Maximize Your Child's Bilingual Ability

My Family

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

The Most Important Point on Our Long Bilingual Journey

Recently, in My Daughter and I Hit a Big Milestone on Our Bilingual Journey Together, I shared how Lulu had graduated from elementary school and would now be entering junior high. (The school year in Japan ends in March and starts up again in April.)

In my mind, I’ve always viewed this transition to junior high school as perhaps the most important point on our long bilingual journey: If I could just sustain my persistent efforts until this point, and nurture a firm, active foundation in the minority language by the time my kids became teens, our bilingual goal would largely have been accomplished. And now that Lulu has begun junior high, and turns 13 soon, I’m happy to report that we’ve essentially fulfilled this aim.

No, this doesn’t mean I’ll dash out today and buy a hammock, then do nothing more but lie there and eat brownies. (Much as I’d like to.) In fact, I’ll continue eating my brownies on the run, doing what I can to help advance my children’s trilingual ability (along with Japanese and English, they’re learning Spanish) through the teenage years, too.

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Bilingual Kids and Grandparents: Make the Most of This Opportunity

This week the cherry blossoms are blooming in Japan.

This week is also my father’s birthday. (Happy birthday, Dad!) He lives in Quincy, Illinois, the town in the U.S. Midwest where I grew up.

In a way, there’s a profound connection between the two because the short-lived cherry blossoms—they bloom beautifully for just days before they fall—are a sharp reminder of how precious and fleeting our lives actually are.

Bilingual Kids and Grandparents: Make the Most of This Opportunity

My father—and my mother, who lives in Memphis, Tennessee—are now both in their 80s. To be honest, although I’ve spent 20 good years in Japan, the fact that we live so far apart has been the deepest downside of this bilingual and bicultural journey. While I regret that the reality has left much to be desired—that we couldn’t have lived closer than half a world away from one another—at least I hold no regrets over the efforts I’ve made to help bridge the distance between us. With the blessings of modern technology (how much more difficult it would have been just a generation or two ago!), I’ve done what I can through return trips, Skype chats, phone calls, photos and video clips posted online, and even old-fashioned letters and postcards.

My main motivation for all this has been, of course, to nurture a relationship, a loving bond, between my children and my parents. Despite the daunting distance, I’ve wanted my kids to know their special grandparents in the U.S., and gain fond, lasting memories of them, while giving my parents the chance to share in the joys of their grandchildren’s young lives.

At the same time, it was also clear to me from the start that these interactions—and the minority language exposure they provide—would help advance our bilingual aim. Thus, hugely positive results could be realized in both ways, simultaneously, as long as I made this a high priority and kept up my efforts to maintain these connections.

Though there’s always been an undercurrent of sadness to this situation, I still feel fortunate to say that these twin goals—fostering an emotional bond while fueling language development—have been largely achieved.

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My Daughter and I Hit a Big Milestone on Our Bilingual Journey Together

Happy smiles from Lulu and her classmates as they proudly show their diplomas after the graduation ceremony. Her teacher (in the white tie) is being lifted up in the back.

My 12-year-old daughter graduated from our local elementary school the other day. It was the 139th graduation ceremony at this school (really!), which means that the first class of graduates are now 151 years old (really?).

In Japan, children attend elementary school through the sixth grade, then begin going to junior high school. And since the school year runs from April to March, graduation ceremonies—for schools everywhere—are held at this time of year.

Smiles and tears

At Lulu’s graduation ceremony, Keiko and I were sitting in the school gymnasium, toward the back, but were still able to spy her smiling face among the other roughly 150 sixth graders. It was a long ceremony of speeches and diplomas then toward the end, when the students stood and sang a moving song, the tears began to flow from both the children and their parents. Until then, I had been keeping it together pretty well, but seeing Lulu cry while continuing to fight her way through the song, I got really choked up, too.

And I found myself flashing back on her life, from the day of her birth, when I first held her in my arms, to this large milestone, the day she graduated from elementary school.

My Daughter and I Hit a Big Milestone on Our Bilingual Journey Together

The day my daughter—our first child—was born, almost 13 years ago.

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See my update on this post, which reveals the answer to the contest question: How I Got My Bilingual Daughter to Eagerly Do Her Homework in the Minority Language.

Special Contest: Guess How I Handled This Problem with My Bilingual Daughter and Win a Cool Package of Prizes from Hiroshima, Japan

Want to get a surprise package from me and my kids, all the way from Hiroshima, Japan?

Your package could include trinkets like this…

Trinkets from Japan

And treats like this…

Treats from Japan

The contents of your package may vary a bit from these things, but it will include at least 10 fun items for your family. And all you have to do is be a winner in this special contest! (There can be up to 3 winners.)

Click to learn more about the contest →

Big News for 2017 at Bilingual Monkeys

Happy New Year! I hope 2017 is a good year for you and your family and I hope my work—this blog, my forum, and my book—can help you experience even greater success and joy on your bilingual journey.

Before I share my big news for this year, let me point you toward an important article I posted last January. This article is still just as relevant today, and in fact, will always be relevant for the aim of raising bilingual children. So if you missed it last year, be sure to take a look now…

7 Must-Make Resolutions for Parents Raising Bilingual Kids

7 Must-Make Resolutions for Parents Raising Bilingual Kids

My big news

To kick off the year, I have three things to tell you…

1. JUNIOR HIGH SCHOOL

My daughter will enter junior high school in the spring. (The school year in Japan runs from April to March.) It’s like her years in elementary school just blinked by and Lulu is no longer the little girl I’ve featured at this blog for the past five years—she’s becoming a young woman.

In terms of our bilingual journey, this change will mark a challenging new stage. The fact is, the junior high school in our area is twice as far from our home as the elementary school. So, on top of a long school day, club activities after school, and heavier loads of homework, she’ll have to leave the house even earlier in the morning. All of this means that the daily routines I’ve been able to maintain over the past six years of elementary school, in order to advance her (and her younger brother’s) progress in the minority language, will have to be reshaped in creative ways to fit this new reality. Things like reading aloud, which I’ve always done at breakfast, and daily homework after school in the minority language—two central routines of our journey to date—will be tested, and yet I’m determined to do what I realistically can through the busier teen years, too.

And, as always, I’ll report on our experiences at this blog—both the successes and the struggles—with an eye toward offering ideas and inspiration for your own journey.

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Meeting the King's Family and Enriching My Bilingual Children's Language Exposure

If you’ve been following this blog, you know that one of my best weapons for promoting exposure to the minority language is my endless urge to say dumb things to my students and my kids.

It’s true, and I detailed this idea in one of the most popular posts at this site: Why Saying a Lot of Dumb Things to Your Bilingual Kids Is So Valuable to Their Language Development. The truth is, the more you make a habit of saying dumb things—and generating playful conversations that can engage your children in the target language—the more exposure you’ll create in that language and the more effective that input will be. Do this regularly, over the course of childhood, and such efforts at “imaginary talk” can have a powerful impact not only on the progress made in your children’s language development but also on the joy you experience together in your relationship.

Here’s a very clear example, from last Sunday. Let me try to recreate the conversation, while adding little notes of explanation, as needed.

“What an exciting day!”

See this photo? It shows a store in Hiroshima that sells used clothing; it’s called King Family.

King Family

So on Sunday morning, before Lulu and Roy have come to the kitchen table for breakfast, my wife shows me a flyer, touting a big sale at King Family, and says she wants to go. I grunt in agreement (I don’t like shopping for clothes) and she leaves the room to start a load of laundry.

Moments later, my kids sit down at the table with me and begin to eat their breakfast.

Let’s pick up the conversation from there…

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Since my book about raising bilingual children was released in the spring, I’ve been interviewed a number of times. These videotaped conversations—connecting me, in Hiroshima, Japan, to kindred spirits in other parts of the world—have been a real joy for me and I’ve been grateful for the invitations to speak about this subject.

The truth is, I’m generally not a big talker, but when the subject is bilingual children, which I have a boundless passion for, I’m afraid it’s hard to get me to stop!

Amanda Hsiung Blodgett, popularly known as Miss Panda Chinese, learned that recently when we spoke for almost an hour about a range of issues related to raising bilingual kids. It was a very lively discussion (watch out for my annoying puppet, Princess Pup!) and I’m happy to now share it with you.

Watch this video at Miss Panda Chinese.

I recently tried a new activity that worked so well, I want to share the full details with you. In fact, below you’ll even find scans of the actual stories produced by my kids and their grandmother. I hit upon this idea while reflecting on the serial stories I’ve written, as a form of captive reading, that feature my children in starring roles in order to strengthen their engagement in the minority language (for us, that’s English).

Let’s call this new activity “Story Exchange” and the basic idea involves having the child write a story in the target language that features a partner—like a grandparent—as the main character. The partner, in turn, writes a story that puts the child in a starring role.

The idea is quite simple, but it’s very effective, and in a variety of ways…

  • It provides a creative change of pace from writing letters.
  • The idea of writing a story about a family member or friend is inherently engaging.
  • When creating their stories, children practice and stretch their writing ability in the minority language.
  • After receiving the stories written for them, children feel genuinely motivated to read the text. (Who doesn’t want to read a story that stars you?)
  • Children can also exercise their drawing ability by adding an illustration to accompany the story.
  • The stories themselves become special keepsakes that could last a lifetime.

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My son is 9 and the other day I gave him a simple writing task, as part of our daily homework routine, to help stretch his ability in English, our minority language.

But as it turns out, I found the results quite revealing in terms of our entire bilingual journey together.

The simple task involved making a list of things of a certain color; in this case, a list of 10 things that are black.

That was all. I offered no further direction or guidance.

And here’s what Roy wrote…

Make a list of 10 things that are black.

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Here's the Bright Side to Bilingual Kids Getting Sick

My son is sick today. He woke up with a headache and fever and stayed home from school. (Summer vacation hasn’t quite begun yet in Japan.)

Of course, I’m not happy that he’s sick. Like any parent, I don’t like to see my kids suffering, even if that suffering is only mild. And in my case, since I work from home (and my wife works outside the home), when my kids are sick this means there’s another presence in the house pulling at my attention.

Still, though I want them to be healthy and in school, I’ve also come to see the bright side of these occasional days of illness at home.

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The Larger Arc of Captive Reading—and Our Lives As Human Beings

For nearly a decade, I’ve pursued a strategy I call “captive reading” and this tactic has made a tremendous contribution to my children’s language and literacy development. At this point, as my children are getting a bit older (they’re now 12 and 9) and their ability in the minority language has reached a fairly advanced level, I’ve now taken what is probably the final step in my captive reading efforts, one I’ll try to sustain through the rest of their childhood.

But before I share that final step, let’s look back at the larger arc of this strategy since my daughter was 3. Obviously, from age 3 to age 12 there has been great growth in her language development and, in line with this growth, I’ve used a progression of captive reading forms and materials over the years.

Below is the broad chronology of my efforts, based on the main blog posts that have described these ideas. For full details, please turn to the original posts.

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