISH and then OH THIS IS MANDARIN WHY ARE THERE TWO DIFFERENT LANGUAGES GOING ON I CANT HANDLE IT
They just absorb and process the sounds and structure of whatever they're exposed to and the differentiation between the two (or three or four) comes later -- which is why it takes a little longer for the multilingual kids to start speaking, and to be able to speak only English or only Mandarin.
If I were you, I'd speak Mandarin when I felt up to it and English when I was tired. Make an effort to find some Mandarin kids' songs etc. on Youtube and play them. Get Mandarin music YOU like and enjoy it together. You might be able to find some online thing that reads the stories aloud to the kid on the computer -- I know my local library has some online program thing that does that. Interactive books or something. Hang out with some Mandarin speaking families if you find some you like spending time with.
Honestly, any exposure is good. The so-called critical period for language acquisition (esp. innate mastery of the phonetic and grammatical systems) is said to close only around puberty, so you've got time and you might as well enjoy the process, rather than stressing over it.
posted by bluebelle at 7:51 PM on June 3, 2014

Nthing Chinese school; they are frigging everywhere. Also, there's tonnes of great tv in Mandarin. Do you have any relatives that are fluent? Hang out with them!

I speak about fifty words of Viet, my partner is very fluent in speech but very shit in literacy, our daughter (2.5) is picking up Viet so fast my head is spinning with jealousy. She gets the tones and everything right as well.

This has been aided by having a lot of time with grandparents and uncles/aunties that speak a lot of viet (grandparents exclusively, everyone else a mix). But honestly, your basic Mandarin level will be completely fine until the kid is old enough for Chinese School, and they will take care of the literacy with workbooks and the whole kaboodle. Chinese School is actually even better than Viet school in this respect, because Viet schools are typically run by refugees who have a fractious to put it mildly relationship with the Viet govt, whereas the Chinese govt spends a lot of money and resources on Chinese School, I know they get great materials; I would not be surprised if the teachers are better as well. (*of course, this does mean they will be getting the CCP version of history and stuff, something to be aware of).
posted by smoke at 8:53 PM on June 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

My sister and her husband attempted something similar to what you are suggesting with their newborn - my sister in English, and her husband in French. Like your Putonghua, his French was mediocre at best. The advice they received from a local linguist was that unless he was comfortable speaking 100% in French to the child all the time and at a close to fluent level, it probably wasn't going to be much use b/c he'd keep falling back to English. A better option, it was suggested, was to enrol the child in a daycare that was half-day English, half-day French, where the teachers had native fluency level in French and there was a clear division between the two languages.
posted by modernnomad at 9:12 PM on June 3, 2014

I have no experience in this, but it seems a shame to limit the communication between you and your child by speaking a language that you aren't fluent in. Expose child as much as possible to Mandarin, but don't reduce your relationship in order to do it. (Note, I'm completely for people bringing their kids up to be bilingual, but only if they're fluent themselves).
posted by kjs4 at 9:24 PM on June 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

My nieces and nephews are being raised bi and tri lingual. It takes kids a bit of time to figure out that there are different languages. It's all just one big language to them. We mostly speak to the kids in Spanish, but my Spanish is sort of a mess so I use both Spanish and English. Several family members are native German speakers and they speak to their kids in German and Spanish.

My little niece counts as: uno, dos, three. She doesn't know that she's slipping between languages because she doesn't have that construct.

BTW, growing up I heard Italian spoken fairly frequently. I can't speak Italian, but I can understand it when it's spoken or written. When I dream about my dad, he's often speaking Italian (though he hasn't spoken to me in Italian in ages). For my anecdotal experience I think young brains are sucking up language.
posted by 26.2 at 10:30 PM on June 3, 2014

I am in a similar situation as you with my two kids, down to the waffling about what language to read books in. I am a native American English speaker but completely fluent in French, and my husband is opposite. We live in the US (so the surrounding language is English) and our household language between my husband and I is English. I can sustain a conversation in French with little effort, but that little effort adds up over time.

The way we do things is: we all speak English together when we are all together. (My husband found it very difficult to switch back and forth constantly.) When my husband is alone with the kids, they speak exclusively French, or so he tells me. If a conversation happens to be going on in French, I'll continue in French and our son will also continue in French, and same with English.

We practice vocabulary in both languages and we spend about 2-3 weeks per year either in France visiting the grandparents (who speak no English) or them coming here, so the kid gets a good booster shot of French. As for the books, I finally decided to read them in the language they presented: French books in French, English books in English. Any TV or movie media we consume is in French if possible, using the DVD settings to watch Thomas the Train in French for example.

Finally, as soon as possible, we enrolled our child in a bilingual preschool. This is the part that made all the difference. Up until that point, I was really quite worried--he spoke a few words of French but wasn't using it in sentences, wasn't automatically using it, etc. Enrolling in the school has brought him up to a place where I'm comfortable with his French abilities. He is of course more fluent in English, which is the dominant language of his environment, but he's in a pretty good place with French now too.

And even though I was unable to keep up the strict separation of "mommy is in English, daddy is in French," he seems to have no problem identifying which language is which, or switching between the two. I actually find it adorable when he tries out some homemade Franglais. He knows that both of us speak both languages and that's okay, but Grandma and Grandpa only speak English, and Papi and Mamie only speak French. And he's okay with that, and we're okay that he's okay with that.

We do intend to move to France within a few years. At that point, since the surrounding environment will be in French, I'm going to relax about keeping a balance of languages in the home. Probably we will just speak only English at home then.

Tl;dr: enrich your child's environment with books and cultural experiences, get as much booster shot of immersion as you can with visits, and find some way for formal schooling. And don't sweat it.
posted by Liesl at 7:09 AM on June 4, 2014

I know a lot of people who are native speakers of non-English languages and have found it hard to raise bilingual kids in their English-centric country (the US). It takes a lot of discipline, and that is all the much harder when your own native language (in your case, for all intents and purposes) is English. I am fluent in Mandarin but not a native speaker. I only speak a bit of Mandarin with my child here and there because I can offer her so much more by speaking English to her. Luckily Mandarin is taught in her school, otherwise I would feel like an opportunity for her young brain to learn a second language would be lost. But how far she will go with it is an open question because it will take continuous exposure and usage for years in order for it to really stick, and I don''t have any delusions that she'll be anything close to a native level speaker even if she has a Mandarin teacher for years. You could get a nanny or au pair who speaks Mandarin, but if you do that for several years and then stop, most of what your child learned will be lost unless you find a way to continue that same level of exposure.
posted by Dansaman at 11:44 PM on June 4, 2014

I'm at exactly your level of Chinese/English fluency (first language putonghua, moved and learned English lightning-quick at age 3). I don't have a child yet and may never, but as a linguist I've definitely thought about this issue a lot. My current SO speaks no Chinese, and my Chinese is barely sufficient to talk to my relatives back in China (who are all monolingual on both sides). I am lucky to have Chinese-speaking family who would be willing to help with child care, otherwise I know it'd be all on me. I have a native accent and fundamental grasp of grammar, especially after a few weeks of immersion, and I'd be happy to pass on that much to my kid.

As another data point, my much younger sister was born in the US in a Chinglish-speaking home but had grandparents as caregivers for the first year. Her tones are sometimes off but she can fix them with correcting, and I'm confident that her brain has the requisite connections for both "native" languages.
posted by serelliya at 9:27 AM on June 5, 2014

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