When to teach literacy in the minority language and how to support a bilingual child with a new language




My son is 3.5 years old. We are from South America (Colombia and Chile) so the language at home is Spanish. My son was born in Australia. He never attended child care there, so he was not exposed too much to English.

Ten months ago, we moved to Malaysia. My son is now attending a Chinese child care where tuition is 100% in English. His English has improved since, and now he is able to communicate with English speakers with no issues.

Now he has started having Mandarin and Bahasa Malay lessons. According to the teachers he is doing very well, being able to understand some instructions in both languages. He is even able to write some symbols in Mandarin.

Some of the concerns we are having at the moment are:

1. His Spanish listening and speaking are very good. When and how should we start teaching him reading and writing? We do not expect to return soon to a Spanish speaking environment.

2. We think English is not and will not be a problem as the school in Malaysia is in English. Should we speak English at home? My husband and myself are both fluent in English and both feel comfortable speaking English to him. However, my son always prefers to speak Spanish with us.

3. Is starting Mandarin and Bahasa lessons at his age the right move? We definitely would like to help him with his Mandarin skills, however, Bahasa is not our priority as we will be leaving Malaysia in three years. Neither my husband nor myself speak Mandarin so it is difficult to help him. What would be your recommendation to ensure he is becoming fluent in Mandarin.

Thanks in advance for your help!

Best regards,


Dear Sonia,

Thank you for your message and questions. What a lovely language rich environment your bilingual child is lucky to grow up in – your son already speaks both Spanish and English and now he will also have the chance to pick up Mandarin (and perhaps some Bahasa).

With regards to your specific questions:

1. When it comes to literacy, my recommendation is to start when your son shows interest in reading. Make sure you have toys and books with the Spanish alphabet and give him the sound when he shows you a letter cube or points at a letter in a book. This is actually how my elder daughter
learnt to readFinnish very early on (though Finnish is amongst the easiest languages there is to learn to read, so I don’t expect this to happen for all kids). Another great tip to encourage literacy is to follow the text with your finger when you read a Spanish book to your son. This way he will learn to make the connection between the sounds and the letters.

2. As you are not planning to return to a Spanish-speaking environment any time soon, I would recommend that you keep Spanish as your home language. If you were to switch to English at home, your son would be exposed to the language almost 100% of the time. This would leave Spanish in a precarious position and your son might soon become reluctant to use it. Switching the language you speak with a child is not an easy thing to do in any circumstance. Changing back to using a minority language once your child has become accustomed to speaking the majority language with you is even more difficult, and takes some serious commitment and patience from the parent. I agree with you that your son will get enough English exposure from his school (and friends) for now.

3. I presume Mandarin and Bahasa are part of the curriculum at your son’s school, so he will attend both language lessons in any case? It wouldn’t be right of me to comment on the school’s tuition, as I do not know any details about it. Be it as it may, introducing new languages through play is an excellent way of starting to learn a language and I see no harm in doing it early on – presuming the teaching methods are suitable for the age group. In your situation, I would leave the Bahasa to whatever the school is teaching and concentrate on the Mandarin.

You can still support your son learning Mandarin, although you do not know the language yourself. First, have you considered learning alongside him? Many parents in monolingual families do exactly this – learn a language together with their children to give them the gift of an additional language. However, if this is not a viable option for you, you can find lots of resources online. For example Panda Mom has a helpful site for your situation, not to forget our very own Family Language Coach, Miss Panda Chinese, Amanda Hsiung-Blodgett.

Wishing you a successful multilingual family journey!

Kind regards

Rita Rosenback

  Rita Rosenback Rita is an author, Family Language Coach, blogger and speaker, who was born into a bilingual family on the Swedish-speaking west coast of Finland. After studying languages in Finland and Germany she worked as a university teacher, translator, interpreter and manager of multinational teams. Rita is now a full-time writer and coach and has been living in the U.K. since 1998. Rita is the mother of two grown-up multilingual daughters, who are the inspiration for her book: “Bringing up a Bilingual Child”, an easy-to-read guide for parents, where she navigates the reader across the “Seven Cs of Multilingual Parenting: Communication, Confidence, Commitment, Consistency, Creativity, Culture and Celebration”. Currently English and Swedish are Rita’s main languages, but she instantly switches to Finnish or German or to her Finland-Swedish dialect when the opportunity presents itself (and when push comes to shove, she can communicate in a very basic Punjabi). Rita is the creator and driving force of this website, and she gives talks and holds workshops for parents and teachers on the topic of bilingual children. She also coaches families on how to make the most of their languages and raise their children to become confident speakers of the chosen languages. Facebooktwitterpinterestlinkedin