Books for language-loving families by author Adam Beck

Toddlers

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

Breaking news! This week I was interviewed about raising bilingual children at the popular podcast Preschool and Beyond. The host is Mike Dlott and we had a great discussion. I hope you enjoy it!

And I highly recommend the many other episodes at this podcast, too—it’s a goldmine of practical information about parenting issues.

Listen to the Raising a Bilingual Child podcast episode at the Discovery Child Development Center website.

Listen to the Raising a Bilingual Child podcast episode at the Discovery Child Development Center website.

Or listen to the Raising a Bilingual Child podcast episode at iTunes.

Or listen to the Raising a Bilingual Child podcast episode at iTunes.

My son had a really fun time last weekend—in the minority language—with our latest homestay guest.

If schooling in the minority language isn’t an option for your family, and travel to a minority-language destination is limited (see Bilingual Travelers, an ongoing series at this blog, for personal stories that share the powerful impact of such trips), it’s important to be proactive and resourceful about finding or creating opportunities from your own location so that your children can interact with other speakers of the target language.

Here are 5 ideas…

1. Online Conversations
Of course, many of us make regular use of Skype, FaceTime, or Zoom to speak to family and friends who live in distant places. This not only provides additional language input but also strengthens the bond between loved ones and our kids. (See previous posts like Bilingual Kids and Grandparents: Make the Most of This Opportunity and A Powerful Twist on the Use of Skype to Promote the Minority Language.)

However, just the other day I experienced a huge new possibility, both for non-native parents who wish to improve their own language ability and for children to engage with other speakers of the target language.

I had been wanting to do this for some time—so I could benefit from more focused time speaking Japanese (my second language)—and I finally tried it on Friday. I paid less than $10 and I spent a full hour speaking Japanese, over Skype, with a native speaker!

The site I used to make this connection is called italki, and while I’m sure there are many other sites like this for people seeking to learn languages, my first impressions of italki have been extremely positive, in all ways.

And here’s the really wonderful thing: If you’re just looking for a friendly speaker of the language for you and/or your children, you’ll find thousands of them at italki, in a wide range of languages, and many of them are charging only around $10 US per hour.

At italki, there are two categories of teachers: lower-priced “Community Tutors” (speakers of the language who are eager to help others achieve their language-learning aims but aren’t professional teachers) and higher-priced “Professional Teachers” (who naturally often charge more for their expertise and instruction).

So, if you’re in need of more opportunity to engage in your target language with other speakers—you alone; an older child alone; or even you with a smaller child on your lap—why not explore this possibility at italki or a similar online resource?

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ADAM’S NOTE: As I often stress, when the basic circumstances of your life work against your bilingual aim, raising the odds of success involves two choices: 1) You can reshape those conditions in more conducive ways, and/or 2) You can be as proactive as possible in your daily efforts. This lively guest post by Matthew John Thoren is an encouraging example of that second solution, where the persistent efforts of a proactive parent have produced happy success through the important early years of the bilingual journey.

5 Key Strategies That Have Enabled Me to Successfully Foster My Son’s Bilingual Ability

Matthew John Thoren is originally from the U.S. state of Vermont and has lived in Japan for most of the last 15 years. While working full-time at a U.S. biotechnology company in Tokyo, he spends as much time as possible playing board games, riding bicycles, reading, and practicing living-room sumo wrestling with his 4-year-old bilingual son. When everyone else has gone to bed, Matthew is either (quietly) working on DYI projects in the family’s new home or shopping for fun English books.

This article describes five key strategies that have enabled me to successfully foster my son’s ability in the minority language, to the age of 4, despite being basically the only source of exposure to this language in my young son’s life.

My wife, my son, and I live in Tokyo, Japan. My wife is Japanese, I’m American, and our son, Soma (a name we considered, but not his real name) is a dual citizen. As a family we have never lived outside of Japan, and my son has spent a total of 18 days in the U.S. on two separate visits. Exposure to the majority language, Japanese, comes from my wife, her parents, daycare, and the community. Exposure to the minority language, English, comes almost entirely from me.

I speak only English to Soma and to my wife. My wife speaks very little English to him and speaks to me in English about 35% of the time. While not native, both my wife and I speak and understand each other’s first language very comfortably. For Soma, there is almost no English language exposure besides me, apart from some TV programs (which is not a fundamental part of our strategy) and a short weekly exchange with family in the U.S. on Facetime or Skype. Despite this, by adhering to the following five tactics, Soma has an English vocabulary of approximately 1,500 words at age four, which is about normal for a child his age growing up in the U.S.

1. Speak only the minority language.

For me, this is the simplest of the five strategies. I speak the minority language to Soma 100% of the time, with absolutely no exceptions. Period. In four years, I have never encountered the need and have never spoken the minority language to my child.

My wife and I generally spoke Japanese to each other before our son was born, but I made the decision that I would only speak to Soma in English. Knowing that I needed to break the habit of speaking Japanese in the house, I began speaking to our son in English well before he was born so that the habit was already formed before he arrived. So, if my son is present, English is the only thing you will hear from me. Period. (The only exception would be if his life is in danger and I knew a warning in Japanese would be more likely to save him!)

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12 Inspiring Real-Life Stories of Bilingual and Multilingual Families

In the post Do This One Simple Thing and I Guarantee You Greater Success On Your Bilingual Journey, I talked at length about how establishing and sustaining a habit of writing about your experience on a regular basis can be an especially powerful way of fortifying your efforts and your progress on this bilingual or multilingual quest. (While also producing a valuable written record of your family’s experience for the future.)

In that post, I wrote…

When it comes to my personal efforts to raise bilingual children, this writing routine is the single most powerful part of the whole equation, the very foundation of my experience which gives greater fuel to all the other actions I take, day after day after day. In fact, this central aspect of my bilingual journey has been the bedrock for these profound benefits:

I’m able to reflect deeply and continuously on the subject of raising bilingual children in general, and on my own children (and students) in particular.

I’m able to remain conscious and proactive in my daily efforts, despite the many other elements of my life competing for my time and attention.

I’m able to effectively address my challenges as they arise, overcoming the inevitable struggles and frustrations with persistence and playfulness.

These, you see, are the very qualities needed to maximize success at raising bilingual children and they’re available to us all, in abundance, by pursuing this one simple action. But even when the payoff for just a little time and energy is so great, I suspect there are many parents who don’t really seize this opportunity.

Then I go on to say…

You simply sit down with your notebook or mobile phone or computer and quietly pour out your thoughts and feelings about raising bilingual children (in any language you prefer): your hopes and dreams, your ideas and plans, your challenges and struggles, your frustrations and disappointments, your successes and joys.

You write about your bilingual journey, on an ongoing basis (let’s say at least once a week), throughout the childhood years. And if you do—in whatever form you choose—I guarantee that you will strengthen those key qualities I’ve described, which, in turn, will strengthen your children’s language development.

Please don’t misunderstand—I’m not suggesting that you have to write about your bilingual journey in order to experience success and achieve the bilingual aim you hold for your children. But I think it’s fair to say that making a regular habit of writing about your experience has the potential to empower your daily efforts and enable your children to reach even greater heights of bilingual ability during childhood.

So today I’d like to point you to some specific examples of parents who are pursuing this very idea right now, and their commitment to regularly writing about their experience is clearly benefiting their bilingual or multilingual aim. In fact, their willingness to share their experience with the world, in real time, is also benefiting other parents as well, who can gain ideas and encouragement from their stories.

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The Basic Formula for Bilingual Success

One of the most rewarding things about running The Bilingual Zoo, the friendly (and free) forum I opened in 2014, is the opportunity to follow the progress made by parents and children over time. It’s always a thrill for me when a thread begun by a parent, concerned over a child’s language development, is updated after six months or a year with happy news of stronger progress. This happens regularly, and the latest example is Stefania’s thread, which she updated the other day.

Not only are these successes gratifying to me personally, they also continually reaffirm for me, professionally, what I consider to be the basic formula for bilingual success.

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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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It’s true! No matter how old they are, children want to be bilingual!

Watch this short video, where I read an excerpt from my book Maximize Your Child’s Bilingual Ability, for a motivating perspective on the entire bilingual journey…

View this video at Bilingual Monkeys TV and subscribe to my YouTube channel.

Get more information about my widely-praised book.

ADAM’S NOTE: One essential lesson for parents to learn early on—or potentially face growing frustrations on their bilingual journey—is the need to add greater realism to the initial idealism we feel going into this experience. Idealism continues to play a vital role in motivating our efforts, but relaxing into a more realistic and flexible mindset, while remaining persistent and playful, day by day, enables us to pursue a path that is both more enjoyable and more effective. In this insightful guest post, Jordana Timerman brings this point to colorful life by sharing the candid story of her first two years as a parent on a bilingual quest. Thank you, Jordana, for conveying an important message that I’m sure will be encouraging for others to hear.

Guest Post: Creating a Little Bilingual Family—If Not Precisely By the Book

Jordana Timerman is a freelance journalist in Buenos Aires, where she grew up speaking English and Spanish. She is the mother of a two-year-old who is being spoken to in English (minority language) and Spanish (majority language) in a disconcertingly disorganized fashion.

Jordana TimermanI try hard not to cringe when well-meaning friends and family speak to my daughter in broken English. According to the “rules” of bilingualism, they should be speaking in Spanish, their native language and the majority language in Argentina where we live. But I’ve found that when people hear me speak to my two-year-old in my native English they automatically trend towards using it themselves with her.

The curious result is my Argentine-born daughter is being treated like a foreigner in her own country. I don’t want to be the language police—I want people to have easy relationships with my child. But as they speak to her, all I can think about are admonishments to parents of bilingual children not to mix languages.

Theory and reality

Before my daughter was born, my partner and I casually agreed that I’d speak English to our children, thus sharing my native language and arming them for an anglo-dominated world. Like pretty much everything else pre-parents blissfully envision, the post-partum result was a lot more complicated.

Language strategies, such as “one-parent-one-language” or “minority language at home,” all sound perfectly rational in theory. But somehow the realities we confronted didn’t fit into the patterns those strategies outlined so neatly.

I found myself uncertain over how to handle the interactions that remain unscripted in these approaches: How should I speak to my child in front of playground friends who don’t speak English? (Really awkward mix for now.) How to navigate daily interactions with babysitters who don’t understand what I’m saying to my daughter? (I sometimes wind up dubbing my own speech—I say it once in English and then repeat in Spanish for the caretakers’ benefit. It’s awful.) Was it alright to keep speaking in Spanish to my partner as we had always done? (It’s very uncomfortable to switch languages once you’re used to using one with somebody, so yes, we stick to Spanish.) A lot of the time I feel like an actor in a bad pantomime.

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Recommended Resources: Great Books and Blogs for Nurturing a Child's Multicultural Spirit

One of the deeper themes of my efforts to support the bilingual and multilingual journey of families in the world—as I stress in such posts as Why Raising a Bilingual Child Matters in a World Gone Mad and Why Your Bilingual Child Is Tied, Profoundly, to Hiroshima and Peace—is the idea that children with ability in more than one language can potentially feel keener empathy for others and contribute to creating a more harmonious world through their outlook and actions.

I realize, of course, that the world is still very far from the peaceful place we wish it was—and I admit to wrestling with a more jaded side, too—but I nevertheless continue to believe that the efforts we make, including our efforts to raise bilingual and multilingual children, do make a productive difference to the larger arc of our evolution as a species.

Great books and blogs

This same idea—that expanding our familiarity with the world and our empathy for others can help promote greater peace on this fragile planet—is the essential aim of two books on nurturing a spirit of multiculturalism that I wholeheartedly recommend: Growing Up Global: Raising Children to Be At Home in the World and The Global Education Toolkit for Elementary Learners.

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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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Having some difficulty getting your bilingual child to speak your language?

Watch this video for clear, actionable advice that can help you address this challenge more effectively and get your child using the minority language more actively!

View this video at Bilingual Monkeys TV and subscribe to my YouTube channel.