Seven Ways to Introduce a Second Language to Your Toddler

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One of the blessings of coming to China is the opportunity to learn Mandarin, the most widely spoken language in the world according to this site. My husband can speak it quite well, and I can speak it just enough to order and buy basic things. My children, on the other hand, don’t speak it (although to be fair, the younger one doesn’t say that many words yet either).

We decided earlier on that we were going to send L1 to a local kindergarten, and settled on a Montessori bilingual one within our compound (In many Chinese kindergartens, bilingual means having a foreign teacher AND at least one hour of English-based activities per day). Before actually starting her classes, we decided to introduce her to Mandarin through some fun activities which I’d like to share with you today. While I haven’t tested these methods on other languages, based on my experience with L1 these suggestions I’m about to share are quite effective.

1. Watching Kiddie Songs
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Gasp—allowing a toddler to watch TV! What would the parenting gods at Babycenter say?! As a mom who frequents the net searching for golden nuggets of parenting information, I’ve read the dangers of exposing one’s child to TV at an early age and somewhat agree. But then I thought to myself, will 15-30 minutes a day really harm her that much? So on days when I really need a break I plop my 2-year-old on the couch and play a set of Chinese songs between fifteen to thirty minutes. The result? She can hum most of the songs and even sing some of them. Hearing her sing not only allows her to grasp more words in a fun and easy-to-remember way—it also motivates me to find more ways to help her learn the local language!

2. Making Chinese Friends
You’ll learn some basic Chinese words from Chinese friends, who at times still spoke to my child in Chinese even after I had explained that my child doesn’t speak Mandarin. Before I knew it, she was using keywords that were often repeated like Hello and Goodbye to some of the Chinese people we’ve met and sometimes also reminds me to greet Chinese people using those words!

3. Seeing Mom or Dad Speaking/Practicing the Language
Kids love copying their parents, and it’s no different when it comes to language learning. They notice me speaking Chinese to those in our community, and though L1 doesn’t speak it well she’s beginning to understand (and at times puts in effort by asking me what certain Chinese words mean) some phrases.

It’s also a good idea to involve a toddler in these foreign conversions, especially when he or she is showing interest. For example, when I speak to my peers in Chinese, I sometimes pause to translate some words for my daughter to give her an idea why we are laughing or what we were talking about. She learns keywords and sometimes adds on her own thoughts, albeit in English. If this happens often enough she will more motivated to learn Mandarin.

4. Reading Books to Your Child
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While my father was in Hongkong a few months back, I asked him to buy some Chinese books that had pinyin—the Romanization of Chinese words. I read at least one Chinese book a day to my children (even the younger one) which helped my older daughter learn a lot of new words she wouldn’t have picked up from TV or from me! (E.g. 大灰狼是个坏家伙!The big wolf is a bad guy!)

I recommend getting picture books with lots of color and with a short story (especially for those with short attention span!). Visualization allows a child to understand a story better, and the nicer the colors the more visually attractive it is for the child as well. At the moment my children’s favorite books are the most colorful ones with clear pictures and the ones I can act out! 🙂

5. Taking Them to Fun Events and Activities
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For my husband’s birthday, we decided to bake a cake. Cooking and baking are not my forte, so fortunately for us there’s a place nearby where moms and kids can learn how to bake together. My daughter didn’t understand a thing, but loved the baking part so forced herself to listen and pay attention to her teacher and my translation. After baking the cake she said, “Let’s do this again!”

And I think we will. My plan is to bake the same cake again, which means the teacher will most likely use the same instructions she used last time. I will try to learn some of the keywords she uses as well and then review it with my child at home. Then we will come back to do the same cake (or a different one but one that’s not too different). Activities where there are steps or routines allows a child to hear the words often enough to finally recall and/or understand the meaning.

6. Insert Interesting Words in Role Play Activities

A friend just got my kids two Hello Kitty dolls, and L1 loves to get those two talking and hugging. I borrowed them, raised the Hello Kitty I wanted to “talk” and said, “I really like the 粉红色 (Read as fenhongse) snack. How about you?”
“Oh I like the fenhongse snack too!” Answered the other. That’s when my daughter asked what the word meant. It means pink! I answered. Your two Hello Kitties love the fenhongse snack! And because my daughter liked the word, she has started using it as well in her Hello Kitties’ conversations! Now that my child has mastered that word, I’m looking at adding new words one by one. 🙂

7. Random Foreign Word Moments

“我很高兴!” (Wohengaoxing!) is something I randomly squeal when I’m very happy. My elder daughter has now picked up and, though she doesn’t use the words, she knows what it means and also squeals happily. These kinds of random foreign word moments really get their attention because they’re—well—random! Also my daughter loves it when I say a certain Chinese word in a really dramatic or exciting manner.

And there you go! Less than three months here in China I’m very happy to say that my elder daughter has gained at least twenty new vocabulary words, is familiar with her Chinese story books and can now either hum or sing quite a few Chinese songs. These ideas worked for me, so hopefully it will for you, too!

Additional Suggestions from other readers:
Playing Songs for the Kids
My friend Jane suggested playing songs for the children. For those based in China, you can get some 拼音儿歌 (Chinese kiddie songs) books or CDs via Taobao or Dangdang .

Also, here are some other websites with tips on exposing your child to a foreign language:
1. Early Childhood News
2. PBS Parents

Any thoughts about the post? Maybe some additional suggestions? Please do let me know in the comments section below! 🙂

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32 comments

  1. #1 is a good idea. Bunny learned english due to watching hi 5 episodes and we expose her to filipino as well when we converse at home. Not really keen on introducing her to a third language just yet though. 🙂

  2. This one is so nice Jackie! Wonderful tips. Me, I want my kids to learn Spanish because it’s a little bit near to our tagalog kaya I let them watch Dora hahahaha. Plus there are many apps na talaga nowadays that offer free tutorial siba? Ang sarap karerin nito =). By the way, your girl is so cute in that baking attire =).

    1. I always love your happy cheery comments 🙂 Thank you! Haha I’m happy you found it cute, I like it too! About the apps you’re right. There’s such an abundance of it! Thanks for commenting! 🙂

  3. I need to get my kids practising chinese also. We’re always just using english so the other languages are not being used. I expose them to chinese songs too. I don’t have enough chinese story books though.

    1. That’s true. 🙁 Hey if you ever need maybe you can order from me. I’m currently based in China and I can send some over, you can just pay through my sister. 🙂

  4. My son understands and speaks a little English, Bisaya and tagalog altogether because I talk to him in English, our neighbors/his playmates are tagalog and my mother-in-law is bisaya. I hope he continues to learn the 3 languages. 🙂

  5. My husband is 1/2 Chinese but never learned Mandarin or Fookien. Next year, we hope to send our son to Xavier and we are concerned about Chinese. Will remember this blogpost when the time comes. Thanks for the tips!

  6. Great tips! These are basically the same tips I had practised when I taught my son his second language, which is English. Now that he’s four, I want us to learn Korean together — if that’s possible haha!

  7. I’ve read somewhere that toddlers (or is that kids up until 5 or 7years) can easily learn up to 7 languages. It is because their brains are like sponges that absorbs the information. But I do agree with #3. Kids need to see and hear people close to them speaking the language for them to be able to learn 🙂

    1. Very true! A very good example would be the Chinese-Malaysians, who at a young age have to learn different Chinese dialects na plus the local language plus English! The perfect time to teach them is when they’re still young and brains are like sponges pa talaga , absorbing everything at a rapid pace 🙂 Thanks for visiting!

  8. Watching kiddie shows and reading books help in teaching new language. My son learned a lot of English words by just watching and reading books.

  9. I agree with your list. Its like teaching my boys English and Tagalog. They learn the two languages easily through tv programs, friends and even relatives. I would want my boys and even i to learn another foreign language. French, mandarin and spanish are my choices but it seems im enjoying Japanese more. Hahaj. And i dont even intend to learn as such.

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