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“It’s a Little Bit Funky”: I Interview My Son on Being Bilingual

March 19, 2013

Captain AmericaAs I’ve mentioned before (in the articles Why Communicating in English with My Kids is So Important to Me and How Much Passion Do You Have For Raising a Bilingual Child?), on Mondays I shuttle Lulu to her dance class at an arts center downtown. Normally, it’s just the two of us, but yesterday my wife was busy so I brought Roy along, too. While Lulu was at her dance class, Roy and I went to a coffee shop and I took the opportunity to interview him about his bilingual ability. I had never really posed such questions to him directly—he just turned 6, after all—but it turned out to be a fun conversation that happily confirmed what I had already been sensing: to this point, his feelings toward his own bilingualism seem quite positive.

Here are the highlights from that conversation…

Roy, you have two languages, right? English and Japanese? Why are you able to speak two languages?
Because you’re from America and Mommy’s from Japan so you teach me English and Mommy teaches me Japanese. And I have English homework and Japanese homework.

How do you feel about having two languages, about being bilingual?
Great, because I can speak to American people and Japanese people. And I can speak to you and Mommy, too.

Is there anything bad about being bilingual?
No.

What does it feel like inside your head when you’re using both languages? I mean, when we’re having dinner and you have to switch back and forth, speaking English to me and Japanese to Mommy, what does that feel like?
Complicated, because I have to speak back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.

Is that hard to do?
Not so much.

Which one of your languages do you think is stronger? Why?
English, because I read and write more in English.

How do you feel about doing English homework every day?
Very good, because I can learn new words like “complicated.”

Do you like books? What are your favorite books?
I like books about super heroes, like Captain America and Hulk. Hulk is funny because, on TV, he said, “I don’t like that guy.” And Thor said, “You don’t like anyone you meet.”

When do you watch super heroes on TV?
Was it Sunday again?

That’s right. Sunday morning. Why do you like those shows?
Because the super heroes fight the super villains.

Which ones do you like, the super heroes or the super villains?
I like the super heroes because the super villains steal money and stuff. [Note: For more on his obsession with super heroes, and how I’ve channeled that passion into greater English exposure, see POW! How Super Heroes Strengthened My Son’s Bilingual Ability.]

What do you think about the stories I put on the door in the bathroom? (See What Is Captive Reading and How Will It Help My Bilingual Child?)
Great. You make crazy stories, like Little Red Riding Diapers. It’s really Little Red Riding Hood, but you changed it to Little Red Riding Diapers. It’s funny. [Note: Recently, I’ve been creating “fractured fairy tales” from the first captive reading stories I wrote for them.]

Roy, how do you feel about speaking English with me outside the house, like at school?
Good.

It doesn’t feel strange to you?
No.

How do you feel when you hear me speaking Japanese with someone?
It’s a little bit funky. When Mommy speaks English, it’s a little bit funky, too. [Note: He did use the word “funky,” probably in the sense of “strange.”]

Sometimes you speak English with your sister, and sometimes you speak Japanese. Why do you use English at times, but Japanese at other times?
When someone says one word of English, it becomes English. When we say something in Japanese, it starts Japanese.

What do you want to be when you grow up?
Just a normal man.

Do you think being bilingual will help you in your job?
When the person who gave me the job isn’t looking, I can talk for a minute with my American friend.

Will being bilingual help you in other ways?
I think I’ll go to America and talk to people there.

I also interviewed my daughter! See “I Can Help People”: I Interview My Daughter on Being Bilingual.

How about you? Have you ever “interviewed” your children directly about their feelings toward their own bilingualism? What did they say?

1 cyrille, le praticien du bilinguisme March 21, 2013 at 6:41 am

I never really interviewed my youngest daughter about it but she recently expressed herself about it. We had a young lady at home who did not know what Esperanto, our second language, is. And Jenny (7 year old) simply said “it is our language”. This shows that she is fully aware that she speaks a second language and moreover, she already caught that this language is not known by most of the people she will meet.

Evidently, she will meet grown ups who will express silly ideas about the language because they only know that it was constructed whereas she lives the language. She travels because of it, meet her friends, simply lives when grown up often express that “this cannot be true”.

I recently made a webinar about “Fears in bilingualism” but I am quite sure that children do not have fear about it.

Cyrille

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2 Adam March 21, 2013 at 9:04 am

Cyrille, thanks your sharing this—it sounds like Esperanto has been a very positive part of your language mix as a family. Though I haven’t studied it myself, I’ve long been interested in Esperanto and I’m curious how you introduced it to your children. Perhaps this is another activity I could pursue with my own kids! :mrgreen:

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3 kiara April 1, 2013 at 4:16 pm

the interviews are simply awesome… ur kids r amazing….
by the way… do u think we can even introduce a third language easily?

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4 Adam April 1, 2013 at 8:54 pm

Kiara, thanks for the warm words! I’m glad you liked the interviews with my kids!

As for a third language, it’s certainly possible (and many families are proof!), but like the second language, it all depends on sufficient need and exposure. For a full discussion of these two keys to language development, see What to Do When Your Bilingual Child Won’t Speak Your Language.

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5 Raira June 17, 2013 at 5:02 pm

Your son, Roy had caused me great laughs while reading this interview. I have read your interview with your daughter too! They are so cute and smart with their answers! I am looking forward to interviewing like this with my son too when he learned English well, as your kids! I envy you! I am not a native speaker and am afraid to teach the wrong grammar, but I’m striving hard to raise him bilingual. Do you have any tips or books to help the non-native speaker in teaching English to their kids? Or even a good book to use as a teaching guide for basic English. I think I really need to brush up too but clueless of useful materials.

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6 Adam June 22, 2013 at 8:03 am

Raira, I’m glad you liked the interviews with my kids! Interviewing your own son one day in English could be a motivating goal for you!

I wouldn’t worry too much about modeling the “wrong” grammar. Just continue doing the best you can and I expect the overall impact will be very positive.

My best advice for strengthening both your own, and your son’s, English is the daily practice of reading aloud. If you make reading aloud a big part of your routine together, this would be enormously helpful. Please see these posts for more information:
Recommended Resources: Good Books on Reading Aloud
The Secret to Raising a Bilingual Child
How to Get Your Child Hooked on Books

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7 Krystyna June 24, 2014 at 3:48 am

Adam,
I’ve read your interviews with your children and it was really interesting to get a glimpse of a bilingual child’s perspective. Both of their answers were smart and witty but what impressed me most (and proved what a great job you must be doing) is the fact that they both feel English is their stronger language. I’m raising a bilingual child too, he’s two and a half, and (like you) I am the main “source” of my mother tongue. I speak Polish to him but everywhere else he is exposed to English (since we’re living in the US) which he seems to grasp more easily at this point. I really hope by the time he’s 6 he’ll be a confident speaker of Polish and feel at least a little passionate about it. That is my dream. Thanks for your posts, ideas and encouragement. I really need it. Krystyna

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8 Adam June 24, 2014 at 5:45 am

Krystyna, thanks for your comment. Since these interviews were conducted over a year ago, I wonder if they would now offer the same answer when asked which language feels stronger. Because they attend a Japanese elementary school, and Japanese is the language they use far more often these days (even with each other), I sense that the “balance of power” between the two languages is shifting.

With schooling in the majority language such a dominating factor, it’s vital to be as proactive as possible during the child’s youngest years, when the influence of the minority language parent is generally strongest. I know our circumstances are very different, on the surface, but I can empathize deeply with your basic challenge. My best advice is to make every reasonable effort now, while your son is small, in order to establish a firm foundation in Polish before schooling in English begins and the “balance of power” tips even further toward the majority language. (See Do Your Bilingual Children Go to School in the Majority Language?)

I’m cheering for you, Krystyna! Keep at it, day after day! :mrgreen:

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