How Many Steps is the Bilingual Journey?

How Many Hours Per Week Is Your Child Exposed to the Minority Language?

January 23, 2013

As I mention in My Best Tips for Raising Bilingual Kids, about 25 hours per week would be a good target when it comes to the exposure a child receives in the minority language. (That’s roughly 30% of the child’s waking hours. Less than 20 hours may make it difficult for the minority language to keep pace with the development of the majority language.)

Now I’m no math whiz, but from time to time, I force myself to sit down and do a concrete count of the minority language exposure in our family. It’s a necessary exercise, I think, and can clearly reveal if the total hours are inadequate or perhaps need tweaking in certain areas.

Every family is different, of course—and any conclusions here won’t be universal—but I thought it might be helpful to share my findings for January 2013. At the very least, the makeup of minority language exposure in my family can offer some food for thought for yours, and may even move you to attempt this exercise at home. (Feel free to use a calculator, like I did. :mrgreen: )

And hey! I made a cool pie chart, too!

Family circumstances

First, I should probably offer a quick recap of our current circumstances…

  • My children are Lulu, 8, and Roy, 5 (turning 6 in March).
  • We live in Japan and they attend a Japanese school.
  • My wife, the main caregiver, is Japanese and uses only Japanese with the kids.
  • I use only English (our minority language) with them.
  • I’m the main source of English exposure.
  • I was formerly a teacher at Hiroshima International School, and have continued to tutor bilingual children in this area through my Bilingual Kids program.
  • I’ve been a freelance writer since 2010, so I generally work from home.

Cool pie chart and breakdown

Minority Language Exposure

Reading aloud each morning at breakfast
3.5 hours (7 days x 30 minutes)
Reading aloud has been the bedrock of my efforts since the kids were born. It’s an essential form of minority language exposure and should be started from the child’s first day of life, and maintained throughout childhood. Right now I’m reading chapter books at a somewhat higher level, like the terrific titles by Beverly Cleary. I’m also reading more poetry these days, including the work of Shel Silverstein and Jack Prelutsky. (I’ve come to love reading aloud good poetry.) See these articles for more information on reading aloud:
Good Books on Reading Aloud
The Secret to Raising a Bilingual Child
How to Get Your Child Hooked on Books
Don’t Stop Reading When They Start Reading!

Doing daily homework together
3.5 hours (7 days x 30 minutes)
In order to nurture reading and writing ability in the minority language, I established a daily “homework habit” when my kids were around the age of 3 so that English would get a strong head start before Japanese literacy took off at school. (It began with gentle steps like dot-to-dot books.) At the moment, this routine mainly involves completing one page in a reading workbook and reading with me from a chapter book (taking turns, page by page). Lulu is now attempting the first Harry Potter book while Roy is reading the longer titles from The Magic Treehouse series. Other activities, pursued once a week or so, include: writing in a journal, writing letters to pen-pals, and translating picture books from Japanese to English. For all the details on daily homework, see Secrets of a Successful Homework Routine.

Interacting on weekdays
7.5 hours (5 days x 1.5 hours)
I’m able to interact with my kids in the morning before school; in the late afternoon after school; and at dinner and in the evening before bed. Apart from our read-aloud and homework time, this interaction consists of such things as: playing games together, playing catch on the quiet street in front of our house, and chatting at mealtimes (which sometimes includes telling strange-but-true tales, made-up memories, and ridiculous riddles).

Interacting on the weekend
6 hours (2 days x 3 hours)
The amount of time naturally varies—depending on my work load and the particular weekend—but beyond the interaction that takes place at home, I do make an effort to take my kids out of the house, just the three of us, to focus exclusively on English. These activities include: playing in the park; going for walks in the neighborhood; hiking in the woods nearby; visiting the children’s library (and children’s museum, right next door); and taking in special events in town.

Captive reading
0.5 hours (7 days x 5 minutes…but let’s round it down to an even 30 minutes)
I discuss this strategy in detail in What Is Captive Reading and How Will It Help My Bilingual Child? and Why You Must Put a Whiteboard in the Bathroom, but the basic idea involves posting written material in the bathroom (or other “captive location” in the home) in order to increase the amount of time the child spends reading in the minority language. I’ve done this since my kids were first starting to read and these additional minutes of reading practice each day (and I don’t even have to be there!) have added up to a significant amount of time over the years. Also see Turn Your Kids into Eager Readers with This Fun, Simple Strategy and How Rats in the Bathroom Can Boost a Child’s Bilingual Ability for further ways to make use of “captive reading.”

Watching TV
5.5 hours (3 days x 30 minutes on weekdays; 2 days x 2 hours on weekends)
We don’t let our kids watch a lot of TV—particularly on weekdays—but when they do, it’s almost always in English. They tend to watch the Disney channel and, these days, enjoy such American-made comedies as “A.N.T. Farm,” “Austin & Ally,” and “Shake It Up.” TV and DVDs have definitely been a helpful form of support in my efforts to provide English exposure—as well as exposure to American culture—but maintaining reasonable limits on the amount of TV watching can be a challenge. (Lulu, in particular, loves to watch TV and will sometimes throw a fit if I say “no.” The other day, she shrieked at me: “You’re a bad Daddy!”)

Listening to music
1.75 hours (7 days x 15 minutes)
This is hard to quantify—so my estimate is conservative, I think—but I make a point of regularly playing background music in English when the children are playing in our “play room.” Their favorite Disney shows also feature pop music, and they often dance about the house to these CDs. For more on music, see How the Power of Music Nurtures Bilingual Ability and Great Music for Kids (and Parents, too!).

These, then, are the forms of minority language exposure that make up our weekly routine. Other, less-consistent forms of support (so I didn’t add them to the total above) include such activities as playing with other English-speaking kids, speaking to family members in the United States via Skype, and playing English games on an electronic gadget (mentioned in Are You Accidentally Hindering Your Child’s Bilingual Progress?).

Assessing the results

  • As I had sensed, it seems their current English exposure is sufficient to maintain an effective balance with their majority language, Japanese.
  • The exposure is rich and varied, providing input in all language areas.
  • The exposure is largely active, not passive, with TV watching making up a relatively modest percentage of the total time.
  • One recent concern—and it’s clearly seen in these findings—is the lack of regular writing practice. As I mentioned, we do pursue such activities as journal writing and letters to pen-pals, but these efforts are somewhat sporadic. Writing in the minority language is the toughest, most time-consuming thing to address so this is definitely a challenge, but I’ll have to consider additional ways to make writing a more active part of their lives.

Increasing minority language exposure

I realize, of course, that my situation—the fact that I’m working from home—offers advantages when it comes to providing exposure in the minority language and that other parents may be more pressed for this precious time.

Please keep in mind, though, that no matter your circumstances, it’s always possible to shape them in ways that can help increase the minority language exposure your child receives.

When my children were smaller, I worked a busy full-time job and had considerably less time to spend with them. Because I knew how vital it was to ensure that they received regular English input—particularly during the youngest years—I did what I reasonably could to keep the number of weekly hours of exposure above 20, which included the idea of cloning myself (as I explain in The Busy Parent’s Guide to Cloning Yourself).

My point is this: If raising a child with proficiency in the minority language is important to you, the degree of your ultimate success—whatever your situation—depends largely on you. On your desire and determination, your energy and endurance. It’s a significant challenge—especially if you’re the main source of exposure to the minority language—and sacrifices of time and money must be made. But if you give your very best to this from the day your child is born, your efforts can pay off in a lifetime of good bilingual ability.

How about you? Is your child receiving sufficient exposure to the minority language? Would it help to do a concrete count of this exposure?

See value in this post? Please share it with the universe! (There may be aliens raising bilingual kids, too, you never know.) Then add your thoughts below. Thanks!

1 Sharon January 24, 2013 at 1:45 am

It’s not true that children have to learn to read and write the minority language before learning the community language. In fact, it could work against you if it’s taught incorrectly and bad habits are formed. Many parents rush through pre-reading skills, for example and the children sometimes just parrot, not understanding what they’re doing.

My children learned to read and write English third, after French and German. I actually never taught them directly. they applied skills they learned in their bilingual program and picked it up almost automatically. nothing was forced. My son passed a test for native speakers two years ago, so it obviously works.

It is NOT true that the languages have to “keep up”, a common myth. My kids are trilingual but the French is strongest while their German is weakest, since they get less exposure to it (mostly at school in immersion). The different levels don’t hurt them at all.

My kids are older so I’ve been at this game for longer.


2 Adam January 24, 2013 at 6:43 am

Sharon, thank you for your comment.

Every family is different, of course, so what’s true for one family may not necessarily be true for another when it comes to acquiring multiple languages. This is a caveat I try to include while sharing my experience as a parent and teacher of bilingual children in this particular setting. Your comment is a reminder that I need to try harder to emphasize that point because I’m not intending to be “prescriptive.”

As for striving to have the minority language “keep up” with the majority language, I can only say that this is indeed an issue for many in my sort of situation, where the minority language would quickly become more passive if its development isn’t maintained roughly at the same pace as the majority language. For some, this may not be a concern—since, as you correctly point out, a minority language can always be learned well at an older age—but it’s also true that parents of the minority language often feel a natural desire to interact with their children in that language throughout their childhood. For those parents, like me (see Why Communicating in English with My Kids is So Important to Me), having the minority language “keep up” with the majority language is crucial.


3 Alisa January 24, 2013 at 8:06 pm

I’ve recently instituted “English homework time” in our house. My older son, age 7, adores his French TV and grumbles if I encourage him to watch a DVD in English instead. So our compromise is that he can watch some French TV if he does some English homework (for now, that is reading to me, or working in a 2nd grade workbook).

Having the English “keep up” with the French is absolutely essential to me. The difference in level may not hurt them, but it would wound me deeply. Despite having been here for 14 years and speaking with my husband mainly in French, I have a strong emotional investment in English, and a relationship with it on that level that I’ll never have with French. And that is setting aside the “speaking to grandparents & other family members” issue.

I would feel I had failed in some sense if my kids don’t manage to speak English as well as they do French, or if they have a strong French accent when they speak it. Definitely worth it to me to put in more time so they, too, can develop that connection with the English language that I have.


4 Adam January 24, 2013 at 10:18 pm

Alisa, I’m grateful for your comment. I’m struck by the fact that, although our circumstances are obviously very different in many ways, when it comes to the significance of fostering the English ability of our kids, we share exactly the same feelings. Just substitute “Japanese” for “French” and you could practically be describing my own situation! (Please substitute “wife” for “husband,” too. :mrgreen: )

Thanks again for contributing to this conversation, Alisa. Best of luck with “English homework time”! (I sympathize completely!)

How do others out there feel about these issues involving the minority language?


5 Paula - Growing Up Bilingual January 25, 2013 at 10:56 am

I have been wondering how many hours my children are exposed to the minority language and I really need to make a pie chart like you and figure it out and schedule our minority language time. Just “Speaking Spanish” at home is not cutting it anymore. Thanks for all the great ideas!


6 Adam January 25, 2013 at 11:22 am

Paula, thanks for stopping by! I really like your site!

Yes, I think it’s important to stop and take stock of our situation from time to time. Having a more concrete idea of the regular exposure to the minority language is really helpful for strengthening our efforts and supporting our kids even more effectively.

Plus, it’s fun to make pie charts! (I used to create the basic image.)


7 Julie February 16, 2015 at 10:20 pm

My daughter is now 4.5 years old, and while Spanish did emerge as her first language – we lived in Mexico until she was two, and she continued to have more Spanish exposure until 2.5 years – English has now trumped Spanish, especially in the last year. Spanish has become the minority language that she understands but will rarely use. I feel like her exposure is good – lots of music to which she sings along, some reading, and hubby (the native Spanish speaker) and I (native English) only speak Spanish to each other. Her passive knowledge is good, but we seriously lack need and motivation. It hurts to see her shy away from interactions in Spanish because she is lacking confidence. She has said, “I don’t know how to speak Spanish,” and that hurts too! :( I have a lot of regret that we didn’t stay in Mexico until her 4/5th birthday as both languages would have emerged simultaneously and effortlessly. But, alas, traveling back in time is not an option, so to address the need for need we are considering a move back to Mexico /or/ putting her in a Spanish immersion program in Portland in either fall of 2015/16. Ojalá it works; that she is bilingual, biliterate, and bicultural is paramount!


8 Adam February 17, 2015 at 9:22 am

Julie, you mention that you and your husband speak Spanish to each other, but are you consistently using Spanish with your daughter, too? Even if she’s now responding in English—because she’s well aware that you’re also proficient in this language—I would advise that both of you (or at least your husband) continue speaking Spanish to her as much as possible.

In any event, I feel your frustration, but it sounds like you and your husband have the necessary determination to overcome these challenges and activate the Spanish that I’m sure is there, and continues to grow, inside your daughter’s little head. Despite what she says, she does know how to speak Spanish—she just needs more monolingual Spanish settings and situations to demonstrate this and gain more confidence in her ability. So I applaud your ideas for addressing this difficulty and I encourage you to continue taking action, persistently yet playfully. (What if you hired a friendly Spanish-speaking teen or college student in your area to play regularly with your daughter? If you advise this person never to use English in your daughter’s presence, then she’ll eventually interact in Spanish—she’d have no other choice!)

Julie, keep at it, day by day! There’s always a payoff to perseverance!


9 Annika January 31, 2013 at 6:16 am

I really like and relate to this post as I also looked at our family’s situation last year to evaluate the amount of minority language our children were exposed to. Just like the previous comments show, it’s really all about the goals we have with our family bilingualism. As someone who grew up in a bilingual home without, against all odds, becoming proficient in her mother’s language, I have always felt strongly about our children having the same opportunities as monolingual children in both their languages. The question is not about having two “equally balanced” languages (impossible as we never have the exact same experiences in both), but about our children feeling at ease, active and confident in their languages. I didn’t want to leave this to chance, so we too have put in a lot of time and effort into reinforcing the minority language – it has been a fun and rewarding experience for the whole family and not only in terms of language learning.


10 Adam January 31, 2013 at 2:21 pm

Annika, thank you for your comment. This is very well put. The goal of having our children feel “at ease, active and confident in their languages” elegantly sums up the bilingual journey, I think.

And I absolutely agree: If we wish to reach that destination, we can’t leave this to chance. It must be among our highest priorities throughout their childhood.


11 Annabelle February 23, 2013 at 5:50 pm

While I think quantifying minority language exposure can be really useful, i am a little puzzled as to how this 25h a week number is arrived at.


12 Adam February 24, 2013 at 7:48 am

Annabelle, when it comes to exposure in the minority language, the literature I’ve seen shows a range from 20% to 30% or 40% of a child’s waking hours, with the number 30% (or the expression “one-third”) appearing most often. Depending on the age of the child, this equals roughly 25 hours a week.

Here are a few examples…

From the book Raising a Bilingual Child by Barbara Zurer Pearson:
“…as a general rule, research groups like ours have found that around 20% of the child’s waking hours, or approximately fifteen hours a week, in the minority language would be a bare minimum. Some researchers specify that children participants in their studies must spend 30% or more of their time in the minority language (approximately twenty-five hours a week).”

From the book Be Bilingual by Annika Bourgogne:
“As a rule of thumb, experts say that a child needs to be exposed to a language for a minimum of 30% of time spent awake in order to start (and continue) using the language actively. Depending on the child’s age, 30% comes to about 25 hours a week, and is a good measure for families when planning realistic family goals.”

From the blog On Raising Bilingual Children by Eowyn Crisfield:
“A general benchmark of 20% input is the minimum for successful language acquisition, although I personally find that children need closer to 30% to begin using the language. So, if a child is awake 10 hours a day (when they are young), you would aim for about 3 hours minimum in each language. Of course input doesn’t need to be this rigid, sometimes it comes in chunks on the weekend and is limited during the week (for a working parent), so I encourage parents to look at the pattern of weeks.”

And from the site Multilingual Living by Corey Heller:
“Are your children exposed to their minority language a minimum of 30 percent of the time (on average)? Note that this is not a magical number. It will not guarantee multilingualism in your child! This is simply a general number which a group of researchers have come up with to determine what the minimum amount of language exposure appears to be to reach basic multilingualism.”

My own experience as a teacher and parent supports this general notion that 30% of waking hours, or approximately 25 hours per week of meaningful exposure in the minority language, would be a good target for most families. More hours are naturally better, and fewer hours may be possible, but this seems to be a useful benchmark for bilingual acquisition.


13 Megan October 5, 2013 at 9:27 pm

I think my son gets at least 25 hrs of English exposure a week, but the other afternoon we were invited to the birthday party of a boy my son goes to daycare with (he goes to Italian daycare 6-7 hours a day) and all I could think of (because I’ve just found this blog and all the ideas are fresh in my head!) is my important afternoon time with my son, just the two of us speaking English, had been replaced by squealing, playful Italian kids and my son was really happy….How will I deal with the ever growing social life of my son in the majority language culture. How can I maintain English time and yet not limit him socially. I’m trying to find other English speaking children to play with and hopefully form lasting friendships but there aren’t that many and they don’t live close by etc….just work harder, drive further, be more creative and determined???? But sometimes I feel guilty carting him around, stuck in Roman traffic for hours, to get to a playgroup in the city center when he would probably be happier playing with the Italian speaking boy down the street. But maybe even time squished in a crowded bus can be fun/useful???? and knowing that he’ll be happy and grateful years from now makes it worth it????


14 Adam October 6, 2013 at 3:10 pm

Megan, these questions may cause some discomfort, but the fact that you’re posing them to yourself is very positive. Ultimately, the distance one travels on this bilingual journey all depends on staying as conscious and proactive as possible.

Your son is receiving pretty heavy exposure in Italian each day, so I suggest that it would be more in your and your son’s longer-term interest if, for the most part, you simply spend your time together as a twosome and bathe him in English during those hours. I understand the desire to socialize with other mothers and children, but I wonder if adding even more Italian time to his days isn’t working against your goal for his language development, strengthening his Italian at the expense of his English.

In order to increase the odds that your son will develop a firm foundation in English, and become “conditioned” to communicate with you in your mother tongue, I feel that “English time” with you should be made a much higher priority than additional “Italian time”—at least for the present. Once this foundation is established, and English is fixed as the preferred language for your relationship, then socializing in Italian becomes less of a “threat” to your aim.

At this point, too, I’m not sure you necessarily need to seek out English-speaking playmates for your son, particularly if this is troublesome and tiring. The most effective approach, I think, is also the most simple: take full advantage of the time you have together each day and talk to him in English, read to him in English, play games with him in English, take him on excursions in English. Make this time together as rich in English interaction as you possibly can, knowing that these proactive efforts will have a very beneficial impact on your son’s language development and your larger goal for his bilingual ability.


15 Bill May 6, 2014 at 7:52 am

Our eldest is 4 and is bilingual in Spanish and English (the minority language). I have found that a lot less than 25 hours/week has been sufficient for him to gain native skills. By that I mean he can simultaneously converse in both languages with different people. I have the impression some parents rush things because they notice the child construct more complex phrases in the main language, or they notice other kids of the same age speak the minority language better. But this is normal, to be expected, and shouldn’t be a cause for concern. Indeed some of the comments here suggest that some parents demand a greater level of fluency in the minority language as quickly as possible mainly for their benefit rather than the child’s, which is fair enough, but the point of the article is to discuss what’s required for a child to become bilingual in the minority language rather than what’s required for your child to become bilingual in the minority language as quickly as possible.

As long as you can keep the minority language “ticking over” they will eventually get there. I’d hazard a guess that 10 years exposure of only 10 hours a week of the minority language should be sufficient, provided it’s meaningful exposure. It might take the child a bit longer, maybe twice as long, but they will end up native skills just as good as those of a child who has had twice that exposure. Indeed there may even be cognitive benefits to taking longer to teach linguistic skills, especially reading, as it means children become less dependent on language for discovering and understanding the world.


16 Adam May 6, 2014 at 9:44 am

Bill, your points are well taken, though, like so much of this journey, a great deal depends on each family’s unique aims and circumstances, as well as the particular children involved. As I mentioned, and as your experience suggests, fewer hours of exposure may be possible to produce active bilingual ability (I suspect this is more true when the two languages are somewhat similar), but generally speaking, I would advise erring on the side of more substantial exposure to the minority language.

In some cases, “10 years exposure of only 10 hours a week” could well be enough to produce a satisfactory result, but in other cases the more likely outcome would be a dominant majority language and a passive minority language. Please understand, I’m not judging that result. I just want to stress, to parents who feels it’s important that the child acquire active ability in the minority language early on—in order for the child to be able to communicate in this language with the minority language parent and extended family—that the odds of success will certainly be stronger when the goal is greater exposure on a regular basis.

To some extent, too, I think we’re talking about two different things: “simultaneous bilingualism” and “successive bilingualism.” For parents in my shoes, who are intent on nurturing “simultaneous bilingualism”—for the key reasons just mentioned—having the child “end up” with native skills in the minority language isn’t satisfactory because the goal is different in kind. Again, this isn’t a value judgment—either approach is fine. But it’s also true that the means must match the aims, and for those seeking to nurture both languages simultaneously, and maintain rough parity between the two throughout childhood, diligent efforts are often required, right from birth.


17 Bill May 6, 2014 at 11:10 pm

Adam, thanks for your reply. Yes I can see why 25 hours per week would help the minority language keep up with the main one simultaneously. It’s just that when I saw that figure it seemed quite daunting, especially if the parent who communicates in that language is working and may not be able to have so much contact time with the child. I wanted to point out that you can still achieve bilingualism even if you can’t manage 25hrs/week contact time. As you suggest – you may have to adopt other techniques though, and it won’t be simultaneous, but you can probably get there. Living in Europe and having English as the minority language makes it a lot easier for me anyway, since he will inevitably be exposed to English in other ways throughout his life, so I perhaps don’t feel so much responsibility/pressure to make sure it sinks in. In fact rather than pushing his English we’ve decided instead to introduce Chinese as a third language. Not enough for him to become trilingual but hopefully he can develop an interest and attain a good level – it must be good for the brain to be able to process such different languages! I just hope I don’t overload him!


18 Adam May 8, 2014 at 6:47 am

Bill, it’s true, this benchmark of 25 hours can be daunting for a busy minority language parent, but I’m afraid that insufficient exposure is the prime reason many families are unable to foster active ability in their minority languages. Particularly when your circumstances are working against you (as they are in English-poor Japan, for example), it’s vital to be as proactive as possible, from the very start, in order to put the odds more in your favor.

One example: Although I now work from home, it wasn’t that way in the early years because I was working long hours at the local newspaper. Because I knew how important it was to provide as much exposure in English (our minority language) as I could, I went so far as to “clone myself,” creating videos of me reading books, telling stories, singing songs, etc. and I had my wife play these videos for my kids during my absence. (For full details, see The Busy Parent’s Guide to Cloning Yourself.) This tactic, alone, would obviously not be sufficient, but combined with various other efforts, I believe it made a substantial difference at that crucial time of early language development.

Best of luck with your multilingual journey!


Comments, please! (Your email address won't be displayed.)

Previous post:

Next post: