How to Teach Kids a Second Language


One morning, while in the elevator, a senior Chinese woman struck up a conversation with DA. In fookien Chinese, she asked, “Are you going to school already?” DA managed to nod his head despite not fully understanding the question. Thinking that he understood, the woman went on, still in Fookien Chinese, “How old are you?”

DA answered with another nod.

Oops! Wrong answer!

Embarrassing as it was, that experience made me realize one thing – I have failed as his first teacher. I have failed to harness his learning capabilities by not teaching him to be multilingual. Kids nowadays grow up hearing, learning and speaking mostly English. DA is no exception. While hubby and I are both Chinoys, we rarely speak Chinese at home. When it comes to the kids, it’s always in English. It’s English with his teachers, it’s English with his friends, it’s English with his cousins, it’s still English with his family.

Something is definitely not right with that. Why, our generation of Chinoys can go from Tagalog to English to Fookien to Mandarin without batting an eyelash! We can do better for our kids, right?

But how?

I once attended an advertising talk by The Learning Library, offering Filipino reading and comprehension classes. I was too busy feigning interest that I managed to catch only 2 points from the talk. Two very helpful points, if I may add, since they are what I found useful when teaching Chinese to the kids.

The first point was immediate translation. For those who are familiar with the shows Handy Manny and Dora the Explorer, they employ the same technique. They say a word in Spanish and then follow it up with an English translation. An example would be Manny saying “Bienvenido, Tools!” He would then follow it up with “Welcome, Tools!” This lets the children associate the foreign word to the familiar translation.

The next point was to set a designated time and place to use the new language. I, for one know that I should speak more Chinese to expose the kids further to the language. The problem however, is that I am so not used to speaking it that I forget. This is how the mentioned technique helps. For us, I have set bath time to be Chinese time. While giving the kids a bath, I would try to speak mostly in Chinese, letting them learn words like hot, cold, water, bath, done, not yet. It’s but a few words but it’s a start. By defining a specific time, the kids and I are both reminded of it and it becomes a routine. I hope to eventually include other times like mealtime, car time, sleep time, even CR time, to have more opportunity to learn the language.

Another tip that I learned from experience is repetition. I managed to get him to learn counting in Fookien by just saying the number while we go up and down the stairs from the parking lot. It’s just one floor up, two flights of stairs, Monday to Friday. In no time at all, he was saying the numbers like a pro.

We’re still a long way from him having a good command of the language but as I’ve said earlier, it’s a start. A good start, in fact. He’s a few weeks shy of turning 3 and they say that the best time to teach kids a second, a third, or even a fourth language is before that age.

Well, I gotta run now! I’ve got a few more days left to cram words into his head and hope that the next time someone asks him in Chinese, he’d have something correct to say. 🙂



33 thoughts on “How to Teach Kids a Second Language

  1. I do agree that we don’t speak very much Hokien Chinese these days, and it’s an endangered language na. I also try the immediate translation technique sometimes. And I will try to count the stairs using Hokien. The Chinese they learn in school is Mandarin.

  2. Natawa naman ko sa “How old are you?” I’m doing the immediate translation because my son needs to learn Filipino Language. He speaks and understands more kasi in English kahit Tagalog kami sa bahay. But I know in time Tagalog na rin siya, as of now Taglish kami makipag-usap, maisingit lang paunti -unti yung tagalog or else baka bumagsak sa Filipino subjects.

  3. Nice! Ako naman, minsan nalilito na rin sa mga anak ko kasi may mga words silang alam na English lang at iba ay Tagalog lang. Halimbawa sinabi ko, “Tumayo ka, isusuot ko sa’yo yung pajamas mo.” Hindi sya tatayo kasi hindi nya alam yung “tumayo”, ang alam nya “stand up”, pero yung ibang mga Tagalog naman na sinabi ko (isusuot ko sa’yo yung pajamas mo) ay naiintindihan nya. Hehehe

  4. yes, Dora and Handy Manny are great language teachers. We also did wrong in this area and are trying to teach our children how to converse in Filipino naman. Buti na lang that we weren’t connected to our Chinese side of the family (my lola is pure Chinese), kundi pati yun we would’ve had to teach our kids.

  5. Gusto ko matuto si Mila ko ng Bicolnon. Kasi walang akong Province and Tagalog English lang alam ko. Sabay kami mag practice. Medyo nawawala na kasi yung native dialects sa mga probinsya natin.

  6. Cheryl, I totally agree with the “direct translation” tool, in language teaching. I think I have my testimony for that.
    My husband is of Chinese lineage and they speak hokien in their house. But I was able to grasp some Chinese words, because his family helped me learn few words, by pointing out the objects which that the words meant in English.
    I learned together with my son hahahhaha.
    I still get confused with the tones..since I still get confused with ‘kwi he lo” –if it is about my age or yo turn off the light…
    but I am getting by,
    so, today, I “lang nang wei, tampo-tampo.”

    1. Clap clap clap! 🙂 galing! Hehehe 🙂 I have a cousin in law also who’s a Filipino but has managed to learn some hokien. I’m amazed whenever I hear him speak hokien.

  7. Our kids are barely even speaking but we’ve always intended for Filipino to be their first language. But I hear and read a lot of stories like yours where it’s easier for them to retain English! Bakit nga kaya ano? Do you think it’s the tv shows? That there are more books in English? Or that when adults talk to kids they always start with English like what’s your name, how are you? Maybe a combination of all ano? Keep us posted on your progress, and keep the tips coming! 🙂

    1. Books, TV, apps, all in english. I checked sa bookstore, there are some books for kids in Tagalog but not as many pa din compared sa english. 🙂

  8. My son knows hiligaynon/ilonggo, english and sign language. A little of Filipino, that’s why we are working on it. I guess it will come natural as long as you are using them at home, no matter how many languages it would be.

  9. I think children can easily learn naman new things, like learning new language. We teach my daughter english and filipino. This way, she can understand both. I hope I’m doing the right thing, hehe

  10. I want my son to be multilingual too.. You know, not just the usual english but other languages too. It would be cool right? But as of the moment, I am confused whether to teach him tagalog or english first. Nay!!

  11. My toddlers’ first language is english. We have no intentions of teaching them english but they got it from tv shows. It somehow helped them comprehend what they are watching as well as socializing with kids, you know these days kids seemed to speak in english rather than Filipino. But I do intend to teach them Filipino and slowly I am incorporating it in our everyday conversation. I just would like to avoid language confusion because my little girl is just starting to utter few words.

  12. Though Ethan is too young, I talk to him more in English than in Tagalog. I grew up in another country and my first language was English, but when we moved here I learned Tagalog easily yet retained my English. I figure my son can do the same. My brother though learned Tagalog first, but found it challenging to learn English after. I wish you luck, I’m sure your son will learn the language in time!

  13. I agree with immediate translation; in our case, it proves to be the most effective tool. In our household, though, we speak more Filipino than English. Actually, I wrote a well-received post in my blog on why I’m raising a Filipino-speaker. But that doesn’t mean we don’t use other languages as well. For example, if I point to table, I say “ito ay mesa, this is a table.” It’s effective! 🙂

  14. Thanks for the tips, mommy! Will keep this in mind. When the daughter was only a few months old, I told the partner we’d have her speak in English but it’s difficult with our environment right now. However, the partner also said he doesn’t want our baby to be a foreigner to our native language. The baby speaks a few words now and understands both English and Visayan language. I think we’ll focus on really teaching her when she’s a little older nalang.

  15. I asked my husband to read the article. He can certainly relate to this. Being half Mexican-half Filipino people expect him to speak Spanish but he never learned the Language. His first Language is English since his Mexican dad was born and raised in CA. My husband at his age would still love to speak Spanish. He speaks fluent Tagalog and Kapampangan dialect well.

  16. We are cramming to teach our son to speak in Filipino. We speak both languages at home (English and Filipino) so he understands both but prefers to speak in English! Haay! Complicated! I think learning two languages will help him think more and his mind grow more. Thanks for the tips!

  17. Our daughter converse mostly in English but lately we’ve been talking to her in Tagalog so she can get the hang of it. I practice the “immediate translation” 🙂 We also appreciated the Android app Joomajam 🙂

  18. My eldest son had some difficulty learning Tagalog and it was only when he went to school that he was exposed to it. He’s in 8th grade now and there’s still difficulty there. So with my youngest we speak to him in both Tagalog and English and we see that he is able to speak in both.

  19. Now that my son is 2.5 years old, we’re making a conscious effort to speak to him in both English and Tagalog. I’ve heard of too many stories of children growing up very fluent in English and really have a difficult time understanding Tagalog (to think that we’re in the Philippines and we are Filipinos!) I hope that we’ll be able to teach our son both! And even more actually in the future! 🙂

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