My Family

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

Fifa, our bearded dragon

What a surreal six weeks since my last post.

The swift, worldwide spread of the coronavirus has abruptly upended the lives we had grown so accustomed to living—and has even stirred deep pangs of existential anxiety about survival itself. (Full disclosure: I have a congenital heart condition—which I only found out about two years ago—and though I’m still reasonably healthy, this probably puts me at a higher risk of more serious illness.)

Still, as trying as this time is, in so many ways, we can only carry on as best we’re able while continuing to hope that we’ll see the light at the end of this dark tunnel before too long. Toward that end, the outpouring of mutual support at The Bilingual Zoo, from parents around the world who are hunkered down in their homes with their children, has been very encouraging.

Along with a range of practical ideas and helpful resources for families on lockdown (see this thread), the personal experiences that many parents are sharing (see this thread and this board) also point to what seems to be the most healthy perspective we can adopt at this time:

As terrible as the pandemic is, this situation can nevertheless be viewed as an opportunity to take new actions that could well benefit both the emotional bond with our kids and the ongoing growth of their bilingual or multilingual ability.

A new creative project

In my case, along with my efforts to provide my kids, 15 and 13, with daily input in English (our minority language) through ample speech, reading aloud, playing games, and homework tasks that involve reading and writing, I’m also trying to engage them in some creative projects.

For example, here’s a new project that I’m now pursuing with my son…which was inspired by our bearded dragon named Fifa! (The name came from Roy’s love of soccer.)

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My Daughter Hits the Biggest Milestone of Our Bilingual Journey Together

My daughter, Lulu, will be 16 in a few months and this blog has followed her progress as a bilingual child in Japanese and English (trilingual, if we count her growing Spanish, too) over the past 8 years. There have been a lot of large milestones over these years—both in her language development and in her rising maturity—and I’ve shared many of them, including…

“I Can Help People”: I Interview My Daughter on Being Bilingual (March 22, 2013)

Big Breakthrough with My Bilingual Daughter? (December 29, 2014)

VIDEO: Wacky Interview with My Bilingual Daughter (April 28, 2015)

How I Got My Bilingual Daughter to Eagerly Do Her Homework in the Minority Language (February 1, 2017)

My Daughter and I Hit a Big Milestone on Our Bilingual Journey Together (March 23, 2017)

My Bilingual Daughter Is 13. My Bilingual Son is 10. So Why Is Their Level in the Minority Language Basically the Same? (January 26, 2018)

Update on My Daughter’s Bilingual Life at 14.5 Years Old: High School, Tears, and English Tests (December 6, 2018)

On Friday, though, came news of the biggest milestone yet.

Working hard for her dream

First, though, let me back up a bit and tell you that Lulu’s last year of junior high school has been very tough, very stressful. (In Japan, elementary school is six years, followed by three years of junior high, then three years of high school, with the school year running from April to March.) The truth is, I’ve watched her study much harder than I ever studied when I was a teen, not only studying constantly at home but also regularly attending a neighborhood juku, or cram school, in the evenings and on weekends.

At the same time, as I recently described in This Is the Bottom Line for Success at Raising Bilingual Kids, she also took part in an English speech contest for junior high students in western Japan and practiced hard for that as well. (Spoiler alert: She won!)

The larger aim of all these efforts was the dream she has pursued for the past three years: to attend her first choice of high schools in Hiroshima, one of the better high schools in the city, and, more specifically, that school’s special international program where the students study English more seriously, engage in cultural exchange activities, and even go abroad on short trips.

I was certainly behind her drive to enter this school (and my wife was, too), but, to be honest, we were also somewhat concerned because Lulu didn’t really want to attend any other high school. Her heart was set on this particular school, this particular program, and if she didn’t get in, it would no doubt be a crushing blow to her young life.

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I Did Something the Other Day That I Thought I’d Never Do

The other day I took my son to the library.

No, going to the library isn’t the thing I thought I’d never do. In fact, I used to go to the library all the time—every week, like clockwork—to borrow books to read to my kids.

So it isn’t the library itself—it’s why we went to the library.

For the sake of the minority language

The library is downtown, sitting in a small park, and the parking lot is some distance away. It was a sunny morning and I was feeling kind of nostalgic as we walked toward the building, which I had visited so regularly in the past but hadn’t been to in several years.

As I thought of the reason I was now returning to the library, I recalled the blog post I had written when my kids were still in elementary school:

Why I Don't Want My Kids to Do Well in School

The point I made at the time was that, for the sake of the minority language (English), I felt it was better if the majority language (Japanese) didn’t progress too quickly. I was being facetious, of course, when I said that I didn’t want them to do well in school. I wanted them to do well, but as long as they were doing well enough, that was fine and probably best for the larger arc of their bilingual development. I didn’t want them to do too well back then because I hoped to keep their English side as strong and as active as their Japanese side, at least as long as I possibly could.

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Lulu giving her speech in the finals of the speech contest.

Two threads of my life, both of them months in the making, have suddenly come together with the same message.

The first thread involves my 15-year-old daughter and an English speech contest (recitation contest) that took place on Saturday. This event was the culmination of a long process that began in the spring, when her English teacher at school encouraged her to take part.

When Lulu, now in her third and last year of junior high at a public school here in Hiroshima, told me about it, I first expressed surprise that I hadn’t heard anything about this speech contest in her first and second years. (I’m always the last to know things around here!) But then I, too, encouraged her to participate.

Writing the speech

The contest involved writing a short speech—to be presented within a time limit of five minutes—and giving this speech at the city-wide competition involving students representing junior high schools in Hiroshima. (Hiroshima has over a million people so there are a lot of junior high schools.) The winners from this round of city schools would then go on to the finals that brought together the winners from the junior high schools throughout Hiroshima Prefecture, which covers a sizable chunk of western Japan.

It was the finals that took place on Saturday.

But first, back to last spring. Before Lulu could even enter this speech contest, she needed a speech. So we brainstormed together and came up with a theme. Then I asked her to write a first draft. While it’s true that this first draft was a mess, I also knew that, as long we both stayed persistent, it could be improved through draft after draft.

And that’s what happened.

The date for the contest

So, finally, she had her speech—and I’ll share the full text with you below, so you’ll know what she spoke about.

At that point, in late May, we still hadn’t received information from her English teacher about when the city-wide round would take place…and then suddenly her teacher was on leave, awaiting the birth of her first child.

As it turns out, it took far more effort than expected to get that information from the school, but we eventually learned that the city-wide contest would be held on September 7, after the summer break.

Unfortunately, I would be out of town on that date, having already made plans for a trip to Europe to interview parents for a new book on raising bilingual and multilingual children.

Practicing the speech

Still, I could help her prepare for the contest and so we began practicing her speech. (I also have a background in theater arts, so I was eager to work with her in this way.)

First thing to know: Lulu has been terribly busy this year, not only studying hard for school but also studying hard for high school entrance exams, which will take place early next year. In fact, most days she attends a juku (cram school) in the evening, which means that we could only practice together after that, when both of us were tired. But night after night (with only rare exceptions, when she was just too tired), we did.

Second thing to know: Lulu isn’t very big, but she’s brave. She’s been in the public eye before on a number of occasions—dancing, playing piano or guitar, reading aloud at presentations (sometimes in Japanese, sometimes in English)—but this was the very first time she would be memorizing a speech and standing on stage alone to deliver it. And, frankly, when we first began practicing, her presentation left a lot to be desired. I mean, she could recite the words well enough, but her delivery was so wooden, so stiff.

In fact, I wasn’t sure how successful I could be in getting her to open up and express herself more fully and naturally, but since the writing process had also been a test of persistence, I figured that we would surely make progress over time, no matter how far she finally got.

And so we both stuck with it, though it’s true that this process was made more difficult by the fact that she insisted on practicing the speech with her back to me…because she would break out giggling when she faced in my direction.

Results of the first contest

Finally, I left for Europe on September 2, which meant she was on her own for the last few days. On September 7, my wife took her to the city-wide contest, held at an auditorium in downtown Hiroshima. Considering the time difference between us on that day—I was in England and she was in Japan—it’s hard to say exactly what I was doing when she was standing on stage, delivering her speech, but perhaps—and fittingly, as you’ll soon see—I was in the midst of interviewing a parent about their bilingual or multilingual journey.

Soon after, though, I received the news by text: Lulu had won the contest in Hiroshima and would advance to the area-wide finals, scheduled for December 7.

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Japan

For five weeks in the fall of 2019—from September 2 to October 9—I traveled from Japan to Europe to meet bilingual and multilingual families in person and interview the parents for a new book I’m writing that brings together a range of “success stories” on the subject of raising bilingual and multilingual children. Along with the 15 interviews I conducted in England, France, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Poland, the Czech Republic, Spain, and Italy, I’m now pursuing additional interviews with parents in other parts of the world via Skype. This series of posts shares some reflections from my recent travels. To follow my book project in greater depth—including the posts I wrote detailing my experience of each destination on my European tour—please consider joining me at my Patreon page and lending support to my work. (You’ll get some special rewards at the same time!)

One of the core principles for successfully raising bilingual or multilingual children (key question #6 in 45 Key Questions Every Parent Raising a Bilingual Child Should Ask) is this:

Effective habits and routines that can provide the child with ample exposure in the target language, and create regular opportunities for him or her to use this language actively, must be made and sustained—and reshaped, as necessary—over the years of childhood.

In our case, for example, some of my long-running habits and routines with my kids have been…

*Spending as much time together as possible, and being as talkative with them as I can.

*Reading aloud to them every morning at breakfast for at least 15 or 20 minutes.

*Posting stories and articles in the bathroom on a continuous basis as captive reading material.

*Maintaining a regular homework routine by giving them a manageable amount of reading and writing tasks (almost) every day.

During my five weeks on the road, though, I was unable to sustain most of these habits and routines, which have fueled much of the progress my children have made in the minority language over the years. Moreover, it has been hard, in some ways, to get these habits and routines going again since my return to Japan.

In other words, good habits and routines are not only vital for the growth of our target language, they can be rather delicate things, too, and a change in circumstance—like my absence of five weeks—can sidetrack our efforts and make it harder to return to that productive rhythm.

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3-year-old girl in England

For five weeks in the fall of 2019—from September 2 to October 9—I traveled from Japan to Europe to meet bilingual and multilingual families in person and interview the parents for a new book I’m writing that brings together a range of “success stories” on the subject of raising bilingual and multilingual children. Along with the 15 interviews I conducted in England, France, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Poland, the Czech Republic, Spain, and Italy, I’m now pursuing additional interviews with parents in other parts of the world via Skype. This series of posts shares some reflections from my recent travels. To follow my book project in greater depth—including the posts I wrote detailing my experience of each destination on my European tour—please consider joining me at my Patreon page and lending support to my work. (You’ll get some special rewards at the same time!)

The adorable three-year-old girl was sitting on the stairs, telling me all about her “babies”—her dolls and stuffed animals that were adorned with band-aids (“plasters” she called them, in the British English she spoke) because, she said, they were ill or had gotten injured.

And at that moment, in my very first homestay of the trip, I flashed on my own daughter when she was the same small, incredibly-cute age and I suddenly missed that time terribly.

A large lump rose in my throat.

Halloween, years ago

Below is Lulu when she was three. She’s now 15 so that was 12 years ago. And fittingly for this week, she was dressed up for Halloween. Her Halloween costume was “red”—that was what she wanted to be, she had told us eagerly in her chipmunky voice. “RED!”

Lulu at Halloween

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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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