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!

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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Look How Far We've Come On Our Bilingual Journey (And How Far You Can Go, Too)

Now that my daughter is in junior high school, and nearly a teen, I’d like to offer you a special peek at the progress my kids have made to date in their minority language. (For those who need a bit more context, we live in Hiroshima, Japan and my kids attend local Japanese schools, which means that Japanese is our majority language and English is our minority language.)

The idea for this post arose the other day when we bought a new desk for Lulu (to encourage her to study hard in junior high!) and had to overhaul the room that, until now, had always been our “play room.” After revamping it, and removing old toys and books—Roy inherited Lulu’s old desk and will get to choose his own new desk when he enters junior high, too—we rechristened this space the “study room.”

In fact, among the things I relocated from this room was a huge stack of workbooks and journals that have been part of our long-running homework routine to nurture literacy—and overall proficiency—in the minority language.

The full details on our daily homework routine can be found in Secrets of a Successful Homework Routine, Part 1 and Secrets of a Successful Homework Routine, Part 2 so I won’t go over that ground again here. Instead, I’d simply like to share samples of my children’s work—scanned right from these workbooks and journals—so you can see, very concretely, how far their language ability has progressed over the years as a result of the ranging efforts I describe at this blog and in my book.

I hope these images will help convey the crucial point that success on the bilingual journey is a function of daily diligence and long-term perseverance—and that this outcome can be realized by any determined family that makes the bilingual aim a top priority.

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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 →