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Guest Post: A Monolingual Parent’s Quest to Raise a Bilingual Child

September 16, 2016

ADAM’S NOTE: How does a monolingual parent go about raising a bilingual child? In this firsthand account, Llacey Simmons relates the early stages of one parent’s journey to promote a second language that she does not speak—yet is now making efforts to learn alongside her son. Thank you, Llacey, for sharing your personal story and helpful insights.

Llacey and her son Cavanaugh

Llacey and her son Cavanaugh

Llacey Simmons is an entrepreneurial mom who spends her days tutoring and her nights finding Chinese resources for her son. She lives in the U.S. state of Maryland with her inquisitive, bilingual four-year-old son, Cavanaugh. She shares her language learning expertise with other monolingual parents at her blog Our 21st Century Kids.

My journey teaching my son Chinese began over 2.5 years ago after an intense researching binge. I read many articles, scientific studies, and scoured the Internet for Chinese language classes for my then soon-to-be one year old.

As a monolingual parent who only speaks English, my lofty goal of raising a bilingual, near-native Chinese-speaking child was a bit daunting, at first. I knew I would have to be creative, think outside the box, and find the best way to stretch my limited budget to get my son the Chinese exposure he needed to become bilingual.

Soon, I begin to build a network of other parents who were in a similar situation, but the fact remained: What more could I do? Or, better yet, if I can’t teach him Chinese myself, where could I turn for help?

Cavanaugh and his Chinese language tutor

Cavanaugh and his Chinese language tutor

I purchased countless books, flashcards, Chinese videos, hired Chinese tutors, even restructured my work schedule to get my son to and from various Chinese playgroups.

But his Chinese language skills seemed to be stalling.

At best, I was only getting him about 5-6 hours of language exposure a week, mostly through play-based programs, but I was looking for more and a way where I could get in on the Chinese learning, too.

A new world of possibilities

When my son turned 3, last November, the world of language possibilities opened up. Now he was old enough to go to an immersion summer camp, attend an immersion school, join the Chinese preschool playgroup in my area—the options seemed plentiful. But problems remained. Many of the programs were too expensive or were too far away for me to commute, even with my flexible schedule.

So I went back to work, searching for an affordable and authentic Chinese experience that my son and I could enjoy. And that’s when I stumbled on Concordia Language Villages. Tucked away in the picturesque landscapes of rural Minnesota, this seemed to be the eye-opening Chinese immersion exploration I was looking for.

I signed up almost six months in advance, started planning our country getaway, and then the sinking feeling hit me. I had invested all of this time (and money) in exposing my son to the Chinese language, but other than counting from 1 to 10, I knew nothing else. In less than 180 days, I would be in a re-created Chinese village, surrounded by the Chinese language all day, every day, for seven days straight, and eating authentic Chinese food.

What was I getting myself into?

Experiencing this quest first-hand

As a parent raising a bilingual child, I took for granted how difficult it might be for my son, at times, to be in an environment where, yes, he could understand the verbal language, but his expressive abilities were limited. Now I would get to experience that first-hand, and the mere thought of it, even if months away, was a bit overwhelming, to say the least.

Fast forward six months, and we were on a plane to Minnesota—with no idea what was in store for us.

Cavanaugh on the plane, bound for “China”!

Cavanaugh on the plane, bound for “China”!

To prep myself, I watched Chinese tutorials online, got my number counting skills up to 30, had a few color names under my belt—but was still a bit apprehensive nonetheless.

We stepped off of the plane and into “China.”

We received our Chinese names, made nametags, deposited money in the village bank, and instantly I felt completely out of my comfort zone.

Concordia Language Villages in rural Minnesota

Concordia Language Villages in rural Minnesota

I couldn’t help but walk around the first few hours, my mouth agape as I saw little non-Asian children running around speaking fluent Chinese. But it was the reassurance I needed to know that my son was on the right track and within a few years, he, too, would be running around with them happily, and rattling off Chinese.

Parents benefit, too

Daily language lessons

Daily language lessons

Over the next week, we would have language classes twice a week and, surprisingly, my Chinese improved dramatically. Hearing the language day in and day out made me fall in love with Chinese, and I found myself admiring the culture, the history behind the characters, and even the intricate tonal system.

And I was among parents in the same boat! Most were monolingual and had struggled with finding creative and affordable language opportunities for their children. We shared experiences, resources, and even had a brainstorming session to think of additional ways we could access the target language at home.

Of course, the kids had a great time, too. When they weren’t in their fun language classes, they were out in nature learning about traditional Chinese activities and even caught a few fish in the process.

Cavanaugh experiences Chinese culture.

Cavanaugh (left) experiences Chinese culture.

Some things I’ve realized

My experience at the Concordia Language Villages made me reflect and realize a few things:

  • Being willing to join in on the language learning opens up more opportunities for your child. Since my son was only 3, he would not have been able to attend their summer sleepaway camps for several years. However, he was old enough to participate in the Family Week, but I had to be along for the ride. Had I not been open-minded, my son (and I) would have missed out on a memorable language experience.
  • Expanding your view of language options could be cheaper than you think. I often limited my search of language programs to those that were less than an hour’s drive away. When I broadened my options, I discovered other programs, which yes, were further away (a plane trip, not a drive), but were actually more affordable. As an example, our week-long trip to Minnesota—getting around-the-clock Chinese exposure—was cheaper than two weeks (or 40 hours) of Chinese exposure at a local day camp.
  • Engaging in even just one creative language experience can unlock a world of resources for you and your child. I met parents from all over the country. Parents that had great ideas of other ways I could expose my son to language—ideas I don’t think I would have come up with on my own. Building a supportive network of both bilingual and monolingual parents, like myself, has been invaluable. So much so, that it gave me the inspiration I needed to start my blog, Our 21st Century Kids, to chronicle my son’s bilingual journey and to share resources with other parents.

In the end, stepping outside my comfort zone and being willing to immerse myself in the target language was a phenomenal experience, for both of us. As we look toward next summer, and round two of the Concordia Language Villages, I’ll be on the lookout for other “unconventional” language options and the creative places they may take us.

Cavanaugh caught not only a little fish, but a lot of Chinese, too!

Cavanaugh caught not only a little fish, but a lot of Chinese, too!

How about you? Did you also begin this quest as a monolingual parent? What other tips would you offer for raising a bilingual child? Please add them below so others can benefit from your experience!

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1 Tiara September 16, 2016 at 9:23 pm

I am so glad you wrote this!! I love this website and the book has given me so much inspiration but I too am a monolingual parent with a goal of full fluency in Japanese for my child. My child, now 1.5 years old, was born in Okinawa, Japan. It is really important to me to teach him Japanese. Since embarking on this journey, just like you, we have found ourselves making the best memories! We have been on a few homestays. One was 3 days experiencing Obon, a Japanese holiday, with a Japanese family. (Adam will know what a treat this was for us!)

My concern is about returning to America in 3 months and battling the majority language when my own skill level is only intermediate. I have already researched the Japanese Saturday schools in the area and am more than willing to commute. I hope to be able to put him in a Japanese immersion school but we are a military family and move every 3 years and only a few of these schools exist. Like you I think I will have to research other ways to keep him fluent.

Thanks again!

I will check out your blog!

Tiara

Reply

2 Llacey Simmons September 17, 2016 at 8:03 am

Hi Tiara!

I’m so glad you liked the blog post. One thing I’ve used which has been great and super affordable is a Chinese babysitter. Perhaps you can have a Japanese babysitter come a few times a week. Bring some Japanese books back with you and they can spend that time reading books, playing, and enjoying the Japanese language.

In my experience, I’ve had to get really creative to stretch my funds and even finding other families with the same goal has helped to share the costs.

I welcome you to sign up for my weekly newsletter, on my blog. I send some great language resources every Friday and will be sure to highlight some Japanese options for your little one in next week’s edition!!!

Reply

3 Cenn John December 6, 2016 at 7:46 pm

Hi Llacy,

I totally agree with you… You know, I have spent the last few years developing a brand called Hatching Dragons in London. What we offer is a learning environment, a kindergarten, where children can learn in both an English and Mandarin environment.

We have really seen fantastic results and it really supports the idea that bilingualism does help improve children’s learning across the board.

I would welcome your thoughts on our site which is http://www.hatching-dragons.com.

Ultimately we are a central London nursery. :)

Cenn

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