Look Inside: MAXIMIZE YOUR CHILD'S BILINGUAL ABILITY

Preschool

How can you promote the English ability of your preschool children? Find out in these posts!

Here’s Clear Proof of the Basic Formula for Successfully Raising a Bilingual Child

Over the past 20 years, I’ve worked with hundreds of bilingual and multilingual kids as a teacher and a parent. Although I love all the children I’ve taught, first at Hiroshima International School and now as a private tutor, I’ve had a special fondness for teaching a certain type of child: children who had no English ability when they first entered this school, where English is the language of instruction.

Many of these children have been Japanese or Korean; others have been from a range of countries like Brazil, Germany, and Estonia. Different children, different backgrounds, and yet they’ve all faced, and successfully overcome, the exact same challenge: becoming bilingual in English.

Working with such children isn’t always easy—early on, this lack of language ability can be very frustrating for them. But my experiences as their teacher, witnessing the swift progress they make from week to week, and the joy that accompanies their growing ability to communicate with others in the new language, have been profoundly rewarding.

Anna becomes bilingual

For the past six months I’ve been tutoring a 10-year-old girl I’ll call Anna. When I first started working with Anna, she had just entered Hiroshima International School and spoke no English at all. For the first several months, it’s true, she seemed to struggle with feelings of frustration, even defeat, but I knew it was only a matter of time before her language ability started to bloom. And the other day in our lesson, much to my delight, she began chirping away in English more freely and happily than she ever had before.

Of course, I can hardly take credit for this transformation. Compared to the long days she spends at school, our weekly hour together is brief. And, of course, her English level is still relatively low and she won’t really be fluent until a bit farther in the future. Nevertheless, she’s now rapidly becoming bilingual.

The question is: Why was I so sure this breakthrough would occur?

True, I’ve experienced the same sort of blooming language ability with other children in these circumstances, so, based on those past outcomes, I suppose it’s only natural that I would expect a similar result. But there’s more to it, and this is the important point I want to make, a central principle that every parent raising a bilingual child would be wise to keep firmly in mind.

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ADAM’S NOTE: As I learned about the efforts Amy González has been making with her trilingual family, through this lively thread at The Bilingual Zoo, I quickly realized that her story could be a source of inspiration for many other parents. And so I asked her to sum up her experience to share with the readers of this blog, which she kindly agreed to do. Naturally, every family is working with different circumstances, but the idea of limiting the influence of the majority language is a fundamental challenge for most of us and I think Amy’s encouraging example can help us become more mindful and proactive in ways that suit our own needs and conditions. Thank you, Amy!

Bilingual Families and the Importance of Limiting the Influence of the Majority Language at Home

Amy González is a bubbly wife and mother of two beautiful trilingual girls (French is their majority language; English and Spanish are their minority languages). Her elder daughter is now 4 and her younger daughter is 10 months. Amy was born in France then raised in Spain, where she was educated in international British schools, before moving to the U.K. She moved back to France for work, over a decade ago, where she met her Spanish husband-to-be.

When I joined Adam’s forum, The Bilingual Zoo, I eagerly read about some of the experiences of other parents of bilingual children and the thread begun by James H really struck a chord in me. Despite using the “one person, one language” (OPOL) approach from day one—I spoke English to the kids and my husband spoke Spanish—my elder daughter tended to respond in French, our majority language, especially since starting nursery school, with a little Spanish when she felt like it, and hardly any English. When I read about James’s experience, I realized where we were going wrong: the “flaw” in our situation was the influence of the majority language at home.

So, last August, I decided to “kick” French out of our home, as I felt it was becoming oppressive and stifling our minority languages. First, I began speaking exclusively in English at home. And incredibly, within just a day, my elder daughter began trying to reply in English!

Right then, my husband and I keenly understood the problem. Not only had we been using the majority language at home to communicate as a couple, but after reading and re-reading posts and articles at The Bilingual Zoo and at Bilingual Monkeys, we recognized how pernicious the influence of the majority language was on our bilingual (trilingual) aim.

Amy with her husband and elder daughter

Amy with her husband and elder daughter, before her second daughter arrived and they realized the need to modify their approach.

Extent of the majority language’s influence

Speaking the minority languages at home was a good start, but living in a majority language country means that that language is always lurking nearby…more so than we might imagine. The influence of the majority language at home can be widespread: TV, radio, books from the local bookshop or library, nursery rhymes or songs learnt at school, text on clothing, decorations on the wall, packaging on food…the list goes on and on.

When I first started looking at the extent of this influence in our home, I felt rather overwhelmed. As a parent seeking to raise multilingual children, I was concerned that all this was interfering with our educational goals and I wondered how far I should go in trying to limit this influence of the majority language…and how realistic this would be.

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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.

Lil'ollo

When Alexandra Nicoletti, the creative force behind the new UK-based company Lil’ollo, contacted me not long ago, I quickly discovered that she and her team are creating some of the loveliest products available for bilingual children and their families. And not only are the Lil’ollo products well-designed and well-made, but Alex is producing items that are uniquely special, too.

Would you like a beautiful map of the world that can actually be personalized with the names of family members and their locations, to show your children their multicultural heritage?

Lil’ollo will make one for you!

Lil'ollo personalized map

Lil'ollo personalized map

Just through communicating with Alex via email, and eyeing her work in photos and video, I was already impressed and pleased to share Lil’ollo with others. And then, when she also sent us a box of samples so my children and I could see the products first-hand, it became crystal clear that Lil’ollo is creating resources that are both highly appealing for families with bilingual children and as high in quality as any of the best products for children you’ll find in the marketplace.

Ultimately, of course, my recommendations at this blog are not at all swayed by receiving product samples or any other sorts of incentives. I share only my honest opinion, in every case, and my honest opinion is that Alex is doing the world a real service by creating lovely resources that can help promote the bilingual and bicultural development of children everywhere.

For families on a bilingual or multilingual journey—and for schools nurturing multiple languages in their students—these are resources that provide colorful, playful support. I wholeheartedly recommend Lil’ollo and look forward to following Alex’s appealing and meaningful work.

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ADAM’S NOTE: Do you have enough resources to regularly engage your children in the minority language through playful games and activities? In this motivating guest post, Filipa Pinto describes her personal efforts as a parent and workshop leader of small children and offers useful suggestions for specific games and activities that are both fun and effective for language development. With Christmas approaching, maybe you’ll find a few good gift ideas for your kids! Thanks, Filipa!

Filipa's trilingual family

Filipa’s children, Tiago and Elisa, speak French with their mother and Spanish with their father. They’re also acquiring English from school and the community.

Filipa Pinto is a cheerful wife and mother of two beautiful trilingual toddlers (French, Spanish, and English). She was born in Portugal and raised in France. She moved to Perth, Australia to pursue her Masters degree at the university where she met her husband-to-be, who was also an international student. He is from Peru.

Filipa is the owner of Le Toboggan, an online bookshop that specializes in international children’s literature. She runs French and Spanish workshops for kids, and is also an international trade consultant.

My husband and I use the “one person, one language” method to raise our children. We live in Australia and English is the community language. We never speak English with the children inside or outside our home.

I speak French to the children and my husband speaks Spanish to them. Between the two of us, we use Spanish. We’re lucky in a sense because I’m fluent in Spanish and my husband can speak French so we can speak freely to the children without having to translate for each other’s benefit.

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ADAM’S NOTE: Have you gotten sidetracked from your bilingual quest? In this encouraging guest post, Keli Garcia Allen offers helpful advice for when you lose your rhythm and aren’t using the target language actively enough with your kids. Thank you for today’s dose of inspiration, Keli!

Meanwhile, Keli is also involved in an exciting new app project: “Spanish Safari, an iOS game expertly designed to teach Spanish to children 5-9 years old.” If Spanish is your target language, or you’d like to lend your support to a worthy project, please see the crowdfunding campaign for Spanish Safari, now taking place at IndieGogo.

Keli and her kids

Keli Garcia Allen is a certified Spanish teacher and works as a preschool teacher in a bilingual classroom. She is the Head of Content for Learn Safari and is currently working on Spanish Safari, a Spanish learning game for children 5-9 years old. Follow Keli and the rest of the Learn Safari team at their website or on Facebook.

As any parent raising multilingual children well knows, teaching kids multiple languages takes hard work and dedication. It can be a frustrating, but extremely rewarding journey. The ways in which parents work to ensure that their children learn two or more languages are varied and can involve “one parent, one language” (OPOL), “minority language at home” (ml@h), or even completely bilingual households. Once parents make these choices, however, it isn’t smooth sailing from there. Often, our language plans can be completely derailed! So, what do you do? Simply give up? Of course not! In this article I’ll share a few tips and tricks to reboot your language use and get you back on track to achieving your language goals.

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7 Steps to Get Your Bilingual Child Using the Minority Language More Actively

When it comes to raising bilingual children, the most common concern I hear—and this is a frustration felt by families in all parts of the world—involves strengthening the child’s ability in the minority language and getting the child to use that ability more actively.

One of the most-read articles at this blog discusses this difficulty at some length and offers a variety of suggestions for addressing it:

What to Do When Your Bilingual Child Won’t Speak Your Language

With this post, I hope to boil the problem down into 7 essential steps that will enable busy parents to conceptualize this issue clearly and take effective action in order to realize even greater success on their bilingual journey.

7 essential steps

1. Recognize the Problem
When a child is reluctant to actively use the minority language—instead, relying mostly on the majority language to communicate—this can invariably be traced to shortcomings in the two “core conditions” of exposure and need: there must be an ample amount of exposure in the target language and an organic need to actually use it. Exposure and need lie at the heart of the whole challenge of fostering active bilingual ability, and if these two conditions are adequately addressed, then stronger progress can be made. (In fact, if there is adequate exposure and need from the very start of this journey, the problem of reluctance to using the minority language will hopefully be prevented before it even occurs.)

2. Commit to Addressing the Problem
When there are shortcomings in exposure and need, a stronger commitment is required for making mindful, proactive efforts on a daily basis. The bilingual aim—if it’s truly an important goal to you and your family—must be made a higher priority and placed more at the center of your lifestyle. Without this firm commitment to addressing the problem as persistently and resourcefully as you can, it will be hard to fortify the exposure and need that are necessary for promoting stronger language development and more active use. In fact, the majority language, as it continues its relentless progress, will likely grow even more dominant.

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ADAM’S NOTE: How does a monolingual parent go about raising a bilingual child? In this firsthand account, Llacey Simmons relates the early stages of one parent’s journey to promote a second language that she does not speak—yet is now making efforts to learn alongside her son. Thank you, Llacey, for sharing your personal story and helpful insights.

Llacey and her son Cavanaugh

Llacey and her son Cavanaugh

Llacey Simmons is an entrepreneurial mom who spends her days tutoring and her nights finding Chinese resources for her son. She lives in the U.S. state of Maryland with her inquisitive, bilingual four-year-old son, Cavanaugh. She shares her language learning expertise with other monolingual parents at her blog Our 21st Century Kids.

My journey teaching my son Chinese began over 2.5 years ago after an intense researching binge. I read many articles, scientific studies, and scoured the Internet for Chinese language classes for my then soon-to-be one year old.

As a monolingual parent who only speaks English, my lofty goal of raising a bilingual, near-native Chinese-speaking child was a bit daunting, at first. I knew I would have to be creative, think outside the box, and find the best way to stretch my limited budget to get my son the Chinese exposure he needed to become bilingual.

Soon, I begin to build a network of other parents who were in a similar situation, but the fact remained: What more could I do? Or, better yet, if I can’t teach him Chinese myself, where could I turn for help?

Cavanaugh and his Chinese language tutor

Cavanaugh and his Chinese language tutor

I purchased countless books, flashcards, Chinese videos, hired Chinese tutors, even restructured my work schedule to get my son to and from various Chinese playgroups.

But his Chinese language skills seemed to be stalling.

At best, I was only getting him about 5-6 hours of language exposure a week, mostly through play-based programs, but I was looking for more and a way where I could get in on the Chinese learning, too.

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ADAM’S NOTE: Ever feel shy or uncomfortable about speaking the minority language in a majority language setting? In this guest post, Sam Zerin writes eloquently about this emotional challenge and offers some very helpful suggestions. It’s an important post that I think will speak to many parents and I urge you to read it and share it with others. Thank you for writing it, Sam.

Sam and his son

Sam and his son in the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens, Spring 2016

Sam Zerin is a musicologist and amateur language enthusiast, currently living in the U.S. state of Rhode Island with his wife, toddler, and two adorable bilingual cats. He is raising his son in Yiddish, a language that runs deep in his family history, though he himself only learned it as an adult. You can follow his adventures of raising his son in a non-native language on his blog (at tate-loshn.weebly.com) and on Facebook (at facebook.com/tateloshn).

Like many American Jews of the past few generations, my mother’s parents spoke Yiddish when they didn’t want the kids to know what they were talking about. They wanted their kids to assimilate and become full-fledged Americans, and that meant speaking English, not Yiddish: that so-called “dying” language that symbolized Jewish life in the Old World, before Hitler came along and destroyed it all. And so, my mother, like so many other American Jews, never learned her parents’ native language. Of course, it’s ironic that now I’m speaking Yiddish—and only Yiddish—with my own child, specifically so that he’ll learn and use the language. It’s also an ironic twist of history that when I speak Yiddish with my son, it’s my parents who don’t understand.

Reversing History: Raising My Son in a “Dying” Language

I’ll be honest: I enjoy the irony. It’s a positive reversal—some might say an antidote—to the modern course of Jewish history. Instead of allowing Yiddish to die, by refusing to give it to the next generation, I’m bolstering it and giving it a future. Instead of memorializing it as a nostalgic relic of the forever-gone Old World, I’m embracing it as an essential part of my modern, daily life right here in the New World. Instead of casting it aside in favor of English, in order to assimilate and become “more American,” I’m equally valuing both halves of my “Jewish-American” identity. Instead of defining monolingualism as an essential element of national pride and identity—whether English for Americans or Hebrew for Zionists—I am celebrating multilingualism as a hugely important Jewish, Zionist, and American value.

And you know, I get a lot of compliments for it. Sometimes people think it’s really cool. Others get nostalgic and tell me how they always wished their parents had spoken Yiddish with them, but alas, they hadn’t. The guy who installed our home alarm system told me my son is going to be a genius someday, because I’m raising him bilingually. At our synagogue’s barbecue for new members last weekend, somebody asked if I’d consider teaching a Yiddish class—she thinks it’d be really popular. It’s nice to be met by such positivity.

Is the Yiddish Language Doomed?

An article in the March 23, 1928 edition of The Jewish Transcript. The Yiddish novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer famously quipped: “The Yiddish language has been dying for a thousand years, and I’m sure it will go on dying for at least a thousand more.”

The Challenges of Raising My Son In A Language That My Family Doesn’t Know

But I’ll be honest: the fact that I’m raising my son in a language that none of my parents, siblings, in-laws, aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbors, or babysitters speak or understand can sometimes be uncomfortable, too. For example, when my son and I are hanging out with my parents, and my parents speak to him in English, I understand what they’re saying—but then when I speak to my son in Yiddish, it unintentionally excludes them. Mealtime conversations are particularly hard, because I want to continue interacting with my son in Yiddish, but at the same time, I want the conversations to include everyone at the table. And it’s not just about being inclusive or exclusive; I don’t want it to feel like I’m hiding secrets from people, or like I’m talking about them in a language that they can’t understand. That can be very uncomfortable when I’m at the playground with my son, for instance, and he’s interacting (or I want him to interact) with other children who are there. Sometimes I point at another child and say to my kid in Yiddish: “Do you want to say hello to them?” or “Look, so-and-so is going down the slide! Weee!” or “Hey, look, those kids want to play with you!” And if those other kids’ parents don’t understand Yiddish, will they worry what this stranger is saying about their children?

Besides all that, I want people to know what I’m saying to my son, because that’s how relationships develop, and that’s also how positive memories form. Birthday parties can be awkward, for example, when everyone laughs and smiles and sings the birthday song in English, and then I sing the Yiddish birthday song and the entire room falls silent. Of course, there’s also the “weirdo” factor, especially in a place like the United States where multilingualism is generally viewed in a negative light (even while it’s celebrated as an academic resumé builder). It sometimes feels like I don’t belong when I’m speaking a language that even my own family and friends don’t understand, and when I’m out in public there are xenophobes to worry about. That’s all really uncomfortable.

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Annick De HouwerA few weeks ago I shared two excellent books on early child bilingualism in the post Recommended Resources: Books on Bilingual Acquisition by Prominent Researcher Annick De Houwer. Along with my impressions of these books, the post included an insightful interview with Dr. De Houwer and a book giveaway, which generated a number of questions from this audience.

Dr. De Houwer, a professor of Language Acquisition and Multilingualism at the University of Erfurt in Germany, generously offered to respond to some of these questions (and expressed regret at not being able to respond to everyone). On behalf of us all at Bilingual Monkeys and The Bilingual Zoo, let me thank Dr. De Houwer for her helpful thoughts today, and more broadly, for the important work she has long pursued to shed brighter light on child bilingualism. The world’s bilingual families are very grateful!

Question from Elodie in Germany: Can bilingualism not happen, even if the parents do everything that can be done? Can children resist that much that it will never work?

Question from Lainy in the U.S.: I’d like to know some strategies to get my children to produce the second language. They understand the spoken language very well, but they are hesitant to speak it.

Question from Stephanie in Japan: What I really want to know is how best to divert the child back into speaking the target language when s/he responds in the “wrong” language. Currently we ask our daughter “How do you say that in English?” Or we say “Please speak to Mama in English”. But I’ve heard from several friends in child development that children can’t actively distinguish between languages until age 4, so I am a bit confused as to whether that’s true (in which case I should just tell her the word in English?) or if that’s not true and I should continue as we have been doing.

Response from Dr. De Houwer: Indeed, children can strongly resist speaking a particular language, Elodie. In the preschool years there certainly are strategies that you can use to counter this. Using the names of languages, Stephanie, will not be particularly helpful, though. If very young children are not using the language you want them to speak, you can do various things to try to get them to change. You can ask: Oh, did you mean so-and-so, where ‘so-and-so’ is the word or phrase in the language you want them to speak. If they say yes, then ask them to repeat what they meant, so you can properly understand them. Or you could say: I really don’t understand that word very well, can you say it differently? (That’s if you think children know the word in the ‘right’ language.) You can try this for a few weeks and often this will be enough to switch very young children over to the ‘right’ language but sometimes that doesn’t happen. Then you could bring a cute hand puppet into the house and tell your child that this puppet only understands Polish, or Spanish, or whatever language you want them to speak. And then…it’s time for your talents as a puppeteer to develop! Play games with your child and the puppet, so that your child gets into the habit of using the right language.

Now with older children I’m afraid it’s nearly impossible to change ingrained habits of using language X with a parent who speaks language Y to them, but it is worth talking to them about it and explaining that you understand that they don’t feel good talking a language they have little fluency in, but that it’s really important to you that they speak your language. Educate your school aged children about your language, and show them (online perhaps?) children who speak it. Try to increase their motivation to speak it, and put them in circumstances where in order to say anything they must use it, because the person they’re talking to doesn’t know another language they know.

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