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The Emotional Challenge of Speaking the Minority Language in a Majority Language Environment

One of the most-visited posts at this site is What Language Should I Speak in Public with My Bilingual Child?, which has also generated a rich conversation of more than 80 comments to date. The interest in this question surely stems from the fact that this is an issue which in some way, to some degree, affects the great majority of parents seeking to raise a bilingual child.

In fact, scratch the surface of this broad question and you discover the more specific concerns tied to the individual parent and his or her circumstances. These concerns are reflected not only in the comments made beneath the post at this site, but also at a lively thread at The Bilingual Zoo, the forum for further interaction among this audience.

I want to highlight this thread in a blog post because I believe the parents there have done a real service to us all in sharing, very candidly, their thoughts and feelings surrounding what many experience as the emotional challenge of freely speaking the minority language in the midst of a majority language environment.

Like me, I think you’ll find wise and encouraging food for thought in the many perspectives offered in this thread:

Embarrassment over speaking a “foreign language” in public

At the same time, I see this discussion as a glowing example of the value of this forum—the value of community—in considering widespread concerns from a wide range of views. While I hope my blog and forum are a source of support to other parents on their bilingual journey, the truth is, the experiences and perspectives shared by this audience are a continual source of support to my own journey as well. For this, I feel blessed and grateful.

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Bilingual Children and Distant Grandparents (Grandmother)

My mother reads to Lulu and Roy during our trip back to the U.S. in 2008.

Note: This post was written for the latest blogging carnival on Raising Multilingual Children, “Bilingual children and long-distance family relationships,” hosted by the insightful Multilingual Parenting. To learn more about the blogging carnival, and find links to all the carnivals to date, see this page at the engaging Piri-Piri Lexicon.

Sometimes I face this argument: Your children can always learn the minority language later. Why focus so much on fostering this language now?

Strictly speaking, this is true: children can indeed learn a second (or additional) language at an older age, given suitable circumstances.

But this argument also surprises me because it misses the two main motives driving my daily efforts, the two deepest aims underlying my entire bilingual journey:

1. I want to communicate well with my kids in my mother tongue for the full duration of our relationship.
As I explain in Why Communicating in English with My Kids is So Important to Me: “My Japanese isn’t bad, but it simply wouldn’t be possible to convey who I am to my children—my true self, both the soulful and the silly—in any other language but English. … Because English is at the heart of who I am, being able to communicate with my children in my mother tongue also benefits our bond throughout their childhood.” (At the same time, I understand that the circumstances and aims of other parents make using a non-native language with their kids the appropriate choice. So this isn’t a value judgment—I’m only saying that, for me, communication in the mother tongue is key.)

2. I want my kids to be able to communicate well with my parents—their paternal grandparents—and other family members who don’t speak the majority language.
This, I assume, is a pretty universal goal: there may naturally be differences regarding use of the mother tongue and non-native languages, but those parents who don’t want their children to be able to communicate well with grandparents and other family members in the language these relatives speak are surely the exception.

And it’s this second goal that I’d like to look at more closely in this post.

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3 Steps to Success in Raising Bilingual Children

There are just three steps to success in the “game” of raising bilingual kids.

As I explain in Why Raising a Bilingual Child is Very, Very Simple—and Very, Very Difficult, the process itself is straightforward…but carrying it out effectively is what often makes the bilingual journey such a great challenge.

Step 1: Stay in the game

As long as you continue moving forward, day after day, giving your honest best to the bilingual aim you seek, you will experience steady progress. Although each day demands attention, you must also guard against a too-narrow view of your current conditions. As your children grow, and as you make efforts, these conditions will evolve and improve. Frustrations are a natural part of the process, and larger issues should be addressed, but if you don’t see them within the broader context of your longer journey, they can consume the immediate moment and drag you down, exhausting your will and energy. Hold firmly to that longer view and persevere for another day, then another, in full faith that your efforts—however clumsy you think they may be—will pay off over time. The next two steps are also central to success, but this first one—just staying in the game—will go a long way toward achieving your aim. If you just show up each day and do your best, you’re bound to succeed to a satisfying degree; if don’t, you won’t. In this sense, the bilingual journey is a test of desire and spirit. There’s no shame in letting go of the goal if it’s not truly important to you, but if it is, then put your heart into this quest and view it not as a heavy burden but as a marvelous chance to empower your own spirit, day after day. To me, the bilingual journey is as much about a parent’s spiritual evolution as it is about a child’s language development.

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The peppy puppy the prince presented the princess produced piles of poop in the palace.

Hardly a week goes by that I don’t challenge my kids to repeat a tongue twister that emerges naturally from our interactions. The truth is, because tongue twisters are such a fun and effective form of engagement in the target language, my ears are continuously pricked for this opportunity.

22 Funny Tongue Twisters for KidsTwo examples, one older and one more recent…

1. When my son entered first grade, he chose a black backpack for school. Of course, it was hard to overlook the wonderful tongue-twisting appeal of “black backpack” and this has since become a familiar refrain over the past two years as he gets ready to leave the house in the morning.

2. The other day he was wearing a snazzy new soccer shirt and I pointed to it and said “Sharp shirt!” I wasn’t aiming for a tongue twister when I said this, but I jumped on it just the same: “Okay, say that ten times fast!” Roy, Lulu, and I gave it an enthusiastic try and failed miserably (Lulu’s attempts sounded more like “shup shup, shup shup”)…but these two little words successfully served their purpose by promoting laugh-filled engagement in the minority language.

And now, like “black backpack,” I expect that every time Roy wears it, his “shup shup” (sorry, “sharp shirt”) will become a little trigger for language play. (Go ahead, give them a try yourself, if you haven’t already. Ten times fast, “black backpack” then “sharp shirt”!)

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Raising Bilingual Children: 17 Actions That Will Strengthen the Odds of Success

Raising a bilingual child is about odds. Every family inherently faces certain odds of success based on its particular set of circumstances.

For example, broadly speaking, the odds of success are higher when the minority language parent is the main caregiver, and lower when the minority language parent is not.

Another example is schooling. When a child receives schooling in the minority language, this raises the odds of success tremendously. On the other hand, the odds will drop by a significant degree when the child attends school in the majority language, particularly if this education offers little or no exposure to the minority language.

One more example is travel. The odds of success will generally rise, or fall, in proportion to the frequency of trips taken to locations where the minority language is widely spoken.

These examples, in fact, cover some of the basic conditions of my own situation…and all three are weighted toward lowering the odds of success: I’m not the main caregiver; my children (now 11 and 8) have always gone to majority language schools; and we rarely travel abroad.

Your aim and your effort

Let me stress, of course, that “success” in raising a bilingual child will naturally be measured differently by different families. The aim itself may be higher or lower, depending on the parent. In my case, my aim has always been high as I seek to foster ability in the minority language that’s roughly on par with monolingual children, in all skill areas.

Whatever the aim, it’s a personal decision and I’m happy to support any sincere goal that parents hold. However, it’s crucial that all of us clearly gauge the odds of success for our circumstances and, if the conditions themselves can’t be reshaped in more favorable ways, actively exert the necessary amount of effort, day after day, in order to raise those odds to the degree that will produce the desired outcome.

This is why I’ve been so diligently proactive since my kids were born: Because my basic circumstances evoke lower odds of success—and yet my aim is high—I’ve had to overcome these conditions by taking daily actions that will put the odds more in my favor.

Below are 17 of these actions. You may not want to, or even need to, undertake all these actions to achieve the aim you seek. But I suggest that the more of these actions you pursue, the more you will raise the odds of success and fuel your children’s language development more strongly.

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It’s true. My son called me a butthead and I couldn’t be happier.

Not long ago we bought an iPad. For some time I had been hesitating to get one, concerned that I wouldn’t be able to control its use in the family well and that it might become a negative influence on my kids. Like their father, they have addictive personalities. :mrgreen:

But overall, it’s proving to have a mostly positive impact. I now use it regularly to write on the go, like a laptop, and I’ve been pretty cautious about the kinds of apps I download to it, seeking out those that can help stretch their minority language.

I also established the rule that they can only use the iPad if they’ve completed their other tasks for the day, and only for 30 minutes.

Fractured finger

But in late June my 8-year-old son fractured the middle finger of his left hand, playing dodgeball, and I felt bad for him. The poor boy loves soccer and participates in a soccer club on Fridays, but now he was sidelined for a whole month, with a big bandage on his hand.

So I downloaded a soccer app for him, a fun little game called Soccer Physics, hoping that this would help cheer him up during this downtime. (Try it, it’s an amusing game, and requires no special language skill to play.)

And he loves it. In fact, this is the only app he uses these days. But the truth is, I think this choice has been too engaging because not only does the game lack the educational value of the other apps, he regularly gets upset when I tell him his 30 minutes are up and it’s time to stop.

This happened again the other day, and though usually I’m less than pleased by these incidents, something more occurred this time, something that, when I paused to think about it, was a clear reflection of the success I’ve experienced with my kids when it comes to the minority language.

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Instant Inspiration for Parents Raising Bilingual Kids

In spring 2014, I released the eBook Instant Inspiration for Parents Raising Bilingual Kids. The response to this unique resource was very positive and I’m so thankful to all those who made a contribution, in exchange for the eBook, to help support my work at Bilingual Monkeys and The Bilingual Zoo. As promised, 100% of these funds have gone toward maintaining and enhancing these two websites.

Meanwhile, I’ve also heard from some parents who wanted a copy of the eBook but weren’t able, for one reason or another, to make a donation online. (So I imagine there are others, too, who haven’t contacted me.) In fact, I’ve felt badly about this, because my main purpose in creating this resource was to lend support to other parents. Of course, the funds I’ve received have been really helpful, but I basically viewed this project as a nonprofit effort.

And so, I’ve decided to make the eBook available to all, entirely for free. At the same time, if Bilingual Monkeys and The Bilingual Zoo are of value to you, and you’re able to give something back by making a small contribution, this is still possible, too, and I would be grateful for your support. But it’s completely up to you: download the eBook for free or for an amount of your choice.

Get Instant Inspiration for Parents Raising Bilingual Kids

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“I Can’t Do This Alone”: Remarkable Message from a Bilingual Toddler

The other day I was at a friend’s house in Hiroshima. He has a daughter who’s about a year and a half. Like me, he’s a native English speaker and his wife is Japanese and he wants his daughter to be bilingual.

At one point, as my friend was fiddling with his iPhone, the little girl huffed, grabbed up a fat red crayon, and began scratching furiously on a piece of paper.

This is what she produced…

Remarkable message in "preliterate script"

Now I know it just looks like a lot of scribbling, but the truth is, it’s a kind of “preliterate script” used by toddlers, and I’m able to translate this script into English. (I took a course on this in graduate school.) And when I did, my friend was shocked at the remarkable message his daughter had written to him. In fact, I think this will make an important difference to his whole bilingual journey.

Here’s my translation of her message…

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Speech-Language Pathologist Tells All About Bilingualism, Speech, and Language Delays

The question I am asked most often when talking about raising my children bilingually is, “But won’t that confuse them?” Often times I believe the hidden or unspoken question behind this query is, “Won’t they be delayed if you do that?”

The first thing I want to address as a speech-language specialist is that there is no research-based evidence that bilingualism causes language disorders. Again and again the research demonstrates no negative effects of bilingualism, even for children with known language impairments, such as children with Down Syndrome and Autism Spectrum Disorder, for example. It has been shown that children with language impairments are capable of learning two languages. The impairment will be evident in both languages, but it will not be made worse or become more severe because of the bilingualism. In other words, the exposure to two languages is not adding to the language impairment, and the language impairment would likely have been present even if the child was monolingual. Yet another way of explaining this is that bilingualism does not make children more or less susceptible to language disorders.

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Do You Really Have Enough Resources in the Minority Language? (Hint: The Answer is Always "No.")

The work I do coaching parents to boost their success in raising bilingual kids is not only gratifying, it’s revealing. Lately, one recurring theme I see is a lack of resources in the minority language, an observation that isn’t meant as criticism of these families. Because in fact, I would say that all of us, to a smaller or larger degree, never really have enough resources in our target language.

Unless children are schooled in the minority language, and have ready access to a library full of books and other materials (and even a librarian to boot), I think this hunger for resources is unavoidable. After all, our children are continuously growing and maturing and new resources are needed on an ongoing basis to match their age, their language level, and their current interests.

In my case, for example, I’m now constantly searching for books that will fuel my children’s enthusiasm for reading independently. While I don’t always choose winners, my quest is relentless to meet the pace of their daily reading. If I don’t stay persistent by regularly bringing in fresh and fitting resources, their desire to read in the minority language will quickly decline. (It’s times like these I wish we had access to a well-stocked school library!)

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The Ultimate Crossword Puzzle About Raising Bilingual Kids!

I made a crossword puzzle for you! Feel free to download it for personal or professional use. And if you like it, please share it with others. I think it’s the only crossword puzzle of its kind! :mrgreen:

To get the two-page PDF file, just click this big link…

The Ultimate Crossword Puzzle About Raising Bilingual Kids! (PDF)

To check your answers, click this link…

ANSWERS to The Ultimate Crossword Puzzle About Raising Bilingual Kids!

Good luck! And if you complete it—without peeking at the answers first—you’re welcome to boast in a comment below!