Maximize Your Child's Bilingual Ability How I Lost My Ear

My Family

Curious to hear more about my own family and our bilingual quest? Just take a peek at these posts!

Al Beck

Just weeks after my mother passed away, my father has now left this world, too. Al Beck, an artist and teacher whose passion for art and education was widely influential, died at 11:15 p.m. on May 16.

He was 87 years old.

In late March, I hurried back to the U.S. to see my mother and say goodbye. She passed away the day after I arrived at my sister’s house.

During that trip, I also traveled to see my father, who was living in a nursing home three hours away. (My parents divorced when I was a teen and the last time they saw each other was nearly 20 years ago, at my wedding.)

In fact, the day my sister and I drove to see him was April 4, his birthday. When we got there, we found him celebrating with the president of the college where he had been an art professor for many years. There were balloons, gifts, and cake and my father was in a spirited mood.

On his sweater was a child’s badge and ribbon with the words: “Birthday Boy.”

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Breakthroughs-for-Bilingual-Children-top

My daughter will be 14 in June. My son turned 11 in March. If you’ve been following this blog over the years—when I made my first post in September of 2012, they were just 8 and 5—you know that they’ve had very different inclinations when it comes to reading in English, our minority language.

While both have become competent readers through a variety of long-running efforts—which include reading aloud from birth; flooding our home with books, magazines, and comic books in the target language; maintaining a daily homework routine; and making persistent use of the strategy I call captive reading—it’s also true that Roy’s progress has been stronger because, ever since he was small, he has been reading by himself more eagerly than Lulu. In fact, I detailed this important aspect of our bilingual journey in an article I wrote not long ago…

My Bilingual Daughter Is 13. My Bilingual Son is 10. So Why Is Their Level in the Minority Language Basically the Same?

Fundamental shift in motivation

With Roy, because he has long been a more natural bookworm, I’ve mostly just had to continue feeding his desire to read by providing a steady stream of suitable material. (Naturally, this still takes some regular time and energy on my part to find engaging resources.)

Lulu, on the other hand, because she has always preferred active play, has been more difficult to motivate when it comes to independent reading. However, over the past two weeks a fundamental shift in this area has been taking place and I now see that the previous breakthroughs I’ve documented at this blog (see Big Breakthrough with My Bilingual Daughter? and, again, My Bilingual Daughter Is 13. My Bilingual Son is 10. So Why Is Their Level in the Minority Language Basically the Same?) have been steps leading to the manifestation of this moment, alongside her growing maturity.

Here’s what happened…

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My Mother Has Passed Away

April 12, 2018

Katrine Aho

My mother, Katrine Aho, has passed away. She died at 7:54 p.m. on March 26.

As sad as her passing is, I’m very glad and grateful that I was able to return from Japan to the U.S. to see her one last time and say goodbye. In fact, I was nearly too late because I had planned to leave Japan on March 30, but then her condition worsened so quickly that I was urged to come sooner.

By the time I got there, on the evening of March 25, it was clear that she had little time left. Her eyes opened just once, when she realized I had arrived, and her voice was already a faint whisper. I sat by her side, held her hand, spoke to her softly, and choked my way through the letters my wife and children had written to her.

And I was with her when she died the next day at the age of 82.

I know 82 isn’t young, and I know my mother had lived a full and productive life, but the truth is, her health had been quite good…until she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last spring. The prognosis for this type of cancer is very poor—many patients live less than a few months—but my mother gamely underwent chemotherapy and this helped extend her life by nearly a year.

My one real regret—and this is the heartache I’ve felt ever since I settled in Japan and had children—was that my mother and my kids had so little time together in this world. While I did all that I could from afar to create a close and continuing relationship between them (as I described in the posts 3 Good Ways to Boost a Bilingual Child’s Language Ability and Loving Bond with Grandparents; Bilingual Children and Distant Grandparents: What We’ve Done; and Bilingual Kids and Grandparents: Make the Most of This Opportunity), the hard reality is that the several visits we made to the U.S. to see her in person amounted to less than a month in total.

I know she wanted to spend more time with them (Lulu, in fact, was her only granddaughter), but the circumstances—the tremendous distance and cost, as well as work and school on our end—made this so painfully difficult.

And now she’s gone. And now there are no more chances. The finality of this fact is crushingly sad.

At the same time, there’s heartfelt joy that, despite the shortcomings of our situation, my children and my mother were able to know one another as well as they did. My mother was a very sweet, very talented person and a special, loving presence in my kids’ lives. I have no doubt that they will remember her, far into the future, with deep fondness.

And it’s true, as well, that they shared the bond of bilingual childhoods. A few years ago, I interviewed her about her bilingual past (see “I Spoke Both Finnish and English”: I Interview My Mother on Her Bilingual Childhood) and she mentioned being thrilled that her grandchildren seemed to have the bright bilingual future that she eventually lost as she grew up.

I loved my mother, and I always, always will. I feel profoundly blessed that I had the chance, before she passed on, to tell her this in person and thank her for all that she did for me and for my family. This post, with the pictures and videos below, is my small way of celebrating her life and sharing the great goodness that she gave this world.

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My son had a really fun time last weekend—in the minority language—with our latest homestay guest.

If schooling in the minority language isn’t an option for your family, and travel to a minority-language destination is limited (see Bilingual Travelers, an ongoing series at this blog, for personal stories that share the powerful impact of such trips), it’s important to be proactive and resourceful about finding or creating opportunities from your own location so that your children can interact with other speakers of the target language.

Here are 5 ideas…

1. Online Conversations
Of course, many of us make regular use of Skype, FaceTime, or Zoom to speak to family and friends who live in distant places. This not only provides additional language input but also strengthens the bond between loved ones and our kids. (See previous posts like Bilingual Kids and Grandparents: Make the Most of This Opportunity and A Powerful Twist on the Use of Skype to Promote the Minority Language.)

However, just the other day I experienced a huge new possibility, both for non-native parents who wish to improve their own language ability and for children to engage with other speakers of the target language.

I had been wanting to do this for some time—so I could benefit from more focused time speaking Japanese (my second language)—and I finally tried it on Friday. I paid less than $10 and I spent a full hour speaking Japanese, over Skype, with a native speaker!

The site I used to make this connection is called italki, and while I’m sure there are many other sites like this for people seeking to learn languages, my first impressions of italki have been extremely positive, in all ways.

And here’s the really wonderful thing: If you’re just looking for a friendly speaker of the language for you and/or your children, you’ll find thousands of them at italki, in a wide range of languages, and many of them are charging only around $10 US per hour.

At italki, there are two categories of teachers: lower-priced “Community Tutors” (speakers of the language who are eager to help others achieve their language-learning aims but aren’t professional teachers) and higher-priced “Professional Teachers” (who naturally often charge more for their expertise and instruction).

So, if you’re in need of more opportunity to engage in your target language with other speakers—you alone; an older child alone; or even you with a smaller child on your lap—why not explore this possibility at italki or a similar online resource?

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My Bilingual Daughter Is 13. My Bilingual Son is 10. So Why Is Their Level in the Minority Language Basically the Same?

My daughter is 13, in her first year of junior high school.

My son is 10 and in 5th grade.

Both attend local Japanese schools and have grown up under virtually identical circumstances when it comes to sources of input in English, our minority language.

And yet, in my personal observations of their language skills, as well as their performance when practicing for a standardized English test widely used in Japan (the Eiken test, where their level is now at the second highest on a seven-level scale), their ability is basically the same.

How can that be if their upbringing has been so similar and a substantial gap of three years exists between the two? Shouldn’t Lulu’s level now be demonstrably higher than Roy’s?

In fact (and here’s a big hint as to the reason), Roy’s sense of spelling is actually stronger than Lulu’s at this point. Lulu continues to make spelling errors that are typically seen in children who are several years younger. In other words, the gap of three years in age no longer exists in terms of language ability because Roy’s level is higher than a typical monolingual child of his age while Lulu’s level (at least her literacy level) is a bit lower than a typical 13-year-old.

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My Kids Scream at Me Not to Lick Poisonous Mushrooms

Blame it on our fancy new couch.

This one here…

Our fancy new couch

In fact, I had been planning to write a more meaty post about the process of bilingual development…but when our new couch arrived on Wednesday afternoon, I got completely distracted.

You’re probably thinking I was sprawled out on this fancy couch for the rest of the week, nibbling crackers and caviar, but I swear that isn’t true. You see, when the new sofa was delivered, our old couch was taken away at the same time, to be discarded.

This one here…

Our old couch

I know, by comparison, it’s a pretty sorry-looking little couch, but the thing is, I was more attached to it than I thought…because it was full of stains.

See?

Stains on our old couch

Now I realize that stains aren’t usually a very positive feature in a sofa, but these stains were actually a kind of time capsule of the past 10 years of my children’s lives. (They’re now 13 and 10.) The old couch may have been far less fancy than the new one (fancy furniture + small kids = large frustrations), but my children spent a big part of their early years sitting on it, lying on it, jumping on it, fighting on it, crying on it, spilling things on it, drooling on it, sweating on it, even bleeding on it.

So when the delivery men hauled it away and shut the door, leaving me alone with our fancy new couch, I slumped down on it and sighed. Then, with a few sniffles (I confess), I shuffled into my little home office and began gazing wistfully at old photos and videos on my computer.

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Please Help My Kids and Me Learn Spanish!

NOTE: This post begins with a description of our efforts to date to learn Spanish. Then Jennifer Brunk, founder of the marvelous site Spanish Playground, kindly provides her expert advice by making a range of suggestions for strengthening our actions and our progress—suggestions that could be quite useful for other families, too. Finally, I would love to hear your suggestions as well so please feel free to leave a comment below with further ideas or resources for learning Spanish. Thank you! :mrgreen:

If you’ve been following this blog, you know that my children are currently 13 and 10 and that their majority language is Japanese and their minority language is English. At this point, their ability in each of these languages is comparable to their monolingual peers. In other words, they essentially have two native languages and can use both freely to communicate or to read and write.

What you may not know—since I haven’t yet mentioned this much—is that my kids are now working on a third language, too…but the circumstances of this additional minority language, Spanish, are vastly different from their acquisition of English.

While supporting their English side has been a huge priority for me ever since they were born, and my background as a native speaker and a longtime English teacher of bilingual children has helped me nurture satisfying progress in this language, I’m afraid I’m not doing nearly as well when it comes to Spanish.

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A Little Monkey Business

Toward the tail end of summer, my 10-year-old son and I went to the small park near our house with my camera, a tripod, and a handful of props. It was a hot afternoon and we spent the next couple of hours improvising silly scenes on video, which I thought we might somehow edit together into an entertaining little film. (At least entertaining to us, if no one else. :mrgreen: )

Well, our film is finally complete and we’d like to share it with you! While the film itself includes no language—just sounds and music—I want to stress that, behind the scenes, a lot of language was being used. Through the hours of filming in the park and editing at home, Roy and I were engaged intensively in our minority language.

This little film—like the earlier film I made with both Roy and Lulu—is a good example of a short-term project that can promote language exposure in a fun and effective way. Along with productive habits and routines—like talking to your children a lot in the target language and reading aloud to them each day—I also encourage you to pursue short-term projects, which can take many forms.

A previous post on this topic offers some suggestions, as it shares one family’s inspiring project that featured a stuffed alligator making travels to countries around the world. (Really! That friendly alligator even visited us in Hiroshima, Japan!)

If you haven’t seen this post, I recommend it highly…

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

A Little Monkey Business

Our new film is called “A Little Monkey Business” and it runs four minutes. As I mentioned, the whole thing was improvised and then pieced together when we edited the footage. This time I was curious to see what might be produced without planning for a particular outcome. In this way, the final result was a fun surprise and I think it also demonstrates that you don’t really need to “overthink” a project like this when you want to make a little film. Just grab some props, start shooting, and once you have a lot of silly footage, you can edit together your favorite scenes. Video projects are not only a fun way to engage your children in the target language, they can also become special keepsakes for a lifetime. (I may even show this one at Roy’s wedding!)

We hope you like it! And if you do, I know he’d love to read your comments below…which also means you’d be motivating him to use his minority language yet again!

View this video at Bilingual Monkeys TV, my YouTube channel.
(Music is courtesy of https://www.bensound.com.)

This Is Embarrassing, But It’s a Story That Could Benefit Your Bilingual Journey (And Your Teeth)

I went to the dentist again today. Lately, I spend more time with him than I do with my wife.

If you and I bumped into each other at a party for cool parents, and I laughed gaily at your witty remarks, you might think my teeth are just fine.

Maybe even kind of nice, if the light was low.

But that’s not what my dentist thinks.

He thinks the old fillings in my back teeth, top and bottom, need to be blasted out and replaced with shiny new ones. He says bacteria have crawled beneath the old fillings and are now eating away inside there like a horde of fire ants.

Okay, I added that part about the fire ants, but the upshot is the same: multiple, painful visits to the dentist to jackhammer off the old fillings, drill practically into my brain to clean out the cavities, and cement silver nuggets in the gaping holes.

You’re probably thinking: Well, whiner, if you had brushed your teeth more often, you wouldn’t have gotten all those fillings in the first place.

But here’s the thing: I’ve always had a good habit of brushing my teeth, even from a young age. I’m certainly not like a friend I had in college who lived in a dorm room down the hall from mine. Once I dropped by his room (this is a true story) and he was searching everywhere for something.

It turned out to be his toothbrush.

And you know where he finally found it?

Underneath his bed.

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 Raising Bilingual Kids Is a Vital Part of Our Efforts, From Babies to Teens

Let’s begin with two examples. These examples involve parenting in general, but I think they’ll make this important principle very clear. Then I’ll go on to offer further examples that connect more directly to the challenge of parenting children in more than one language.

Example #1: When my daughter was still a baby, but starting to crawl about, my wife and I made a mission—as all sensible parents do—of “babyproofing” our home in order to prevent accidental injuries. We did things like adding covers to outlets, attaching foam guards to sharp table corners, and installing safety gates at the top and bottom of our staircase. If you’ve already experienced this phase with your kids, I’m sure you undertook similar proactive steps in your house.

Example #2: When Lulu entered junior high school, (which I shared in the recent post The Most Important Point on Our Long Bilingual Journey), we bought her a nice new desk, hoping this would encourage good study habits for the tougher academic challenge she was now starting. However, for the first couple of weeks, she barely used it at all. Despite our repeated appeals, she continued to sit on the floor and do her homework at the low Japanese-style table in our living room, a long-running habit from her elementary school years. Finally, since our pleas weren’t adequately altering her behavior, I began removing the table itself before she returned home from school each day and placing it in a different room for the evening, out of sight. Without that table present, she was essentially “forced” to develop the new habit of sitting down at her desk.

As these two examples demonstrate—one from early childhood, one from later childhood—a key principle for parenting in general, and parenting bilingual and multilingual children in particular, is the idea of intentionally shaping (and reshaping) the space of the home to promote the aims we seek.

When Lulu was a baby, our aim was to keep her safe and we did so by pursuing measures to reshape the space in order to minimize the risk of accident.

More recently, as a 13-year-old, she needed help with the aim of creating a new study habit, and since continuing to nag her about this wasn’t working—not for us nor for her—simply reshaping the space to remove the distraction, without having to say another word about it, proved far more effective.

The crucial point, then, when it comes to our bilingual or multilingual aim, is that we must remain mindful and proactive, throughout childhood, about shaping and reshaping the home environment in strategic ways so that we can fortify the process of language development. In other words, the more effectively you shape the space, the more effectively you’ll nurture progress in the minority language (or languages).

Here’s the next round of examples, more specific to our bilingual aim.

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Are You Making Effective Choices and Decisions For Your Bilingual Journey? (And For Your Life?)

In July, I made the long trip from Japan to the U.S., solo, to see my parents, siblings, and friends. Among these friends was a family I had never met before but had been in touch with for several years as a result of this blog. In fact, this was the first bilingual family that I met in person outside the Hiroshima area. (If you’re curious, you can read about—and see photos of—my previous meetings with Jonathan’s family, Mei’s family, and Nikoya’s family.)

After visiting my mother in Memphis, Tennessee, I went on to my hometown of Quincy, Illinois, where my father lives. And it just so happens that Nellie and her family live in the countryside less than 30 minutes away!

Nellie is originally from Hungary and has had to be extremely resourceful to provide her two adorable children with exposure to Hungarian amid the dominating English environment of the American Midwest. One very creative example of this is the project she undertook with her kids that we shared in the post How a Globe-Trotting Alligator Helped One Family Find Greater Fun and Success on Their Bilingual Journey.

But along with the continuing progress Nellie has made with her bilingual aim, I was also impressed with the intentional efforts that she and her husband are pursuing to strengthen their children’s mindfulness, from a young age, when it comes to making choices and decisions. In the full day I spent with them, I heard a number of reminders addressed to the eight-year-old girl and five-year-old boy, at times when the kids were on the verge of an unhelpful or potentially perilous action. Often posed as questions—“Is that a good decision?”—these reminders wisely sought to elevate the children’s awareness of their own choices.

After bidding farewell to this lovely family, I spent the rest of my trip mulling the idea of personal choices and decisions in connection to my own life. And when I returned to Hiroshima, I quickly had an encounter with my 10-year-old son that made it clear to me how profoundly important this subject is, both for the bilingual journey and for our lives as a whole.

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