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My Family

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

Over the years, my family has followed an annual tradition, each August, of driving out to a large blueberry patch that’s located in the countryside about 90 minutes from Hiroshima. We spend much of the day there picking blueberries and breaking for a picnic lunch.

This tradition started when Lulu was two. In fact, we originally stumbled upon the blueberry patch by accident when we were out searching for a larger fruit farm, our original destination.

Here’s Lulu that first year, with our big baskets of blueberries. Lulu was more of an eater than a picker back then (and Roy hadn’t been born yet) so Keiko and I somehow filled these three baskets by ourselves, blueberry by blueberry. We’ve never equaled this haul in the years since!

Our first visit to the blueberry patch.

While we’ve tried to make this outing every August (when the blueberries are ripe), some years have been difficult. In fact, the past two summers I was busy traveling back to the U.S. as my parents fell ill and then passed away.

So this year—despite the fact that my kids, now 15 and 12, are both very busy with schoolwork and club activities during the summer break—I was determined to resume our little tradition.

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As my children get older (my daughter is now 15 and my son is 12), I’m trying to increase the amount of opportunities they have to engage in translation activities: in effect, stretching their ability in two languages simultaneously and deepening their grasp of the more subtle differences between them.

I wish we had more time for writing because this is now the area where more practice is needed, and I’ve found that translation tasks are very effective toward this end. But as I’ve moaned about before, with my kids leading busy lives in junior high school, and having even less time for English and Spanish (our two minority languages), squeezing in the amount of writing that I’d really like them to do just isn’t realistic. Still, short translation tasks can be a productive way to get them writing in brief bursts on a regular basis, and for me to pinpoint, in their written work, any shortcomings in their language ability.

Because our main minority language is English, with Spanish still at a lower and more passive level, these tasks generally involve having them translate a short passage of text from the original Japanese or Spanish into natural English. Such translation texts—along with other writing tasks in English—typically take them from 5 to 15 minutes to complete, depending on the length of the text. Again, this isn’t the sort of concentrated time for writing that I would prefer, but it’s nevertheless true that this time adds up over the months and years and helps advance their writing ability at a steady pace.

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This Key Strategy Can Empower Your Child's Bilingual Ability Throughout the Childhood Years—and Even for a Whole Lifetime

In the recent post Make the Most of the “Golden Years” of Your Minority Language Influence, I introduced the challenging new stage of my family’s bilingual journey.

Now that my kids—Lulu, nearly 15, and Roy, 12—are both in junior high school and are leading busy, increasingly independent lives in Japanese, I’m afraid my presence in their days, and the English exposure that goes along with it, is far more limited than it was when they were younger. In fact, the balance between the time they spend in Japanese and the time they spend in English has shifted severely. When they were small, this balance was roughly 50-50, and even through elementary school it was a still productive 60-40 or 70-30, Japanese to English. Yet now, with their long days spent almost entirely in Japanese, and my hours with them in English badly squeezed by the lack of time and their growing social lives with friends from school, that ratio has deteriorated to less than 90-10.

I confess, I feel frustrated by this situation, but at the moment it isn’t realistic to consider reshaping these circumstances in any substantial way. The hard fact is, for us, the junior high school years (three of them) will probably be the low point when it comes to this balance between the majority language and minority language. (I’m hoping high school, and beyond, will bring more beneficial English opportunities into their lives.) Therefore, since changing the situation itself, for solely the sake of their English, isn’t a practical option, I have to accept the fact that their English ability will advance more slowly than I’d prefer during this time, simply because the balance of exposure and engagement is now so heavily weighted toward Japanese.

One simple, empowering strategy

Accepting this reality, though, doesn’t mean that I won’t continue to do what I can to engage their English side from day to day. Although their English ability may not grow as quickly or strongly during this stage of their bilingual development, I know it will continue to grow as long as I stay persistent in creative and resourceful ways…while also doing my best to be understanding of their busy lives if they’re not always able to meet my expectations for daily homework in English or other English activities.

In this post, though, I want to stress one simple strategy that can have a very empowering influence on children at an older age—as teens and even as adults—because it has the potential to engage them in the minority language on a regular basis and without the parent’s presence. Yet the key to making this idea work as productively as possible at that older age depends greatly on the actions you take from early on, when your children are still small.

The truth is, for me this was a conscious strategy that I pursued since the time they were very young, with an eye toward the future circumstances that I expected to face during their teenage years. And as long as I continue to make the most of this tactic, I believe it will have a significant influence on the amount of time and attention they give to English, despite the daily dominance of Japanese. By engaging them in English in this way—even without the need for my presence—I can continue to advance their English ability while also embedding the language more deeply in their lives as they grow into adults.

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Make the Most of the "Golden Years" of Your Minority Language Influence

Can you spot my son in this photo of his sixth grade class?

The other day my son graduated from elementary school. In Japan, elementary school lasts until sixth grade, then students move on to three years of junior high, then three years of high school.

Since the school year ends in March and starts up again just a few weeks later, in April, this means that Roy will soon be entering his first year at our local junior high school while Lulu will be in her third and final year there, gearing up for high school entrance exams.

Honestly, it’s hard for me to believe that they’ve now both finished elementary school. In fact, in the first few years of our bilingual journey together, I viewed this moment as a major milestone—and a destination that seemed far away…

If I can foster strong all-around ability in English (our main minority language) by the time they enter junior high, they’ll be in a good position to build on that ability themselves for the rest of their lives.

This doesn’t mean that I won’t now continue my efforts to advance their language ability. I’ll still do what I can, for as long as I can. But I also know—and I suspected as much when my kids were still small—that the older they get, the less influence I have over their English side because they become increasingly immersed in their Japanese lives at school and with friends.

Case in point: Just as I was writing that last paragraph—sitting in a coffee shop not far from our house—I saw Roy, chatting and laughing (in Japanese) as he strolled down the sidewalk with three friends, on their way to the large park in our neighborhood.

Now, of course, your journey may unfold differently—and so I don’t want to overgeneralize—but it’s worth keeping in mind that you, too, could one day face a similar situation in which the majority language of school and friends naturally becomes the more dominating presence in your children’s lives. And this is why I encourage you to very actively make the most of the stronger minority language influence that you have prior to the time they enter adolescence.

In other words, do what you realistically can to foster their minority language side, during their younger years, so they can reach a good level of ability by the time they become older and more independent.

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UPDATE: Good news! My kids have officially passed their very first proficiency test in English, our minority language! And amazingly, their final scores—a combination of both the reading/writing test and the speaking test—were almost identical! My son’s score was 2445 and my daughter’s was 2439 (out of 2600 total points). Many thanks to you all for cheering them on! They had big smiles when they opened their large envelopes and found the certificates inside! :mrgreen:

EIKEN, Test in Practical English Proficiency

My son turns 12 in March and my daughter will be 15 in June. But until last month, they hadn’t been tested in any formal way to assess their ability in English, our minority language. So I signed them up to take the EIKEN test, which is a widely-used English test in Japan and is given several times a year in locations across the country.

The EIKEN test consists of seven “grades,” or levels: the lowest test level is Grade 5, then 4, then 3, then Pre-2, then 2, then Pre-1, and finally the highest test level, Grade 1. You can take the test of any level you choose (you don’t have to start at level 5 and work your way up), and ability at the higher levels is tested in two parts on two different days: the first part of the test assesses reading, writing, and listening; and the second part (but only if you pass that first part) is the test that assesses speaking.

Of course, I’ve long had my own estimate of their English ability, but I thought it would now be helpful, in these three ways, for them to begin challenging the higher EIKEN levels:

  1. The test results could provide further insight into the strengths and weaknesses of their current language ability.
  2. These tests would give us some new structure and goals for their language development. (Now that they’re getting older, and getting immersed even more deeply in their Japanese lives, it’s important for me to pursue concrete ways, that preferably have some continuity, to continue advancing their English side.)
  3. Passing test scores at the higher levels of the EIKEN test could potentially benefit them in the future when they seek to enter high schools and universities, or when they’re eventually looking for work.

The three highest test levels

Last year, with an eye on registering them for the first testing date in 2019, which took place in late January, I printed out samples of the three highest test levels from the EIKEN web site—levels 2, pre-1, and 1—and had them give these a try.

Since, in the past, I had helped a number of my students prepare to take various levels of this test, I already was pretty familiar with the range of difficulty and I was able to judge which level would be most appropriate for my own kids.

I say “level”—not “levels”—because Lulu and Roy, despite nearly a three-year gap in their ages, are now basically at the same level of general English ability. In a post I made in January 2018—My Bilingual Daughter Is 13. My Bilingual Son is 10. So Why Is Their Level in the Minority Language Basically the Same?—I explained the reasons why and stressed the point that Roy’s greater passion for books and reading has resulted in a greater quantity of input over a shorter amount of time. (Thus, doing your best to maximize your child’s “bookworm potential,” from early on, can have a hugely productive impact on his overall language proficiency through the years of childhood.)

After examining their sample tests, my sense of the appropriate test level for their current ability was confirmed: level 2 would be too easy; level 1 would be too hard; and level Pre-1 would be just about right.

To help you understand the sort of levels I’m talking about, here are vocabulary and reading samples from each of these levels.

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My Simple Message for the New Year (And Don’t Mind My Messy Hands)

We spent the last week of 2018 in Singapore, a long-overdue family vacation. (That’s me in the photo, licking chilli crab off my fingers.) We had a warm, wonderful week there—Singapore is such a lively multicultural and multilingual place—and it was hard to return to cold Japan and resume our “real lives” here.

Among the busy days of sightseeing, we also had the chance to meet up with a family that I became friends with through this blog. It was actually the second time we met because they first paid a visit to our home in Hiroshima when they were living here. That was nearly four years ago, when their son was just one, and now he’s five and has become a very talkative bilingual boy (English and Mandarin) while making steady progress in his third language (Japanese), too.

Honestly, one of the very best things about running this blog, and my forum, has been the opportunity to connect with kindred spirits who are also on bilingual or multilingual journeys. And because this aim is so central to our lives—it’s such a heartfelt part of who we are—these connections often feel deeper than other friendships, and this is true even when our interactions are solely online.

However, one of my high hopes for 2019 is that I’ll be able to travel to other parts of the world and meet more of you in person. In fact, I’m now scheming to make this happen so please stay tuned and I’ll share more about this when I’m ready to reveal my plans.

The “5 P’s”

For the moment, though, let me just offer a simple message for the new year. We can call them the “5 P’s” for bilingual or multilingual success.

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The Top 12 Blog Posts at Bilingual Monkeys in 2018

2018 was a long, tough year for me and it was hard to blog as frequently as I did over the previous five years. (Yes, Bilingual Monkeys is now more than 6 years old!) But I did what I could to keep the site reasonably active and helpful. Setting aside the sad posts I made about my mother and my father, let me round off the year with a list of the “top 12” posts at this blog in 2018. I admit, it’s hard to be purely objective about how I selected and ranked this list of posts. While I took into account how popular the posts were, in terms of traffic and shares on social media, I also gave some weight to my own subjective feelings about them. (Although I didn’t include any of the articles from the new Bilingual Lives series—to keep this list concise—I encourage you to see these interesting and inspiring profiles of the bilingual/multilingual lives of Delia Berlin, Ana Cristina Gluck, and Victor Santos.)

So, without further ado, here are the “top 12” posts in 2018, from 12 to 1. I hope they can contribute, in some small way, to the greater success and joy of your bilingual or multilingual journey with your children. :mrgreen:

12. My Kids Scream at Me Not to Lick Poisonous Mushrooms
Watch a short video of this memorable moment on our bilingual journey.

11. Fantastic Bilingual Book Project for Children and Parents
With the solid support of her mother, this nine-year-old girl has written and published a book in her two languages.

10. How the Minority Language Can Flower in Your Bilingual Child
The flowering of a child’s minority language depends on both nature and nurture.

9. How to Create Breakthroughs in the Language Development of Bilingual Children
I share recent breakthroughs with my own kids and explain how breakthroughs can occur in your own language journey with your children.

8. 7 Interviews with Adam Beck, Author of “Maximize Your Child’s Bilingual Ability”
This post brings together seven interviews that I’ve given about raising bilingual and multilingual children through podcasts and video

7. VIDEO: Important Research on Successfully Raising a Bilingual Child
In this video I describe important research on success rates for raising bilingual children and explain the implications of this research for parents.

6. Feeling Discouraged About Raising Bilingual Children? Watch This Video.
If you’re feeling discouraged or frustrated about raising bilingual or multilingual kids, this fresh, empowering perspective can help.

5. Make the Most of Your Precious Time with Grandparents, Whether Near or Far
Your time with loved ones on this earth is finite, is fleeting, so do what you realistically can to maintain an active and loving relationship.

4. Something Strange Happened 2 Days After We Moved into Our New House (And Its Significance to Change and Transformation on the Bilingual Journey)
In this post I share an unusual incident and describe its deeper connection to raising bilingual and multilingual children.

3. 5 Ways for Your Bilingual Child to Interact with Other Speakers of the Minority Language
How can you strengthen your children’s engagement in the target language with other speakers of that language?

2. 12 Inspiring Real-Life Stories of Bilingual and Multilingual Families
Real-time case studies of how strong, steady progress is made at the bilingual aim, day by day, over the months and years of childhood.

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

While Bilingual Monkeys may have been a little quieter this year, that certainly wasn’t the case at The Bilingual Zoo forum! What a lively year! (The forum is now 4 years old.) As of today, there are 971 members, 1018 threads on 11 boards, and 9436 total posts from parents worldwide. Remember, The Bilingual Zoo is a free service for all, members and guests alike. It continues to be a warm, empowering place for parents and I encourage you to stop by anytime for camaraderie and support. :mrgreen:

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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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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