Dear Kiki: Can I Raise Bilingual Children When I’m Not Fluent?

In this month’s advice column, Kiki offers a reader advice and resources on raising bilingual children when parents aren’t fluent in language.

Dear Kiki,

I am a parent to a toddler, and I’d like them to learn a second language. However, since I moved to Canada at a young age, my native language, Mandarin, is now quite limited. On the other hand, my partner grew up in Canada and only speaks English. So, how can I teach my child Mandarin when I’m not fluent myself?

— Daniel C.

Benefits of Raising Bilingual Children

Raising bilingual children is not an easy feat, whether you are fluent or not. It requires conscious effort and commitment, in addition to the many other parental duties you are responsible for and juggle.

As parents, we want to set our kids up for success. Whether it is expanding their future job prospects, shaping them into better global citizens, or enriching their travel experience, speaking a different language will open many doors.

Currently, Mandarin is the second most spoken language globally, just after English. So, teaching your child Mandarin will not only enable your child to converse with millions of other people, passing on your native language will help them connect to their heritage. Plus, many studies cite cognitive benefits of bilingualism, such as better memory and higher levels of self-control. Overall, raising bilingual children can help them become more creative and understand different cultures—not to mention strengthen their mental muscles.

As a parent to a toddler, you are on the right track by starting early. The brain is most flexible between 0 to 5 years old, making it an optimal time to introduce a second language to your child. While it is never too late for anyone to acquire new language skills, proficient language acquisition is easier at a young age.

Baby and mother playing an instrument together is a form of raising bilingual children.
Photo credit: @shotpot

Language Learning Approaches

There are many approaches to raising bilingual children. Depending on fluency and personal preferences, what works for one family does not necessarily work for another. I encourage you to try out different approaches and make adjustments that work for you, your partner and your child.

Some popular methods parents use to teach their children multiple languages include

  1. one person, one language, 
  2. speaking the minority language, 
  3. time and place, and
  4. mixing languages. 

Perhaps you could try speaking Mandarin exclusively with your child while your partner speaks English. If that proves to be challenging or impractical, you can try dedicating one hour each day to language exposure. Examples of learning Mandarin include reading books, listening to audio stories, and singing songs.

After educating yourself on the various strategies, converse with your partner and form a plan together. Even if your partner does not know the target language, they can still support you, by ensuring that your child receives Mandarin-only time with you or helping with resources research. 

See also: Navigating parenting in multicultural families and reflections

Create Exposure & Cultivate Curiosity

Despite being concerned about your Mandarin fluency, please know that the key to raising bilingual children is exposure and not how proficient you are. The first step of language acquisition is the silent or receptive phase. This phase is when a learner picks up vocabulary by observing and listening to others. Therefore, every little bit of language exposure counts!

Rather than assuming the responsibility for educating your child, lean into external resources and support if available. Potentially ask grandparents or friends to get involved, or look for other like-minded families to learn and practice Mandarin together.

You are not alone in your struggles. Many parents like you are fearlessly taking on the role of raising young children in a multi-language environment. Ms. April Wu is a bilingual educator raising a baby in English, Mandarin, and Spanish. She shares useful tips and funny tidbits via Instagram to support you and your child’s language journey starting at a young age.

As the parent, your role is more than equipping them with knowledge and vocabulary. Helping them cultivate a genuine interest in the language and culture is equally important. Research has shown that children learn effectively through play. Making learning Mandarin fun by using games and activities fosters curiosity about the language and Chinese culture.

Aside from being a facilitator of your child’s Mandarin journey, learn alongside your child. You can make learning Mandarin a family affair by encouraging your partner to pick up some basic phrases as well. Not only will you deepen your relationships, but this is also an opportunity to reconnect with your heritage. 

Daughter and father playing games is a way of raising bilingual children
Photo credit: @RODNAEProd

Resources and Tools for Children Learning Mandarin Chinese 

When it comes to raising bilingual children, we have a wide selection of resources and tools at our fingertips.

Bilingual books are becoming increasingly popular, and mainstream book stores or online retailers often sell them. These books come in both Mandarin and English, sometimes with pinyin to help with pronunciation, too. Familiar English classics, like Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? or Goodnight Moon, have been translated into multiple languages, including Mandarin Chinese. Not only can you and your child learn together, but your partner can also participate.

Jeanne of Mama Baby Mandarin has a great section on her website dedicated to lists of Chinese and English bilingual books, ranging from LGBTQUIA+ to science books. If books are a costly investment, take advantage of free Chinese podcasts for kids and bilingual YouTube videos online.

On top of learning through reading and listening, bilingual toys and games encourage children to practice and interactively apply their language skills. For toddlers, flashcards, memory games, Chinese character puzzles and character blocks help to expand their vocabulary.

Then again, you don’t need to spend a lot on games and activities for your kids. Instead, you can create DIY activities at home. I am a huge fan of this Boba Reward Chart and DIY Lunar New Year crafts from Mama Baby Mandarin that teach your child new vocabulary and acquaints them with aspects of Chinese culture.

See also: 7 Books about identity, race by Asian authors for children

Every Child is Different

When raising bilingual children, our primary responsibility as a parent is to support them with tools and knowledge as they navigate their learning journey. Every child is different. Ultimately, it is up to them to decide whether they would like to continue learning the language. Their language proficiency does not define your success—and your hopes and dreams should not define their success.

Even though we want what’s best for them, we need to reel in our expectations and recognize that we are all just doing the best we can. As parents, our best is enough. 

Dear Kiki is Cold Tea Collective’s advice column and it is published in the last week of every month. To get advice from Kiki, submit your questions and comments here. Or, subscribe to our newsletter to get Kiki’s advice straight to your inbox on the last Sunday of every month.

Help us uplift Asian diaspora voices

Support Cold Tea Collective with a monthly contribution to help ensure stories for and by the next generation of the Asian diaspora are here to stay.

This site uses cookies to provide you with a great user experience. By continuing to use this website, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy.

Scroll to Top