As part of normal development babies and children reach stages of language learning in different ways and at different times. I think that a well-rounded language learning environment should consist of the following basic components: speaking, reading, writing, math, and social studies. And by “social studies” I’m talking about playing, social interactions, cultural enrichment activities, and other fun of that nature. Whether it be teaching baby one, two, three or more languages, it’s important to simply offer as many of the components as appropriate for your family’s situation. There are so many language learning resources out there and I use them more as “guides” and “recommended structure” rather than “another parenting checklist” and “strict methodology”. Parenting is tough enough as it is, so let’s try to take it easy here.
In Patricia Kuhl’s Ted Talk on “The linguistic genius of babies”, she explains that babies are constantly “taking statistics” on the language that is placed before them. My favorite takeaway from the talk is that “it takes a human being for babies to take their statistics.”
“Hairdryer from Mars” continues a few years later to reveal in Naja Ferjan Ramirez’s Ted Talk on “Creating bilingual minds” that “the baby brain specializes to process whatever language or languages are present in the environment. The brains of those babies who listen to one language specialize to process one language, but the brains of those babies who listen to two languages specialize to process two.” My husband speaks to our children in Spanish and I speak to them in Mandarin. They learn English from school. You will see a parallel posting of this page’s content in the Spanish section of my website.
Talk to your baby about what you are doing “媽媽在給你換尿布/Māmā zài gěi nǐ huàn niàobù”, where you are going “我們去公園玩吧/Wǒmen qù gōngyuán wán ba” and what you see “太楊出來了！現在是早上。/ Tàiyáng chūláile! Xiànzài shì zǎoshang.” I would give baby the play by play of every diaper change, meal prep, and inspiration that would pop into my brain. This was really unnatural for me with my first baby since it’s not like she could talk back yet. But it is amazing how baby will learn to talk by hearing other people talking. First with those sweet coos. And since you are constantly telling baby how mama is doing this and that for her, before you know it she will actually say her first, “媽媽！” It’s so gratifying! 3 out of 4 of my kids said 媽媽 first with the anomaly saying 爸爸 first…I mean, at that point (around 6 months old) I had single-handedly clocked in a conservative estimate of 900 hours breastfeeding day and night, changed and washed 1120 cloth diapers, not to mention the solid countless hours per day in despairing isolation with a sweet but otherwise mute baby, but who’s really counting anyway right?
If you’re a non-fluent Mandarin speaker, you may be like me and have to ask Siri, “how do you say so-and-so in Mandarin”? often. Siri taught me how to say all kids of random animals and construction site vehicles for the sake of my kids. If you’re at a beginner’s level, you could grow your vocabulary from 0-500 with this Children’s First Fun Learning Educational Bilingual Illustrated Storybook. It may just be your best teaching companion (as an alternative to a dictionary) for a while until you learn the vocabulary yourself. It is a bilingual Book that comes with a CD and an interactive talking pen. Then you can pass it on to your child when he/she is a toddler. Win-win!
Side bar: The American Academy of Pediatrics has long recommended that children have no screen time at all before age 2, so although there are many learning apps out there, it would not be recommended to pass the smart phone or tablet to baby just yet.
I also introduced flash cards as a way to help build vocabulary by the time baby is starting to comprehend your speaking and able to sit still enough to 1) hold a laminated flash card without bending it and 2) really examine at the illustration on the card. I PROMISE THAT I’M NOT A TIGER MOM. What I would do is simply take a stack of animal flash cards, for example, and keep a couple on rotation at the changing table. Whenever I would change a diaper, I would teach baby the word on the flashcard. Slowly but surely, baby would learn to recognize those animals and repeat the words after me. And then I would kinda sorta quiz them. OKAY, I’ll admit that there’s some tiger mom in me yet. And if you’re reading this blog then there’s definitely some tiger parent in you too. It’s a good thing! Just promise not to stress out baby! Alternatively, you can use little toys or stuffies to use in lieu of the flashcards.
After being in the clutches of 4 kids, being tossed all over the floor countless times, and an international move, we have managed to keep our original Tuttle Chinese for Kids Flash Cards Kits in tact and in good condition! The kits come with flash cards, an audio CD, a wall chart, and learner’s guide. Vol. 1 (64 total characters about My Family, Colors, Numbers, Animals, Food, My Body, Clothes, and My Day) and Vol. 2 (64 total characters about Nature, Weather, Opposites, Actions, Things I Like to Do, Around the House, Going Places). My only complaint is that Tuttle didn’t continue with this series to create more volumes.
Sing or say nursery rhymes to your baby and sing as much as possible. Karaoke to 鯊魚寶寶/sha yu bao bao (Baby Shark) like nobody is watching. No worries if you cannot carry a tune because baby will love her personal concert. Songs with many repeating words and phrases are simple and easy to learn. I would always sing, especially at nap times “大象” and “我好喜樂耶穌愛[媽媽/爸爸/阿嬤/阿公, etc.]” and ones with actions like “你很高興你就拍拍手”. Later when your child uses a word, add another one, for example when they say “狗狗”, say “小/大狗狗”.
Read books at an early age. Even spending just 5-10 minutes a day at this age is good to help build vocabulary. My kids all had different capacities for sitting to listen to stories, so sometimes you can get creative and share the story more dramatically. Find books with a lot of rhyme, repetition, and vibrant illustrations. I think Eric Carle’s books are ingeniously crafted even for our youngest 寶寶’s. 妹妹 LOVES Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?.
Write. Say what? Of course I don’t mean that babies should be wielding sharp objects at this age. Rather, they can practice their finer motor skills of their reaching and grasping for toys. Put baby in front of a mirror or bubbles (the bubble trumpet is super fun for babies and allows you to aim the bubbles towards them to grasp) to entice them to move those little muscles that will help them with scribbling and writing as they get to the next developmental stages.
Math. Count with them often. Count their fingers and toes. Count the silverware as you put it up. Count their diapers as you take them out of the wash and move the to the dryer. Rock or swing baby in your arms and count to 3. Singing and reciting rhymes with numbers is also great. For us 兩隻老虎 was always our kids’ very first song with numbers. “一隻沒有耳朵，一隻沒有尾巴…”. It also helps to introduce the whole 二 and 兩 situation, which can be confusing. I love doing this finger play rhyme with the kids: 數字變變變 . Read colorful books with fun counting. This is our all time favorite 1-5 numbers song by our all time favorite tiger, 巧虎/Qiao Hu. And here’s 6-10.
Social Studies. Play! Newborns and toddlers alike love physical play. Hugs and tickles, dipping and flying. Exploring different fabric textures you may have at home (rough/粗糙/cūcāo, smooth/光滑/guānghuá, soft/柔软/róuruǎn, bumpy/颠簸/diānbǒ, prickly/刺刺的/cìcìde). Turn on some Chinese tunes and have a dance party with baby. “I Can Sing in Mandarin” and “A Little Mandarin” are both very nicely produced and so pleasant sounding (non- annoying as many kids’ CDs can be).
If you live in an English dominant environment and have Chinese-speaking friends and relatives, it may be that you will want to go ahead and kindly request that they help speak Chinese to your kids. If you want to ask that at all, then it is better to ask when your baby is a baby rather than later because when they get older it may be that hearing Chinese from that person will feel really awkward or unnatural. For example, in the case with their ABC (American-born Chinese) uncle, my kids developed the habit of speaking to him in Chinese and although both sides “run out of Chinese” after a while or when confronting certain situations, it is still completely natural to Chinglish their way back to speaking Chinese again. But there are teenage kids at church who, although they speak fluent Chinese in their homes (as they have only lived in the US for a few years), have not developed a Chinese-speaking relationship with my kids. Since they naturally hesitate to start speaking with each other in Chinese, they just don’t do it in order to avoid the awkward feeling. In retrospect, I should have asked them to help my kids practice Chinese because I know they would not have minded it at all.