“But Mom, all my friends speak English,” my 6-year-old moaned in protest, after I reminded her to speak to me in Chinese. I knew the day would come when my daughter would stop wanting to speak a language different from her friends, because I felt the same when I was younger. I just didn’t think it would happen so soon.
How could I explain to her all the benefits that come with speaking more than one language? I imagined telling her, “Sweetheart, learning a second language is good for you. It will strengthen your cognitive and reasoning skills, it will help you excel academically and in the job market, it will benefit you if you travel abroad and it will keep you connected to your heritage. It may even help delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease!” I had a strong feeling that this explanation was not going to fly with my child.
Growing up, I too took my fluency in English and Mandarin Chinese for granted. In fact I never really considered bilingualism (or, the ability to communicate in two languages) to be a skill. I was frustrated in elementary school Spanish classes, and I often wondered aloud to my parents and teachers why I needed to learn another language. I already knew English, and everyone else around me spoke English. So why bother?
THE FAMILY TREE
Fast forward to 2012, I became pregnant with my daughter.
It’s interesting how you realize what to deem important in life when you’re given the opportunity to instill those values in a child. Like many expecting parents, I started to think about the traits I hoped to pass down to my offspring. I hoped our daughter would get my hair and sense of humor, and her dad’s good teeth and sense of direction. Creating a new life also inspired me to reflect on my family tree and learn more about our history.
One night when I was about seven months pregnant, I was at dinner with my family when my grandparents broke the news that they planned to move back to Taiwan after living in New York for over 20 years. While they explained their plans, I realized how little I actually knew about their lives before me. How did they first meet? Why did they move to New York all those years ago? Would they be around to share their stories with my daughter? After dinner, I went home and wrote 50 questions for my grandparents and my mother to answer about their lives. Soon after, I videotaped them sharing their responses so that I could play it for my child one day.
The entire video was in Chinese. There was no way that my daughter could understand their stories if she did not understand their language. In that moment it dawned on me that the best way to connect my daughter to her great-grandparents was through language. Even if they lived far away, my daughter could still communicate with them. It was important for her to speak and understand Chinese—or else the rich history of her great-grandparents would be lost. In that moment, I made it my mission to raise my daughter as bilingual.
NEVER TOO EARLY
Even though I had a set goal in mind, I had no clue where to begin. My search for language products for babies and toddlers unfortunately did not yield many helpful resources. I scoured local bookstores and libraries only to find the smallest (and often, saddest) selections of language education books. Online searches did not offer much either. I realized that no matter what language (Chinese, Spanish, French, etc.), there was not much in the way of foreign language materials for English-speaking children on the market.
By my daughter’s 2nd birthday, I had managed to gather some bilingual-focused books, toys and videos but these materials were not engaging enough for my busy toddler. Many were too basic—their curriculum did not go beyond 1-2-3s and shapes. Around this time, we discovered a colorful cartoon that introduced a handful of Chinese words per episode. It was promising, but also not as educational as I hoped. I wondered what was the point of dedicating 23 minutes of my child’s time to a show that only taught her three new words.
My little girl was ready for something more challenging. Children are like sponges! They can learn at a more accelerated rate than adults, and studies have shown that it’s easier for kids under 10 to learn a new language and achieve the fluency level of a native speaker than at their parents’ age. I knew there had to be a better way to bring up a bilingual baby, so I created what I could not find for myself.
I made flashcards featuring keywords essential enough to be used in everyday situations but more advanced than basic 1-2-3s. Beginning with vocabulary to be used on a daily basis, like “water” and “sun,” I worked with my daughter to build her Chinese language lexicon. I also dreamt of creating a cartoon to accompany the flashcards so she could learn how to use and understand these words in conversation. It was in these earliest stages that Jamma Jango was born.
TRAIN THE BRAIN
Bringing Jamma Jango to life was no less of a challenge than childrearing. Before I became a stay-at-home mom, I was a product manager at American Express. I’ve always loved creating products from scratch, but it took a lot of trial-and-error to bring this concept to life. It took two years of research, parent focus groups and self-education until I felt proud to unveil my newest baby.
A children’s foreign language education program, Jamma Jango is an all-in-one box that includes flashcards, cartoon videos, coloring book, stickers and a game. The program is designed to help busy parents teach their kids in a way that is both fun and educational so that young children (ages 0-7) get excited about learning a new language.
I learned early on as a parent that if I don’t capture the interest of my toddler in the first 5 minutes of starting that activity, I will have lost her attention to a newer, shinier toy. And as a busy mom (because all moms are busy!), I didn’t want to deal with the inconvenience of pulling language books, videos and flashcards from five different places every time we wanted to practice. If it required too much effort for me to teach my child a new skill, I’m likely not going to follow through with it. I only have so much time during the day—and getting dinner on the table and ensuring a proper bedtime take precedence.
Don’t be intimidated to help your child learn a new language, even if you can’t speak it—it shouldn’t be so difficult … as long as you have the appropriate tools.
Today, I have two children and even less time to explore ways to support their bilingualism. Jamma Jango is intended to make it easier for families to learn a foreign language together. Now whenever we have a few minutes to watch TV, I’ll play Jamma Jango cartoons. Each 6-minute episode is packed with keywords and sentences in either Spanish or Mandarin Chinese. I’ll carry the matching flashcards with me to test them on vocabulary. And when we have some free time, I’ll let the kids play with the games and stickers together.
PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT
Just like a child needs to practice piano every day to improve as a musician, a child needs to practice the foreign language at least a few minutes every day become fluent. Daily vocabulary words and a few episodes of educational cartoons have really helped my children become fluent in Mandarin Chinese.
I’m proud to say that my daughters have no trouble communicating to their grandparents in their native language. But I still have to remind them to practice every day. Exercising a new language just a few minutes a day with videos, flashcards and games can really make a difference in their language retention.
One day when my children watch that video of their great-grandparents, they will even more fully know about their ancestors and all of the fascinating stories and traditions passed down through generations.
So when my daughter asked me why she had to know a second language when her friends already spoke English, I had a response to share with her that afternoon. “Sweetheart, learning another language is good for you for lots of reasons. Maybe one day, you’ll want to visit one of those countries you learned about in school. Or maybe you’ll need to ace a language test. One day, you might want to order those special dumplings you love without my help. Or you can call Grandma and tell her how much you love her in her own language. One day, you might want to know all about your family and where you came from. And when that day comes, you’ll be ready for it.”
My daughter nodded and looked satisfied with my answer. “Okay, Mom. I’ll speak Chinese. Can we FaceTime with Grandma now?” I am filled with joy.
Julia Wang is a Fort Worth mom of 2 and founder of Jamma Jango, a language education program for kids.