Bilingual babies: Parents teaching two languages

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Being bilingual has many advantages in life and it’s great when children of non-English speaking ethnicities in the UK can speak their mother tongue as well as English. But just how do some parents go about teaching their children Chinese and English? Nee Hao asked a few mums, both British Chinese and those from the mainland, what their experiences have been like doing so and what tips they had for other mothers.

Josie, who lives in originally from Shanghai, has an 11-month-old daughter, Kira. She says her British-born Chinese husband and her both speak as much Mandarin as possible to and around Kira, in the hopes that she will pick up speaking the language a lot quicker and tell us that she can already say “baba” and “mama” AND knows which is which. “We believe it’s extremely important that Kira knows Mandarin because obviously it’s part of our family’s heritage and background and will be very beneficial to her growing up,” they tell us.

When it comes to teaching Kira English they say her toys and baby books are all in English anyway but want her to know Mandarin first, adding that she can pick up English a lot more easily when she starts pre-school and interacting with other kids.

“We’ll speak to her in Chinese at home and probably little English unless she needs help with homework or something,” they add.

Josie’s parents-in-law, Ann and Ron, are from Malaysia and therefore grew up speaking a number of dialects, their mother tongue being Teochew. They also know Mandarin, Hokkien and Cantonese. Both Ann and Ron talk to their granddaughter in Mandarin but say in the future they will gladly also teach her other dialects, while Josie adds that she also wants to teach her Shanghainese. Although Josie, Ann and Ron know that Teochew and Shanghainese are not widely spoken, they want Kira to be able to understand her multilingual background.

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Ann and Ron have two grown sons, both of whom they taught Teochew as small children and later Mandarin when they grew up. Ann tells Nee Hao that while it’s true that babies and young children learn speech and languages much more quickly, it’s important that parents don’t bombard their kids with too many languages in one go and say that teaching them one at a time is the best way. “We taught our sons Teochew first, or at least spoke to them in it a lot,” says Ann. “They understand more than they can speak but when they were a bit older we started talking to them in Mandarin, which they picked up better.” Now her eldest son mainly speaks Mandarin, while her younger son can converse in a mixture of other dialects too, including some Hokkien and Cantonese and all of them “mix and match” the dialects along with English when talking amongst themselves.

“Coming from Malaysia where a vast majority of Chinese people can all speak Mandarin and at least one other dialect, we know that being bilingual or multilingual is possible if the children, when they grow up, are willing to continue using the language as often as possible,” says Ann, whose neighbours when she was growing up all spoke various dialects. “Me and my siblings would go out and learn different dialects from different people and that’s how we can all speak so many. It’s just about willingness and being pro-active in practicing so you don’t forget them. I speak Mandarin and Teochew to my sons, Cantonese to my Hong Kong friends and siblings even though we are Teochew, then Teochew and Hokkien with my husband.”

Yan is a Mainland Chinese mother who now lives in Britain with her English husband and their two young children, aged 2 and 5. Yan says that it was a bit more complicated at first teaching their children different languages as her husband doesn’t speak Mandarin, only the basics. “Both children do sometimes get confused,” admits Yan. Her 2-year-old son still struggles a bit with juggling both languages as he can only string simple sentences together but they try and encourage him to speak more Mandarin, while their 5-year-old daughter is doing better at differentiating. “She’s at pre-school now and so she focuses more on English, however she can understand quite a bit of Mandarin now,” Yan tells us.

Yan says mixed race children probably have it a bit harder than full Chinese children because of one parent probably not being able to speak Chinese, but her advice is to simply split the languages between both parents. “I speak to the children in Mandarin nearly all the time, while my husband uses English so that our children will hopefully be fully aware of which language to use for which parent. We also label a lot of things around our house with sticky notes in both English, Chinese characters and Pinyin so they can learn.”

Ann adds that sending children to Chinese schools on weekends to further learn Chinese is a good way for them to interact with other Chinese kids and they can learn reading and writing there too. “Speaking and understanding Chinese is of great importance,” says Ann, “but it’s a bonus if they are able to read and write too so we always encouraged our sons to be well-rounded in learning Chinese.”

Yan also sends her son and daughter to a local Chinese nursery where there are a number of parents whose children attend. “It’s really great and while Mandarin is mainly spoken there it is also bilingual so the children learn to use and differentiate between both languages.” Both Chinese and non-Chinese children go to the nursery, which Yan believes is brilliant. “You see quite a few non-Chinese families going there because they want their children to start learning foreign languages from such a young age, it’s surprising – good for them!”

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