Maximize Your Child's Bilingual Ability

Lulu's great-grandfather

My grandfather was a social worker who led the National Refugee Service during World War II, helping refugees settle into new lives in America. His parents had immigrated from Romania and he was their first child born in the United States.

My family and I were looking at old photographs last night and made an astonishing discovery.

My father’s father—my grandfather and my children’s great-grandfather—was born on June 28, 1904.

Given the fact that the time in Japan is always one day ahead of the United States, the date of my daughter’s birth—June 29, 2004—means that Lulu and her great-grandfather were born exactly 100 years apart.

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This article continues a series of guest posts at Bilingual Monkeys called “Bilingual Travelers.” What sort of impact does travel to a location where the minority language is spoken widely have on a child’s bilingual development and bicultural upbringing? In this series we join other families as they make trips to destinations around the world and report back on their experiences.

If you’d like to contribute an article to the “Bilingual Travelers” series—or the series Thank You Letter From a Bilingual Child—please contact me to express your interest in guest posting at Bilingual Monkeys.

Christine Gilbert is a writer, photographer, and documentary filmmaker. She writes the popular blog, which chronicles her journey from a software project manager living in Boston to full-time traveler, writer, and creative—all while traveling around the world with her growing family. In 2014, they were named National Geographic Travelers of the Year. Christine and her family are currently living in Oaxaca, Mexico, and expecting a third child. She is the author of the new book about her family’s adventures, MOTHER TONGUE.

Author Christine Gilbert and friends

When we moved to Mexico in 2012, I was seven months pregnant, and just coming off a long stretch of travel that included learning Mandarin in Beijing and Arabic in Beirut. My husband and I were beyond excited to have some comforts of home as we prepared for the birth of our second child. The experience would later make its way into my book Mother Tongue, but at the time we were still trying to figure out what languages to raise our child with—should it be Mandarin for business, Arabic for politics, or Spanish for practical reasons?

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Raising a Bilingual Child? Raise the Odds of Success!

Your present circumstances don’t determine where you can go; they merely determine where you start. —Nido Quebein

Think of it this way: Raising a child to be bilingual is about odds and each family’s odds of success will be higher or lower depending on their particular circumstances and how proactive they are about shaping these conditions in effective ways.

My experience as a teacher at Hiroshima International School demonstrates that the odds of a Japanese child successfully becoming bilingual are extremely high when that child acquires Japanese from the family and community, and English from the school environment. Of course, the degree of that ability in English will depend on such variables as the age at which the child enters the school and how long that attendance lasts. Still, I think it’s safe to say that, generally speaking, strong bilingual success for children who are exposed to the majority language at home and the minority language at school is virtually assured.

A different scenario

Many families, though, face a very different scenario, with circumstances that inherently make the challenge of fostering active ability in the minority language far more difficult. In other words, such circumstances, instead of working in the family’s favor—as in the example above—work against their success.

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BREAKING NEWS: Maximize Your Child’s Bilingual Ability is now also available in paperback at Amazon sites in Europe and Canada.

The new book by Adam Beck, founder of Bilingual Monkeys and The Bilingual Zoo, can be obtained as a paperback or e-book at, Amazon UK, Amazon Spain, Amazon France, Amazon Germany, Amazon Italy, and Amazon Canada.

The e-book edition (and possibly the paperback, too, if in stock) is available at Amazon Japan, Amazon The Netherlands, Amazon Australia, Amazon Brazil, Amazon Mexico, and Amazon India.

45 Key Questions Every Parent Raising a Bilingual Child Should Ask

Note: These important questions are from the Reader’s Guide to the book Maximize Your Child’s Bilingual Ability and are tied to the “Perspectives” and “Principles” found in this book. Ask and address these questions to strengthen your efforts and your success at raising bilingual children.

Below you will also find the link to a PDF file with these questions, which can be freely downloaded and shared, and a video reading of the full text.

1. What are the benefits, to your mind, in raising a bilingual child? For the child? For you? For your family, near and far? For others? For the world? (Perspective 2 and Perspective 30)

2. How strongly do you believe that your actions each day—even your small actions—make an important difference to the larger success of your bilingual quest? (Perspective 3)

3. Which of your current circumstances are favorable for your success? Which circumstances are less favorable? How will you address these less favorable conditions to raise the odds of success? (Perspective 5)

4. How do you stay mindful of your bilingual aim? Does this include writing about your experience in some form? (Perspective 7)

5. In what ways are you proactive in your efforts? Could you be more proactive in some way? (Perspective 8)

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Friends, it’s finally here! And it’s available worldwide, in paperback and as an e-book!

This is the front cover…

Maximize Your Child's Bilingual Ability (front cover)

Get it now at Amazon.

And here’s the back cover…

Maximize Your Child's Bilingual Ability (back cover)

Learn more about it.

3333 Posts About Raising Bilingual Children

In July 2014, I opened the gates to The Bilingual Zoo, an online forum, so that the worldwide community which has grown around Bilingual Monkeys could actively provide mutual support and encouragement through their collective experiences and ideas. I’m happy to say that The Bilingual Zoo has since become a very friendly and lively site and a source of ongoing support for many “keepers” of bilingual kids as they navigate the challenges of their bilingual journey.

As of today, there are…

*477 registered members and large numbers of unregistered visitors

Access to The Bilingual Zoo—including full membership—is free and will always be free because I want the site to be useful to everyone, regardless of personal circumstances. At the same time, since maintaining the site does cost money (with rising traffic, the amount in fees for the forum platform alone will probably approach $300 US this year), I encourage both members and regular visitors to make a modest annual contribution, if they can, to help ease this burden: The suggested donation—welcomed, but not required—is $12 US, an amount equal to just $1 a month.

Click here to learn more about the benefits of membership in The Bilingual Zoo.

Click here to make your small contribution to support The Bilingual Zoo.

*11 boards, among them Introduce Yourself; Questions & Concerns; Strategies, Ideas, & Resources; Take a Challenge; and Track Your Progress

*522 threads

*3,333 posts

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When it comes to the endless challenge of providing our children with exposure in the minority language, short-term projects can be a very productive way of enhancing our usual daily efforts.

Examples of short-term projects include: making videotaped interviews or “dramatic” films; creating a picture book or comic book; writing and performing a short play; singing and recording a favorite song (even making up your own); inventing a new game and playing it together; compiling a photo album and adding captions; pursing crafts or a building task; researching and reporting on some subject of interest; and many more.

One mother even pursued a year-long project by sending a stuffed alligator on a worldwide trip where it enjoyed “homestays” with a number of families in different countries who reported on their experiences. She and her two children blogged all about the alligator’s adventures—in both of their languages—and it turned out to be a really fun and effective project. To learn more about it, see How a Globe-Trotting Alligator Helped One Family Find Greater Fun and Success On Their Bilingual Journey.

Well, although my daily efforts have been quite proactive and persistent for many years, it’s also true that I haven’t really taken advantage of the potential of short-term projects to the extent I could. For a long time I wanted to pursue a film project with my kids, which would not only enable us to engage in using the minority language together to execute the project, it could produce a fun result—a little movie starring their childhood selves—that they would fondly remember, and laughingly view, for the rest of their lives.

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The Beauty of Cherry Blossoms and Bilingual Children

Today I took my usual morning stroll through the neighborhood (see this previous post to accompany me on a virtual walk), but the experience was hardly usual: Japan’s annual cherry blossoms have been out in full force in Hiroshima for the past few days and they’re absolutely beautiful. At the same time, the huge cherry tree perched on a hill near our house has already begun dropping its petals, like light pink snowflakes.

That’s the thing about cherry blossoms: They’re so beautiful, but so fleeting. They generally bloom in early April, producing a wonderland of white and pink…and yet just days later they fall in a great flurry. Not only does their exquisite beauty come from the breathtaking sight of the flowers themselves, but from the fact that they bloom so briefly.

To me, the yearly cherry blossoms are nature’s strongest reminder of the beauty and brevity of life itself. They remind me how important it is to appreciate each day, each moment, as best I can, making the most of the short time I’m given to walk through this marvelous, but utterly mysterious, universe.

The idea of “seizing each day” has been a key theme of this blog (see the resource page Deeper Inspiration), because not only is this mindset at the heart of living a fulfilling life, our ultimate success on the bilingual journey is directly connected to how mindfully proactive we can be in providing our children with exposure in the target language, day after day after day. In other words, the more we can appreciate the beauty and brevity of each day, the more satisfaction we will surely experience on both the bilingual journey and on the greater journey of our lives.

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Hiroshima Dragonfiles

Two years ago, a professional basketball team was born in Hiroshima: the Hiroshima Dragonflies. They aren’t the best team in the Japanese National Basketball League, but we enjoy watching their games from time to time at the local sports center.

The other day we saw an exciting game (which they lost 86 to 85!), and came away impressed with one of the players in particular: Not only is he a great player, he also has a great name!

Shannon Shorter. (Every team in the Japanese National Basketball League has a few international players, and Shannon Shorter is from the United States.)

Fun bit of language

Now I’m not making light of his name, not at all. It’s just that, as a bit of language, with the “Sh” alliteration and balance of two syllables in each word, this name is very appealing and great fun to say.

Go ahead, say it with me: Shannon Shorter.

No, I mean out loud. Once more now: Shannon Shorter.

So there I was, the day after the game, playing basketball with my newly nine-year-old son. Since we live on a small, quiet street, with very little traffic, I simply park a short, free-standing basket in the middle of the road, and that’s where we play. I’m not very tall—and couldn’t come close to dunking the ball on a real basket—but I can happily pretend I’m a giant when I dunk over Roy’s head on this one.

“Shannon Shorter!” I cried, slashing toward the basket.

“Hey!” Roy protested. “I’m Shannon Shorter!”

I paused. “Okay, you can be Shannon Shorter,” I said.

Then I grinned and shouted: “I’m Terry Taller!” And I dunked over his head again.

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This Is When You Should Give Up the Idea of Raising a Bilingual Child

The other day I received a message from a frustrated parent, on the verge of abandoning the bilingual journey, who explained:

“I’ve done my very best, but my child just won’t speak the minority language.”

In fact, I hear this claim now and again so it isn’t uncommon. But I think it’s worth keenly reflecting on this sentiment for a moment.

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