Maximize Your Child's Bilingual Ability

Toddlers

How can you get your child off to a strong bilingual start? See these posts for ideas!

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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ADAM’S NOTE: In considering a language strategy for your family’s bilingual journey, the highest aim for this important decision is choosing an approach that will be most effectively geared to your particular circumstances and goals. And in some cases—as in Bea Sieradzka’s family—that choice involves consciously modifying traditional methods. Read Bea’s thoughtful guest post for an encouraging look at how one parent made a proactive decision that has paid off in strong bilingual success. Thank you, Bea!

Bilingual Success with a Proactive Language Strategy

Bea Sieradzka is a Polish mother living in the United Kingdom and raising a bilingual and biliterate son, now almost 7 years old. Based on research studies in bilingualism and her own background in linguistics, she introduced two languages from the time he was born: her native Polish and her second language, English. She is now supporting him in learning a third language, Chinese.

At her blog, Born Bilingual, Bea shares information and ideas to help immigrant families succeed at nurturing their children’s bilingualism: introducing the community language from birth, along with their heritage language, and fostering good ability in both languages.

Bea SieradzkaEven before my son was born, now seven years ago, I knew that one day he would be bilingual. Born in the United Kingdom to Polish parents, he had the opportunity to learn two languages at the same time. The question we asked ourselves, though—like so many other parents who have immigrated to the U.K. and speak English as a second language—was how to actually manage the process of his bilingual acquisition.

The downside to a common method

The conventional wisdom in this sort of situation is to speak to your child in your mother tongue, and allow them to learn the majority language out in the community. This is a common strategy known as the “minority language at home” approach. It sounds, at first, like the perfect solution.

The problem with this approach is that simultaneous bilingual acquisition only works if your child is regularly exposed to both languages for a sufficient amount of time. Research that includes The relation of input factors to lexical learning by bilingual infants (Barbara Zurer Pearson), The relationship between bilingual exposure and vocabulary development (Elin Thordadottir), and A Short Guide to Raising Children Bilingually (Fred Genessee) indicates that children need to be exposed to each language for a minimum of 20-30% of their waking hours, and ideally even more than that.

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ADAM’S NOTE: Among the many helpful guest posts at this blog, the articles written by trilingual speech-language pathologist Ana Paula Mumy should be considered must-reads. Her first guest post was Speech-Language Pathologist Tells All About Bilingualism, Speech, and Language Delays, and the second was Battling the Majority Language Giant (While Feeling Like a Minority Language Gnome). In this third guest post for Bilingual Monkeys, Ana Paula writes from personal experience about the widespread challenge of engaging children in the target language and sustaining steady progress. It’s another witty, insightful post and I’m grateful to Ana Paula for sharing her expertise and perspective so generously. :mrgreen:

Engaging Your Incredible Bilingual Child in the Minority Language

Ana Paula G. Mumy, MS, CCC-SLP, is a mother of two bilingual children, a trilingual speech-language pathologist (SLP), and a clinical assistant professor in the field of speech-language pathology. She has extensive experience working with individuals with communication disorders, particularly bilingual children. She has authored numerous articles as well as intervention materials and guides for diverse populations, and her specialized interests include articulation disorders, stuttering, language-literacy, and bilingualism. Many of her resources for SLPs, educators and parents can be found on her personal website The Speech Stop.

Ana Paula MumyMy favorite line in The Incredibles movie is when in the midst of complete chaos at the dinner table, which goes seemingly unnoticed by Mr. Incredible, his wife Helen (aka Elastigirl) finally pleads for his intervention and yells, “Bob! It’s time to engage!

I have felt like Helen lately, wanting to plead with my children to engage in the minority language. Over the past 7 months, my children have undergone major life changes: moving to another state, mommy working full-time for the first time since they were born, and transitioning from homeschooling in Portuguese and English to schooling in English at a private school where they spend 7 hours a day, 5 days a week.

Needless to say, as the primary source of Portuguese in their lives, this stark reduction in teaching and interactions in Portuguese has caused them to disengage significantly despite my efforts to 1) continue reading instruction in Portuguese, 2) maintain daily reading routines in Portuguese, 3) speak Portuguese at home, in the car, when running errands, etc., and 4) maintain connections with any Brazilian cultural events or individuals in the area. I confess I have found myself discouraged in this season!

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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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I'M GONNA BE BILINGUAL!

For more fun “bilingual memes,” visit a whole gallery of these images at The Bilingual Zoo.

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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