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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My 6 Resolutions for 2015 and 6 Ways I Can Help You with Yours

And suddenly it’s 2015.

Does anyone else feel like life speeds up as you get older? Like the years were decades as a child, and now the years are hardly more than mere days?

My resolutions from last week—sorry, last year—were simply two: seize the day, even stronger and encourage more independent reading.

How did I do? Not bad, overall. Although I’m not always as mindful as I’d like, I do try to be disciplined and give my best effort to each day. And my aim to get my kids reading more in the minority language was reasonably successful, and ended on the high note I described in my last post, Big Breakthrough with My Bilingual Daughter?.

(If you’re curious to first read my resolutions from last year—along with the many resolutions submitted by readers—see My “Bilingual Resolutions” for 2014. Also, I highly recommend Crazy Bilingual Kids Reveal Their New Year’s Resolutions, a funny interview that I did with my kids.)

Well, for 2015, I have six resolutions, some connected to my bilingual journey and some linked to other important aspects of my life. First I’ll share these resolutions—my aims for the upcoming year—and then I’ll describe six ways I think I can help strengthen your efforts as you pursue your own resolutions, your own aims, for 2015.

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Big Breakthrough with My Bilingual Daughter?

If you’ve been following this blog, you know that one of my biggest challenges—and frustrations—has been getting my daughter, now 10, to read more in English, our minority language. Because my aim for my kids is high—I’m hoping to sustain native-level proficiency in all skill areas—this is made difficult due to the fact that they attend our local Japanese elementary school and don’t really have much time each day for reading and writing in English.

I’ve done everything I can think of to turn her into a more eager reader: reading aloud every day, from birth; building a large library of appealing books; reading with her, taking turns; assigning her pages to read on her own; making continual use of “captive reading”; subscribing to children’s magazines; and providing a steady stream of graphic novels (comic books). And yet it’s clear that Lulu just isn’t a natural bookworm like her 7-year-old brother. She would much rather dance about with a book on her head than sit down and quietly read it.

The upshot of all this effort over the past 10 years is that Lulu can read well for her age (though not as carefully as I’d prefer), but she still won’t naturally gravitate toward reading books in English—particularly books of straight text, without illustrations—on her own. And without more independent reading over the next decade, it will be hard for her to maintain progress that’s roughly on par with English-speaking peers. (I’m viewing this practically, not competitively: not only will stronger reading and writing ability be more helpful to her future, if one day she enters an English-medium school, the transition will be much smoother if her literacy level is roughly the same as her classmates.)

The onus is on us

Although it’s true that I’ve felt ongoing frustration over this, I’ve never blamed Lulu for not being as eager to read as her father would like. In fact, first as a teacher and now as a parent, I live by the principle:

If a child I’m working with isn’t eager to read, it’s not the child’s fault, it’s mine.

Of course, some children are natural bookworms, and that’s a very fortunate thing for language development. (It also makes life easier for teachers and parents!) But other children just aren’t readers to the same degree (at least at this stage of their lives), and this makes the process of advancing the target language more challenging. Nevertheless, the onus is on the teacher or parent to find the means and the resources that will motivate the child to read more eagerly. It may not be possible to instantly turn such a child into a bookworm, but it’s always possible to get a child reading more in the minority language with efforts that are well matched to that particular child’s nature and needs.

Let me illustrate these thoughts with a clear example.

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ALL I WANT FOR CHRISTMAS IS…

December 20, 2014

Wow! This image has been shared so much on social media that nearly 50,000 people have seen it around the web!

ALL I WANT FOR CHRISTMAS IS...

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The 12 Days of Christmas for Raising Bilingual Kids

I have a little gift for you…

My kids singing (and screaming) “The 12 Days of Christmas for Raising Bilingual Kids”!

It starts a little slow (Lulu was monkeying around), but they get better (and louder) as the song goes on. We hope you like it! And if you do, please let us know, and share the link with others! You’d make Lulu (10) and Roy (7) very happy! (Your positive feedback will also encourage me to start using more audio recordings. This post marks the first time I’ve used audio!)

The 12 Days of Christmas for Raising Bilingual Kids
Lyrics by Adam Beck of Bilingual Monkeys (http://bilingualmonkeys.com)

Click here to download a PDF of these lyrics!

On the first day of Christmas, my parents gave to me:
a picture dictionary.

On the second day of Christmas, my parents gave to me:
two trips abroad,
and a picture dictionary.

On the third day of Christmas, my parents gave to me:
three pen-pals,
two trips abroad,
and a picture dictionary.

On the fourth day of Christmas, my parents gave to me:
four homestay guests,
three pen-pals,
two trips abroad,
and a picture dictionary.

On the fifth day of Christmas, my parents gave to me:
five DVDs!
four homestay guests,
three pen-pals,
two trips abroad,
and a picture dictionary.

On the sixth day of Christmas, my parents gave to me:
six stacks of workbooks,
five DVDs!
four homestay guests,
three pen-pals,
two trips abroad,
and a picture dictionary.

On the seventh day of Christmas, my parents gave to me:
seven shelves of stories,
six stacks of workbooks,
five DVDs!
four homestay guests,
three pen-pals,
two trips abroad,
and a picture dictionary.

On the eighth day of Christmas, my parents gave to me:
eight little playmates,
seven shelves of stories,
six stacks of workbooks,
five DVDs!
four homestay guests,
three pen-pals,
two trips abroad,
and a picture dictionary.

On the ninth day of Christmas, my parents gave to me:
nine children’s albums,
eight little playmates,
seven shelves of stories,
six stacks of workbooks,
five DVDs!
four homestay guests,
three pen-pals,
two trips abroad,
and a picture dictionary.

On the tenth day of Christmas, my parents gave to me:
ten TV programs,
nine children’s albums,
eight little playmates,
seven shelves of stories,
six stacks of workbooks,
five DVDs!
four homestay guests,
three pen-pals,
two trips abroad,
and a picture dictionary.

On the eleventh day of Christmas, my parents gave to me:
eleven games and apps,
ten TV programs,
nine children’s albums,
eight little playmates,
seven shelves of stories,
six stacks of workbooks,
five DVDs!
four homestay guests,
three pen-pals,
two trips abroad,
and a picture dictionary.

On the twelfth day of Christmas, my parents gave to me:
twelve private lessons,
eleven games and apps,
ten TV programs,
nine children’s albums,
eight little playmates,
seven shelves of stories,
six stacks of workbooks,
five DVDs!
four homestay guests,
three pen-pals,
two trips abroad,
and a picture dictionary.

And a picture dictionary!

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Francois Grosjean, past and present

The other day I received a message from François Grosjean.

Most people, I think, know only the professional side of Dr. Grosjean: eminent psycholinguist and international authority on bilingualism; author of masterful books and articles in this field; blogger of Life as a Bilingual at the Psychology Today website; and professor emeritus at the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland.

What most people don’t know is François Grosjean’s remarkable personal story, including the fact that this man, who has accomplished so much in his career and impacted so many lives with his work, almost wasn’t born at all.

A compelling story

Earlier this year I reviewed Dr. Grosjean’s book Bilingual: Life and Reality at this blog, and since that time we have maintained a friendly rapport, sharing the highlights of our work. While the majority of articles Dr. Grosjean has offered involve bilingualism, he has also pointed me to other pieces which relate his personal story as the child of a British mother and French father.

And when I received his latest message the other day, which shared a new article he had written about his past, I found this further twist in his story so compelling, with such a powerful message for this audience, that I asked his permission to retell it here.

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Eugene Ryan is a university teacher in Japan and a researcher studying the effects of bilingualism on the linguistic and cognitive development of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). He is also the father of a bilingual child with autism. In Part 1 of our interview, he generously shared the early struggles and successes that he and his wife experienced in their quest to support their son’s language development. In Part 2, now 16 months later, Eugene describes the latest stage of their bilingual journey together. Again, my warm thanks to Eugene for offering his experience and insight to others.

Eugene and his son

Eugene and his son

It’s been over a year since our first interview. What has changed for your family since then?
Teeda is now getting ready to go to elementary school, and his little sister Ursula is a very verbal, sly 4 year old. What hasn’t changed is our commitment to raising both of our children bilingually. Thanks to my shorter commute, I get to spend more time with the kids than my partner, so breakfast, school runs and so on are all in English with Dad. Their schooling and almost all of Teeda’s therapy are in Japanese. My wife and I speak English to each other, and both of us speak to the children mainly but not exclusively in our native language.

“…code mixing is a normal and even beneficial part of multilingual development.”

Is there any confusion from this mixture of language exposure?
Not for the children, no, but we as parents went through a period of being pretty mixed up ourselves. In the beginning I tried a complex system of dividing language use at home by days between English and Japanese. It soon became clear that this was absurdly unrealistic. At that time a friend advised that we each simply stick to one language. We tried this approach, which had the winning virtue of simplicity, and was positive in that both of us could then be relaxed about using our native language in conversations with Teeda.

Research suggests that parents using their native tongue with their children is beneficial both in strengthening family bonds and developing the child’s linguistic ability. (Cummins, 2001) It was still hard though to maintain a pure split, and we were also worried that Teeda was often mixing languages in the same sentence. A research colleague was later able to assure me that provided each part of the sentence is grammatically correct, this kind of code mixing is a normal and even beneficial part of multilingual development. (Li & Oi, 2014) This new knowledge has helped us enjoy listening to what he wants to say—phrases like “I ate ten ichigo (strawberries). I get very dirty.”—without getting hung up on the language.

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For new parents largely unfamiliar with the terrain of raising bilingual children, the prospect of embarking on this long journey can feel pretty daunting. Where do they begin?

Bringing up a Bilingual ChildOne good place to start would be Bringing up a Bilingual Child by Rita Rosenback, the blogger behind the warm, supportive site Multilingual Parenting. Her insightful, reader-friendly guide, which includes useful exercises and materials for thoughtful planning, can serve as a reliable road map for the new traveler.

Rita, who was born into a bilingual family in Finland and later moved to England, is not only book-smart on the subject, she has successfully raised two multilingual children of her own. This key combination of professional knowledge and personal experience—along with the same passionate and positive outlook she conveys at her blog—has produced a book that offers clear, encouraging guidance on navigating the process of nurturing a bilingual child.

“I want to strengthen your confidence in your own abilities,” writes Rita in the introduction, “by providing you with motivation, ideas, advice and answers to your questions.” I believe her book delivers on this promise and gives inspiration, too, with strong appeals to seize this dream: “If you are a parent and have the opportunity to give your children the gift of communicating in more than one language, please don’t miss this chance of a lifetime.”

While Bringing up a Bilingual Child is intended as a basic primer—so there may not be much that is new for parents already well on their journey—for those just stepping into this unfamiliar territory, Rita Rosenback’s sensible, strategic guide will make a valuable companion for the road ahead.

Click to read my interview with Rita Rosenback →

Note: Be sure to read the many comments below this post. And feel free to share your own thoughts, too.

Sweat plus sacrifice equals success.

There are a range of well-known benefits for a child, a family, and even the world at large when a child is raised with more than one language. A few of these valuable benefits include:

  • cognitive benefits, from childhood to old age
  • social benefits, including closer communication with extended family members
  • educational and professional benefits
  • benefits for the world, when bilingual ability leads to bridge-building between cultures

At the same time, I think it’s worth drawing attention to the fact that raising a bilingual child—at least for the vast majority of parents—requires sizable sacrifices, too. And these sacrifices generally grow in proportion to the scale of a parent’s aim: if the goal is native-like proficiency in the minority language, including strong reading and writing ability—and yet schooling in the minority language isn’t part of the equation—then the sacrifices made over the course of the bilingual journey can be significant indeed.

Why is this important? Because I think people tend to focus on the benefits of bilingualism—as they should—but sometimes to the exclusion of the sacrifices that must be made to reap those benefits. I would never discourage anyone from seeking to raise a bilingual child—on the contrary, I always try to be as encouraging as possible because I believe that the benefits will always ultimately outweigh the sacrifices.

However, I also feel that it’s best to be bluntly honest about the challenges, too. Parents should enter this experience with their eyes open, clearly aware that the decision to raise a bilingual child—especially if the aim is high—will almost inevitably demand certain sacrifices, too, some that may not even be foreseen at the outset of the journey.

Because each family’s experience is naturally different, I can’t say which sacrifices will loom largest in another parent’s life, but perhaps sharing the main sacrifices of my own experience will suggest some likely challenges. My hope is that a keener awareness of this side of the bilingual journey might help cushion the impact of whatever sacrifices you face: after all, when we can anticipate the future, we’re better able to prepare for it and cope with it. (Please note: I’m just stating the facts of my experience for what they’re worth. I’m not whining over these circumstances—which I take full responsibility for creating—or angling for any sympathy.)

So let me describe the five biggest sacrifices that have been part of my journey to date. And below this post, I encourage you to comment by sharing your own experience of the sacrifices you’ve made (or expect to make) in raising a bilingual child.

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