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.
First, let me say that I rarely make a direct request that they speak in English instead of in Japanese. Of course, this straightforward approach definitely has its place and can be effective, given the right circumstances. But, in general, I’ve had greater success getting my kids to use the minority language through more playful, indirect strategies. In other words, I suggest that we can often be more effective in prompting use of the minority language by being devious rather than demanding.
But back to last night…
So I’m sitting there at dinner and I’m feeling some frustration over the fact that the kids are again twittering like little Japanese sparrows. It’s not because I can’t understand what they’re saying—my own Japanese isn’t bad and I can generally follow the conversation—but I want them to switch to English and exercise that part of their brain.
“They get enough exercise in Japanese as it is,” I’m thinking. “I need to make more effort to get them speaking English at dinner.”
As luck would have it, Roy is recounting an amusing incident that took place at school. When the story concludes, and there’s a brief lull in the discussion, I see an opening and I seize it.
I’ve mentioned this before, but lately one of my little tactics for prompting a response in the minority language is: Tell me about something funny that happened in school.
You see, I’ve worked with children for many years, and elementary school kids, in particular, are constantly doing funny things. It can be an engaging topic of conversation, day after day, and it challenges children to “translate” an experience from the majority language into the minority language.
Generally, though, I get one story, maybe two, but sometimes, when they’re tired, they offer none at all.
I was determined to have more success this time by amplifying the idea.
The game begins
“Okay, whoever can tell me the funniest stories from school will win 100 points,” I say, taking crafty advantage of their competitive nature. The “100 points” is completely meaningless to adult ears, I know, but I’ve found that many kids, including my own, often become more motivated when points—however pointless—are made a framework for the activity.
I see their eyes light up, and Roy jumps right in:
“This boy in my class, Goro, he was in the bathroom and I saw him climb up on the urinal and peek down into one of the toilets. Another boy was pooping and Goro started screaming, ‘He’s pooping! He’s pooping! Everybody, he’s pooping!’ The boy on the toilet cried, “Stop it! Stop it!” But Goro, he wouldn’t stop. He just kept screaming, ‘He’s pooping! He’s pooping! Everybody, he’s pooping!’”
Roy told this tale with great relish.
I turn to Lulu. “Can you top that?”
“Yeah, can you top that?” Roy sneers.
Not to be outdone, Lulu launches ahead:
“We were playing dodgeball at recess and one boy, Kenta, got hit by another boy, Shoji. Kenta wanted to get Shoji back, but he couldn’t hit him and he was really angry. After recess, we had calligraphy [Japanese writing with brush and ink], and someone accidentally bumped into Kenta’s desk and his brush went flying and it hit Shoji and got ink on his shirt. Kenta said, ‘I finally got you back.’”
“Can you top that?” I say to Roy.
“Yeah, can you top that?” Lulu sneers.
It all adds up
And so the duel continued in this way for another three or four rounds, Roy and Lulu eagerly searching their memories for funny stories from school. (Apparently, a common amusement on school playgrounds—both kids had tales to tell about it—occurs when a child seeking a stray ball creeps in front of another child on a swing…and gets bowled over to the ground.)
Finally, I brought the lively contest to a close and made a suspenseful show of judging the winner. Since neither one had clearly come out on top, I called it a draw, which actually made them clamor for the contest to continue. They didn’t want to stop!
In all, I’d say this little game—let’s call it “Can You Top That?”—resulted in about 10 minutes of fun, meaningful interaction in the minority language. And even after our “overtime” ended (I still called it a draw, by the way, awarding them each 50 points), because the momentum of the mealtime conversation had shifted toward English, the kids then carried on in English, too.
Now, 10 or 15 minutes may not sound like much, but when it comes to the minority language, every little bit counts. In The Dark Secret to Success at Raising Bilingual Kids (definitely give that post a look if you haven’t already seen it), I sum up the whole process of raising a bilingual child in this one sentence:
Good bilingual ability is the result of persistent efforts that add up gradually over time.
Which means, of course, that the more you do, day after day—including a few minutes here and a few minutes there—the more these efforts will add up over the weeks and months and years of your journey. This is why staying mindful of your larger goal is so important: when this is a conscious priority, it spurs you to create more frequent opportunities to engage your children in the use of the target language (like the game I just described), and each one of these steps takes you a little bit farther along on the road to good bilingual ability.
And you can’t top that.