Raising Multilingual Children in a Monolingual Home

HJ and K on stage on Preschool Presentation

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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!

How to raise multilingual children in a monolingual home

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 memoryslow 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.

K and Silvia
K with our beloved Nanny at his 1st birthday fiesta.

#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.

HJ Valentines Day
HJ getting ready to hand out Valentines at Mandarin immersion preschool.

#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!

#4 Activities

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!

HJ at ballet
Learning ballet and exercising her brain at the same time!

#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!

K in carseat
Going somewhere? Time to jam out to those Spanish tunes!

#7 Television

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.
HJ and Mommy watching TV.
Watching a little Spanish TV.

#8 Apps

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.”

We have:

Language Education Apps
The children’s app page. Yes, snapchat is for them!

#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!

The kids on a Thai beach
The kids playing with a little friend they made in Pattaya, Thailand. I can’t wait until they can make friends in Spanish or Mandarin!

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!


10 ways to give the gift of a foreign language

3 responses to “Raising Multilingual Children in a Monolingual Home”

  1. Wow! Terrific ideas here. I’m the child of Germans immigrants, and although I’m not fluent in German (my parents only spoke English to their children, because they wanted us to American in every way), I understand a lot. My daughter is gifted in languages, and I respect people who are multi-lingual.


    1. magnetsfromeverywhere Avatar

      Thank you! How wonderful that your daughter is gifted in languages! I think it’s too early to tell for my kids, but I know I most definitely am not! I definitely agree with you on respecting those who can speak multiple languages!


  2. […] our nanny and Mandarin at an immersion preschool in North Carolina (you can read more about that here. So, I was excited to continue this multilingual journey in a place where both languages were so […]


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