Raising a Multilingual Toddler

My Toddler Girl

One, two , three or more languages? How do you expect your child to understand them all? Won’t the kid get confused?  I get puzzle looks whenever they hear me speaking to my kids as I can be speaking to them in English one moment then we may switch to Mandarin or Cantonese the next.  Believe me. My kids can understand me perfectly well be it speaking to them in whatever language I choose.

Teaching has always been my passion. Being an elementary school teacher I know how important it is for a child to get a head start in literacy.  Introduction to languages should be done as early as possible so that the child grows up surrounded by language making it easier for them to absorb.

For my three kids I have been introducing them to English, Mandarin and (spoken) Cantonese from birth as I want them to be able to know more about their mother tongue and Chinese heritage.   I believe that there is no right/wrong time to introduce a 2nd or 3rd language or even a fourth to a child. We do not practice a one person one language policy at home as everyone , including the extended family, is able to understand all 3 or even more languages. However at the moment I will limit it to 3 main languages and brief introductions to other languages that we come across.

Reading Materials

Living in Asia it is quite easy to get books which are both English and Mandarin. This is one of the books which I read to my 17 month old regularly. It as both pictures and the labels in both English and mandarin on it. Each time I go through the book I read both the English and Mandarin word associate with the fruit and try to get her to read out after me.

I go through the book this way.

  1.  Flipping through the book with her and focusing on the pictures while naming the fruits.
  2. Reading through the book in English, then Mandarin then Cantonese.
  3. Going through each page in all 3 languages.

Tiger girl at present is able to identify most of the fruits featured in that book. She is also able to call out apple and banana in both English and Mandarin. Even when we ask her to get the fruit in Cantonese she is able to follow the instructions given. She is able to differentiate between the 3 languages and answer accordingly.

I’m starting through word/picture recognition then gradually proceed to formation of simple sentences in the various  languages as she gets older.

Besides reading books to her we also play CDs in the different languages for her to listen to. At the moment she is in love with Korean Pop like her brothers. Even though none of them understand the meaning of the song in Korean but they like the tunes and beats. The kids are also more receptive to the Korean culture and traditions since being introduced to the language.

I belief in  laying a strong foundation in language  and giving a child a wide enough platform would prepare .

Are you raising a multilingual toddler too?

122 thoughts on “Raising a Multilingual Toddler”

  1. Pingback: [100 Comments On My Blog Event (Group 1) - Blogelina
  2. I think when you have more than one language in your family it’s such a gift to make sure your child learns them too! My sons (now 13 and 14) are bilingual English/Dutch.

    I think there’s nothing wrong with learning more than one language at the time. Actually, I’ve heard that in lots of communities people speak several languages. Maybe a dialect/local language with their family, a different language at school, and maybe even yet another major language from the country they live in.

    My sons lived in England as toddlers and refused to speak Dutch. I persisted in speaking Dutch to them and when we moved to the Netherlands, they had a passive knowledge of the language which really helped them to start speaking the language soon.

    I think the picture books you use are really good! I like it that your child is exposed not only to several languages but also to different forms of writing. Wonderful!

  3. Thanks for the encouragement. We are living in the Middle East, and altough we speak English (our native language) at home, our children are constantly surrounded by Arabic. We are trying to do our best to help them learn, though it is difficult since we are not native speakers. These tips are helpful!

  4. You are providing such an amazing gift to your children! If I knew a second language to teach I would absolutely do it because the benefits to the child are remarkable. I have been so compelled by the research of raising bilingual or multilingual children and the correlation to their education to the extent that I have brought this subject up to my husband as an item to put on our action plan. We have a few books similar to the one you show in this post, but we are also interviewing multilingual teachers that offer group and private lessons right now.

  5. This was an interesting topic for me to read. I love that your child is multi lingual. i think you are probably the only person i’ve ever met who is raising such smart kiddos. Kudos. Keep up the good work, we only speak English around here.

    1. My 17mth old wasn’t speaking much till recently. You be amazed that once they start talking they never stop and words just fall from their mouth so easily.

  6. I wish I knew more than one language! My cousin’s son is about 1 year old and is currently being taught English and Russian. He doesn’t really talk much in either language yet but I think it is because he is still processing everything.

  7. We are military family so we have just moved to our 5 country 3 months ago. While my kids don’t know anyone one language well they know the basics which is a great foundation to start!

  8. My husband and I are both monolingual English (with a teensy bit of French and Spanish), however we plan to send our daughter to a Spanish immersion Kindergarten in the fall. We plan to all learn Spanish together.
    You are really dedicated to the whole multi-lingual, multi-cultural concept- great job!
    -Viva, from dailycitron.com

  9. This is amazing to think of, I only know one language and a few words in Spanish. I know that children learn to speak other languages easily, but just thinking about it and how they know which language you are speaking at the time. I guess the languages probably have distinctly different patterns? Very cool.

    1. @Starlene,
      Different languages do have a different pattern. Basic vocabulary is still okay for my kids at the moment but I do forsee them getting a bit mixed up in sentence structure as it differs greatly from one language to another (especially Mandarin and English) and it’s not a direct translation from one language to another.

  10. I wish my children had learnt another language when they were younger. I think you are doing a great job

  11. That is so great, I’m a little envious! I would love for my kids to be bi-lingual, but I guess we have chosen to prioritize other things. I do have some books and CDs in Spanish. My kids know some very basic Spanish.

    1. @Carolynn,
      Great that your kids know some Spanish. You never know when it will come in useful for them to communicate with others. There are some spanish/english websites around which you can check out. It will certainly give them more exposure to the language.

  12. How brilliant for your daughter to give her the gift of languages from an early age. My sister-in-law married a Frenchman, and her 3 kids are being brought up bilingual. My husband and I don’t speak second languages – but we have our daughters at a school that teaches Japanese from age 4, so they can have that opportunity that we can’t give them ourselves!

    1. @Jill,
      I think it is great that your daugthers are taught Japanese in school. Giving the gift of languages is one of the best gifts that a kid could receive.

  13. I don’t have children, but I’m a writer and I love words, so of course I think everyone should learn as many languages as possible. Actually, English and Mandarin are probably the two best ones to teach children, both because of the number of Mandarin and English speakers in the world and because they’re the world’s most complex languages. Once you master these, other languages are simple by comparison.

  14. Awesome gift for your children. Though I was raised overseas for most of my childhood, I never was able to learn the languages beyond some fundamentals. So wish my parents were bilingual. More and more I believe it is important to know more than just English as the world continues to shrink.

  15. I have always wished we had a multilingual family ~ I think it is such a good thing for our kids. It’s a shame they don’t start teaching a second language in school until they’re much older. I think it would be much easier to learn while they are young. What a great blog ~ glad I found you today. :)

  16. I don’t have kids but most children in India are multilingual. It’s important for kids to learn many languages at a young age – really helps their minds to develop.

  17. I’m not raising multilingual children…and wish I could get them into language programs. Alas, by the time I’ve gotten them involved in 1 sport per season and then school and boy scouts or girl scouts, it’s all I can do to just get dinner ready and check homework! Wish the public schools could help with language arts in the early school years rather than waiting til they are older.

  18. I’m so jealous, I only know one language and at times wish I did know more than one so I could pass it on to my children. There is actually a real pull in my school district to do multilingual teaching in the grade schools and I think that would be amazing.

    Will your children have the option to continue learning multiple languages in school?

    1. @Pepper,
      At school it is compulsory that they learn two languages English and Mandarin. When the kids get into secondary school there is an option for 3rd language if they are able to cope with it.

    2. @Pepper,
      It’s the norm to learn a min of 2 languages here in Singapore. For my kids it is English and Mandarin which are compulsory in school. They do get to learn other languages on top of these two are we speak more then 2 at home and within the extended family.

  19. That’s amazing. I only know one language but I like to encourage and teach my girls as much as possible while they’re still little. You have just inspired me to teach my girls (and myself) a new language.

  20. That is great! I always thought it would be fun to raise bilingual children . . . but that would necessitate that I be bilingual, and I’ve never learned a second language. I’m glad you shared though. I had wondered some about how easy it was or what it took to teach children more than one language.

  21. I am not but I can see why you do and that it is a great ideal. I may put my son in Spanish as he gets a little older but if I do I will take the class as well so we can both learn it together as it would not be good if I could not support him and show him I am willing to learn as well.

  22. My toddler is learning both Swedish and English. We went with the OPOL method, one parent one language, and it is truly working. She is brilliant with both and doesn’t seem to have a problem with it. She amazes us every single day!!! Good luck.

  23. I think it’s awesome that your children will be able to speak three languages when they grow up! I want my son to start learning a new language, he’s 7 now, but still young enough that I think it would be easier. I tried to learn French when I was 14 and it didn’t go well, so starting early is probably better.

  24. I have heard that young children have the ability of learning more than one language at once without confusing the two. My husband’s mother is from Japan but sadly he never learned the language because she was afraid it would confuse him so only English was spoken in their home.

  25. i find it amazing and awe-some (in the actual meaning of the word) when families raise their children bilingual or tri-lingual. i have a dear friend from iceland and i adore listening to her speak with her two littles in her native tongue- its just a beautiful sound to hear.

  26. I think that’s good and should be focused on in school. There are a lot of good jobs out there for people who can speak more than one language.

  27. I often wished I had learned more languages as a child as it is so tough as an adult and they say it’s much easier when you’re younger.

  28. I wish I were bilingual. I did try exposing my older son to Spanish when he was learning to talk, but he didn’t like it. Now we know he has Asperger’s and I wonder if *only* hearing the Spanish from the TV and not from us, messed up his sense of order and made him uncomfortable.

  29. My neighbors are raising there children to speak French and English, I really admire them. There older daughters (twins) can speak both fluently. It doesn’t affect there interaction with our only English speaking children at all.

  30. It’s amazing how much kids can absorb! We have no regular exposure to a second language here and it bums me out sometimes. I’ve studied Spanish and Japanese, but I’d need to be immersed to become fluent again.

  31. My kids went to a montessori preschool. Many families were bi and trilingual.

    Both my kids have speach disabilities. I always joked with the moms that we were just trying to master one language!

  32. I think the toddler years are a great time to teach a child anything, be it a second language, early reading skills, or art or music. At that age they are so eager to learn. I only speak English, but I know if I lived in a multilingual household I would definitely be teaching both languages to my child. Great post!

  33. I think that the toddler years are a great time to teach a child anything. They are so eager to absorb and learn at that age. I only speak English, but I would be doing the same thing if I were in your situation. Great post. Thanks for sharing.

  34. We are not raising our children bilingually, but I do teach our girls some Spanish. It is fun to brush up on my Spanish and they like learning it.

  35. I have heard it’s really much easier to learn languages when we are small children. Of course it would help if one parent or maybe even relatives spoke another language. I think it can be a good skill in adulthood especially if they can find a job that would require those other languages, then they would be more attractive to employers. I think it’s great that you are teaching them the three languages, I always think it’s a shame with a parent can speak another language but the children don’t learn it for whatever reason.

  36. That’s awesome! Personally, while I haven’t thought my daughter multiple languages, I would love to know more than English and understand French.

  37. I wish that either my husband or I were fluent in another language as we would have started at birth. We are not so our children only have one language under their belt. I know how difficult it can be to try to learn another language in high school- after taking 4 years of french there is very little I can understand much less say.

  38. What a fabulous gift you are giving your children! Very inspiring and thought provoking- thanks!

  39. I have read that it’s easier to teach multiple languages to children when they are young. Right now, we are only focusing on English, but I think we may add in some Spanish once our son is a little older.

  40. I always tended to believe in the one adult / one language rule — but here you are, saying that the kids can differentiate perfectly well in the use of the different languages.

    I am a language tutor myself (was, anyway), and your experience has excited me to further investigate the subject. Thanks :)

  41. Very fun! I found a website that teaches conversational Spanish and I keep thinking my little guy and I might do it together. When he was very young we started baby sign and he did great with that. But as soon as he started talking the signing quit.

    1. @Millie,
      normally signing stops when the baby starts talking as it is easier to talk then sign for most.. I personally do not teach my kids signing as I feel it hampers their language development.

  42. I don’t have toddlers but at an early age I taught my son sign language and he could communicate with signing before he could speak those words. We do some spanish and swedish in our home along with continued sign language for my daughters second language in our homeschool. I wish I had learned a second language better when I was in school.

    1. @Shelly,
      It’s never too late to learn a new language.. it can be done at any age. I’m sure your kids will be thrilled to learn a new language together with you.

  43. I homeschool my girls so we are learning spanish together now. Not sure what language we will do later, but I feel it’s such a great benefit to speak more than one language.

  44. It is amazing what a child is able to learn. This is the best time for them to be exposed to multiple languages. It is much more difficult to learn a 2nd language later in life. Great post!

    1. @Britni,
      I agree that it’s harder to learn languages as an adult as I’ve tried learning Japanese as and adult as it wasn’t easy as we find it harder to focus.

  45. I wish American education didn’t wait so long to introduce languages. We are so far behind when it comes to that. Keep it going!

  46. I think you are giving your kids a wonderful gift by teaching them these languages! They will really have an advantage over their peers when they get out into the working world :)

  47. I’m lame and only know one language. I agree that the earlier you teach them the better, so good for you teaching them 3 or more languages! They are at an advantage indeed!

  48. One of my mother’s regret is that she didn’t teach us how to speak her native language. Thus, when we are with our relatives their is a language barrier.

  49. I think it is great that your children are multi lingual. My mother was bi lingual but she never taught me when I was younger. I wish she would have. There are so many advantages of knowing multiple languages. My son just started kindergarten this year and he has a chinese class…I found that interesting!

  50. I think it’s wonderful that your children are multilingual. It’s great that you are encouraging them now when it is easier for them to pick up other languages.

  51. No, I’m not but we all should be! My son learned to sing “Jesus Love Me!” in Spanish in Sunday School and I am thrilled. I am praying a second language comes quicker to him and his sisters!

  52. No toddlers here. I agree that you’re doing the right thing introducing your daughter to her languages early in life. She’ll have powerful opportunities being tri-lingual (at least!)

  53. I love what you are doing. Neither hubs nor I are multilingual, so our kids aren’t either. I will strongly recommend Rey learn other languages though. I tried for many years to learn French, but I just couldn’t get t.

  54. Thanks for sharing your post! Our daughters are both 17 months old! Except my daughter has a lot less hair! =P She turned 17 months yesterday. I have been trying to raise her to speak both English and Cantonese. Along with that, I also try to teach her sign language, which she’s been pick up really well. She doesn’t speak in Cantonese to me and seems to pick up speaking in English a lot quicker but she responds and understands all three. My husband only speaks English but he tries to say a couple Cantonese words to her that he knows. I don’t know the written CHinese language so finding books to read together is a bit hard ’cause I don’t even know how to read them to her but I recognize what all the fruits are called in the book you shared above. I have to find more books/dvds that teach kids Chinese (most have been mandarin though) to help her. Do you buy all of yours online or locally? Where in Asia are you located, HK? My sister travels there as a flight attendant, I would love to hear if where you find all your resources and see if she can pick some up for me too! Thanks and it was nice meeting you through Blogelina’s Comment tour. Hope you’ll come by for a visit: http://www.mommykangaroo.blogspot.com

    1. @Kathy,
      I’m based in Singapore. These books are available easily in bookshops like Popular and The Big Bookshop. There are similar style flashcards too if you are into flashcards for your child.

  55. I would love to. Really. My husband is not a native english speaker (though you would never guess it listening to him), so that would be my first choice of a 2nd language. I had never thought about a 3rd, but recently when it was mentioned I came to realize that a 3rd wouldn’t be so hard to add, though I have 3 choices tied for it.

    There has been a small hiccup in my plan, so at this time we are not, unfortunantly. I hope to change that in the very near future, but need to do some research before doing so. Thanks for the “proof” that it can be done and the encouragement to do so. If my plans now go as I hope, come this summer or fall we will be starting a 2nd language. Just remind me I said that when the time comes. =)

  56. Kids can learn languages better than adults. I wish I knew 2 or 3 languages to have taught mine! That is great for your kids!!!

  57. This is really interesting! I think it’s great that you are teaching your children valuable tools for the rest of their lives. Thanks for sharing!

  58. WOW– you are amazing! That is great that you are introducing languages so early. Kids learn languages best when they are introduced at a young age. Kudos to you for teaching them!

  59. It is truly a gift you are giving your children. My father spoke spanish but never really taught me or spoke to me that often in Spanish. I understand much of it but crack when I need to speak it. Some days I wish I knew.

    ~Allie

  60. Children are supposed to be able to pick up languages much easier than adults are – they are geared toward learning new words anyway, so why not make hose words in a different (or several different) languages?

    1. @Layne,
      Don’t really understand your meaning of hose words but at present for my youngest I’m building up her vocabulary in the different languages. For the older kids they are being taught more about how to use the languages properly, sentence structure, grammar etc.

  61. Wow, that is amazing! I can’t even speak another language, but I think it would be awesome to teach, my daughter. Maybe we could learn together!

  62. I love that you’re teaching your children to learn multiple languages right from the start – it’s so much easier for them to absorb that knowledge as children rather than waiting until they’re older. Good for you!

  63. Awesome! I love to hear kids speak multiple languages. I don’t really know another language myself… just a little spanish… which I have taught basically what I know to my children.

  64. I have not yet introduced my daughter to a foreign language. I know Dora and Diego introduce her to words but that is the extent so far. I will incorporate it in our Kindergarten curriculum next school year though.

    I wish my parents had incorporated it in my learning as a child for sure!

  65. We are going to be raising bilingual kiddos. (spanish and english) This is a great article, very encouraging!

  66. I’m raising my kids to know a bit of ASL in addition to English, but I’d love to introduce another spoken language as well. Thanks for sharing!

  67. that is brilliant! in our area it is hard to find something that is in both English and any other language, it’s usually just one or the other.

    With my kids we try doing both English and Sign language. usually we do well until they enter school, but sign language is not very common in our area so not many others use it, so really it is just the Husband and I that can talk to the kids in both English and Sign so we run into a lot of struggles.

  68. Hi,
    I like this post.
    I too am raising a bilingual child. He is 21 months and speaks little of each but understands a ton! In one sentence I can use both languages and he understands both! I like your idea about the books and reading it in each language. Thanks for that tip!

  69. I think I may be raising a kid who understands multiple languages, but will speak only one.

    My son is exposed to Indonesian, Peranakan Malay, Teochew, a smattering of Mandarin and of course, English. He understands commands / being spoken to in each of these languages, and responds to all.

    He has yet to speak anything apart from the usual Unh!s (at 14 mths, I’m starting to be rather worried), so I’m not sure if it’s the exposure to multiple languages that make him take longer to process them.

    1. @Regina,
      It may take time for your son to effectively speak to you in different languages. Each child is different and once they start talking you wish there is an “off” button. My 3 kids started talking at different ages. The eldest was the fastest as he could talk in sentences at 1 yrs old. #2 boy only started talking more around 20 month while my girl started talking about 14 months old. I don’t think exposure to multiple languages makes a child take a longer time to process the language as we too sometimes use more then 3 languages at home.
      My family is Peranakan too and grandparents speak Malay and Teochew at home. Don’t give up I’m sure one day you will see the fruit of your labour.

  70. What a great method. Love that book too! So interesting that I can recognize all the characters as they exist in Japanese but I’m sure aren’t read that way. Thanks so much for sharing, I’m glad you are part of the Bilingual Carnival!

  71. Hey what do you think about the theory that kids should learn Chinese first and then can pick up English when they go to primary school? Personally I don’t see why we can’t expose them to both at an early age, as early as possible!

    1. I personally think that it is best to introduce kids to both English and Chinese. No doubt Chinese is more complicated as compared to English but there is no reason why the kid will not be able to handle both together.

  72. I think it’s great that you are teaching your kids from the start. It’s so much harder to learn a language later on in life, in my opinion. Those are some great books. I’d love to find some like that with French or Spanish translations. I might have to look….

    Happy SITS Day!

  73. I love reading more about other families that are raising multilingual children. We’re raising ours trilingual – English, Polish and Chinese. My husband is a native Polish speaker and I grew up speaking Cantonese although my language skills aren’t that great. My husband is good about speaking only in Polish with my kids and I was too when they were younger. It’s gotten harder as they’ve gotten older and my language skills aren’t keeping up. Then there’s the Cantonese vs. Mandarin question…

    At first, our pediatrician thought we were crazy but we kept up with it because it was important to us. Now, the kids understand all three and speak well in English and Polish. It’s a continual work in progress but I’m really glad that we kept with it.

    Thanks for sharing your story and Happy SITS Day!

  74. Children learn things so quickly. It is wonderful that your children are exposed to different languages and have the opportunity to learn at a young age.

  75. I’m envious of your kids, haha! I wish I had learned another language when I was that small. I could try now, but it wouldn’t work the same…

    Happy SITS day!

  76. Brilliant idea to start early! Something I truly wish I had done as a child…I didn’t start learning another language until well into my 20′s, and it’s been quite the struggle! If I ever have a child someday, I will absolutely take a multi-lingual approach:-)

  77. Enjoy your teaching. It is a challenging profession. I teach high school students mathematics. I love your exposing your child to languages at an early age. Phoneme recognition can only happen when children hear all the phonemes. You have a nice site.

  78. That is great! I wish I could speak more than 1 language! I love it when I hear multi-lingual children. It takes effort on part of the parents! Love your blog BTW!!

  79. We are raising multilingual toddlers. It is quite an experience!
    I really enjoyed reading your post and feel lucky that my husband is speaking and reading to our boys in Spanish so that they will have English and Spanish as they grow.
    Such a gift to be multilingual!

    I am a new follower from SITS. Hoping you can come and follow me too!

    http://familyfoodtravel.blogspot.ca

    Kerrie

  80. I wish I were better at speaking the choppy Spanish that I barely can…because I would teach my kiddos. It’s awfully hard, though, to teach something that you yourself aren’t very good at! Happy SITS day :)

  81. Kudos to you! I only know one language for the most part…therefore my children only really know one language. This will take your children far and open doors for them.

  82. That is great. My husband is Mexican and can speak fluent Spanish and English. I wish would of taught them Spanish at an earlier age. Happy Sits day!! I actually think I did a guest post for you a long time ago or maybe you did one for me. I can’t remember! LOL!

  83. Hi, I wish I spoke more than one language so that i could teach my daughter. Oh well!I have always read her classic literature so at six years old now she is an avid reader and a great vocabulary. She also gets a bit of spanish in school, but not enough. Visiting from SITS, congratulations on your SITS day!

  84. I wish my parents had kept up my languages. Before the age of five I spoke fluent Burmese, Cantonese, and English and as soon as I started Kindergarten all was lost except English. I was able to pick up Spanish, but remember very few things in my native languages. Keep up the good work!

    Congrats again on your SITS day!

  85. It’s funny that you mention that your children are into Korean Pop because my daughter is too. It sort of came out of nowhere. She is African American and Jamaican and I was surprised when i started finding the television turned to Mnet (the K-Pop channel). She seems to have picked up some of the words from various artists and I was considering teaching her Spanish at some point. I have even developed a liking for K-Pop. Our fave band right now is Big Bang

  86. This is great. I am trying to learn Mandarin right now as an adult. Quite challenging to do! I have gotten out tapes to learn French (also an app – French in Space iPhone app is excellent), Hindi (we are traveling to India next year first time), Spanish (what American does not need to know Spanish?) and of course, Chinese, since I am (loosely) translating my own version of the Tao Te Ching! I love the intricacy of the Chinese language. For my translation, I am using a book that defines each character of the Tao Te Ching chapters, but I also read through a bunch of other Tao Te Ching books to see what other people have said it means. It is a fun project.

    Good luck with your multi-lingual learning. That sounds like fun!

  87. i’m trying to raise two multi-linguals too but mine is just English and Filipino. I can see, however, that my eldest is interested to learn Chinese so I might consider following your steps :)

  88. I am very keen to introduce my daughter to Chinese, in addition to English. However, being in India, it is nearly impossible to find any Chinese books or DVDs, hence I have to purchase them from abroad. Not being fluent in the language myself makes it even more challenging. But am pretty glad there are now many good quality YouTube videos which teaches Mandarin, both my daughter and I really enjoy watching them!

    1. @Sue,
      great to hear that you are introducing Chinese to your daughter on top of English. If you do come over to Singapore I’m sure you be busy stocking up on the massive range of chinese books that are available for sale at our bookstores.

  89. The Transnational College of LEX, a Tokyo-based foreign-language society, advances the idea that ANYONE who can hear & speak can learn to speak eleven languages–as well as learning to do calculus! Their ideas are quite fascinating. Your experiences with teaching your children lend credence to their theories.

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