Trilingual at 3: My Daughter Speaks Mandarin, English and Bahasa Fluently. Here’s How We Did It
theAsianparent CEO Roshni Mahtani shares her seven tips on raising a trilingual child.
But first, why?
Running a company across nine countries, I’ve had my fair share of “lost in translation” mishaps and downright crises. So when we learned how critical the first few years are in brain development and learning, we decided to expose our daughter to as many languages as we realistically could.
Because language, like cuisine, is a cultural cipher. Learn its secrets and you glean insights into people’s lives and values.
The Japanese have a word that Google translates as “reason to live” (ikigai). Filipinos call strangers ate (sister) and kuya (brother); while we Singaporeans have our uncles. The Chinese have a hierarchical naming system for family members. Waldeinsamkeit is a German word that describes the feeling of solitude in a forest.
Being multilingual doesn’t just make our kids smarter; it educates them about the world.
Back to Shan, my three-year-old daughter, whose name actually means “mountain” in Mandarin.
At home, we speak English, which naturally became her dominant language. But we’ve been teaching her Mandarin since she was about two months old, and Bahasa since she was one and a half.
Tip 1: Start Early
Yes, bilingual babies are a thing. They are able to distinguish and understand languages even before they learn to speak.
Tip 2: Use the Village
It truly takes a village to raise a child, and we’ve enlisted the help of Shan’s grandparents to teach her Hindi and Mandarin whenever she’s in their care.
We hired a helper from Indonesia, who communicates with Shan only in Bahasa. She reads one Bahasa book every night to Shan, while I’m tasked with the English bedtime story.
Tip 3: Sign Up for Formal Instruction
Shan is enrolled in a Chinese only, full immersion preschool. She also has a Chinese tutor who reads her Mandarin books for an hour twice a week.
Tip 4: Use Music
Idle time can still be learning time, and songs ease that transition. We listen to Malay songs in the car and play Malay nursery rhymes from theAsianparent app when we’re waiting in line or for our food to arrive.
We also plan to teach Shan Hindi through Bollywood movies and music.
Tip 5: Make It Fun
They’re kids. All work and no play is definitely not a great strategy for teaching kids ANYTHING. Shan loves her Alilo toys and gets to watch Dora or Peppa Pig in Chinese. She also has play dates where she gets to interact with kids whose primary language is Mandarin.
Top 6: Make It Practical
When it comes to languages, you lose it if you don’t use it. So when we’re at a hawker or restaurant, for example, we ask Shan to do the ordering. This makes her feel like a very big girl too.
Tip 7: Make It with You
Remember that we are our children’s first and favourite teachers. Make sure that you’re involved in their learning. (You may even learn a new language or two!)
Sundays are “Chinese days” for Shan, when Daddy only talks to her in Mandarin. We also take her to the Chinatown library every week.
If all this seems like a lot of work, I’d say it’s all a matter of putting things in motion. It’s a conscious effort at the beginning and may even feel a little forced sometimes, but it becomes part of the family routine soon enough.
Try it and marvel at the amazing – and adorable – results. Have fun raising your little global citizen!