trilingual toddler

How this Two-Year-Old Became Trilingual Before Going to School

Posted by

“看看我!” screams my younger daughter, demanding we pay attention to her. My husband and I turn to her only to see her standing at the edge of the bed. A smile spreads across her face as she lowers herself and swings her arms, jumping off the bed with all the might she can muster. She lands on the bed on the floor with a loud thud that is immediately followed by her proud laugh.

And then up she goes again.

My husband is Korean and I grew up a Chinese-Filipino (with a Malaysian passport), but neither of us grew up speaking Mandarin as a first language. Even our helper speaks Korean to our children.

And fascinatingly, Mandarin has become her favorite language.

How did that happen?
Trilingual 2 year old

1. Well, it’s mostly, probably because of her elder sister/언니/Onni (Korean)/Achi (Hokkien) aka L1.
L1 is currently attending a bilingual school while L2 spends her mornings with me. L2 spends her afternoons with our Korean-speaking helper napping half that time while I go and fetch L1 from school. When L1 and I return home, Onni goes straight to her baby sister with whom she practices her new favorite language, Mandarin.

I can still remember the confused look on L2’s face during the first few times L1 spoke to her in Mandarin. L1 somehow didn’t realize that her baby sister couldn’t speak Mandarin, and punished her for her mistakes by hitting her (to which L2 would respond with shocked, confused stares). During these moments I tried to separate them as much as I could, and I can’t tell you how many times I tried explaining to L1 that L2 just doesn’t speak Chinese yet.

L1 kept trying anyway, and L2 eventually learned to say “Yes!” without knowing what she was saying Yes to. It was probably around this time when she learned how to run away, (from her sister, mostly) although by and by she ran away less.

One day, we were shocked to see her actually replying to her Onni. In Chinese.

L1 has been learning Mandarin at her bilingual school for almost a year now, and somehow she actually got to share the love of Chinese with her baby sister, who two months ago just turned two.

2. And then there’s their obsession with cartoons.
“汪汪队! Wāngwāng duì!!” comes the chant as soon as I announce that they can watch TV. Both kids jump on the couch, their eyes glued on the TV even before the show comes on.

I used to be very strict with the amount of time L1 could watch TV at L2’s age, but somehow L2 turned one and started demanding she watch alongside her big sister, as many shows as her Achi was watching. It was either I agree or face Chaos.

Though I confess I wasn’t too happy about how I somehow got bullied into letting them both watch TV, I still have my limits. I don’t let them go beyond three shows on a school day, five (or reaaaally ultimate limit is six) on weekends.

The funny thing is that they more or less watch the same shows every day (mostly 狗狗巡逻队/Gǒu gǒu xúnluó duì/Paw Patrol or 海底小纵队/Hǎidǐ xiǎo zòngduì/Octonauts), each show lasting around twelve minutes.

And— whoa— they can now practically memorize the shows!

My kids have mastered the shows so well that they actually enact some scenes in our living room. Sometimes they bring in their father to join them, and they each have an assigned character.

So yes. My littler daughter learned Mandarin thanks to TV as well!

3. And Mom’s Adventuring might have something to do with it.
L2 spends her mornings with me. Whenever we pass by the guards or employees in the compound, naturally we greet. All this time I assumed that the only words she would learn were 你好/Nǐ hǎo/Hello, 谢谢/Xièxiè/Thank you and 再见/Zàijiàn/Goodbye. A few weeks ago, I was surprised to hear both her and L1 repeat Chinese phrases I commonly say but haven’t actually specifically “taught” them. Phrases like “Please turn right at the stoplight,” or “Please stop here” and even “I want to buy a ____!”

Truth is, our kids learn not just from what we teach them, but from what they see us do. I thought I knew this already, but hearing my kids parrot me for phrases I didn’t think they paid any attention to still gave me quite a surprise!

Another way I expose my children to Mandarin is through books, although L2 finds them a bit too challenging at the moment.

4. But now that she loves Chinese, we’ve chosen not to correct her.
At times, I have no idea what L2 is trying to say in Chinese. But her sister seems to understand her, and I believe that’s what matters. For children, I believe that language is a form of play. And so I’m letting L2 have as much fun as she can with Mandarin until she has to actually properly learn it in school (like L1). Her Achi, who can speak Mandarin quite well and is L2’s constant playmate, understands her anyway. I’ll leave the correcting to the teachers when the time comes. 🙂

Liked this story? Here’s a pin to remember this post by:
trilingual two year old

Thank you for reading! Do you have any similar experiences? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below! 🙂


    1. Haha! That’s a good idea Aunt Lillian! I bet the girls would love that! Sometimes it still feels strange to hear them talk to each other in Mandarin rather than their native languages, haha! 🙂

Leave a Reply