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

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.

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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