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

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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The Bilingual Zoo

Since this blog first began, in the fall of 2012, one regular request from readers has been a forum so the community that has grown around Bilingual Monkeys can interact more directly, more personally.

Of course, I’ve always thought this was a good idea, but at the same time, I’ve had two concerns:

1. Is this something I can afford to do? A solid platform for running a quality forum isn’t free. There are monthly fees and these fees can grow over time as the size of the forum membership grows.

2. Would I really have time to develop it and then maintain it? Creating and sustaining a quality forum is time-consuming, and I still have my blog and all of my “real-world life” to consider.

But encouragement from readers kept coming. And then, when I offered my first eBook in the spring—and pledged to put 100% of the funds toward this forum, and other projects, to expand my work—the generosity I received from this audience enabled me to finally move forward. I located a great platform to host the forum and I began the process of developing it.

I’m now happy to announce that the forum for our community—called “The Bilingual Zoo”—will officially open in July. (As early in July as I can manage!)

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Roy and Lulu try to fly the kite.

My son turned 7 in March and he wanted a kite. No big deal, right?

Well, the truth is, I had never flown a kite in my life and I wasn’t all that eager to start now, when the only running I do these days involves chasing Roy around the house to put pants on him.

Also, this is embarrassing to admit, but I’m a disaster when I handle any sort of string or wires. It’s like some kind of curse where everything I touch turns out hopelessly tangled. In the end, I get so worked up I become a mindless beast, hissing and snarling at inanimate objects.

It’s not a pretty sight.

In fact, if it wasn’t for my wife, who must have some kind of super power when it comes to unknotting my messes, I’d probably still be screaming at our Christmas tree lights from last December.

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My "surprise party"

Here I am on my birthday, wild with pretend surprise, after my kids led me blindfolded into the living room for a “surprise party.” Reminding my family (over and over) that I had a birthday coming up made them feel so guilty that they put up some decorations for me and gave me a few gifts. (In my hand are birthday cards from my parents.)

My birthday was on Sunday.

I turned 52.

It’s hard to believe, because it doesn’t seem so long ago that I was flying around the house like a super hero, a pair of underwear pulled over my head like a mask.

Wait, that was last night.

The truth is, my age is actually the average of the age of my mind and the age of my body.

In other words, I’m now a 12-year-old boy inside a 92-year-old man. (I nearly passed out trying to keep up with the other two super heroes, my school-age kids.)

Today, I admit, I’m not only feeling a bit light-headed from last night, I’m in a philosophical mood, too, a little dizzy with thoughts of time. Time, of course, is the very fabric of our lives, and the way we perceive time, and use (or misuse) time, is ultimately at the heart of our bilingual journey—and the whole rest of our journey through this world, too.

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Want to Supercharge Your Success at Raising Bilingual Children?

I’m excited. Really excited. (Excuse me while I do a lovely cartwheel in my office.)

I’m working on a new project that I think will be 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.

In fact, it’s an idea based on the bedrock of own experience as a parent to two bilingual children, a teacher to hundreds more bilingual kids over the years, and the blogger of Bilingual Monkeys.

And the great thing is, it doesn’t matter how similar or how different your circumstances are to mine. It’s an idea that can supercharge any parent’s efforts and level of success.

Important benefits

There will be many important benefits to those who take part…

  • You’ll never feel alone again. I’ll be your personal mentor—your coach and your cheerleader—month after month. And a close-knit group of other serious and passionate parents will be by your side, too, to lend support and friendship.
  • As part of a serious and passionate group, you’ll feel more commitment to your aims, and more accountability in your actions.
  • You’ll have the chance to reflect more deeply and continuously on the subject of raising bilingual children and share your passion, your ideas, and your experience with others.
  • You’ll become even more conscious and proactive in your efforts, and this will make you even more effective and successful in your journey.
  • You’ll be better able to address your current challenges, and your future challenges as they arise.
  • You’ll keep a more detailed account of your bilingual journey, and this experience can become a valuable family keepsake for the future.
  • You’ll even develop more expertise in some highly useful areas (which I’ll tell you about later!).

No more than 10

However, at least to start, the number of participants will be limited to no more than 10. So if you’re serious about raising bilingual kids, and interested in joining me and becoming a “founding member” of a new and exciting project—an opportunity that could supercharge your success—then click the big link below to get the “Early Bird Information” by email. When these details are ready, you’ll be among the first to hear them and have the chance to join.

(Don’t worry. You’ll be under no obligation to take part if you decide not to. You’ll have an advantage, though, if you get the information early.)

Get the “Early Bird Information” about my new project!

P.S. Please note that this list for “Early Bird Information” is different from the list for my weekly newsletter and the list to receive my posts by email. (See the subscribe page for those.) Even if you’re already on one or both lists, you’ll need to add your email address to this new list to receive the information before I share it more widely.

Journey, a wordless picture book

Books and reading should lie at the very heart of your bilingual journey.

In The Secret to Raising a Bilingual Child, I stress the tremendous power of reading aloud to your children each day, day in and day out, to nurture language and literacy development.

In How Many Books Do You Have In Your Home?, I cite sweeping international research which indicates that the larger your home library, the stronger your children’s language ability can grow.

In Free Report: The Power of Reading in Raising a Bilingual Child, I offer a PDF with a full overview of my thoughts on ways to make books and reading a central part of your efforts.

But what if your minority tongue is a less-common language? How can you meet these key conditions of the bilingual journey when children’s books in your minority language seem hard to come by? Here are several ideas…

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Can You Top That?

One of the challenges I’m now facing involves my kids and their use of the majority language: Japanese has become the “default language” for their communication with each other. In other words, they’ll switch to English (our minority language) when I’m interacting with them, but otherwise they generally speak together in Japanese.

It wasn’t always like this. In fact, up until the time both of them entered our local elementary school, English was more often used as the shared language. However, as time has passed (Lulu is now in fourth grade, Roy is in second) and Japanese has become an increasingly large part of their lives, it has clearly become the preferred language for their relationship.

This is only natural, and it’s an evolution I expected, but it nevertheless has an impact on the continuing development of their minority language ability. After all, Japanese is being used at the expense of English.

To some extent, I know this is a situation I simply have to accept, unless I’m willing to make more dramatic changes to their schooling or our location. One reality parents of bilingual kids must make peace with is this: not every concern can be addressed to our full satisfaction. The more realistic aim, I think, is to strive for a level of satisfaction that you feel comfortable with—and, in my case, since I’m (mostly) pleased with their progress in the minority language, the fact that Japanese is now their “default language” is something I can accept.

Well, not always. And last night at dinner, as I listened to them chattering away in Japanese, and felt that twinge of concern, I tried a little trick—a new idea—that quickly got them speaking in English for the rest of the meal.

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