The Bilingual Zoo, a new community for parents and teachers! .

Lost teddy bear

I came across this teddy bear in the middle of the disaster zone. It lay on top of a guardrail, surrounded by mounds of white bags filled with mud.

A lost teddy bear, eyes staring at the sky. A wet ribbon around its neck. A silent bell.

What happened to the child who once loved it?

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Secrets of a Successful Homework Routine, Part 2

Eighteen months ago, when my kids were 8 and 5, I offered a detailed look at our daily homework routine in the minority language, which began (gently) when they were around the age of 3. In that post—Secrets of a Successful Homework Routine, Part 1—I discuss the value of a homework routine for nurturing literacy and overall language development, and I provide a range of strategies and resources that I’ve found useful to my own efforts. (Many of these resources, of course, are for supporting English, our minority language.)

If you haven’t yet read that post, I encourage you to start there, then return here, in order to view the bigger picture of our homework routine to date.

Now that Lulu is 10 and Roy is 7, and the strategies and resources involved in our homework routine have naturally evolved over time, I thought I would bring you up to date by sharing the “secrets” of our current routine.

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Traveling by ferry from France to Ireland

Traveling by ferry from France to Ireland

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.

Peter Martin, originally from Dublin, Ireland, now lives in France with his French wife and their three children: two daughters, 7 and 5, and a son, 2. The children are being raised in French and English.

Peter runs his own business, Globeclic, which designs and localizes websites and pursues other digital projects for international markets.

Like other parents raising bilingual children, I want to expose my kids to the culture of the minority language as much as possible. So when the opportunity arose to travel back to Ireland for ten days this summer to see family and friends, I was quite excited. I know France and Ireland aren’t exactly a million miles apart, but it’s not so easy to get back there, even for a brief stay, when I have to find a time that’s good for everyone and juggle job commitments on top of that.

Since my first daughter was born, seven years ago, I’ve been experiencing the immense joy and privilege of living life as a bilingual family. It hasn’t been easy, though. Because, selfishly, I had to learn French to help me find employment, just when my daughter was born, I had to use both languages and she was conscious of the fact that Daddy was gaining ability in the majority language, too. But it’s encouraging to see that, with each new day, my kids are absorbing and using new English words.

Having three children means that I can see how they adapt to the two languages in their own personal way. On one hand, returning to Ireland for a visit is always a litmus test for my children to see how well their minority language is progressing. On the other hand, it enables me to see how well I’m doing as a mentor for their bilingual journey.

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The Children's Peace Monument

On top of a monument in Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park stands the bronze statue of a young girl, arms raised toward the sky, holding aloft a large paper crane. The girl’s name is Sadako Sasaki and she served as the inspiration for the Children’s Peace Monument.

Sadako Sasaki died at the age of 12, ten years after the atomic bomb exploded in the sky above Hiroshima on the morning of August 6, 1945—exactly 69 years ago today. At the time, she was just two, but the radiation spewed over the city by the bomb poisoned her body and led to her leukemia in the sixth grade.

Still, as Sadako’s health faded, she folded paper cranes with every scrap of paper she could find. In Japanese lore, folding a thousand paper cranes is an act that can fulfill a wish, and Sadako wished fervently to be well again. When she reached 1,000, and her health had not improved, she carried on, unbowed. Even bedridden, with paper so scarce she resorted to folding cranes no bigger than a fingernail, using a needle to make the tiny folds, Sadako persisted. She folded paper cranes until she finally no longer had the strength to make another.

In all, Sadako Sasaki made nearly 1,500 paper cranes, which filled her hospital room, before passing away at 9:57 a.m. on October 25, 1955.

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Have You Failed at Raising a Bilingual Child?

Lately, I’ve heard from several parents with the same concern: they feel that they’ve “failed” at their goal of raising a bilingual child. Because this feeling is so common—and can be so counterproductive—I thought I might share my perspective on “failure.” If possible, I’d like to help rekindle hope.

1. There is no “failure.”

True, your child’s current ability in the minority language may not match your original hopes or expectations, but this isn’t “failure”—it’s simply the level of ability achieved to date. In other words, let’s properly put the stress where it belongs: on achievement. The fact is, you’ve already made substantial progress, I’m sure—maybe not progress that feels satisfying to the degree you’d like—but progress nonetheless. And whatever level of ability your child has achieved to this point can then be advanced as you move forward.

The tricky part is—and here’s what breeds the feeling of “failure”—much of this progress, especially early on, can’t really be seen if the child isn’t speaking yet, or tends to rely on the majority language to communicate. But if you’ve been making consistent efforts, you can be sure that knowledge of the minority language has been steadily growing inside the child’s mind. (See Important Thoughts on Babies and Hammers for a helpful metaphor.)

Frankly, the only way you could truly claim that you’ve “failed” is if your child makes no progress at all, despite your continuous efforts, over the course of 18 years of childhood! In this light, is “failure” even possible?

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If you’ve been following this blog, you know that my two children attend our local Japanese elementary school. Lulu, 10, is now in fourth grade, and Roy, 7, is in second grade. Because of their schooling, they receive substantially less exposure in English than they do in Japanese.

In previous posts—Do Your Bilingual Children Go to School in the Majority Language? and Help! My Bilingual Children Are Losing Their Ability in the Minority Language!, I discuss the potential “danger” of this “second stage” of the bilingual journey, when the child begins formal schooling and this spike in exposure to the majority language shifts the balance of power: the majority language grows dominant at the expense of the minority language, which may turn more passive.

In fact, because of this possibility, in these articles I stress the importance of visiting the school and seeing what the child is experiencing with your own eyes in order to grasp the hard reality of this intensive exposure to the majority language, day after day. By recognizing clearly what you’re up against, you can better match your motivation to the size of the challenge, enabling you to be more effective in supporting the child’s minority side.

Because I face this challenge myself, I now make a point of visiting the school whenever I have the chance so I can experience this harsh, but helpful, “reality check.” (And, of course, to cheer on my kids in their classes!)

Well, we’ve just begun the summer break in Japan, but there was another “parents’ day” not long ago and I went to school to observe my children once again.

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Bilingual Travelers: Spring in Hungary Brings Blooming Language Ability

This article starts a new 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’ll 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.

Nellie Robertson, originally from Hungary, now resides with her American husband in rural Missouri, located in the U.S. heartland. (In fact, she lives just 30 minutes by car from my hometown of Quincy, Illinois!)

Nellie has two children, a girl, 5, and a boy, (nearly) 3, who are being raised in English and Hungarian. (For this article, they will be known by the names Blair and Eddie.) She is multilingual, and works as a translator, though her location—where no other speakers of Hungarian are present and resources are scarce—has made handing down her mother tongue a sizable challenge.

“If we don’t count afternoon naps,” announced Blair, jumping out of bed before 6 a.m. as usual, “we only have to sleep four more times before we go to Mama and Papa’s!” We would soon be traveling across the ocean to stay for a month, and I shared her excitement fully while trying not to think about how much I hated packing.

It had only been about a year since our last visit to Hungary, but the decision to go again was made partly because of the boost we all hoped this would give to the kids’ ability in Hungarian. On the last trip, Eddie was not quite a year and a half and was just beginning to put words together. Half the time no one could tell which language he was trying to speak. Once we were back in the United States, my typical toddler often ignored what I asked him to do in both languages—and since I had better luck using English, our majority language, by the end of this year we had reached the point where I was hardly using Hungarian at all, even with my 5-year-old daughter.

Optimism, hope, and…embarrassment

I had gone through a similar phase of using mostly English with Blair, but trips to Hungary had always brought miraculous improvement, so I was eager for Eddie to make the same kind of progress. While Daddy was back home in America, I envisioned the three of us talking in Hungarian all day; I imagined them reciting nursery rhymes in both languages; and I looked forward to them arguing over toys in Hungarian for a change.

By the time everything was packed, I was so full of optimism and hope that I said “yes” when my barely 2.5-year-old son, not quite potty trained, asked if he could wear underwear instead of diapers for the 24-hour trip. Only one thing cast a shadow on my excitement: embarrassment.

From our regular Skype video chats with my parents (known as “Mama” and “Papa”), I knew Blair was capable of carrying on a conversation in Hungarian, even though her Hungarian vocabulary was lagging behind her English. But Eddie, unlike his sister, has rarely shown the burning desire to share something, to communicate, so he would mostly just listen. I knew my parents would never fault me for anything, but it still made me sad to think how they wouldn’t understand the things he did try to say, how any emotion expressed in words would be hard to interpret for them quickly enough.

And what about the rest of my family and the friends we would be meeting? I would have to be right there to interpret, and explain how on earth I could have failed to teach the kids my own native language, why their mother tongue is really their father’s.

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The Bilingual Zoo is open!

What is the Bilingual Zoo?
The Bilingual Zoo is an online community for parents and teachers of bilingual (and multilingual) children. The kind support of the Bilingual Monkeys audience has enabled me to develop a friendly forum to complement the information found on this site. The forum provides a space for us to interact more directly and personally, thereby overcoming distance and isolation and empowering our mutual success on the bilingual journey.

What are the benefits of becoming a member?
You don’t have to become a member to access the Bilingual Zoo, and read the content on the forum boards. The intent of the site is to be helpful to all, whether members or guests.

However, registering for a free account, and becoming an active member, offers a number of important benefits:

You will no longer be alone on your journey. You can be part of a helpful worldwide community of parents and teachers of bilingual (and multilingual) children.

As a member, you will be able to make posts to the forum. (Guests can read posts, but cannot make posts.)

  • You can ask questions and receive support from others.
  • You can exchange useful strategies, ideas, and resources.
  • You can find friends, near or far, who share your same circumstances or difficulties.
  • You can feel more accountability by reporting your aims and your actions to the group.
  • You can join regular “challenges” that will strengthen your knowledge, your skills, and your efforts.
  • You can respond to others with advice and encouragement.

In addition to making posts on the forum boards, members of the Bilingual Zoo community are able to send “private messages” to each other, a powerful feature for networking and support.

Members will also be eligible to enter special giveaways and receive other perks that are not available to guests. (Like the big opening giveaway described below!)

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I do not teach children. I give them joy.

When I came across this quote the other day, my head exploded.

Okay, I’m exaggerating a bit, but it’s not an overstatement to say that these nine words once uttered by Isadora Duncan (1877-1927), an American dancer often referred to as the “mother” of contemporary dance, sum up my whole philosophy of educating children and youth over the past 30 years.

No matter what it is we want a child to acquire—and that includes developing active ability in another language—the most effective way forward involves inspiring joy in the experience of that area of knowledge or skill. It’s not that teaching isn’t important, too, but teaching is secondary, really—and even irrelevant to some degree—when joy is given and illuminates the child’s experience.

When joy is kindled, it not only fuels learning in the present, it can stoke further learning that continues far beyond the time we work with that child. After all, whether as parent or teacher, the actual time we spend with a child is necessarily limited. Chances are, the period following our direct contact—the period without our presence, where the child ventures on independently—will last much longer. If joy is given in that limited time we have together, our positive influence may be felt for years to come.

The opposite, it should be said, can occur as well. When there’s a lack of joy in the learning, and the focus is solely on teaching for short-term gain, the greater outcome, far outweighing whatever has been learned, can be an enduring disenchantment with that area of knowledge or skill. I suspect we could all point to certain areas of our own lives where a shortage of joy in early experiences led to dislike and avoidance for decades afterward.

The truth is, it may look like I’m teaching when I’m with a child, but the teaching is really just what lies on the surface of this interaction. It’s what I’m trying to do through this teaching, at a deeper level, that I consider more significant:

I’m seeking to give children joy—joy for language and literacy—that will not only spark stronger progress during our time together, it will glow warmly, and promote continuing growth, for the rest of their lives.

How about you? What more can you do to give joy for your minority language?

It's Quiz Time!

It’s time for another quiz! (See What Do You Know About Bilingualism? to try my first quiz.)

For this new quiz, I’ve created questions based on information found in Colin Baker’s book A Parents’ and Teachers’ Guide to Bilingualism. To read my review of this fine book, as well as an insightful interview with the author, see Recommended Resources: “A Parents’ and Teachers Guide to Bilingualism” by Colin Baker.

Good luck!

1. Research shows that the human fetus can respond to sounds from the external world—which has implications for bilingual development—from around how many weeks in the womb?
a. Around 18 to 20 weeks
b. Around 22 to 24 weeks
c. Around 26 to 28 weeks
d. Around 30 to 32 weeks

Ready for the answer? Just click open this box!
b. Around 22 to 24 weeks (Dr. Baker remarks: “Speech sounds in two languages, particularly when they are consistent and persistent, will become part of the learning environment of the fetus.”)

2. The “one person-one language” (OPOL) approach is a well-known strategy for nurturing a child’s bilingual ability. How old is the term “one person-one language”?
a. Over 50 years old
b. Over 100 years old
c. Over 200 years old
d. Over 500 years old

OPOL can be very effective, but care must be taken so that the child receives sufficient exposure in the minority language.
b. Over 100 years old (Dr. Baker cites a French book by Maurice Grammont, published in 1902, which uses the term une personne-une langue.)

3. Fred Genesee, a top Canadian expert on childhood bilingualism, has estimated that children need a certain minimum amount of exposure in the minority language, as a percentage of their total language input, in order for bilingualism to proceed well. What is that percentage?
a. 20%
b. 30%
c. 40%
d. 50%

There's no 'magic number' for exposure in the minority language, but this is a good benchmark for most families, I think.
b. 30% (As I mention in How Many Hours Per Week Is Your Child Exposed to the Minority Language?, 30% of a child’s waking hours translates to roughly 25 hours of meaningful exposure per week.)

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Note: Below my review of A Parents’ and Teachers’ Guide to Bilingualism is an interview with the author. Dr. Baker generously agreed to an email exchange, and responded to my questions in detail. Because the book itself has been designed in a question-and-answer format, the interview offers a good glimpse of the spirit and value of Dr. Baker’s work.

A Parents' and Teachers' Guide to BilingualismIn What’s the Best Book About Raising Children?, I make the point that every thoughtfully-written book on bilingualism is well worth a look because, chances are, you’ll come away with at least a few additional insights, ideas, or resources that could benefit your personal journey.

The fact is, the more widely you read on the subject, the more informed and effective you can be over the years in addressing your particular circumstances and challenges. (And not only will each book have something worthwhile to say that could be of value to you, the very habit of reading regularly about raising bilingual kids will keep you more conscious of your quest, and more proactive in your efforts.)

That said, it’s also true that we’ll naturally find some books richer than others. I’ve recommended a number of books on bilingualism at this blog—each one rich in its own way—but the fourth edition of A Parents’ and Teachers’ Guide to Bilingualism, by Colin Baker, is the richest resource I’ve come across to date.

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