How Many Steps is the Bilingual Journey?

Have you entered the latest giveaway? You could win a wonderful book about animals, personally signed by the author to you and your kids! Entry is free for all. Just click for details.

How Many Steps is the Bilingual Journey?

Okay, let’s say the bilingual journey lasts from birth to age 18—that’s 18 years, or 6570 days. (After that, our children are on their own and we can adjourn to our hammocks.) Now, if each day can be considered one step, that equals 6570 steps for the whole journey.

But there’s a catch, too.

These steps don’t usually head off into the horizon over flat land. No, for most who travel this way, these 6570 steps go up, up, up the side of a great, rocky mountain.

These were my thoughts the other day as I sat brooding halfway up Mt. Misen, the mountain which looms above the well-known island of Miyajima. Though I’ve lived in Hiroshima for many years—and Miyajima is less than an hour from Hiroshima by train and ferry—this was the first time I had tried to climb it.

“Come on, Dad!” my eight-year-old son called. He had just snapped my picture and was eager to continue climbing.

I was eager to continue sitting.

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Adam and his bilingual monkeys

If you and your kids like animals, be sure to enter the giveaway below! Win a wonderful book about “animal heroes,” personally signed by the author!

I suppose you’ve noticed: Animals often appear in my posts, and I’m not just talking about my two monkeys. :mrgreen:

In fact, in my last post, Adam’s Fables for Raising Bilingual Kids, I used animals to create little analogies about issues involving bilingualism and children.

I even made an earlier post, called Bilingual Kids and the Animal Kingdom, where I shared my life-long love of animals and offered a list of links to many of the posts where animals make an appearance.

In that post, I also explained why my dream of becoming a veterinarian was derailed by an “F” I got in Biology in 7th grade. (Hint: It has something to do with the fact that I don’t like killing insects…though I do make an exception for mosquitoes.)

Today, then, let me offer 50 ideas for activities featuring animals. By leaning on this theme, a powerful favorite of children everywhere, we can effectively engage our kids in the use of their minority language. Some of these ideas will be familiar, but I hope you’ll find a few new suggestions on this list to try at home. Modify them to suit your needs, and pursue them as playfully as you can.

And in keeping with this theme, I’m holding a new giveaway! The winner will receive a beautiful book about animals by Jeff Campbell, an old friend of mine from college! Titled Daisy to the Rescue: True Stories of Daring Dogs, Paramedic Parrots, and Other Animal Heroes, it contains a wide variety of real-life stories of animals that helped rescue human beings in danger—some of them quite amazing. You’ll find all the details for entering the giveaway (entry is free) below this list of 50 activities.

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In the spirit of Aesop, I’ve written three short fables about raising bilingual children. The illustrations are by my son, who just turned 8. We hope you like them! (And if you do, please share!)

The Wolf's Child

The Wolf’s Child

A wolf and a fox fell in love and had a child: a handsome baby boy with his father’s long snout and his mother’s red fur. Because the wolf went hunting each day, the fox stayed behind in the den, taking care of their child. When the wolf returned home in the evening with that day’s supper, he was often too tired to play with his lively son. After devouring his dinner, he sprawled out on the floor of the den and fell asleep.

And so it went, day after day, as the little boy grew and soon began yapping endlessly to his parents. But one evening at supper, the weary wolf suddenly snarled and said, “Yap, yap, yap. That’s all I hear. This child is a wolf, too, isn’t he? When will he start howling?”

The fox sighed and looked her husband in the eye. “If you want your son to howl,” she said, “then you have to start howling.”

Click to read two more “bilingual fables” →


Last year I wrote a post titled Want to Supercharge Your Success at Raising Bilingual Children? and mentioned a special project that I called “a game changer for parents who are serious about raising bilingual kids, but want to get even more serious—and more successful—at this challenge.”

Although I didn’t reveal full details of the project then, and I finally set it aside—at least for the time being—when I ran into some technical issues and other considerations, I wanted to now follow up and share the basic nature of that idea. While the project was intended to be a group endeavor—because I think it would have a unique impact within a group of committed parents—the idea can still be pursued by individuals on their own and will provide many of the same powerful benefits.

So you needn’t wait any longer for the group version—here’s the individual version, and it remains a game changer for greater success.

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The Highs and Lows of Another Week Raising Bilingual Kids

Want a personal look at my recent efforts and experiences with my kids?

In this post, I share four stories from the past week, detailing both the highs and lows of my days as a busy parent and the main source of minority language exposure to two rambunctious bilingual kids, ages 10 and 7. These stories include…

  • Tears Over a Test
  • Too Tired to Be Silly
  • Fun Visits to the Zoo
  • Small Ball, Big Hole

My hope is that this honest look at a slice of my life will offer new insight into my struggles and successes as well as fresh inspiration for your own bilingual journey.

Tears Over a Test

My daughter came home the other day in tears because she got a 58 on a Japanese test.

Up to this point, I’ve basically left my children’s Japanese education in my wife’s hands. After all, she’s Japanese and it’s far easier for her to understand the content. My Japanese ability isn’t bad, but Lulu’s level—she’ll enter fifth grade when the new school year in Japan begins in April—has risen higher than mine.

However, it’s now clear that Ginger—though she’s a wonderful mother in many ways—isn’t really capable of providing sufficient support for their schooling. Because she doesn’t have a background in education, and believes to the extreme that children should be independent learners, the guidance she offers them is minimal. As I explained in Why I Don’t Want My Kids to Do Well in School, there are actually advantages to this, in that my children’s majority language hasn’t quickly outpaced their minority language. If Ginger was as proactive about supporting their Japanese as I am about their English, their ability in the majority language would no doubt be more dominant. So, in an odd way, I’ve appreciated her more hands-off approach: it’s helped me maintain a good balance between their two languages.

But when I saw Lulu’s tears, and Ginger’s response was only “You have to study more,” I knew I finally had to step in—I had to begin supporting her Japanese side, too.

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Talk to the Monkeys!

Lately, my son has been paying frequent visits to my little home office to “brainstorm.” Although he’s always shown an interest in my work, as he gets a bit older (he turns 8 in March), his fascination with the Internet and the wider world is growing keener.

When I’m in the middle of something, I still need to consciously remind myself, as I first shared in Are You Making the Moments with Your Kids Count?, to “engage with every interruption.” But because his interest is so genuine—and he’s at a point where he can better grasp these things—I’ve begun describing the work that I do in more detail.

As a result, he now wants to help: he wants to contribute by “brainstorming” with me and offering ideas. At first, I admit, I didn’t take him very seriously. I simply humored him—this small, toothless boy—and I tried to keep these sessions relatively short. But on Sunday morning he marched in again, chirped “Let’s brainstorm,” and then shared an idea that I absolutely loved.

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Here’s a new infographic for Valentine’s Day! I hope you like it!

And if you do, please share the fun with others through social media! Bloggers, feel free to embed this image on your own site by grabbing the code below. Thanks a lot!

10 Things I Love About Bilingual Kids

Grab this code to embed the image! (Just copy and paste!)

P.S. Check out my other fun infographics…

INFOGRAPHIC: Recipe for a Bilingual Child

INFOGRAPHIC: The Top 10 Advantages of Being Bilingual (From a Child’s Point of View)

INFOGRAPHIC: 11 Signs You’ve Run into a Little Trouble Raising Bilingual Kids


Music in the target language has always played an important part in my efforts to nurture bilingual children, first with my students and now with my own kids. When I’m not singing to them, or with them, I’m regularly playing music in the background to increase exposure in the minority language, even when I’m not in the room. (See How the Power of Music Nurtures Bilingual Ability for more on the use of background music.)

So when my family recently added a third language to our journey—Spanish—I naturally wanted to find some kid-friendly music in this language that would appeal to them. As it turns out, the lively bilingual music made by Nathalia, whose songs are often performed in a smooth, alternating blend of Spanish and English, has been so catchy that I’ve played her two albums over and over again—even when my kids aren’t around.

Click for more on Nathalia’s music, an interview, and a giveaway →

37 Zen Sayings for Parents Raising Bilingual Kids

One underlying reason I enjoy living in Japan is the spirit of Zen. Now that I have a family, I no longer read about Zen Buddhism as much or sit quietly to meditate each morning. But the spirit of Zen is still with me, day after day, inside and out.

Today I’ve written 37 “Zen sayings” for parents raising bilingual children. Try reading each one slowly, reflecting on the words. Even close your eyes and repeat it softly in your mind. I hope these thoughts speak to you, and offer some support and inspiration.

1. Ten million tiny steps is all it takes.

2. More than a priority, a way of life.

3. Keep conscious of your quest.

4. One eye on today, one eye on tomorrow.

5. Seize each day, day after day.

6. Milk the moment.

7. Early efforts prevent later frustrations.

8. Persistent efforts add up over time.

9. It’s not one thing you do, it’s everything you do.

10. The scope of your action must match the scale of your aim.

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VIDEO: With Bilingual Kids, There’s a Madness to My Method

My kids are mad.

My students are mad.

But that shouldn’t be a surprise, really, because all children are mad.

Let me give you a good example.

Popcorn battles

Yesterday my seven-year-old son comes home from school and my wife makes popcorn for an afternoon snack. Roy and I are sitting together at a low table on the living room floor, each with a bowl of popcorn before us. But the way we’re eating this popcorn is profoundly different.

I’m munching the pieces of white, fluffy popcorn one after the other, intent only on eating.

He’s studying the size and shape of each piece, separating the bigger pieces from the smaller pieces, eating those smaller pieces first, then taking one bigger piece in each hand and crashing them together in battle, complete with lively commentary and sound effects. The pieces break apart into bits, which he sweeps into his hand and gobbles down. Then the next battle begins.

I finish my bowl of popcorn in little more than a minute.

It takes him ten because he’s not only eating, he’s playing.

Wonderful madness

Children are mad—in the most wonderful way possible—because they’re constantly pursuing play. This is how they engage with the world and express the basic joy of being alive, a hard-wired force that’s so potent in childhood but seems to dim over time as children grow into adults. In fact, adults are also held to very different standards when it comes to play. For us, engaging in play beyond bounds held acceptable by our society becomes a cause for concern to others.

Just imagine me at the table there, a middle-aged man waging war with pieces of popcorn. :mrgreen:

You see, half the battle of raising a bilingual child is making the time and opportunity to provide exposure in the minority language. The other half is making the most of that time and opportunity by maximizing the child’s engagement. In my experience, the most effective way to achieve this is by matching the child’s madness for play.

Click to see a fun video with my toothless son →

The Magical Ingredient for Motivating Your Bilingual Child

From time to time (as I first mentioned in How Rats in the Bathroom Can Boost a Child’s Bilingual Ability), I ask my kids to memorize a poem in our minority language and recite it back to me. When they do, they earn a little treat. I can’t say they’re highly motivated to do this, but the treat usually provides them with enough incentive to complete the task and benefit from the effort.

The other day, though, it wasn’t working. I think they felt burdened with other tasks and mine just made their load heavier. They moaned when I first mentioned it, and groaned when I gave them reminders through the afternoon.

I could have let it go, of course—it wasn’t really a big deal to me that day, but it apparently was to them. Still, I was curious to see if I could get them engaged, even excited, about doing it if I added a bigger dash of the “magical ingredient” for motivating kids.

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