Multilingual Parenting

  • How I’m Teaching My Kids Mandarin Chinese: 7 Techniques for Raising Your Children in Your Non-Native Language

    For the first two years of my son’s life, I spoke to him almost exclusively in Chinese.

    We read, we played, we watched movies, and I gave instructions… all in Mandarin Chinese.

    But as he got older and things started to change, I began to slip. English crept in until, fast forward to about two months ago, it was the only language he and I really spoke together.

    Whenever I tried to bring Chinese back in, it seemed like he didn’t understand and that discouraged me from using it with him even further.

    But then I got some encouragement and a bit of a push to bring Chinese back. And I realized I worried for nothing.

    Playing board games in Chinese

    My Fears Raising My Children in My Non-Native Language

    When I made the decision to speak to my son in Chinese, I had very little support. I had done all the research and knew it would work, but little comments from friends and family slowly pecked away at my confidence in what I was doing. I heard:

    • You’ll confuse him!
    • He won’t be able to talk to me because I won’t understand him.
    • He’ll have speech delays.
    • He’ll have trouble talking and will need to see a speech therapist.

    The opinions went on and were endless.

    Then he hit age two and he still wasn’t really speaking. He said a few words in his three languages—French, Mandarin, and English—but not many. He seemed to understand everything just fine. In fact, if I gave him instructions in English he’d ignore me. When I switched to Chinese and gave them again, he listened right away.

    Me: Little Linguist, please sit down.

    Little Linguist continues standing on the chair

    Me: 请坐下!

    LL sits down immediately

    Nonetheless, I grew less certain I wasn’t doing all the things everyone warned me against. I let my fears everyone else was right in and English made its move and took over.

    The Challenges Raising My Children in My Non-Native Language

    I speak Chinese quite well. It’s a language I’m fairly comfortable in and I have a pretty big vocabulary. But kids are curious and my son constantly stumped me.

    “What’s that?” he asked pointing to the fire sprinkler in the ceiling. The cement truck. The spinning top. The cupcake.

    Suddenly, I was swamped with words I never realized I’d need to know.

    At first, I’d tell him I didn’t know and I started to keep a running list to share with my tutor. I’d be prepared the next time.

    But as I said, my son was curious. And soon, I was spending my entire hour-long lesson looking up words with my tutor. Words I still needed to study and learn after the lessons were over.

    Then more comments came in…

    What if you teach him your mistakes? I had an answer for that one. I knew that if I made sure he had enough exposure to native speakers, he’d one day correct me.

    What if he learns your accent? Again, I knew he’d speak Chinese accent-less if he had enough exposure.

    But because there were gaps in my knowledge, things I didn’t know I’d need to know to say, English again stepped through the door because it was tough to leave so many questions open for my son because I didn’t know how to answer him in Chinese.

    Having a Chinese lesson

    How I Made Efforts to Compensate My Knowledge and Raise My Son as a Native Chinese Speaker Even Though I’m Not One

    Knowing I needed support raising my son to speak Chinese, I did my best to get all my bases covered.

    When he was a year old, we attended Mommy and Me Chinese immersion classes. I’d ask the teacher questions and make mental notes of how she spoke to the children in the class.

    We read together in Chinese every night. I’d buy books and study them on my own in advance, learning the new vocabulary before I’d add them to our nightly rotation. I’d put in sticky notes with the pinyin for characters I didn’t know.

    We’d watch movies in Chinese. I made sure to buy a copy of the Chinese versions of movies I knew he loved. Finding Dory. Kung Fu Panda. Cars. For his first Christmas, my brother bought him an all region dvd player and some movies.

    We had flashcards I used to teach him new words. Little Pim was a big help.

    But most importantly, I used it with him as much as I could until I didn’t…

    How I’m Bringing Chinese Back and Raising My Kids to Speak It

    About two years have passed since Chinese’s presence in our lives slowly started to diminish. My kids are now 4 and 6. This past summer, we moved into a new neighborhood and were surprised to find that a good number of the kids who live here and hang out with our kids are… bilingual.

    There are kids who speak German, kids who speak Spanish, kids who speak Belarusian, and kids who speak Persian.

    My kids would brag to their friends that I knew lots of languages, but I could tell they felt a little jealous and left out. And even share that they spoke Chinese, even though that wasn’t really the case any more.

    Their dad, one day while listening to one of these conversations with their friends looked at me and said, “you really need to speak to the kids in Chinese.”

    I tensed. The kids are older. How would I suddenly switch to another language with them? How would I keep from letting English take over again? I didn’t know where to restart.

    But then I remembered, I don’t need to restart by doing all the things I was doing before. I just need to start with something. And besides, if I suddenly switched back to Chinese, the kids wouldn’t always understand me. It would be frustrating for them and for me and it’d quickly become a thing they’d reject.

    So we decided to take things slow.

    Here’s what I did, step-by-step to add Chinese back into our lives at home and raise my kids to speak my non-native language.

    Playing UNO in Chinese

    1 We read in Chinese every night

    Each night the kids got to pick one book, but I got to pick one too. My pick would always be a Chinese book to make sure that at least one of the books we read together was in Chinese. And sometimes, the kids would pick a Chinese book as well.

    I went back to basics and at first, picked the simplest books we owned. I’d read in Chinese, translate in English and ask them to repeat words after me.

    When they’d point at something in the book and say “rabbit!” I’d nod and reply “对. 兔子.”

    2 We changed the rules about tablet time

    Before, we’d let the kids use their tablets on long car rides or as a reward for a particularly good day. But that didn’t mean they didn’t ask for them more than that. So when we started to reintroduce Chinese, we created a new rule. We told them they could have their tablets if they either 1) watched something in Chinese (usually Little Pim or Sesame Street in Chinese, but their tablets also have Chinese movies on them) or 2) played a Chinese game (currently: Gus on the Go).

    3 We changed the rules about tv time

    If the kids wanted to watch Power Rangers or a movie, they first had to watch 20 minutes of a movie in Chinese. We stocked up on movies they love—Trollz, Frozen, Wreck It Ralph, Minions—so they’d still have options they’d want to watch.

    My son took to this immediately. Nearly every time we start a Chinese movie, he doesn’t ask to switch when the timer goes off. Instead, he watches it in its entirety and then moves on, not asking for whatever English language program he originally requested.

    My daughter (the 6-year-old) is a little more entrenched in English, so she does the bare minimum.

    4 Games and snacks became okay

    Usually, we try to avoid too many snacks and it can be tough to arrange the time to sit down and play board games or card games with the kids regularly. But we made an agreement. If they asked for a snack in Chinese, they’d get one (as long as it wasn’t too close to mealtime). And if they played a game in Chinese, we’d sit down with them.

    Candyland is great for learning colors. And UNO is amazing for both colors and numbers.

    5 We keep a list of new Chinese words we review

    Each week, I introduce them to a new set of words. I keep a journal so that I can keep track of what they should already know. I write them out using our alphabet fridge magnets, but I also add them to our chore board (along with our “rules”) just in case the magnets get played with.

    6 I share what they work on in Chinese at home with their tutor

    And in doing so, their tutor is able to reinforce what they learn with me. Their tutor is my tutor, so when I have my lessons, we spend part of our time discussing what I worked on with the kids so that when they have their lesson, she can work on it with them. She’s an amazing tutor and she knows just how to interact with each of my kids to keep them engaged.

    With my daughter, it’s telling her she can’t be the real Loulou because she heard that the real Loulou learned three new colors this week. And she’d only believe it’s Loulou if she could prove she knew those things in Chinese.

    With my son, it’s letting him show off his toys and asking questions about them, introducing the Chinese words for things as those conversations happen.

    7 I try to incorporate Chinese into other parts of our day

    In the car with the kids? I ask them to find me something that’s 紫色 (purple) or 红色 (red). We count together. I wrote the names of our cooking spices in Chinese, English, and French. I tell them I don’t understand them unless they say “please”, “thank you”, and “excuse me” in Chinese.

    To Sum Up

    As the kids get older, they’ll likely start to resist some of my requests. But I’m hoping to normalize as many of the Chinese activities as possible so they don’t feel like it’s this extra thing they have to do.

    They have moments where they don’t want to do their Chinese lesson, or they don’t want to watch something in Chinese on their tablet to get tablet time. But thankfully, they still do it even if they’re a bit resigned about it.

    I keep stocking up on Chinese language items for them when the opportunity arises. I recently purchased a few new movies and a set of fairy tales (stories they already know) in Chinese.

    For now, I’m enjoying the hours of Chinese UNO and hearing their progress as they get more and more exposure to the language.

    What about you? Are you raising your children to speak another language? Let me know what you’re doing to share a language with them in the comments below! And if you have any questions about our techniques, ask away!

    September 14, 2020 • Multilingual Parenting • Views: 409

  • How to Use Cartoons to Learn a Language with Your Kids

    Are you using cartoons to expose your kids to a new language? Here’s how to turn it from a passive experience to an effective language learning activity for both of you.

    Let’s start by clearing something up. Just sitting your kid in front of 2 hours of Tintin a day isn’t going to do the job ok? If it did, this would be a really short post and everybody would have multilingual kids. And yet so often on forums and threads when someone is looking for advice I see ‘watch cartoons’. This advice really frustrates me because it leads you towards two language traps – (1) that passive listening is an effective strategy and (2) that some people are talented at languages and some people aren’t.

    If you expect your kids to speak or understand a language even after many hours of watching you’re going to be disappointed and disheartened or worse, think that your child just doesn’t have the ‘language gene’.

    This is because your kids are doing passive listening. They are following the story by watching the images (children are remarkably visually literate) and ignoring or letting the language wash over them.

    BUT, before you delete your library of Netflix cartoons or your Youtube playlist, read on. I’ll show you how cartoons are an incredibly useful resource for supporting your child’s language learning. It’s all about how you use them.

    Why Cartoons Are Great for Language Learning

    Children love cartoons. And you shouldn’t underestimate the power of having a language resource that is enjoyable. For instance, there’s no way I would want to sit down and work through a textbook but I am happy to tackle complicated grammar and vocabulary in the novel that I’m reading.

    Children, particularly young children will happily watch the same cartoons over and over again – this is an amazing opportunity you can use to your advantage. And, by the way, it’s fantastic for your own language learning as well.

    I found that although I had faith in the advice that watching a scene from a movie repeatedly had immense benefits, I rarely had the patience to carry it out. Although I knew it was useful it didn’t feel useful and I was always itching to move on to the next new thing, the next episode of Bref or the next quiz on Journal En Français Facile. But I can truly say that being forced to re-watch the same episode of Caillou over and over again by my 3-year-old has been absolutely brilliant for my own listening comprehension. Now, it really niggles if there is a word or expression that I didn’t quite catch or don’t recognize and I genuinely look forward to watching it again the next day to try to pin it down.

    They Use Natural Phrases and Expressions

    If you select the right cartoon, it will be packed full of useful relevant everyday vocabulary.

    We can use all of these things to our advantage to turn watching cartoons from a passive, not very useful pastime to an awesomely effective tool.

    When I first started using cartoons with my toddler, I had two vague goals in mind – that he would hear a ‘proper’ French accent with native pronunciation and that he might start to pick up some of the language. At that point, I had been learning French for a little while myself but I wasn’t confident in my own ability to speak it to him. I figured that the only way he was going to get exposure to the language was through listening to music and watching cartoons.

    In the beginning, I watched the cartoons with him and occasionally pointed out some of the words. I knew that it would be a good opportunity to practice my own listening comprehension and I was pleased that I could get the gist of what was being said, even if I wasn’t looking at the screen. So far, so good right?

    But then our progress ground to a halt…

    It started to become much less effective. Because I could ‘get the gist’, I mentally crossed ‘cartoon watching’ off my list of useful resources for my own study. Unconsciously, I had given myself a big tick next to the activity and was ready to move on to find new material for my listening comprehension.

    Soon, I started to try to be more ‘productive’ with my time and do household jobs whilst he was watching. I’m sure everyone who has kids can relate to this temptation… They are happy, settled, no-one is arguing and they’re going to be fine on their own for the next few minutes. That’s just enough time to stack the dishwasher, start cooking dinner or start any one of those hundreds of jobs you have been trying to get done that day. At the same time I was getting frustrated because I was finding less and less time to fit in my own language learning every day.

    I knew that he wasn’t really getting much benefit from passively watching the cartoons and I also wasn’t getting any effective study time so our progress ground to a halt.

    So I changed the way we watch cartoons.

    It wasn’t until I took The Eurolinguiste Busy Language Learner Course (thanks, Shannon!) that I realized what I was doing wrong. I was taking the course to try to carve out some more time for my own French study, but Shannon made me realize that the time watching cartoons with my toddler could be really effective French learning time for both of us.

    This is the email I sent to Shannon when I had a ‘lightbulb’ moment and realized I had been going about it all the wrong way:

    “I had not even considered cartoon watching as a language learning activity for me! I had mentally filed it as ‘language learning for the kids’…but you have inspired me to totally rethink the way we watch cartoons. I’ve now turned it from a passive (and therefore pretty useless) experience for the kids into a really interactive, effective language experience for all of us!”

    I had been completely dismissing the value of watching cartoons for my own French study and I was also preventing my toddler from having an effective learning experience. I needed to develop a system to make this an active, productive learning session that we could both benefit from.

    If watching a cartoon was going to be an effective learning time, I had to be totally present with my toddler, sitting alongside him, concentrating, engaging and interacting. After all, when I read to him, I don’t try to do the washing up at the same time! Children learn language by interacting – this is an active process.

    Cartoons are a great language resource, but it’s up to you to take that resource and turn it into an active, social experience. Otherwise, it’s about as much use as sitting your kids down and presenting them with a French / English dictionary. It’s stuffed full of useful language but looking through it isn’t going to turn them into French speakers!

    So I sat down and took some time to work out some ways that I could make the time more effective for him. I also reassessed my own feelings about using the cartoons as listening comprehension. I decided that ‘getting the gist’ wasn’t good enough – my new goal was going to be to hear and understand every word, phrase and expression.

    The results have been amazing for both of us – not only has it made TV time a fun, bonding experience but it has definitely improved his understanding and enriched his vocabulary. It has also had some surprising benefits for me that I hadn’t predicted. I’ll share these in a moment, but first, here’s my guide to getting more value from watching cartoons.

    My Step-by-Step Guide to Making Your TV Time more productive [cartoon image 4]

    Step 1: Choose your cartoon.

    It’s worth putting in a bit of effort at this stage to research a good cartoon. If your own listening comprehension isn’t quite strong enough yet, it’s well worth finding a cartoon with subtitles in your target language. When I’m researching a new cartoon for my little boy, I ask myself 3 questions:

    * Will he like it?
    * Will he be able to follow the story without understanding the language? (I think this is really important for him to be able to enjoy what he is watching)
    * Is the vocabulary going to be useful?

    If your target language is French, you’re in luck because comics and cartoons are a staple of French culture (think Asterix, Tin Tin, Lucky Luke). However, my absolute favourite cartoon for my kids is Caillou. It’s a French-Canadian cartoon about a little boy who is about 3/4 years old and his everyday experiences. It deals with lots of real-life situations like going to the dentist, the doctor, the beach, nursery, the park and his relationship with his family. I love that the familiar situations means it is instantly relatable even if you don’t understand a word of French. It also means that the phrases and vocabulary are relevant to our everyday lives so I know that I have a good source of accurate, natural sounding phrases that I can use when I’m speaking to my kids. Whatever your target language, a Google or Youtube search can usually bring up a few popular cartoons. (I was really chuffed to discover I could watch Bing! in Welsh the other day!)

    Step 2: Watch it yourself.

    Your first time watching can be with or without your child. Your goals on this first watch are to understand as much as possible. You don’t need to worry if you don’t catch everything (unless you want to), the point is to listen attentively. If you need to, watch it on your own first with subtitles and pause to look up words if you think you have missed something important.

    Pick out one or two things that are relevant to your own life at the moment. For example, over Christmas we watched episodes about putting up a Christmas Tree and making a snowman. We were doing both these activities ourselves at around this time so I knew I would have opportunities to use the vocabulary with my kids. It can be something really small, like, maybe a character goes on an escalator and there is an escalator at your local shopping centre – it really can be anything you think you might be able to use in your everyday life in the next few days.

    Step 3″ Make notes.

    Choose a couple of words / phrases / whole sentences that are useful and relevant to you and jot them down.

    See how this is already great for your own study? You’re engaging in active listening, checking vocabulary and writing down useful phrases. Now you’re going to apply what you’ve been doing to improve your children’s understanding. This application will also reinforce your own learning and give you opportunities to review and repeat the material in a fun way with your kids. Awesome right?

    Step 4: Watch again.

    The next time you watch TV in your target language, watch the same episode again. Now it’s all about drawing your child’s attention to the words / phrases you picked out and helping them to train their ear. When you first listen to a new language it sounds like one continuous string of babble, you don’t know where one word ends and one begins. We think that we leave gaps between words when we speak like when we write but those gaps are imaginary – your brain inserts spaces for you once you are familiar with the language. You are going to help your child start to pick out individual words from the stream.

    There are a number of ways to do this depending on the age and personality of your child.

    Here are a few ideas:

    Explain a word / phrase. Let’s say one of the phrases you jotted down is ‘c’est l’heure du dîner’ (it’s dinner time). When you hear the character say it, pause and say something like- ‘Caillou’s mum just said c’est l’heure du dîner. That means it’s dinner time. C’est l’heure du dîner.’ Say the target language phrase slowly and clearly and repeat it a couple of times.

    Bingo. There are so many ways you can vary this game to keep it fun.

    You can go all out and make cards to mark off with a prize, it can be competitive (although I strongly suggest letting them win most of the time!) or collaborative, you can keep a tally of how many times a particular word or phrase is said in an episode and see if you get the same number on the next watch or just simply say ‘tell me when you hear the word ‘_______’. You can gradually increase the difficulty by just listening for one word / phrase when you watch for the first time and then the next time you watch the same episode you can listen out for 2 or 3 different words.

    Encourage their inference skills. For example, when I first introduced the words for ‘snowman’ in French, I paused the episode and said ‘It’s snowing and Caillou wants to make un bonhomme de neige in the garden’ What do you think un bonhomme de neige is? This is excellent training for their inference skills when they are reading / watching in their native language as well so it’s a win-win strategy!

    Contextualise. In other words, try to link what you’re watching to something happening in your own lives. We watched an episode recently where Caillou made a card for his dad. We had just made a card for my toddler’s great grandmother so this was a perfect opportunity to put my key phrases into a real life context that had happened that day. The narrator in the cartoon said ‘Caillou a fait une carte pour son Papa’. So I paused and repeated slowly ‘Caillou a fait une carte’ then I said to my toddler ‘tu as fait une carte for great grandma today’.

    Use the words / sentences in the next few days as often as possible when they are relevant to what you are doing. If you’ve chosen well, you should be able to find lots of opportunities to use them, if you’re struggling to work your phrases into a conversation, no sweat, have another go tomorrow! You can also extend this by adding variations e.g. ‘tu veux faire une carte pour Papa aussi?’ ‘d’accord, on va faire une carte pour Papa plus tard’ ‘Papa, on a fait une carte pour toi!’ (Do you want to make a card for daddy as well? Ok, we are going to make a card for daddy later. Daddy, we made a card for you!)

    Something really important that I need to mention here is to always let your kids be the guide. If they are doing well and having fun then by all means up the difficulty or expand the game. If they are not very responsive then take a step back. Always keep it light and fun and encouraging – don’t turn it into schoolwork or make them feel under pressure to perform.

    If you follow this process you will see a big difference in the value you are getting from cartoons.

    And those extra benefits I discovered?

    When I was doing any kind of listening comprehension before, I was listening to understand. Now I find when we are watching cartoons, I am listening with the goal of being able to use the language. This has probably doubled my attentiveness. I have found that there is a massive difference between being able to completely understand a conversation and being able to accurately reproduce the same / similar sentences myself. I am noticing much more about the language and I find that I have a running commentary in my head of the things that I am observing or need to check, like Was that de or du? c’est or il est? Was that verb reflexive? Which verb do they use in this collocation? etc.

    So my new year’s resolution is to keep following the steps above to put an end to passive listening and make TV time a rich language experience that we can share. I need to remind myself that this is a productive time for both of us as well as lovely bonding time, it’s exactly what I need to be doing at that moment in time and it deserves my full attention. The housework will just have to wait until the end of this episode…or maybe after the next one.

    What about you?

    Do you use cartoons to expose your children to your target language? What cartoons do you watch and how do you use them?

    I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

    About the Author // Francesca Pursell is a mother, language learner and former teacher who created her website to write about ways that beginner and intermediate language learners can help their children learn a new language. Her own language adventures began with French and she has recently begun to learn Welsh. She is continually finding ways of incorporating French into family life with her two young children. She has created a Cartoon Watching Cheat Sheet to go with this blog post which can be downloaded here.

    January 15, 2018 • Language Resources, Multilingual Parenting • Views: 2656

  • A Review of Muzzy in Gondoland | BBC Language Learning for Children

    Muzzy in Gondoland Review: Muzzy is an interactive language learning program for children produced by the BBC.

    In an earlier post I shared that M and I recently welcomed a new addition to our family, Little Linguist. Since M’s native language is French, he speaks to Little Linguist in his mother tongue while I speak to him in Chinese. Since we live in the US, Little Linguist will naturally be exposed to English once he starts school and eventually learn the language, so we are more focused on finding materials to help us support his Mandarin and French learning.

    I know from personal experience that learning materials that are engaging and interactive work really well for kids – games, movies, and other activities are all great ways to help children develop their language skills.

    Which is why I was really excited to try out Muzzy, which combines games and short animations to teach kids another language.

    Muzzy in Gondoland Review | Eurolinguiste

    About Muzzy

    Muzzy in Gondoland, or just Muzzy for short, is an animated program designed to help children learn another language. It was originally created in 1986 by the BBC and in 2013, a new version of the course was developed with updated animations and music.

    It features an extraterrestrial named Muzzy and Bob the Gardener as they go about Gondoland. The story is a little quirky, but the fact that it’s somewhat unusual is part of what makes it so engaging for children.

    My Experience Using Muzzy

    I tried out both the Mandarin Chinese and French Muzzy DVDs, both levels 1 and 2.

    I also had access to Muzzy Club for both French and Mandarin. This has many more features than the DVDs. In addition to the videos, you also have games, typing and even speaking practice options. It’s much more interactive than the DVD series which I think is really beneficial to a child’s language learning, so I definitely recommend the online membership over purchasing the DVDs alone.

    The videos are focused on immersion, so the everything is in the target language (but you can watch it with subtitles in either English or the target language). There is quite a bit of repetition which is fantastic for helping kids instill the new vocabulary and its done in a way that is quite effective. They offer a variety of contexts for the words that are introduced, improving the likelihood that kids will retain the information presented as a part of the series. Plus, the main storyline is occasionally interspersed with interludes from a character named Norman in order to give some of the material a new context.

    Muzzy in Gondoland Review | Eurolinguiste

    There are two levels available, each with six story parts, and in addition to the main story videos, there are also vocabulary building videos that focus on different topics including:
    – Shapes and colors
    – Animals
    – Sports
    – Numbers parts of the body
    – Food
    – Clothing
    – School
    – And more

    The series covers a nice range of material and if they really get into watching Muzzy and playing the games, there is a lot to take away from the program.

    Things That I Thought Could Be Better

    I thought that the Muzzy theme song was cute and well-produced, but I wasn’t a fan of some of the other songs that are used to teach different vocabulary. As a musician, the quality of the music was a little bit difficult for me to appreciate. But despite the production quality of the songs, they are catchy.


    Muzzy is said to be for all ages but it’s definitely geared towards younger kids. I would probably say under 6 not because of the languages content but because of the way the narrative and lessons are structured. An older child would likely grow bored or uninterested in the program.

    It’s not a standalone way to learn a new language, but I definitely think it makes a wonderful addition to any child’s language learning library and can do much for a child’s learning when supported with other materials and methods.

    Overall, I think Muzzy will be a fun way for Little Linguist to engage with French and Mandarin and I can’t wait for him to be just a little older so that he can understand and interact with the program.

    Muzzy Online is $9.95 a month (or $89.95 per year). If you opt for the Big Muzzy Program (this includes the DVDs), it’s $199.00 for the year. The program is available in Spanish, French, German, Mandarin Chinese, English and Italian.

    Muzzy Website | Facebook | Twitter | Youtube

    What about you?

    Are there any language learning resources for kids that you’ve found useful for either yourself or your little ones?

    I’d love to hear about them in the comments below!

    Tips for Language Learning | Eurolinguiste

    September 26, 2016 • Language Resources, Multilingual Parenting • Views: 2064