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Making Science a Bigger Part of a Bilingual Child’s Life and Language Development

October 15, 2013

Making Science a Bigger Part of a Bilingual Child’s Life

If you’re subscribed to my newsletter, recently I’ve been sharing a personal struggle. (And if you’re not subscribed to my free newsletter, you’re missing out! I often share things via the newsletter that aren’t found on this site, as well as further tips and tricks that could help boost your children’s language development. For full details, just see the Subscribe page.)

Here’s the thing: I’m practically a caveman when it comes to science.

By nature, I believe, my mind is more creative than scientific—after all, my father is an artist and my mother is a musician. But this gap only grew wider as my years of schooling went by. The clearest example of this, probably, is the “F” I got on my insect collection in 7th grade Biology.

So now, as a middle-aged father, and the main source of exposure to the minority language in my children’s lives, I’m faced with this challenge:

How do I nurture their language ability about the world at large, in scientific terms, when I myself can barely tell the difference between a pineapple and a porcupine? (Pineapples taste better.)

Too often tongue-tied

Lately, I’ve been making a more conscious effort to get out in nature with my kids, playing at the seaside and plodding up a mountain. This is a start, and the experiences have been fun, but I’m also painfully aware of the fact that I’m too often tongue-tied when it comes to their questions about the natural world. And this isn’t only due to the empty part of my brain where scientific knowledge should reside; the truth is, I don’t even have the words to name the things we come across, like common rocks and plants.

Now I accept that I’ll never be a science teacher, but I can—and should—do more to improve this sorry state of affairs. I can find a few books and websites with helpful information and I can learn at least some of the things that I merrily ignored as a student. Not only will these efforts impact their ability in English (our minority language), the boost in background knowledge will also have a positive effect on their academic performance in Japanese (our majority language).

Moreover, maybe I can even help them gain a greater interest in science and a closer connection to nature. (Lulu, unfortunately, is already deathly afraid of pigeons and other winged creatures, the result of a harrowing “poop-bomb” incident a few years back.)

Magnifying science

Meanwhile, as I study these books and websites (making notes on my hand in ballpoint pen), and lead further expeditions into the wild, I plan to pursue another idea, too, courtesy of a friend. (Thanks, Roger!)

The other day he and his family had dinner at our house and he mentioned that he had gotten a microscope and that his 6-year-old daughter was now eagerly gazing at the invisible world around them: scaly skin, a bug’s tiny leg, the weave in a tissue.

And I thought: A microscope! (The idea had never even crossed my mind—blame it on my “science blindness.”) A microscope could squarely place science in our daily lives! At the same time it’s magnifying the hidden world of our home, it would magnify science itself in the minds of my kids!

Bring on the bug’s leg!

Great mysteries

So I’ve added a microscope to our Christmas list. And if this goes well—I’ll certainly keep you posted—maybe I’ll add a telescope to the mix. It seems to me that the combination of a microscope and a telescope could open a child’s mind wide, in both directions, to the grand world of science, the great mysteries of life.

Maybe the mind of a middle-aged caveman, too.

How about you? Any tips on making science, and scientific language, a bigger part of a bilingual child’s life?

1 Tatyana October 16, 2013 at 1:35 am

We are fans of Wikipedia in this household. When my then 2 year old started watching a cartoon about the life of a penguin I realized that I simply do not know enough arctic terminology to participate especially when she asked for English equivalents. So off we went to Wikipedia to find out every variety of seal in both languages. Thanks to the site we now know that killer whale is actually a dolphin, that what I always assumed were blueberries in Europe are actually bilberries, and that even though Russian has 2 words for strawberries they’re actually the same genus and are called the same thing in English. Plus I now used the word “genus” in a sentence.

Wikipedia always tends to bend towards the scientific so it helps open up that world even when the original purpose is simply a translation of a term. Additionally reading an article in both languages is fun because they generally manage to contain completely different information.

My child is now completely on board with Wikipedia and runs for the ipad whenever I answer the question with “I don’t know, let’s look it up.”

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2 Adam October 16, 2013 at 6:58 am

Tatyana, thank you for this comment. You make another great suggestion (on top of the many other insightful comments you’ve offered at this site!).

I’ve been slow to adopt portable devices at home (we still rely only on a single desktop computer), but your thoughts continue to nudge me in that direction! Thanks so much for all your helpful contributions!

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3 Eva Varga October 18, 2013 at 10:10 am

I love science and together with Mandarin, they comprise the majority of our homeschool. I could do a better job of integrating them though and am still working on increasing the time they spend exposed to/engaged in their minority language. I tend to rely too much on their tutor. :)

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4 Adam October 18, 2013 at 12:49 pm

Eva, your site is impressive, with a wealth of helpful science resources, and I recommend it highly to those (like me) who are “scientifically-challenged”…
Academia Celestia

Thank you for your excellent work, Eva!

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5 Kris October 22, 2013 at 8:23 am

We are also big fans of Wikipedia. My kids have gotten to the point that they ask if I can show them a picture of ‘insert insect/animal’ daily.

I have two more suggestions for you to help on your science quest. My oldest son, who’s 6, LOVES a program on NHK-E that comes on Saturday evenings between 7-8 called Chikyu Dramatic. They show documentaries, most of which can be viewed in English. Some of the topics are above him, but he really enjoys the nature ones about animals and has picked up language that he wouldn’t have otherwise. He’s watched ones about raccoons, spiders, skunks, wolverines as well as several about dinosaurs and a good one about how we have evolved to our current beliefs about the earth (being round revolving around the sun). We usually DVR it and then he watches it again and again, picking up words he missed the first time (or ten). He’s always full of questions afterwards, which leads us back to Wikipedia!

My other suggestion is National Geographic readers. We have several we picked up on a recent trip back to Canada about frogs, spiders and bats, full of words like echolocation and predator/prey etc.

By the way, I love your site and all your ideas. They definitely keep me motivated to not revert to being lazy about my kids’ bilingual ability.

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6 Adam October 23, 2013 at 8:46 am

Kris, thanks so much for these great suggestions. I’ll definitely follow up. (Wait! I thought everything revolved around the Earth!)

Let me add the link to a series of science workbooks that I came across the other day and will now incorporate into our daily homework routine: Read and Understand Science (from Evan-Moor). I’m hoping these books (several levels for elementary school children) will enable my kids to stretch their English ability through academic content…while helping all of us learn a little more about science!

And thanks for your kind words about my site! I’m really glad to hear it gives a helpful kick to your motivation!

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