I was raised and grew up in an all Chinese-language environment with my parents not speaking any English at all. Being fluent and passing all the exams in English was like the dream that I could never reach. It caused me a lot of heartbreak, pain, loneliness, and frustration all the time. (I still feel that way when I need to spend hours to write an in-depth blog post or newsletter.)
So trust me, I know how hard it is to not have the environment to learn the language. I experienced it for the first 18 years of my life.
However, after becoming a bilingual homeschooling mom of four and to go from living in the US to living in Hong Kong, I was inspired to create a language rich environment for my kids to learn Chinese, even in my own home.
So that means regardless of where we are living in the world, if we are living in Japan, China, South America, or even the North Pole. As long as teaching Chinese to my kids is my top priority in our home, my kids can be immersed in a language rich environment wherever they are.
In this blog post, I’m going to go more in-depth on creating a language rich environment and show you how it is very possible for you to develop a better language-learning environment at home as well. And you don’t have to move in the closest Chinatown or even to China.
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A Brief Introduction to my Background
I am a native Cantonese speaker who is fluent in Mandarin as well, and my husband is a native English speaker, with fluency in Cantonese and the ability to read and write Traditional Chinese characters as well. (I know I’m lucky to have him in my life.)
After we had our first child, we had discussed how to raise our kids. And we decided English is their mother language and an academic language, so they would need a high level of English to be educated in school. For Chinese (Cantonese and Mandarin), I would love them to be fluent in speaking and reading it, knowing how to write it is a plus. The most important things are for them to love learning Chinese, and I hope they will keep learning on their own in the future.
So, my approach is
What do I mean by a Language Rich Environment?
I want you to think of it in terms of going to Disneyland.
Inside the Disneyland theme park, everywhere you look is decorated with the colors and the characters from Disney. There is Disney music, and Disney restaurants and themed food all over the park. Everything you do inside the park is also associated with different characters or movies from Disney. Even the bathroom is so cute that your kids won’t able to get over it.
You are right, it is a “Disney” rich environment. They surely did a great job of designing the whole park so that everyone is immersed and has a fairytale-like experience.
When your kid is immersed with an abundance of opportunity to use language and interact with Chinese books, posters, pictures, activities, and conversation in Chinese with parents, caregivers, and educators, a language rich environment is created.
The key is how adults nurture and respond positively with love and care.
Why are Language Rich Environments Important?
- Kids learn better when they feel comfortable
- It’s easier to make connections and even increase the motivation in learning if we are in the right environment
- Stimulates their senses, bringing out their curiosity
- Creates a series of experiences
- Because it’s fun! It keeps your child engaged and interested.
By creating a language rich environment at your home, the lack of motivation and resources will be solved just by having the environment at home. The next exciting thing you can do is to teach them Chinese or learn Chinese with them.
So think about if you took someone to Disneyland who has never watched any Disney movies or seen any Disney characters. What would she feel after touring the park for a day? What questions will she ask?
The most important thing is will she be ready to learn any of the Disney movies, characters, or anything related to them?
Because she was immersed in the “Disney” environment that made her feel very comfortable and happy, she made connections with all those wonderful experiences in the park, just in one day.
After going back home, she probably watched all the Disney movies and books right away, singing songs from the Disney princesses, and even dressing like them. Who knows?
That’s the power and magic of creating a language rich environment for your child at home.
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What Should a Chinese language Rich Environment Include?
“Environment” seems like a huge thing that takes a lot of space, at least that what I thought before. However, I create one in my tiny apartment in Hong Kong with just a tiny corner. It worked nicely. And the items and objects I am going to talk about, some of them won’t take any space of your home either.
- Diverse Home Library with a balance of fiction and nonfiction Chinese Books: Fill your home library with a variety of picture and chapter books, magazines, graphic novels, comics, etc.
- Decorations: Purchase or DIY some decorations and objects to decorate your child’s bedroom or playroom’s walls, ceilings, floor, selves, etc.
- A place to encourage pretend play, free play, and talk in the language: you may need to set up and DIY some props, toys, or objects, so your kid is willing to use the language while they are playing.
- Forming routine and habit: having routine helps kids to adopt some new habits in a natural way. Maybe you can start by having 5 minutes reading Chinese books before reading a bedtime story in English. Having one or two Chinese related activities in the routine helps your kids start learning Chinese and living it.
- Influence from role models: Kids need these two types of role models in their lives – peers (siblings & friends) and adults (parents, grandparents, caregivers, & teachers). Kids need to have these role models to show them how to adopt Chinese in their lives, so by making time with your kid, participating in any Chinese related activities, even letting your kid see how you learn Chinese on your own at home will help to create a Chinese language rich environment within your home.
How Do I Create a Balanced Chinese & English Language Rich Environment at Home?
To me, I’m not only focusing on teaching my kids Chinese at home, but I’m also teaching them English as well. Finding a well-balanced method of teaching both Chinese and English is a much harder task for me now because I hope I can provide an education with the academically-rich level of English and conversational and foundational level of Chinese.
Since the goals of both languages are not the same, and I couldn’t just copy and repeat the same things from English to Chinese, things get tricky.
I’m still in a long process of archiving these teaching goals for my kids, but I do have these five tips on how I created a balanced Chinese & English language rich environment at home when we started.
- Show my love and interest in knowing both Chinese & English when they are young: it’s a bit confusing for my kids to understand the different nationalities and languages both my husband and I know. They don’t really understand why their mom and dad know both English and Chinese but came from different countries. I try to explain it with my own experiences and stories and hope they will at least know how both languages have blessed me, improved my quality of life, and helped me to become who am I right now.
- Have a Chinese bookshelf & English bookshelf: We all know having a home library, even a small one is important. By having both Chinese and English books at home and organizing them in a way so that your kids will love to read them both is vital for language learning. These books shouldn’t be a decoration at home, but they should be read, used, and even tore apart. So far I have tried separating both languages and mixing Chinese and English books together and organizing all of them into categories as well. I think mixing them together actually works well and sends a better message for my kids that both languages are our languages and we love them equally.
- Talk to them in both languages in different settings: I don’t think speaking only Chinese at home works for our family since my kids spend most of their time learning at home, so they need to be exposed to both languages in different settings as well. So we use English or Chinese in different settings. If my kids are only with us, they will speak Chinese regardless of if we are at home or outside. However, if my kids are with others that speak English, then they will speak English with them even while at home. I don’t want them to disrespect others by speaking only in Chinese. And that’s what real life is about, I switch between Cantonese, Mandarin, and English to match whom I’m having a conversation with, by using their language to show respect and understanding. I hope my kids will learn to have the ability to switch languages and to respect others as well.
- Respect my Kid’s interest and choice: I used to think of doing everything ONLY in Chinese was the way to go. However, when my kids grow up and they’re ready to make their own decisions, this won’t work anymore. They must be willing to use the language with a purpose. So I am learning to respect my kids’ interests and choices more, by showing them that learning Chinese is not the only thing in our family, but learning both Chinese and English is very important to us
- Celebrate both Chinese & American holidays and festivals: having family traditions build unity and honor and devotion. I value all different cultural holidays and festivals because each festival tells us our ancestors’ beliefs and stories. So celebrating Chinese, American, and some Japanese festivals have become part of our family now. It’s also the easiest and most natural way to introduce culture and gain cultural experiences. And the best thing is that it is usually fun and unique. It gives my kids meaning and purpose to know the languages and stories behind these celebrations.
What Can YOU Do to Create a Language Rich Environment to Learn Chinese at Your Home?
You all can easily get a huge list of what to do to learn Chinese at home, like reading Chinese books, listening to Chinese music, watching Chinese movies, etc.
However, it’s easy to read the whole list without acting. (I speak from experience)
So, I created a FREE 5-Day Chinese Motivation Challenge that will help you:
- Be able to improve your home while creating a Chinese language rich environment with parents and educators from all over the world.
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- How to Write a Year-Long Bilingual Homeschooling Plan
- An Interview about My Homeschooling life in Hong Kong
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