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Another Fun Idea to Get Your Bilingual Kids Eagerly Using the Minority Language

May 28, 2014

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.

Playful, indirect

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.

Funny stories

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.

How about you? If you try today’s idea with your kids, let us know how it went! (And include a funny story, too!)

1 Meri May 29, 2014 at 10:29 am

You have been using the OPOL approach, right? Have you and your wife thought about switching to “minority language at home”, because of the increased exposure to the majority language at school and possible other outside activities? In order to “balance the scales”, so to speak.

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2 Adam May 29, 2014 at 11:00 am

Meri, thanks for your comment. In our case, I’m afraid that isn’t a realistic option because my wife’s English level is low and, at this point, it would be impractical for her to try communicating with the children in English. Not only would they struggle to communicate efficiently, Japanese is now deeply, emotionally rooted as the language of their relationship.

For some families, “minority language at home” is a viable alternative, but for mine, well, the responsibility for supporting their minority language side must fall upon my small shoulders alone.

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3 Eliza Sarnacka-Mahoney October 16, 2014 at 12:29 am

OK, I am having a “comments for Adam” day today. :)

As much as we would like to succeed with our clever strategies, commitment and efforts there comes a time when more is needed in order to achieve our goals.

My girls DO communicate in Polish with each other while we are an OPOL family. I do not have a Polish grandparent nor a Polish cousin or any member of a family who could be aiding me in teaching Polish to them. Nobody. But I did do one thing when they were younger, feeling that it might be single most important aid in our bilingual quest. When the older was 10 and the younger 5, so both with good language foundations, I packed us up and went to live in Poland for 4 and a half months. It was an experience of a lifetime. Logistically, very few things happened the way I wanted them to happen, there were many lonely evenings (my husband could only join us for two months) when I thought: Heck, why am I doing all this? Is it worth it? It was in a way, an uprooting from our comfortable, cozy American life into a true adventure. I enrolled both girls in a Polish school. Couldn’t wish for a fuller “immersion”, though they still spoke English, of course, when their dad was staying with us. Up to that point they still spoke Polish with each other, but I was noticing that the scale could go either way, because — as you know — English was the language they used with other kids while in school, on the playground, etc. Those few months in Poland, however, “conditioned” them to using only Polish. I like to think of it as a “passed test” where they found out that yes, they could use Polish, it is as good as English to express themselves about their school life. Participating in school life in Poland equipped them with confidence and even vocabulary (not always to my delight) to keep on going in Polish with each other.

I know such “adventures” need to be carefully planned. Finances foremost, after that lodgings, school formalities, car rental, job arrangements. (I am a journalist, like you, so it was easier, because I only needed my laptop!) I started planning a year before. My own husband was “not so sure” he liked the idea but now we all look at those adventurous times as one of the best in our family history. We would all do it in a heartbeat! And who knows if we won’t…the 15 year old says she wants to study in Europe…

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4 Adam October 16, 2014 at 12:47 pm

Eliza, thanks so much for sharing this story. It’s a wonderful example of how proactive efforts can pay off richly and I’m certain your experience will be an inspiration to many parents.

Well done, Eliza. From one minority language parent to another, I know how hard this journey can be, and you’ve clearly done a marvelous job of supporting your children’s minority side. Well done. :mrgreen:

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5 Jana May 29, 2014 at 7:01 pm

Hi Adam, exactly the same thing happened to my kids when they were both at school. Up until then they talked mostly in Czech together but after they both started school their preferred language of communication changed to English (we live in England and their dad’s English). When it happened I felt sad, is that stupid or what? I even kind of felt that I’d failed but that was, of course, nonsense. I guess it had been going so well and this was the first obstacle/problem that I encountered in their bilingual upbringing. But I just went on as before, making sure I spent as much time with them as possible, reading to them (a lot), playing games, going out, talking. I think that as long as you had put a solid foundation down when they were little, not only a language one but also with regards to your relationship with them, you’ll be fine. Just keep plodding on, keep talking to them, and LISTEN to what they’re telling you. So many parents do not listen to their kids and that is where they fail, especially when bringing them up bilingually. Anyway, my kids are now 11 and 13 and their Czech is great, so keep going :-)

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6 Adam May 29, 2014 at 7:48 pm

Jana, thanks so much for sharing your experience. This is all wise advice, and very helpful to hear. (Your appeal to LISTEN was a valuable reminder for me, especially as I can get awfully absorbed in my activities at this computer!)

As time goes by, I grow even more convinced that establishing the “solid foundation” you mention is central to sustaining good progress once a child enters elementary school in the majority language. If that firm foundation isn’t already in place, the majority language can quickly overpower the poor minority language and become dominant.

Let’s keep plodding on, Jana! :mrgreen:

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7 Perla May 30, 2014 at 6:37 am

Hi Adam —

Could you please do a post for those of us who woke up to this game a bit late? My son is 9, and for various life reasons, I think I missed/wasted many important years of that foundation work Jana and you talk about. He speaks my language happily enough, can make himself understood, and even reads it a bit when pressed. I have lots to be thankful for, but it could be so much better in terms of his grammar and vocabulary. He speaks like a 5-year old, not like a smart, intelligent 9-year old I know him to be in the majority language. I regret not having interacted more when he was little, not having spent more time reading, playing, and just talking with him. We don’t have a solid foundation to build on, just bits and pieces we managed to scramble together when he was little. I was too complacent, thinking that having me around would be enough to raise him bilingual.

I see lots of information out there for new parents and parents of pre-school aged bilingual kids. I know how I would do it again if given the chance. But it would be great if you could point me towards a resource on what to do with now an elementary school aged child whose life is busy and whose world is no longer confined to home and family. How could we improve the odds and “catch up” on the bilingualism journey? Apart from spending significant amounts of time in the country of the minority language (not a possibility) and other drastic measures, I really don’t know how I should go about this. Thanks in advance for any thoughts and for all the inspiration you give me to do a better job.

Perla xx

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8 Adam May 31, 2014 at 6:16 am

Perla, thanks for your comment. I understand your dissatisfaction, but I would first stress that you and your son have made a great deal of progress so far and this very positive side to your journey should be applauded. The fact that his minority language is active, though at a lower level than desired, is an important achievement and makes higher levels of proficiency more easily attainable.

At the same time, your question is very valid: How can we help an older child “catch up”?

First, in case you haven’t come across them, these two articles offer some response to this concern…

What to Do When Your Bilingual Child Won’t Speak Your Language

Is It Too Late For My Child to Become Bilingual?

In your case, if travel and other larger antidotes are not realistic options, then you will need to reshape your lifestyle, to every extent possible, in order to increase his exposure to the minority language and his need to use it. Again, I would encourage you to look closely at the two posts above, and follow the links within them, for an array of ideas.

At the heart of your efforts, though, should be books and reading. You should be reading to your son every day, without fail; reading with him as part of a daily homework routine; building up your home library in the minority language, including a regular supply of comic books; and making use of captive reading. If you’re very proactive in this area, and your son becomes more inspired to read on his own (this is where suitable comic books and captive reading could have a significant impact), then I expect you’ll see his language level advance steadily.

Perla, I’m cheering for you and your son!

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9 Perla May 31, 2014 at 7:25 am

Many thanks for the reply and good wishes, Adam.

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10 Yuri June 10, 2014 at 9:29 pm

Thank you for the wonderful info

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11 Adam June 11, 2014 at 6:08 am

Yuri, you’re welcome! Have fun with this idea!

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12 Alana - eSpectacularKids October 12, 2014 at 7:21 pm

It sounds like a big job to keep the minority language used on a frequent basis, and not just with you but between your kids. Does using online videos in English as well as books have a powerful effect to get them thinking in English again?

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13 Adam October 13, 2014 at 6:24 am

Alana, yes, supporting my children’s minority language side must be a conscious and proactive process, day after day. Online video has been useful at times (I don’t take advantage of this resource to the extent that I might because we only have one computer, for my work, and I don’t want my kids constantly begging to watch videos on it), but books and reading have formed the bedrock of my efforts since day one.

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