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Update on My Son’s Bilingual Life at 11.9 Years Old: Funny Photos, Art Awards, and Junior High

It’s been a while since I simply shared news of my family’s own bilingual journey. Despite the heartache of this year for me, I’ve tried to keep up my regular efforts to nurture my children’s progress in our two minority languages, English and Spanish. In this two-part series, I offer updates on the bilingual lives of my daughter (here) and now my son.

Two plastic tubs

Lately I’ve been sifting through big boxes of old photos: me as a child, my parents and my siblings, my years as a young adult, my time in Japan, and my kids when they were small. In fact, I’m slowly putting together two plastic tubs—one for Lulu and one for Roy—that will contain an organized collection of their family history on my side, with photos, videos, audio CDs, letters, newspaper articles, and other documents.

The truth is, since they’ve lived in Japan all their lives and have made only a couple of short trips to the United States, their connection to my history, and my family’s history, is pretty thin. I continue to try sharing this history, as I’m able, but I know it feels distant to them, particularly now that they’ve become so immersed in their Japanese lives.

I guess these plastic tubs are my attempt to leave them with this legacy when they’re older, even after I’m gone. Perhaps they’ll spend time with the contents one day and come to feel a stronger connection to these roots; perhaps not. But it’s what I can do.

Funny photos

So this week I was looking through photos of Lulu and Roy when they were just babies. I was sitting on the floor of the living room as they were perched on the couch, watching TV. Occasionally I would flash a funny photo their way, like this one…

Here’s what Roy was thinking in his baby mind: “What?! *This* is the guy I have to live with for the next 18 years?!”

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Update on My Daughter’s Bilingual Life at 14.5 Years Old: High School, Tears, and English Tests

It’s been a while since I simply shared news of my family’s own bilingual journey. Despite the heartache of this year for me, I’ve tried to keep up my regular efforts to nurture my children’s progress in our two minority languages, English and Spanish. In this two-part series, I offer updates on the bilingual lives of my daughter and my son. First Lulu, then Roy (here).

High school on the horizon

Lulu is now 14.5 years old, a mostly upbeat young woman. Incredibly (at least to me), she’ll start her last year of junior high school next April, which means that she’s already begun the taxing process of getting into the high school of her choice. This involves studying a lot harder than I ever did as a young teen; attending a “cram school” several evenings a week to strengthen the subjects she struggles with most (like her numbers-challenged father, math is not her forte); and, eventually, taking an entrance exam for her chosen high school (as well as a back-up school or two).

At this point, she hopes to get into one of the most competitive high schools in Hiroshima, which offers an international studies program. Her chances are good, I think—and her English ability is a valuable factor on her side—but only time will tell if this aim can be fulfilled.

While it’s true that this process is forcing her to become more disciplined (I’m amazed, frankly, at how long she can study when she’s facing a week of tests at school), it’s a rather stressful experience, too, and I’m afraid her time and energy for our minority languages—not to mention other interests and pure fun—is being squeezed badly.

Still, on most days, she continues to complete the modest amount of homework that I give her in English and Spanish—a routine (starting with English) that began over a decade ago. (See Secrets of a Successful Homework Routine, Part 1.) And I remain mindful, too, of the importance of spending time with her—for the sake of our relationship as well as her English ability—and so I’m trying to make this an ongoing priority. (Lulu is a sporty girl and I’ve found that playing catch in front of the house is a good way to engage with her for short bursts of time.)

While I’m generally pleased with her level of English ability, it’s also true that her lack of time for reading and (especially) writing in English means that her progress in these areas is slower than I would prefer. But, considering that she’s always attended Japanese schools, her foundation for further growth into more advanced levels of literacy is now firm.

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Look! I’m Shaking Hands with a Kangaroo!

With the passing of my parents in the spring (my mother in March, my father in May), my main message for this year has been…

Make the Most of Your Precious Time with Grandparents, Whether Near or Far

This is important, of course, not only for the language exposure they can potentially provide, but, more fundamentally, for the fleeting chance to nurture a meaningful bond between grandparents and grandchildren.

With this in mind, I arranged for us to take a family trip with my wife’s parents—my children’s Japanese grandparents—this past weekend. In this case, there was no benefit of extra input in the minority language, but that naturally wasn’t the motive: while my mother-in-law and father-in-law are both pretty spry for their early 80s (they can still easily ride bicycles!), it’s also true that their health is now more fragile and it’s hard to know how many more trips like this we’ll be able to take with them.

So we went to the lovely, peaceful town of Hagi, located on the Sea of Japan, about three hours by car from Hiroshima. Hagi is an old castle town, remarkably well preserved and full of splendid sights.

In fact, Hagi is truly one of my very favorite places, not only in Japan but in the world. If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you may even recall that I shared our last trip to Hagi four years ago.

This post won’t include as much background about Hagi itself (so if you’re curious, please see that previous post) and, as always, I need to maintain everyone else’s privacy by not showing their faces too fully. Still, I’d like to invite you to join us, through photos, for a sense of our time together…and particularly, this memorable time my kids could spend with their grandparents.

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We moved in August and I’m now gradually organizing the many books and papers that I’ve amassed over the 22 years I’ve lived in Hiroshima. One box contains the early board books that I read to my kids—who are now 14 and 11—when they were just babies and toddlers. I’m in the process of repacking the box, to store safely away in a closet, but I thought I might stop and share with you the 10 board books that I read most often to my children (hundreds of times each!) and that I hope they will one day read to their own newborns and thus begin the journey of handing down the minority language to the next generation.

While these books were originally published in English, I’m sure many of them have been translated widely into other languages and may also be available as larger-sized picture books. And let me note, too, that while I naturally have a sentimental attachment to these books, I’m not suggesting that these are the “best” board books for small children. While I would certainly recommend each one, this is simply a humble list of the board books that I read most often to my kids during those early months and years. (In the comments below, please share your favorite board books, particularly newer titles that I’m not so familiar with.)

The Very Hungry Caterpillar

The Very Hungry Caterpillar
One of the most popular children’s books on Earth, from the brilliant Eric Carle.

The Very Lonely Firefly

The Very Lonely Firefly
Another lovely book by Eric Carle. The last page contains tiny flickering lights, like fireflies.

We're Going on a Bear Hunt

We’re Going on a Bear Hunt
So much fun to read aloud. As my kids got a bit older, they would even act out the story as I read it.

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Upset About Raising Bilingual Kids? That Might Be a Very Good Thing. (Really.)

While many people assume that children will automatically become bilingual if each parent speaks a different language, the reality is often far more challenging. In fact, it’s not uncommon for the parent of the minority language to suddenly experience a large shock, when the child is about 2 or 3, because the majority language seems to be progressing more strongly than the minority language. It may even be the case that the child is actively using the majority language but resists speaking the minority language, much to the dismay—even panic—of the minority language parent.

To help parents avoid this situation, before it evolves, I wrote the post Warning to New Parents Who Dream of Raising a Bilingual Child.

But what if this is already the case in your family? What should you do now? And why would I suggest that feeling upset about this is actually a good thing?

See the situation rightly

First of all, it’s important to point out that if you didn’t feel upset about this situation, it would mean one of two things:

1. You aren’t clearly aware of the problem.

2. You’re aware of the problem, but you don’t really care that much about it.

You see, if either one of these is true, then you wouldn’t be as upset as you are now. After all, we don’t generally get upset about issues that we aren’t aware of or that we don’t really care about.

The truth is, feeling upset about the situation is actually a very positive sign because it demonstrates that you are aware of the problem and that you do care about it. And because you’re aware, and you care, you now have the opportunity to do something constructive about the problem and improve the situation.

This is how a breakthrough begins.

So, first and foremost, I urge you to shift your perspective and see the situation rightly:

The fact that you’re upset is precisely what will now enable you to move forward more effectively and experience the greater success and joy that you seek on your bilingual (or multilingual) journey with your children.

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“Bilingual Lives” is a series of profiles of interesting people who are leading bilingual (or multilingual) lives, both personally and professionally. This series was inspired by the memory of my mother, who began a bilingual life that she later regretted not being able to sustain into her adult years. If you would like your life and work to be featured in this series, please contact me.

Bilingual Lives: Victor Santos

When Victor Santos contacted me earlier this year, to share the innovative language-learning flashcards that he and his wife developed for their young son—and now for children throughout the world—I was immediately impressed with the thought and creativity that have gone into them. The fact is, these flashcards are unique, unlike any others you’ll currently find on the market, and could well be a valuable addition to the resources you use to promote your target language(s).

I was also impressed with Victor’s multilingual and multicultural life. Not only has language long been at the heart of his personal life, it’s at the soul of his professional life, too. Originally from Brazil, Victor has lived in six countries and now resides in the U.S. state of Iowa with his wife, from Ukraine, and their two-year-old son and soon-to-debut daughter. His education, taking him from Brazil to Germany to The Netherlands to the U.S., where he earned his PhD in Language Learning and Assessment from Iowa State University, has continuously been focused on issues involving language. Meanwhile, in addition to teaching, he has worked in the field of language learning and assessment with five different companies.

In 2017, all this experience and passion for languages gave rise to Linguacious, his own language learning company, and its first product, the Linguacious flashcards, which are now available in a variety of languages and topics.

Linguacious

I interviewed Victor, by email, about his life and his work and how the Linguacious products can be of support to bilingual and multilingual families. He also kindly offered to contribute a deck of flashcards, in the language and topic of your choice, to two lucky winners of the giveaway below so be sure to enter your name by Friday, October 12.

And even if you aren’t a winner in the giveaway, Victor is also offering a 20% discount at the Lingacious store at Amazon, an offer that’s valid until December 25. (Perfect timing for Christmas!) To take advantage of this 20% discount, simply enter the code BILINGUALKID during checkout, in the field that reads “Gift cards and promotional codes.”

Now, over to Victor and a revealing look at a truly multilingual and multicultural life!

Interview with Victor Santos

Could you please share the highlights of your background?

I would be glad to and thank you so much for the opportunity to talk to you, Adam. I have followed your work for a while and am a big fan. So, I was born in Brazil, in a city called Belo Horizonte. From a very young age, I have always been fascinated by languages and have studied or dabbled in quite a few of them. I have a B.A. degree in Linguistics from the Federal University of Minas Gerais in Brazil (with a focus on indigenous languages), an M.S. in Language Learning and Technology from the University of Saarland in Germany and the University of Groningen in The Netherlands, and a PhD in Language Learning and Assessment from Iowa State University in the USA. I think it’s hard to hide my love for languages and helping others learn languages, right? 😉

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Author Zita Robertson with one of her chickens

Two years ago, I shared a creative project that was carried out by Nellie Robertson and her two children. They live in the U.S. and Nellie is originally from Hungary, which means that English is their majority language and Hungarian is their minority language.

The project took place over the course of a full year and involved a stuffed alligator named Alfonzo, who they sent on a worldwide trip to enjoy “homestays” with a number of families (including mine!) who then reported on their experiences with their toothy guest.

Alfonzo the alligator

During this time, Nellie and her kids blogged all about Alfonzo’s adventures—in both of their languages—and the result was a wonderful project that was both very fun and very effective.

You can learn all about it, and see photos from Alfonzo’s “homestays” in various parts of the world, by reading this post…

How a Globe-Trotting Alligator Helped One Family Find Greater Fun and Success on Their Bilingual Journey

…and by visiting Nellie’s blog…

Alfonzo Around the World

Another creative project

Well, Nellie and her kids are back, this time with a fantastic book project that involved Nellie and her nine-year-old daughter, Zita. With Nellie’s solid support, Zita has written and self-published a book about her chickens, with versions in English and in Hungarian!

Dixie's Chicken Sisters in English

Dixie's Chicken Sisters in Hungarian

Full disclosure: Because Nellie and her family live just a short drive from my hometown of Quincy, Illinois, I was able to visit them in the summer of 2017! So I not only had the happy chance to meet Nellie and Zita (and the father and younger brother), I met the chickens, too!

Zita and her chickens

When Nellie told me about their new book project, this became something I was eager to share. As I’ve stressed before, along with persistent daily efforts—like providing ample speech in the target language, reading aloud, and pursuing a regular homework routine—language and joy can be fueled even further through the use of short-term projects: 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; pursuing crafts or a building task; researching and reporting on some subject of interest; and many more.

Here, then, are Nellie and Zita to tell you all about their bilingual book project. Many thanks to them both for generously sharing their lives with us.

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Dragonfly

In my last post, 5 Key Ways to Fortify Your Home Environment for Bilingual Success, I revealed the happy news that we were moving to a new house—though just one kilometer from the old one—that’s far more suitable for the next phase of our life as a family. (In fact, it’s not really a “new” house—it’s over 40 years old—but it’s a spacious Japanese-style house with a large Japanese-style garden and an excellent location.)

Well, we made the move last week and are now slowly settling in. To be honest, as much as I looked forward to moving, the actual move has been rather stressful and I’m afraid it will take longer than I had imagined for life to calm down again.

Still, I wanted to share with you some first thoughts from this new vantage point, particularly in connection to something strange that occurred two days after we moved in.

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5 Key Ways to Fortify Your Home Environment for Bilingual Success

We’re moving next week!

Honestly, I feel like I finally have some happy news to share after delivering so much sad news this year. (See My Mother Has Passed Away and My Father Has Passed Away, Too.)

We live in Hiroshima, Japan and we continue to rent instead of trying to buy. (Not only are the homes here generally too expensive for what you get, their value actually declines so buying a home isn’t the same sort of investment that it might be in another country. For the time being, at least, I think the freedom and flexibility that comes with renting is a better option for us.)

We’ve been in this house for the past 11 years and, starting last year, I began getting itchy to move. Now that my kids are older—Lulu is 14 and Roy is 11—and our local junior high school is a 40-minute walk (no school buses and the students aren’t allowed to ride bicycles), I felt it was time to find a place that was closer to the school and would have enough space for them to finally have their own rooms. (This can be difficult because Japanese apartments and homes are typically quite small.)

And then, after my parents died in March and May, moving felt even more urgent because, beyond the practical reasons I just mentioned, there arose a deep need to renew my life and the best way to do that, I thought, was from the ground up.

But finding a suitable place in this part of Hiroshima—a popular area where the rents are high—was turning out to be a challenge. In fact, it seemed we might have to wait until next spring for more options to appear (spring, the start of the new school year and work year, is when people often move from one house to another).

But then, just a few weeks ago, I came across what looked like a really promising place and we pursued it quickly. Although it’s an older house, it’s in good shape, it’s reasonably spacious (the kids cheered loudly when we told them they can finally have their own rooms!), and it’s in an excellent location.

While the house we’ve lived in since Lulu was 3 and Roy was a baby has been a good place for their younger years, the house we’re moving to will be a better home for this next phase of our lives as a family. :mrgreen:

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My funny father (the one on the right).

Last weekend we visited my wife’s parents. They don’t live so far from us—about 90 minutes by car—but I hadn’t seen them in over six months because I’ve been preoccupied with large life changes this year: my parents both passed away in the spring—my mother in March and my father in May—and I was making dazed journeys from Japan to the U.S.

My wife and my kids had paid two or three visits to see her parents during this time, but because I hadn’t, I was struck by how much older they appeared. I mean, they’re both still in fairly good health, but her father is now in his early 80s and her mother is nearly 80, too.

The hard reality is, the end of their lives—and the end of the time my children can spend with their maternal grandparents—is approaching, though it’s hard to say how much time actually remains.

This time is finite

That’s the thing: We never really know how much time is left for us to interact with grandparents or other loved ones in this life. And the irony, I think, is that even though we know—we absolutely know—that this time is finite, we somehow behave as if it’s not.

On one hand, I’m happy to say that I did what I realistically could, given the great distance between Japan and the U.S., to maintain an active relationship between my parents and my family. And I did this, of course, not only to milk the minority language exposure that this connection could provide, but also to create a meaningful and memory-filled bond between my children and my parents.

On the other hand, though, I don’t think I fully appreciated how fleeting this precious time would actually be. Even as my parents grew older, and their health began to fail, I still didn’t really grasp the idea that they would die, perhaps even soon, and that our time with them—at least in this world—would come to an end.

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