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This Key Principle for Raising Bilingual Kids Is a Vital Part of Our Efforts, From Babies to Teens

August 9, 2017

 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.

Shaping the space to promote language development

Example #1: When I was an English teacher at Hiroshima International School, I spent a solid two weeks before each new school year designing and decorating my classroom to make it the most inviting, engaging environment I could—with books, games, posters, music, toys, stuffed animals, etc.—so that my students, even the ones who lacked English ability at the start, would be eager to spend time there. That was my larger goal, because I knew that if the classroom environment itself (along with my own playful teaching style) could strengthen their interest in English, that fact would fundamentally fuel their progress. In a similar way, the more you’re able to create a home environment that’s rich and inviting in suitable minority language resources, the more you’ll likely engage your children in this language and generate stronger progress toward your bilingual aim.

Example #2: Because I’m convinced that books and reading—lots of books and lots of reading—are so vital to strong language development, I have flooded my home with books (and magazines) in our target language and have made it an ongoing priority to bring in new books that suit my children’s evolving interests, language level, and level of maturity. And not only do we have a number of large, overflowing bookcases, I also make a point of regularly placing books that I think might appeal to them on the couch, on the table, etc.—without comment—then, attracted by the covers, they will often open them and begin reading. Meanwhile, for nearly 10 years I’ve made continuous use of a very productive strategy I call “captive reading,” where I post various kinds of texts in our bathroom and my kids invariably read them simply because I’ve intentionally shaped this space to engage their attention.

Along with ample input through speech, my persistent efforts to promote books and reading are truly at the heart of the success I’ve experienced at fostering strong language development in children and I encourage you to see these posts for much more on this subject.

How Many Books Do You Have In Your Home?

What to Do When It’s Hard to Find Children’s Books in Your Minority Language

The Secret to Raising a Bilingual Child

What Is Captive Reading and How Will It Help My Bilingual Child?

The Larger Arc of Captive Reading—And Our Lives As Human Beings

Example #3: Amy González, one of our spirited “keepers” at The Bilingual Zoo forum, has been very proactive about reshaping her home environment to emphasize her family’s two minority languages and “de-emphasize” their majority language. Amy details her productive efforts in a guest post at this blog, Bilingual Families and the Importance of Limiting the Influence of the Majority Language at Home, as well as in her long-running thread at The Bilingual Zoo, “Kicking” the majority language out of our home. Amy’s encouraging example, and her willingness to share her story so openly, make her an invaluable source of support when it comes to this key principle of shaping our living space in effective ways. (And let me stress that Amy’s example, like the example of my own efforts, may be considered “extreme” but, in fact, “extreme examples” can be hugely useful, if seen in the correct light: not as examples that must be followed in the same way, or to the same degree, but as examples of approaches and ideas that we can adopt and adapt as we see fit for our own family.)

This principle benefits the parent-child bond, too

I hope this post (and the related links) offer helpful food for thought with regard to shaping or reshaping your home in strategic ways so that the space can support your bilingual or multilingual aim as effectively as possible. At the same time, it’s also true that making thoughtful physical changes to the home environment can actually reduce the need for direct nagging (as in my example with my daughter and her desk) and prevent potential friction and conflict. In other words, pursuing this principle can benefit not only language development but also the parent-child bond because the physical space continually breeds patterns of behavior and emotion, for better or worse.

And remember, optimizing your home for language acquisition and use is an ongoing challenge that should remain a mindful priority for your efforts throughout the childhood years. So make the most of this ever-present opportunity to shape your living space in constructive ways for your bilingual aim and for a positive relationship with your kids!

How about you? What could you do to shape or reshape your home environment so that it supports your bilingual aim more effectively? Add a comment below or join Challenge #12 at The Bilingual Zoo!

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