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Children Foreign Language Learning

As you all know, my wife and I recently welcomed our son into the world (first child!) and I’m already talking with other polyglot parents to gain more insight into strategies for raising young kids to be bilingual.

Today Shannon Kennedy who blogs over at Eurolinguiste is sharing some of what she’s been doing and resources she’s using with her little guy (aka Little Linguist).

Over to you, Shannon. 🙂


I had just turned down the lights in the room and placed my then 6-month-old in his crib.

He was restless, fighting bedtime with an energy only a little one can muster. He sat up in his crib and laughed as I continued to prepare the room for the night before returning to the side of his crib.

Seeing that he intended to stretch his waking hours to the limit, I decided to indulge him.

“你拍手吧。”
“Will you clap?” I requested gently.

He stared at me, and then, in that uncoordinated, adorable way only babies can manage he clapped his hands together.

Beaming, I grabbed my camera and requested the performance a few more times to capture the moment. It was the first time he responded to that particular request and I was as proud as any mamma could be.

This past year, much like Donovan, I welcomed my son into the world and we too, decided to raise our sweet boy to speak more than one language.

We’re less than a year in and the journey it is a continual a whirlwind of excitement, exhaustion, overwhelm, euphoria and self-doubt. Especially since one of those languages is not the native language of either my husband or I.

But every moment is well worth it.

In this post, I want to share some of the tools and methods we’re using to support Little Linguist’s language development.

It’s not a one-size fits all approach – every family and situation is a little different – but I wanted to open up a discussion about what works for us in the hopes that it may help you if you’re interested in heading down a similar path.

 

Our Story

Before Little Linguist joined us, my husband and I spoke both French and English at home. But since the addition to our little family, the number of languages we speak has also expanded.

We knew early on that Little Linguist would learn to speak both French and English.

He would need them to be able to communicate with family.

But we wanted to give him every advantage possible, so we agreed that I would speak to him in Mandarin Chinese as well.

It was a tough decision.

We’ve heard every argument against it you can imagine.

You’ll delay his speech development.
– You’ll confuse him.
– He won’t be able to talk to us.

You name it.

Ultimately, the decision is ours to make (and once he’s old enough, Little Linguist’s), so we do the best we can for him to help him in every way.

Including giving him the advantage of being multilingual and multicultural.

 

Our approach to teaching our child foreign languages

We currently are using the One Person, One Language (OPOL) approach, but we may blend it with other methods as needed in the future.

I speak with Little Linguist in Chinese while my husband and his family speak to him in French.

We aren’t focusing on English at the moment, because we know he’ll learn it later on at school.

But he still gets exposure to the language whenever we venture outside the home and when he spends time with my family.

It’s a little overwhelming being his sole source for Chinese, particularly because it’s not my native language.

I’ve used the opportunity, however, to not only focus on my Chinese learning but to become more specialized in my knowledge.

No easy feat considering the fact that it’s hard to learn child-related vocabulary without the help of a tutor!

 

How I refined my knowledge in the language to support my child’s language development

I had a year of Chinese under my belt when I found out I was pregnant, and the nine months leading up to the arrival of Little Linguist gave me plenty of opportunity to sit down and focus on what I’d need to know.

My first mission was to search for resources that would help me learn the vocabulary I’d need for the first year or so, but aside from a few YouTube videos, there wasn’t a whole lot to help me learn things like:

Hold still and let Maman cut your nails.
– Do you want to go out for a walk in your stroller?
– Here, take your pacifier.
– Let me strap you into your high chair.
– Please let go of Maman’s hair.
– We need to change your diaper!

Not exactly words or phrases at the top of most vocabulary lists.

Thankfully, I discovered early on that resources created for small children contained a lot of the words and phrases I needed, so I quickly diverted my attention to collecting as many of these as I could.

When children’s books and tv shows didn’t suffice, I’d keep track of the things I couldn’t find and share them with my tutor during my lessons.

She had a young niece, so a lot of my requests were fresh in her memory.

It was a huge help!

The truth is though, no matter how much you prepare, things will always come up that surprise you.

Learning a language is a constant work in progress.

 

The materials we use to support Little Linguist’s language exposure

Little Pim

Little Pim Language LearningLittle Pim is a series of videos that are 100% in the target language.

The vocabulary covered are things that a child needs to know for their day-to-day activities. Words and phrases like “brush your teeth”, “juice” and “tickle” are included.

It was a great help in arming me with words that I needed to know and Little Linguist loves watching them.

Little Pim produces content in French, Spanish, German, Italian, Chinese, English, Japanese, Arabic, Korean, Russian, Portuguese and Hebrew.

 

Tuttle flashcards

These are another fun resource, but are aimed towards kids who are a little older.

I still enjoy using them with Little Linguist though – I show him the image and make up sentences using the words that are relevant to him.

These are only available for certain Asian languages, so we have them for Chinese.

 

Muzzy

Muzzy language learningMuzzy is a language series put together by the BBC.

It’s a collection of videos about a princess, an alien and an evil villain completely in the target language. There’s a lot of repetition, so it’s great for kids.

The languages available are Spanish, French, Chinese, English, Italian, German, and Korean.

 

Gus on the Go

Gus on the Go is a fun language learning app available in 30 languages including French, Spanish, Western Armenian, Croatian, Greek, Polish, Taiwanese, and Swedish.

It’s interactive and a fun way for kids to engage with the language.

Little Linguist isn’t old enough for the app yet, but I’ve tried them out to see if it would be a good fit for him later (plus to see if there was any useful vocabulary that *I* could use).

 

Sesame Street

Sesame Street has been the go-to resource for generations of parents and there are shows available in a variety of languages.

Fun Fun Elmo is the Chinese version of the show we watch and 5 Rue Sesame is the French version of Sesame Street.

Other languages available include Russian (Улица Сезам), Italian (Sesamo Apriti), and Japanese (セサミストリート).

EDIT: Donovan here. Here’s a list.

 

 

YouTube

YouTube is a wonderful resource for parents.

You can find videos aimed at kids in pretty much any language, and the best part is that they are short and entertaining so that you can limit TV time and kids stay engaged.

 

Native materials

We use materials originally produced in the languages we’re teaching Little Linguist.

There’s a fantastic Chinese bookstore nearby where we’re able to purchase books, we have family send us things in French, but Amazon has been an excellent resource for finding books and movies in other languages.

 

Personal interaction

Finally, but most importantly, the best way we help Little Linguist’s language development is by interacting with him.

We describe what we’re doing, what he is seeing or hearing, and play games.

We request things of him (like kisses, to stop, or to take something) and we model how we would like him to speak by being polite and using simple language (for now) but not baby talk.

It’s incredible watching him learn to understand things in three languages and we know we still have many hurdles ahead, but we just enjoy it one day at a time.

 

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  1. Aw, that’s so cute! Congratulations to both of you for having kids and raising them bilingual! 🙂 My future unborn child (or children) will definitely be learning Russian, and if I don’t end up marrying a native Russian speaker, I’ll be the sole source of the language, just like you, Shannon. I guess I’d better go brush up on my vocabulary. I wish I could lose my foreign accent as well, but I don’t see that happening anytime soon. Sigh.

    Reply
    1. Thanks Natalie! I think the accent isn’t that big of a deal, especially if they’re getting exposure to the language through cartoons, music, or movies. He or she will likely have a better accent! It’s amazing how quick they pick things up and then even surpass us.

      Reply
  2. Very brave of you. I have been learning Mandarin a lot longer than you, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable speaking to my son in that language. My wife and his grandparents speak Cantonese to him and I mainly speak English to him, unless I want his grandparents to understand what I’m saying to him for some reason and then I speak Cantonese.

    Reply
    1. I find myself doing the same thing with English. I speak to my son alone in Chinese, but if I want other people to understand what I’m saying to him, I switch to English.

      Thanks Clayton – I’m really not all that brave!

      Reply
  3. I think that’s wonderful. As our sons got older, we had much success with having them listen to German story tapes in the car. Not only did it shorten long drives for them (and us!), but the tapes improved their listen skills and added new vocabulary!

    Reply
    1. Thanks Peter! This is so encouraging to hear. Little Linguist loves music, so we listen to a lot of MPop, hopefully we can listen to podcasts or radio shows when he gets a little older!

      Reply
  4. I’ve not yet met anyone who grew up speaking three languages, but I have known quite a few people who grew up speaking two. I’ve found that whether or not it was a good experience for them depended not only on what their parents did, but also on their own attitude.

    When I was younger I had a friend who, like me, was from Ireland, and whose French mother always spoke to him in French. He was quite happy with this arrangement and cheerfully spoke fluent French back to her. His younger brother, however, didn’t like it so much. He resented having to speak a language at home that wasn’t spoken by any of his friends or neighbours. Eventually he stopped speaking French to his mother, and would always answer her in English.

    Truth be told, most of the people I’ve known from mixed or immigrant backgrounds have resembled that second brother more than the first when it came to language.

    As your son gets older, he is going to realise that Mandarin Chinese is not the language of the society around him. Eventually, he’s also going to realise that speaking Chinese with your mum when neither of you is Chinese or lives in China could be perceived as somewhat … eccentric. He may – alas, he will probably – experience some teasing from his schoolmates over it. How he reacts to all of that will, I think, determine whether your endeavour is a success or not. He may decide that he likes speaking Chinese in spite of everything, and soldier on with it – or he may decide otherwise.

    Of course, I don’t know your exact circumstances and I’m sure that you have weighed the various options carefully. Since I may have to think about a trilingual upbringing for my own future kids, I wish you luck with this project and hope you write again in future about how it has gone.

    Reply
    1. Thanks Brian. I appreciate your input. I agree that Little Linguist will be the one who ultimately decides which languages he speaks. But whatever he decides, my research has told me that the foundation is still there. So no matter what, he’ll always have that advantage, however far he choses to take it.

      That said, all I can do as a parent is try to pass on what I know. If he chooses to use it that’s wonderful, if not, at least I tried.

      All the best to you for your future kids as well!

      Reply
  5. Hey Shannon, thanks for a great post! I am a native English speaker, but I have been learning Spanish for almost 7 years (classic high school into college curriculum so I’m still not fluent lol). I would love to one day teach my children Spanish! By then I will have had several more years of the language and a semester abroad under my belt so I’m hoping I’ll feel more confident in my language. I was wondering how hard of a decision was it/how hard has it been to use the OPOL technique? As much as I would love to speak Spanish to my kids, I’m worried it will cause problems with my boyfriend (soon-to-be fiancé). He has said he thinks it would be beneficial for our children to be bilingual and is willing to support me if it’s something I ultimately deiced to do. However, as someone who took 3 years of high school Spanish and knows probably under 100 words, I think he is concerned about feeling ostracized from his own family. All of this is despite my guess that I would speak mostly English when the whole family was present. Did you and your husband discuss this? I’m interested in your experience as I haven’t found a lot of parents talking about raising their children in their nonnative language. Thanks!

    Reply
    1. The OPOL language technique was kind of the natural option for us because only I speak Mandarin. If he gets any input from it, it would be from me. My husband is French, and LL will need to be able to communicate with that part of his family, so that was also a natural conclusion we came to.

      When I first told my husband (and then our families) that I wanted to speak with LL in Chinese, they all thought I was crazy. Laughed it off as though I were joking. When they realized I was serious, they questioned me, but I eventually won over my husband, and not long after, his parents. My parents still aren’t totally on board, but they don’t discourage me either.

      For them, it was always a question about whether the languages would confuse him, but I was able to show them research that it wouldn’t.

      Tetsu Yung is another parent who is raising his children to speak 5 languages. He wrote a book about his methods here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B00U47EGBI (Two of the languages are not his native languages – French and Spanish – though he lives in Quebec so it’s a language he’s used and lived in for quite a while).

      Reply
  6. What a lovely read, Shannon!

    Really interesting to hear how you’ve been approaching this given that your “OL” is one that you started learning fairly recently. I bet it’ll work out great for both you and your Little Linguist though 🙂

    OPOL works really well as a starting point. Sounds like a good idea to be open to blending it with other methods later on though. From my experience, it’ll likely happen naturally…

    We stuck to the OPOL approach — I spoke Mandarin with her and my husband Swedish — until very recently. Our plan was to only use those two languages with her until she starts school. But then… around the time when our daughter turned 3, she started to show A LOT of interest in English. And now, a few months later, English has become an “unplanned” but very enjoyable addition to our daily interactions 🙂

    Reply
    1. Hi Angel, thanks! I’m sure we’ll have to adapt our methods as he gets older, especially since English is going to be such a dominant language. 🙂 We’ll see how it goes!

      Reply
  7. Shannon , the way you are using chinese to make at such an young age will definitely benefit him.
    My country is a multilingual country and each child is atleast bilingual . English is learned in school with parents teaching the kid their native language from a young age and this doesnot confuse the child . He learns to differentiate between the language and starts grasping them quickly . I have friends speaking 4 lanuages from childhood . Two were learned from his parent of different linguistic background and the local language as well as English. It all depends on the proper exposure . If you talk solely in chinese and your partner talks solely in french . He will tend to be multilingual with a good proficiency.

    Reply
    1. Hi Samaira, thank you so much for the encouragement! I really, really appreciate it.

      Reply
  8. This is wonderful. I too am bringing up my son to speak a language which isn’t my native language. I barely know anyone bringing up their child bilingual, let alone anyone bringing up their child to speak a language which isn’t native to them.

    There have been many moments when I have questioned my ability to do this. At the moment I feel that it is working, though it is hard. Especially not having support.

    I have bought him lots of books and we watch videos on YouTube. YouTube has also been great for music videos. I have learnt a lot of children’s songs!

    Reply
    1. Hey Sarah, thanks for leaving a comment. I’m sure that you can do it! And I totally understand not having support, but that’s the great thing about the online community. You can find that support elsewhere.

      Thanks for sharing a bit about what you’re doing!

      Reply
  9. We were already raising our kids bilingual (English and Polish) and when we decided to go trilingual, we – just like you! – heard A LOT of objection (that it will “impair their speech”, “confuse them” etc). But after only ONE YEAR of Chinese kindergarten, look what happened:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WkKupZijK3c

    Reply
    1. This is so incredible. Thanks for sharing this.

      Reply
  10. Are you not nervous about your little one picking up your mistakes and accent in Mandarin? I speak 7 languages (one of which is also Mandarin) but would never teach my son one of those from birth as it is not native standard. He is growing up bilingual naturally but though I would like to introduce a third I would be concerned about doing it as you are. Are you not worried you will teach mistakes? Especially with Mandarin – very few foreigners can speak Mandarin like a native.

    Reply
    1. Hi NZ, I understand where you’re coming from and your concern. I don’t take teaching him Mandarin lightly and I am always working to be better and more accurate in the language myself. If I’m not 100% unsure, I switch to English or French, but I also know that kids are incredibly amazing and his Chinese will surely surpass mine one day (so that he’s one day correcting me). For now, I focus on keeping as much ahead of him as I can until he gets to that point. I make sure that he gets input from other sources that don’t make mistakes, and we plan to put him in a school/program to also focus on this language.

      For now, since he’s still so young, I’m pretty confident in what I’m teaching him. When he starts to get older and ask me more questions, it is my job to prepare for them and do the best that I can. And, when I don’t know something, I can turn it into a learning experience for the two of us.

      Reply
  11. In my country people say that parents should talk their mother tongue to their baby, or at least a language that they have been fluent for years and are almost native in because very often peole cannot fully use their feeling and intuitive words in other languages. To me it sounds plain stupid to try to only use a language that one has only just learned.
    Bilingual yes, but use your mother tongue when caring for a baby. There might come serious mental problems to the child if the parents dont use a language they are absolutely sure in.

    We are raising a bilingual child too, but I only started English, which Im not native in, after the child was fully able to express herself in her mother tongue and I only use English in the evening for an hour. My huspand in trilingual from childhood, but only uses his second language with our child and he is almost native in that language.

    After a year or two with two languages we probably introduce a third language, so I have nothing against raising bi or trilingual children. Its just a mother should primarily talk the language she is best in with the child to avoid problems.

    Reply
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