Before I was even married I stumbled upon Little Panda Mandarin Immersion School in Durham and got super excited to send my future children there. Fast forward to the present: My daughter is almost 4 (what?!?), my son is two, language education has been a priority, and we are well on track with both Spanish and Mandarin!
Why Pursue Language Education
So why bother? Language education is a lot of work and it’s not always cheap. Are the benefits really worth it?
Switching between languages is an exercise for your brain and actually makes it stronger and smarter! Being bilingual can improve memory, slow the onset of Alzheimers, and even help you recover from a stroke! Knowing a second language even makes you better at math!
And that doesn’t even mention the fact that being bilingual means you know another language! You can speak to more people in the world, you can apply for more jobs (maybe even make more money), and the door to the world opens just a little bit more! When you travel you’ll be able to have deeper and richer experiences then those of us who are struggling with google translator!
Why Pursue Language Education Now
The best time to start learning a language is always right now, but especially with babies and toddlers! The human brain is so flexible at birth, but it doesn’t stay that way. Learning languages is easy and painless for my children, whereas it’s confusing and frustrating to me.
How to Pursue Language Education Now
My children are going to spend years in the classroom and right now I just want them to play. The solution is to give them opportunities to play in another language! Here are the resources we’ve used to make this happen!
These go from birth to elementary school, but the ones in the middle can be introduced in any order!
#1 A Full-Time Nanny
Silvia was such a gift to our family for the 3 years she worked with us. She loved my children, played with them, fed them, did crafts with them, and spoke to them in Spanish. My daughter started hearing Spanish from Silvia when she was just 4 months old and my son from birth.
A nanny is not for everyone, but they are fantastic ways to pass on language. Second only to having parents pass on a language, a nanny is the best way to introduce a language early and often.
#2 Immersion Preschools or Day Cares
If you’ve never looked, you’ll probably be surprised how many of these there are in the US! They are a great way for kids to learn languages. The big advantage over a nanny is that preschools generally have multiple native speaker teachers so the kids can pick up on different ways of communicating with the same language. One disadvantage is the kids like to cheat and speak English a lot!
When my daughter was 2 we enrolled her in Little Panda two mornings a week. We had no way of knowing whether the little songs she started singing were actually Mandarin, but we just had to have faith that she was really learning something! My son joined her at 19 months old and my daughter ramped up to 4 mornings per week.
Now that we live in California and I am a stay-at-home-mom, my kids attend a Spanish immersion preschool 3 mornings per week. They are learning quickly and I am excited to see their progress.
#3 The Library
On Thursdays we travel 25 minutes to attend Mandarin Billingual Storytime at the library. They sing songs, read books, play games, and do crafts primarily in Mandarin with a little English as well. Since my children are no longer attending a Mandarin Preschool, I make this a priority to keep the Mandarin fresh in their minds.
Our neighborhood library offers Spanish storytime, but it conflicts with preschool.
When we lived in North Carolina we had these options as well! Check your library to see what they offer; we could also attend Russian, French, or Japanese storytimes in our area!
We enrolled HJ in a Mandarin ballet class this year and she loved it! It was only 3 lessons since I didn’t find out about it until the end of the semester, but it was a great way to reinforce the language while wiggling her body and doing something she loves. We will be signing up again in the fall.
The next town over offers a “Mandarin, Movement, and Music” class that we are planning to sign up for in the fall as well. Music is a great way to learn a language and this class will just be another fun thing we do, that happens to be in Mandarin!
San Francisco has a Spanish immersion Soccer Team for toddlers! What a wonderful way to have fun and learn a language! I would sign up in a heart beat if it were closer!
More so than the preschools, activities in other languages will be mostly found in densely populated areas or areas with lots of non-native-English speakers.
We attend an English service at a Chinese church and the kids go to AWANA every Friday night. Officially the AWANA program is in English, but the teachers are all native Mandarin speakers, so the kids pick up a lot of words!
#5 Date Night Sitters
We don’t get to hire a sitter as much as we would like, but when we do we always make sure they are a native Spanish or Mandarin speaker. So far I’ve used care.com but I’m thinking about trying out urbansitter.com, they seem to make it easier to find native speakers in a given language. When we have a Spanish babysitter I set aside a pile of all our bilingual Spanish books for her to read to the kids. When we get a Mandarin sitter I’ll have to go to the library!
#6 Music and Podcasts
You don’t have to understand a language to reinforce it at home! Riding in the car is a great time to put on some music in your target language. You might even learn something yourself!
- One CD we have and love in Spanish is De Colores and Other Latin American Folk Songs by José-Luis Orozco.
- Podcasts can be a great way to listen to stories in the car. They can be difficult to find for English-only speakers, but search around and take advantage of friends who speak the target language to help you find these. This link will help you get started in Spanish.
- We recently purchased some books with read along CDs in Mandarin for only $3.99 each.
- With your Amazon Prime membership, you can stream Little Dragon Tales CD in Mandarin for free!
Everyone’s favorite controversy! It’s true that you cannot learn language from TV, but it can help reinforce what you are already learning! I try to limit my kid’s screen time to 1-2 shows a couple times a week, but if they’re going to watch something it might as well be in Spanish or Mandarin!
- Almost every Disney movie can be toggled to Spanish (or French). This is a great way to use the movies you already own and know the children will love.
- Dora La Exploradora is not the same thing as Dora the Explorer! Dora La Exploradora is entirely in Spanish and much better for kids working on learning Spanish.
- El Mundo de Elmo is great for kids. They used to have it on Hulu but seem to have taken it down.
- A friend recently introduced me to 巧虎 and the kids love it! Apparently they used to watch it at their Mandarin preschool. It’s on youtube and I’m told is a little bit like Daniel Tiger. The songs are super catchy!
- We’ve tried Little Pim in Mandarin and my kids found it boring, but it might work for younger kids or to have on in the background while they play.
My kids love to get their hands on my iphone! I try to keep apps loaded for them, especially for flights or long car trips. They also have a Kid’s Edition Kindle Fire which HJ calls her “ipad.”
- Gus on the Go: Spanish for Kids, Spanish for Kids with Stories by Gus on the Go, & Gus on the Go: Mandarin Chinese for Kids. The Gus on The Go series is great for language education. You unlock one city at a time in the target country and play games that practice vocabulary. They also have Russian, French, and English.
- Fun Chinese is similar to Gus and encourages the kids to play games that practice their vocabulary.
- Endless Spanish has cute little monster animations and allows you to toggle between “Spanish Immersion” and “Spanish with English Translation.” Much like the English version, Endless Alphabet, this also helps them practice recognizing letters and sounds.
#9 Public Schools
Starting in Kindergarten we are planning to enroll the kids in public language immersion school. Both Spanish and Mandarin language education programs were available in North Carolina and are options here in California. The real question is which language will we choose? I’m leaning towards Mandarin because I think Spanish will be easier to reinforce on the side.
Many of these programs have quotas and allow 50% native speakers and fill the rest of the class with nonnative speakers. Most programs start at 80-90% in the target language in Kindergarten and transition to 50-50 with English by 5th grade.
The difficult thing is that most of these programs allow admission by a lottery. Our chances of getting in are going to be a big factor into our decision of which schools to apply to.
Check out the Mandarin Immersion Parents Council for information on Mandarin immersion schools all over the US and Canada.
If there are no public immersion schools in your area and you can afford it, look into private schools. There’s one with a great reputation near us that teaches kids Mandarin and French through immersion. It costs all the money though.
# 10 Travel
What could be a more effective tool for language education then immersing yourself in a country that speaks that language! We haven’t done this one yet, but we are definitely going to! China is locked into the schedule for October 2018 and a Spanish speaking country is also on the agenda for spring 2018, either Costa Rica or Spain. On both trips, seeking out opportunities for the kids to interact and play in the country’s language will be a priority.
In the future, I would love to live abroad with the children so they can learn from real immersion!
So that’s everything we’ve been doing these past 3.5 years. What else should we be doing? I’m always open for suggestions, especially on Mandarin resources which are harder for English speakers to find then Spanish.
Also, if you like this post, check out another I wrote on 5 Ways to Raise Great Travelers, without leaving home. Spoiler: language education is one of the five!
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