The truth of raising bilingual children by two mums

This post is an exciting collaboration between me (LahLahBanana) and Maggie (PandaMama). Maggie and I met online. After chatting, we couldn’t help but realise how similar we are, yet so different when it comes to raising bilingual children. We’re like role reversals – an Aussie mum in Asia (that’s me) and a Chinese mum (Maggie) in Australia, each is doing the same thing – raising bilingual girls and blogging about it.

Brief bio of PandaMama & LahLahBanana:

PandaMama (Maggie): A Chinese who’s married to an Aussie. Together they’re raising a little girl in Australia. Maggie is bilingual with Chinese as her first language. Due to lack of access, Maggie has started teaching her daughter Chinese since 2019 while working full time. She enjoys sharing her tips and resources via her blog Panda Mama Chinese.

LahLahBanana (me, Emma): I’m an Aussie mother living in Asia, who cannot speak a word of Mandarin. But I’m passionate about raising my three non-native children bilingually, making the most of living in a language-rich environment and ensuring my children become fluent in Chinese.

With such unique experiences and backgrounds, we decided to come together and share the honest truth about raising bilingual children by answering the following five questions. Here they are:

  1. How do you make learning Chinese part of your lifestyles?
  2. What are your biggest struggles in raising bilingual children?
  3. How do you think the struggles will change as the children grow older?
  4. What resources have been most helpful for your children to learn Chinese?
  5. What do you think your children will say about your effort?

Be warned. This will be a LONG post, because we’ve each answered five questions about rearing bilingual Chinese-English kiddos, in our different circumstances. We hope this post would be helpful for you to see our journey from two sides.

Both of us are probably considered a little weird for the lengths we’ve gone to in rearing our children bilingually. But this cross-post is to show you that it is 100% possible regardless of what our backgrounds are, the environment we live, and indeed whether we speak the Chinese language.

So here goes with the questions…..

1. How do you make learning Chinese part of your lifestyles?

Maggie: Since I decided to systematically teach my daughter Chinese from home in May 2019 when she reached five, we have set up and gradually accustomed to a daily routine to have a dedicated 30 minutes Chinese learning session in the morning before my daughter goes to school.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t learn Chinese at other times. The Chinese learning at our home takes place in all shapes and forms, and it’s deeply ingrained in our lifestyle.  Apart from reading stories, watch cartoons, play games, make conversations etc. in Chinese, I also like to observe what’s around us, what’s age-appropriate and what my daughter learns from school. I’ll then create bilingual teaching resources around them. That way, she can correlate things in Chinese and English.

Initially, I had no clue what I was doing. I learned as we progress. It’s nearly a year and a half now since we started, I feel confident because I see the results in my daughter.  

So yes, for anyone who wants to embrace teaching Chinese at home, be prepared that your lifestyles will change. Why? Think about it. You’ll have less time socialising or sleeping in because you need to utilise these times for your child’s Chinese learning while balancing your work. You’ll likely make new friends because their kids are learning Chinese too. All these things could change your lifestyle. But, trust me, it’s worth it because what’s more important than your child’s well being and positive development?

Emma: Living in Asia, we thought this is an excellent opportunity for our children to learn Mandarin.  The more we read up about language learning, the more we saw the importance of making this language a lived experience.  Our ultimate goal to for the children to be truly bilingual, rather than it being a language learnt only in the classroom. 

Chinese is not naturally part of our household – it’s not a language which I speak, nor my hubby speak, nor any of our parents.  So, it’s necessitated a very systematic approach to embedding the language in our lifestyles.  We have tried where possible to make this part of our lifestyle, rather than something extra.

 Apart from the children learning Chinese as a subject in school, the main aspects are:

  1. Focus on Chinese audio options – We have Mandarin audio as the default language for our PayTV channels (which includes Disney Channel, Dreamworks, CBeeBees in Chinese), and we generally have music and story reading on in the background whilst the children play.  Thankfully living in Asia, there are plenty of TV and radio channels available, so we make the most of this luxury.

  2. Nightly reading in Chinese – We also read a lot of books each evening – including in Chinese.  I think to become literate in the language is really important for a child.   This may sound odd, since as a parent I cannot read it myself, but we’ve put in place infrastructure to help us get through this as best possible – I spent hours researching books that the children can read independently. We try to learn one new character together each day. 

  3. Practical conversations with native Chinese speakers – Initially I tried doing this with some friends where we live face-to-face, but it was too easy for this to slip out of the calendar, or slip into English.  So, we now do this via Skype at a regular timeslot with a lovely woman who lives in mainland China and speaks zero English.  It’s become a really fun part of our routine.   Also where possible I schedule the children’s extracurricular classes in Mandarin, so things like piano class, art class, swimming etc we try to get Chinese speakers. I did a post extracurricular activities in Chinese here.

2. What are your biggest struggles in raising bilingual children?

Maggie: We’re a bi-racial family with two different cultures. I lived in China for 30 years before moving to Australia. I’m very much a Chinese so teaching the Chinese language and cultures is a no-brainer.

But, my child was born in Australia, and she’s a little Aussie to the core. She doesn’t understand why she needs to learn Mandarin Chinese. That’s not the worst. My biggest struggle is that we don’t have the Chinese language environment for her to practice what she’s learned at home.

Because of that, I find she forgets the Chinese we’ve learned before, and I have to teach her again. So it’s like I have to do twice the work if not more to get the one job done!

As frustrating as it is, I know I have to keep at it, and never give up because that’s what separates a winner and a loser. 

Emma: The biggest struggle at the moment has been having enough time to devote to Chinese learning.  I wish there were 48 hours in the day!   For me, everything takes a lot longer because I cannot simply look at a book in the library and know if it’s appropriate for my child.  I need to come home and research it.   As the children get older, it’s taking longer as there are less accessible learning resources which are adequately pitched for an older child’s interest ….. it’s easy to find simple books focusing on the first 1000 characters, but the level of narrative isn’t enough to keep a 7 year old interested, when their English reading level is so much beyond this. 

Also for the children themselves, time is becoming an issue too – since there are many other “important things” to add to this list that their peers do – like sports, music, time with friends etc.   That’s why, where possible, I’ve tried to tie Mandarin into these everyday activities, so the children don’t feel they are missing out.  Even their computer games are in Chinese.

Whilst we live in a Chinese-speaking country, knowing Chinese is certainly not a necessity in the lifestyle we live.  So, we have to keep reminding ourselves of the great benefit it is to be bilingual, and that it’s worth the effort. 

3. How do you think the struggles will change as the children grow older?

Good question. I never thought about this one. My daughter is six and is an only child, so I don’t have experience of raising children older than she is. I imagin that I’ll have to adjust myself to suit my daughter’s changes and to deal with the old and new struggles.

I believe everything is manageable. We need to find the right pressure points and come up with solutions. When she gets older, she might not want to learn Chinese. I’m not going to force her with a big stick. I’ll continue to show her the “cool stuff” she can enjoy by knowing the Chinese language.

My logic is simple. If a child is fun with doing something, she/he will continue to be drawn back to do it again. That’s why I’ve made a personal mission to teach my daughter and for Panda Mama blog to “help kids discover fun ways to learn Chinese”.  I firmly believe the fun factor is the most significant driving force for kids to pursuit any skills.  It’s up to us parents to come up with the ideas to make learning fun for our little ones.  

Unavoidably, there will be new struggles, particularly when she reaches the teenage years ( I know I was out of control in my teen years).  Whatever that might be, I need to show her the P.E.A.C.E. (presence, engagement, affection, calm, and empathy). I learned these terms from a book I’ve read The Power of Showing Up by Daniel J. Siegel.

I’ll continue to educate myself by reading parenting books so that I’m better prepared when the challenging situations arise.

Emma: There’s a great blogger I follow called Oliver Tu.  He has successfully raised a pair bilingual and biliterate children in Chinese whilst living in the US (now both teenagers).  He explains the most difficult part as “the child’s psychological willingness and acceptance in engaging in such instruction (in Chinese), particularly toward the tween years”.  My eldest is only seven, but I can only guess this is coming.

Oliver shares that  “it is up to the parents to construct or deliver an ambience for the child, so that the Chinese language provides meaningfulness, joy, laughter….”.  He has coined a term “Chinese Language Ecosystem” (CLE), to describe the positive energy that children need, to want to continue to be on the receiving end of  bilingual education.  He says “the CLE is much much more difficult to deliver than the Chinese instruction per se, particularly in this era of instant connectivity and available online instruction.”.  So this is a reminder to keep persevering with making language learning fun, relevant, and real outside of the classroom.  

I hope that as my children grow, that they can see the relevance and importance of Chinese to their futures, and will continue to embrace learning and loving the language.

4. What resources have been most helpful for your children to learn Chinese?

Maggie: Being a native Mandarin speaker, it’s a massive advantage for teaching Chinese at home because I know what’s right and wrong. As someone who’s learned English as a second language at age 24, I also know what to focus on to help my daughter master Chinese, her minority language.

So far, I haven’t purchased any Chinese textbooks or sign my daughter in with any online courses because I don’t see the point, and I enjoy to create my own and teach her myself. 

Having said, we do read a lot of Chinese books, including those I translated and written. I also like to seek inspirations from other teachers, teaching concepts and make them suit us at home.

Emma: As a non-Chinese speaker, I’ve needed to find quite specific resources to assist my children.  This has been especially tough with my children starting primary school, as the language is taught as a ‘mother tongue’, not as a ‘second language’.  It’s been a steep learning curve for us all.  I think for someone starting out on the journey, my main recommendations would be:

  • Optical reading pens:  There are some excellent optical reading pens in the market which we’ve benefited from – as they can help to read individual Chinese characters, to enable my children to read independently from a young age.  These also help me as an adult to read the school newsletter and whatsapp messages from the laoshis!

    I’m not a big fan of screen time, so having devices which can read ordinary picture books in Mandarin has been a lifesaver too.  My children can borrow a book from the school library, and we can read it at home just like other families can – albeit with some robot assistance!

  • Graded Chinese readers: these are book sets specifically written for a nascent reader, using limited level of basic vocabulary, and lots of repetition.  These readers are my “go-to” for book reading, because even though I cannot read it myself, I can understand where the curriculum is going, and how it builds up.  These are like the equivalent of “I can read” books in English.  Without a firm foundation in Chinese reading and writing, I don’t think a child can progress much further, at least in a local primary school environment.

  • iPad apps:  I found a few simple iPad apps with vocabulary which align with physical books we are reading.  This was helpful to reinforce pronunciation, stroke order, and make the language more fun (in the absence of having an adult who can bring it to life….).

  • Audio stories which match real books: I’m not a big fan of screen time, so having a device which can read ordinary picture books in Mandarin has been a lifesaver too.  We all sit around for evening story session, and we listen to our robot reading the story page-by-page.   With the device we have, it can also read aloud may of our existing English books in Mandarin, which is a thrill.  The narration is beautiful too.  It’s amazing what a little robot can do!  It’s not knowing my children can borrow a book from the school library, and that we can read it at home just like other families can – albeit with some bot assistance!

5. What do you think your children will say about your effort?

Maggie: The answer will depend on what I do today, I suppose. I hope my daughter would say “my Chinese is good is because my mum has taught me”. I don’t want her to regret and say “I wish I learned Chinese or I wish my mum had insisted”. 

I’m like most of the parents. We don’t do this for the sake of our children returning us favours. We do this because we believe it’s best for our children. Our children may not appreciate what we do right now. One day, when they become mums or dads, they will.

I hope my effort can have a positive impact on her, and she can continue to do the same to her children and lead to a meaningful life.

Emma: LOL! They’ll probably say I’m crazy!  I try to get involved in the learning, despite my obvious disadvantages…. like I do drill them on their tingxie (Chinese spelling) each week, as they roll their eyes at me and correct the pronunciation.   I agree I’m a little extreme, perhaps nutty. 

I hope they’ll also say that it has opened-up their world and futures, and that it was worth all the effort.  All too often I hear adults saying they regret not learning a language in their younger years – indeed, I’m one of these adults too!  We’re doing this in the hope that our children will not say the same thing.

We’ve definitely taken this bilingual parenting by non-native parents approach much deeper than most of my friends, but we’ve discovered a beautiful new community of like-minded parents around the world who are also doing the same thing. 

And that’s a wrap!

Wow!  We hope that you’ve enjoyed getting to know each of us a little better.  This is a post to show you that with determination, strength and love to your children, YES you can raise bilingual children wherever you are.  We’d encourage you to start this journey, and indeed keep it up.  It’s a gift to your children and the world.

We leave with you with this quote “学如登山” (xué rú dēng shān /  Studying is like climbing a mountain)……… it takes effort, but the view just keeps getting better, and you’ll go places others have never reached!

We’d love to hear from you too, so please reach out and share how you’re going on your bilingual journey, or if there are more things you’d like to be reading.

xx Maggie & Emma

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