Multilingualism in my family: Lina's story

13 Dec 2013

In our monthly instalment of Multilingualism in my family, we meet Lina, her husband and three children who live in the USA. The children are bilingual Chinese/English. Lina outlines some great ideas she uses to get her children engaged and learning. She also gives a lot of freedom to her 5-year-old to reply in the language she chooses. Happy reading!

© David Yu Photography

1. Name


2. Blog

3. In what country do you currently live?


4. How many children have you got and how old are they?

I have three children: Sophia (5-year-old),  Alina & Briann (both 2)

5. Who speaks what to whom (in the home)?

Daddy speaks English and I speak Chinese to the children. Sophia speaks English to daddy and Chinese/English to me. Babies speak whatever language they know (English + Chinese+ Babbling) to me and daddy.

6. What language do your children hear outside home?

My oldest daughter Sophia now goes to Chinese school once a week. She also attends Chinese dancing class once a week. My twin girls pick up Chinese from their visiting grandma.

7. If you had to put percentages on the languages your child(ren) hear what would they be?

Since Sophia currently goes to kindergarten, she hears on a daily basis 60% English, 40% Chinese.
The twins hear on a daily basis 80% Chinese and 20% English.

8. Did you set out to follow a particular method to raise your child(ren) multilingually? Why? Why not?

The following four methods came from my researches, studies, testing and practice. 

Method 1: talk to babies in a way that helps them learn faster.
Method 2: create a language-rich environment for babies.

Method 3: consistently expose babies to the correct use of the language in many different linguistic contexts.
Method 4: encourage babies to actively engage in interaction

First,  I don’t feel silly, embarrassed or bashful to talk to my children in a way that helps them learn faster, namely, baby talk (or “motherese”), which features a slower word delivery, a higher fundamental frequency, greater pitch variation, longer pauses, exaggerated intonation contour, and simpler and shorter sentence structure (see How to help babies acquire languages? (Method 1).

Then, I tried to create a Chinese-rich environment for my children (see How to help babies acquire languages? (Method 2). Since I am the only person who speaks Chinese in their world, I tried to speak only Chinese to them.

For example, to twins, I named the objects around them (e.g. fruit, vegetables, bottle, table, chair, radio, lamps, phone, refrigerator, microwave and so on) and described their specific functions (e.g. apple is good for your health, chair is for sitting, phone is for communication, refrigerator is for food storage).

I told twins the Chinese words for each part of their body, such as eyes, ears, nose, mouth, hands, fingers, back, tummy and etc. And I combined it with the concept of numbers. I presented the fingers and toes and told them “We all have two hands. There are five fingers on each hand. So there are ten fingers all together. We all have two feet. There are five toes on each foot. So there are ten toes all together.”

I demonstrated actions that go with words, for instance, saying “bye-bye” and waving or saying “welcome” and clapping hands, so they learned to identify key words and phrases. In addition, I showed them Chinese words for “mama”, “daddy”, “sister” when pointing to the right people.

I did almost the same way with Sophia when she was little.

I have tons of Chinese children’s books, Chinese song CDs, Chinese story CDs, Easy-Read Chinese talking pens and audiobooks, Chinese carton DVDs and Chinese movie DVDs to create a language-rich environment. I don’t mind let them watching TV in Chinese (we have internet-based Chinese TV programs at home) for a while, since TV programs are stimulating and vivid.  All three pick up lots of words and concepts from the Chinese TV programs.

I always play Chinese children’s songs and nursery rhymes as background music as they play. And I do the same thing when they ride with me in the car. I let them watch “Smart Tiger” DVD and sing the same songs and nursery rhymes to enforce their memory.

When I talk to my children, I deliberately and consistently expose them to the correct use of the same words in many different linguistic contexts (see How to help babies acquire languages? (Method 3). I am trying to be a sensitive parent and provide support to children, by being aware of structures to which they are attuned, and by addressing input correctly, meaningfully and repeatedly to them.

At the same time, I also encouraged my oldest daughter Sophia to actively engage in an interaction with me (How to help babies acquire languages? (Method 4)). I am giving her many opportunities to chat with me, ask questions, sing songs, self-correct grammatical errors, and create invented stories in Chinese.

9. What works with your current family language set up? Why?

A loose OPOL (One parent one language) strategy works well for my family. Daddy only speaks English and I only speak Chinese to children.  We speak English each other. Since I am the major caregiver, sometimes I read English books to them. 
I give Sophia freedom to speak either English or Chinese back to me. I don’t want her to feel that speaking Chinese is such a painful burden. After all, English is the majority language and she feels more comfortable in speaking it.  But I give her extra applause if she chooses to speak Chinese back to me.

10. What doesn’t work? Why?

It is not realistic to practice OPOL (One parent one language) strictly at home. Since I am the major caregiver and also because sometimes she got tired of our limited stock of Chinese books and wanted something different, sometimes I read English books to them. This is the only time I don’t speak Chinese to her. I don’t know whether this is the very reason causing Sophia to speak more English than Chinese.

11. What would you do differently if you could or would have to do it again?

I would have tried to follow more strictly the OPOL rule. The reason I used the term “try to” is that I don’t want to be arbitrarily rigid in our habits and potentially limit our capacity for enjoyment of language or life in general.
To me, it is a gift from us as parents to help children become bilingual. Since it is a gift, I hope the receiver will appreciate our effort rather than resent it because of the specific methodology we use.

12. Any other comments

Thank you for giving me such a great opportunity to share my family with you and other multilingual families. I would love to hear stories from other families and let’s be connected!

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