10 Low Stress Ways to Encourage Bilingualism in ANY Language

10 low stress activities to encourage bilingualism in any language - www.vanessajencks.com

After listening to the panel discussion on “How to Successfully Raise A Bilingual Child,” processing what I learned proved to be very fruitful as a parent and educator. First, a lot of school programs in China are not truly bilingual immersion. That is bad news more for Chinese parents than for me, since I feel capable of schooling my children in English if I needed to do so.

But for encouraging comfort in Chinese for my kids, I blundered a bit by unintentionally adding pressure to my little ones. I started to freak out so much about Rizpah’s rough transition with friends that I seriously considered hiring a tutor, until I saw this panel. So here are the low stress ways a parent can encourage bilingualism in any language. The premise of these were all recommended by the panel (except #6 & #10 being my own ideas), but I’m going into more depth here of my own volition.


Recommendations to Encourage Bilingualism in Any Language

  1. Listen to Music

Children’s music is an obvious start. Be smart here and let your kids watch the motions on a video first to learn the song and then only play the music. You’ll be surprised by their ability to retain the movements. Although children’s songs are great, the English world has a wealth of fun music that will support cultural references. Artists like The Beatles, Queen, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Aretha Franklin, Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Norah Jones, and Michael Jackson have pretty safe lyrics and are easily found on BaiduMusic. You could ask an English teacher what they grew up listening to that’d be safe for a kid for some cultural exploration. (Be warned that current pop music is…. a letdown. Explore at your own risk.)

English Examples without VPN in China: Here is a Beehive, I have ten fingers, Eentsy Weensy Spider (Itsy, Bitsy Spider)

English with VPN or in the US: Search for any of the above listed in a Google Video Search or in Youtube. Or simply search for “finger play” within one of these search engines. (By the way, you can still access the links I listed without a VPN in China if you use your VPN to connect to someplace like Singapore, Indonesia or India.)

Chinese without VPN in China: Option 1, Option 2, Option 3 (search for “手指游戏” here.)

Chinese with VPN or in the US: Search for “手指游戏” in a Google Video Search or in Youtube. You should find a wealth of options. (By the way, you can still access the links I listed without a VPN if you use your VPN to connect to someplace like Singapore, Indonesia or India.)


  1. Watch Media

At the panel, Dr. Hu pointed out that he was concerned about screen time due to brain and social development. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends two hours of screen time at max for children over the age of 2, albeit those guidelines are changing. (Children under the age of two shouldn’t have passive screen time at all.) That’s too much in my opinion (14 hours of television over a week), and it’s definitely too much for children suspected of ADD or ADHD. But, since most children are going to get screen time anyway, Dr. Hu said, “Why not have that screen time in the other language?” Keep in mind, as your child gets older, move away from cartoons, which teaches every day language, toward educational movies and programs that are of your child’s interest.

English without VPN: Search for Peppa Pig or Doc McStuffins here.

English with VPN: Get Netflix! Or Amazon Prime! Or Find an endless amount of children’s stories and cartoons on Youtube. FYI, here is some helpful information about movie and television ratings.

Chinese without VPN: I like Dora the Explorer and Mickey’s Clubhouse. I would be weary of Chinese created cartoons. I don’t think 小羊羊is appropriate for kids.

Chinese with VPN: Search for 卡通儿童 or 儿童故事 in Youtube. You can also access Iqiyi.com in the US. Cool!


  1. Play Apps

This is included in the screen time 2-hour cap, but I think playing on an iPad is more manageable for ADD and ADHD children since they are focusing and manipulating objects themselves. By the way, I would highly suggest seeking out the opinion of a specialized doctor if you suspect your child has ADD or ADHD, anyway, though. (If you ignore the symptoms, their symptoms and damage on their education will get worse with time without specific guidance and recommendations from a doctor.)

English Apps: Try to find apps that are created by native English speakers. This is a great opportunity to let them explore the alphabet with fun if your kids are into the alphabet sounds or tracing right now. Also pick apps that aren’t meant to teach the language, but are related more to your child’s interests. They like cars? Look for a cars game.

Chinese Apps: Same logic as above. If you’re not a Chinese speaker, a translation app, translate.google.com or fanyi.baidu.com are all extremely helpful in finding what you need in search engines. I’m just going to take a wild guess and assume Chinese apps for kids have been made by native Chinese speakers.


  1. Listen to Audio Stories

Adults, you like to understand every spoken word, word for word, or you get frustrated and tune out. That’s just not the case for kids. The younger they are, the more they are already experiencing not understanding every word that is said in their home language. Dr. Hu interjected an interesting fact at the panel that studies show babies can distinguish languages while in their mothers’ wombs. Young children don’t need to understand every single word, they just need to feel comfortable with not understanding and listening anyway. Bedtime and car rides are a great time to listen to audio stories. First, for bedtime, if the story doesn’t have any awesome music soundtrack, the brain could get more tired from the feat of trying to process the language. Oh yeah!

Chinese & English recommendations: There are bedtime stories in English and Chinese in the Chinese iTunes store in Podcasts, but I’m unsure if they’re accessible in the States. When I’m fed up with downloading podcasts, though, I just put on a calm children’s story from someplace like Youku or Youtube. I blank my computer screen or put my phone on a table facing down so my kids aren’t tempted to look at the screen while they should be listening.

Also, here is a story audio that doubles as a listening comprehension and discussion activity for ESL and EFL programs. I wrote it and recorded it myself! This is free for download now, but it’ll be moved to a page exclusively for blog subscribers in a week.


  1. Have a 50/50 Book Collection

Ms. Elizabeth Hardage of Ivy Education Group, the umbrella group over Daystar Academy, encouraged parents to invest in a 50/50 book collection to allow the child to read in both languages. Ms. Mary Jew of Keystone warned about getting the translations of English books in Chinese because frankly, “Chinese translations just aren’t as good.” She said the Chinese for Harry Potter is a much more difficult reading level than the English original.

Whew… a book list? This is going to be reserved for another blog post in the future! To make sure you don’t miss this list, please subscribe by entering your e-mail in the subscribe box on the right sidebar.


  1. Get Your Native Speaking Friends to Record Audio for Those Books 

The problem I’ve found in getting Chinese books is that I can’t read them if they don’t include pinyin. I can’t even really talk about the pictures in some cases since I have no idea or reference of what’s going on. I personally find it hard to buy pinyin books without spending too much money. I assume Chinese parents feel a bit lost when they read English books, too. Is that so? I think an awesome and actually successful language exchange would be if a friend recorded the audio for Chinese books I own, and I recorded an equal amount of English books. Make sure to start the recording from the cover and ring a bell or make another sound that signifies turning the page.


  1. Value Both Languages and Cultures Yourself

For Dr. Hu and Eyee Hsu, they both rebelled against speaking Chinese because they wanted to be identified as no different than anyone else. Could this be considered racism against one’s own roots? Parents need to be adamant about valuing both languages, regardless of where they are in the world.

I can understand immigrants in the US having difficulty in this since other languages were so undervalued, especially during the more xenophobic dark spots of our history. I’m very glad the education field is changing. All new teachers are trained on how to value other cultures and languages, using the experience and language of immigrants as a teaching point for everyone.

If you’re in a country that looks down on your language or ethnicity, be intentional about exposing your children to awesome role models in your home country. If you can afford it, go back home. And, value the languages and experiences of everyone simply because of diversity. Racism cannot exist in any form in your own household if you want to avoid your children accepting the racism toward their own culture they might be experiencing outside of their home country.


  1. Encourage Playdates with English-speaking Friends

This is going to be a more stressful experience for parents located in China seeking out English speaking friends or US based parents seeking out Chinese speaking friends. We can all be hard to track down. As a teacher, I try to limit my time with people who want me to spend time with them only because of the language. I’m already busy with my work and my genuine friends, so adding in a relationship that essentially wants free tutoring is not something I want to do. So, if you’re doing this, make sure to be an actual friend, not start the proposition with, “Let’s exchange languages.” The language exchanges I’ve tried never work out for either party.

On the other hand, I do want my kids to spend time with Chinese kids, and they do. Rizpah’s best friend and my closest Chinese friend moved to New Zealand last year, and that was hard on everyone. But Rizpah’s teacher has let me know recently I need to be more intentional about letting her play with classmates outside of class. I’m so thankful for the parents of her classmates who are willing to meet with me to help ease her transition.

How to get an English Speaking Friend while in China: If a mom wants to be friends with me so her child could practice English, I would want the mom and I to actually be friends. I might reconsider if she’s offering to babysit my child for free and I know she’s a sane, responsible parent. English moms are interested, generally speaking, in shopping, exercising, and cooking or eating foreign food. That’s a very broad picture, but your acquaintance might be interested in something else. Be warned, giving a Westerner a really expensive gift will not make them feel obligated to return favors. Also, if you invite them to your home to eat your home cooked food, be prepared to accept an invitation to eat at their home and not complain about the funny tastes of their food.

How to get a Chinese Speaking Friend while in the US: If you’re in a big city with an international airport, you’re in luck. There are most likely some Chinese speakers in the area. In Fort Worth, we knew of a Chinese church in the area, so we were able to meet Chinese people there. We didn’t do a very good job of making friends, though, since we didn’t know anything about Chinese culture at that time. I’d suggest offering your help and making yourself generally available to them. It’s always hard to adjust to a new country’s language. You could ask them to teach you how to make jiaozi or invite you to a holiday celebration if they wouldn’t mind. Showing an interest in their culture is a great bonding point.


  1. Let Your Kids See You Struggle in the Language

The panel warned parents that speaking with the child in the target language, (the language parents are wanting children to acquire as the second primary language), will eventually be shut down by your bilingual kid or should be avoided due to parents’ bad language skills. If you can read this super huge article and your English speaking friends say you have an awesome pronunciation, I would say, speak away! I would give this recommendation to SMIC’s teachers, Lily, Vincy, and about ten other teachers I can think of but won’t name. So, it is possible.

But, for everyone else, Ms. Hardage follows the rule of speaking only Chinese when Chinese-speaking guests are around, and respecting her child’s preference of speaking English to her when they are alone as a family. Her daughter has seen that she makes mistakes in the language, and that has given her, and students, encouragement to make blunders of their own.


  1. Take In A Boarder

Ok, so this might seem like actually a high stress choice, but as a mom with a family, I’ve lived with two types of boarders now. So hang with me. Our first “roommates” were two American single guys who are still our friends. Our new “roommates” are three single Chinese men and a Chinese family of four with two girls, 7 and 4. Yeah, you counted right. That’s a total of seven extra people in our home. Wouldn’t you like to hear the story on that? Ha, ha… ha…ha… another post!

I have learned to prefer living with roommates. I thought I would need my space, and as an introvert, I was overwhelmed by the thought of living with people. Both experiences have been great in their own ways.

If you by the rare chance happen to have an extra room, I would highly suggest getting a boarder who speaks the target language. You’ll need to lay some ground rules and expectations, but I can imagine there are plenty of financially savy college students or English teachers who would love free rent and one free meal (dinner) in exchange for spending time with a family speaking their own language.

If you need help laying those ground rules, subscribe to my blog and watch out for my post going into detail about having a healthy relationship with boarders.


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