Maximize Your Child's Bilingual Ability

ADAM’S NOTE: As I learned about the efforts Amy González has been making with her trilingual family, through this lively thread at The Bilingual Zoo, I quickly realized that her story could be a source of inspiration for many other parents. And so I asked her to sum up her experience to share with the readers of this blog, which she kindly agreed to do. Naturally, every family is working with different circumstances, but the idea of limiting the influence of the majority language is a fundamental challenge for most of us and I think Amy’s encouraging example can help us become more mindful and proactive in ways that suit our own needs and conditions. Thank you, Amy!

Bilingual Families and the Importance of Limiting the Influence of the Majority Language at Home

Amy González is a bubbly wife and mother of two beautiful trilingual girls (French is their majority language; English and Spanish are their minority languages). Her elder daughter is now 4 and her younger daughter is 10 months. Amy was born in France then raised in Spain, where she was educated in international British schools, before moving to the U.K. She moved back to France for work, over a decade ago, where she met her Spanish husband-to-be.

When I joined Adam’s forum, The Bilingual Zoo, I eagerly read about some of the experiences of other parents of bilingual children and the thread begun by James H really struck a chord in me. Despite using the “one person, one language” (OPOL) approach from day one—I spoke English to the kids and my husband spoke Spanish—my elder daughter tended to respond in French, our majority language, especially since starting nursery school, with a little Spanish when she felt like it, and hardly any English. When I read about James’s experience, I realized where we were going wrong: the “flaw” in our situation was the influence of the majority language at home.

So, last August, I decided to “kick” French out of our home, as I felt it was becoming oppressive and stifling our minority languages. First, I began speaking exclusively in English at home. And incredibly, within just a day, my elder daughter began trying to reply in English!

Right then, my husband and I keenly understood the problem. Not only had we been using the majority language at home to communicate as a couple, but after reading and re-reading posts and articles at The Bilingual Zoo and at Bilingual Monkeys, we recognized how pernicious the influence of the majority language was on our bilingual (trilingual) aim.

Amy with her husband and elder daughter

Amy with her husband and elder daughter, before her second daughter arrived and they realized the need to modify their approach.

Extent of the majority language’s influence

Speaking the minority languages at home was a good start, but living in a majority language country means that that language is always lurking nearby…more so than we might imagine. The influence of the majority language at home can be widespread: TV, radio, books from the local bookshop or library, nursery rhymes or songs learnt at school, text on clothing, decorations on the wall, packaging on food…the list goes on and on.

When I first started looking at the extent of this influence in our home, I felt rather overwhelmed. As a parent seeking to raise multilingual children, I was concerned that all this was interfering with our educational goals and I wondered how far I should go in trying to limit this influence of the majority language…and how realistic this would be.

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How I Got My Bilingual Daughter to Eagerly Do Her Homework in the Minority Language

This post is my promised update on the contest I held last month, and I’ll now reveal the tactic I used to address my 12-year-old daughter’s reluctance to using our minority language dictionary when doing her daily homework. (The contest yielded two winning guesses, from Lauren in the U.S. and Heidi in Germany, who will each receive a surprise package of little prizes from Hiroshima, Japan.)

In case you missed my post about the contest, here again is the background behind it, and the problem I posed…


The background

Basically, the contest posed the same problem I recently experienced with my 12-year-old daughter. The challenge, in this case, was her reluctance to look up unfamiliar words in a dictionary, despite being able to use it.

Here’s the thing: The bilingual journey is a continuous stream of challenges like this, throughout the length of childhood, and our greater success depends on how effectively we’re able to address them. While there are times it’s fine to force the outcome we desire (like if I simply continued to insist that Lulu open the dictionary), I suggest that the more effective move, whenever possible, involves a more thoughtful approach, a more creative tactic.

For example, ideally, I don’t just want Lulu to use the dictionary because I tell her to, I want her to actually feel some internal motivation to use it. In other words, when faced with challenges like this, the better objective in considering our course of action is twofold: we want to produce the desired outcome, yes, but moreover, we want the child to genuinely feel engaged and positive about the experience itself. Because when the child feels this way, our efforts are more effective not only for the immediate challenge, but in fact fortify our longer-term success by making her more engaged and positive, overall, about the minority language.

This is why I persistently stress the idea of staying playful and creative in our efforts, at least to the degree we reasonably can, and I try to offer lots of ideas in this direction. Not only does this make the process more fun and joyful for both the child and the parent, day by day, it actually enables us to be more effective and more successful over the whole length of the bilingual journey.

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I'M GONNA BE BILINGUAL!

For more fun “bilingual memes,” visit a whole gallery of these images at The Bilingual Zoo.

Do you like languages? Do you like cooking?

Then I bet you’ll love Cooking with Languages, a new activity book for promoting tasty language exposure in bilingual families and schools, from the creative kitchen of Lisa Sadleir and her two talented children.

Cooking with Languages

Lend your support to this innovative project (which is starting with English and Spanish, then expanding to other languages) by joining their crowdfunding campaign. (I did!)

This is the last week, though, so your kind support is needed right away!

Join the crowdfunding campaign for Cooking with Languages.

Lisa Sadleir and her family

Lisa and her family live in Spain, where they’re now cooking up some delicious ideas for bilingual families and schools. Please put on an apron and help out!

The article below appeared in the latest print issue of GetHiroshima Magazine.

Hiroshima's Bilingual Child Whisperer

Get a copy of Maximize Your Child’s Bilingual Ability.

Find out what the world is saying about my book.

See my update on this post, which reveals the answer to the contest question: How I Got My Bilingual Daughter to Eagerly Do Her Homework in the Minority Language.

Special Contest: Guess How I Handled This Problem with My Bilingual Daughter and Win a Cool Package of Prizes from Hiroshima, Japan

Want to get a surprise package from me and my kids, all the way from Hiroshima, Japan?

Your package could include trinkets like this…

Trinkets from Japan

And treats like this…

Treats from Japan

The contents of your package may vary a bit from these things, but it will include at least 10 fun items for your family. And all you have to do is be a winner in this special contest! (There can be up to 3 winners.)

Click to learn more about the contest →

Big News for 2017 at Bilingual Monkeys

Happy New Year! I hope 2017 is a good year for you and your family and I hope my work—this blog, my forum, and my book—can help you experience even greater success and joy on your bilingual journey.

Before I share my big news for this year, let me point you toward an important article I posted last January. This article is still just as relevant today, and in fact, will always be relevant for the aim of raising bilingual children. So if you missed it last year, be sure to take a look now…

7 Must-Make Resolutions for Parents Raising Bilingual Kids

7 Must-Make Resolutions for Parents Raising Bilingual Kids

My big news

To kick off the year, I have three things to tell you…

1. JUNIOR HIGH SCHOOL

My daughter will enter junior high school in the spring. (The school year in Japan runs from April to March.) It’s like her years in elementary school just blinked by and Lulu is no longer the little girl I’ve featured at this blog for the past five years—she’s becoming a young woman.

In terms of our bilingual journey, this change will mark a challenging new stage. The fact is, the junior high school in our area is twice as far from our home as the elementary school. So, on top of a long school day, club activities after school, and heavier loads of homework, she’ll have to leave the house even earlier in the morning. All of this means that the daily routines I’ve been able to maintain over the past six years of elementary school, in order to advance her (and her younger brother’s) progress in the minority language, will have to be reshaped in creative ways to fit this new reality. Things like reading aloud, which I’ve always done at breakfast, and daily homework after school in the minority language—two central routines of our journey to date—will be tested, and yet I’m determined to do what I realistically can through the busier teen years, too.

And, as always, I’ll report on our experiences at this blog—both the successes and the struggles—with an eye toward offering ideas and inspiration for your own journey.

Click for more big news →

The Top 10 Posts at Bilingual Monkeys for 2016

As of today, the total number of posts at this blog—begun on September 1, 2012 with The Ten Commandments (of Raising a Bilingual Child)—has reached 325.

In 2016, 51 posts were made and 11 of these were guest posts. (If you’re interested in guest posting at Bilingual Monkeys in the future, see this page.)

The 10 most-seen posts at this blog for 2016—in terms of the number of page views—are listed below, from 10 to 1. (However, it’s important to note that posts made later in the year naturally had less time to accrue page views so had a disadvantage in this ranking.)

If you missed any of these articles the first time around, take a look to see why they were among the most popular posts of this year…

10. Guest Post: Regrets Over My Monolingual Childhood Have Fueled My Passion For Raising Bilingual Kids
Chontelle Bonfiglio shares the touching story of her monolingual past, and the bilingual future she is determined to create for her own two kids.

9. How a Globe-Trotting Alligator Helped One Family Find Greater Fun and Success on Their Bilingual Journey
A wonderful project, pursued by a family in the U.S., that brought them closer to the world and boosted their bilingual aim.

8. Movie Project with My Kids: “Purple Monster in the Woods” (Watch Now!)
Short-term projects—like this little movie I created with my kids—can be a productive way of enhancing exposure to the minority language.

7. A Powerful Perspective on Raising Bilingual Children: The Great “Iceberg” of Bilingualism
Is your “iceberg” forming as you hope?

6. Nobody’s Perfect at Raising Bilingual Children
To raise a bilingual child, the important thing isn’t perfection, it’s perseverance.

5. Guest Post: Yes, You Will Have Haters. Keep Speaking to Your Kids In the Minority Language Anyway.
Sam Zerin shares his personal struggles, as well as helpful suggestions, on the challenge of speaking the minority language in public.

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Meeting the King's Family and Enriching My Bilingual Children's Language Exposure

If you’ve been following this blog, you know that one of my best weapons for promoting exposure to the minority language is my endless urge to say dumb things to my students and my kids.

It’s true, and I detailed this idea in one of the most popular posts at this site: Why Saying a Lot of Dumb Things to Your Bilingual Kids Is So Valuable to Their Language Development. The truth is, the more you make a habit of saying dumb things—and generating playful conversations that can engage your children in the target language—the more exposure you’ll create in that language and the more effective that input will be. Do this regularly, over the course of childhood, and such efforts at “imaginary talk” can have a powerful impact not only on the progress made in your children’s language development but also on the joy you experience together in your relationship.

Here’s a very clear example, from last Sunday. Let me try to recreate the conversation, while adding little notes of explanation, as needed.

“What an exciting day!”

See this photo? It shows a store in Hiroshima that sells used clothing; it’s called King Family.

King Family

So on Sunday morning, before Lulu and Roy have come to the kitchen table for breakfast, my wife shows me a flyer, touting a big sale at King Family, and says she wants to go. I grunt in agreement (I don’t like shopping for clothes) and she leaves the room to start a load of laundry.

Moments later, my kids sit down at the table with me and begin to eat their breakfast.

Let’s pick up the conversation from there…

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Since my book about raising bilingual children was released in the spring, I’ve been interviewed a number of times. These videotaped conversations—connecting me, in Hiroshima, Japan, to kindred spirits in other parts of the world—have been a real joy for me and I’ve been grateful for the invitations to speak about this subject.

The truth is, I’m generally not a big talker, but when the subject is bilingual children, which I have a boundless passion for, I’m afraid it’s hard to get me to stop!

Amanda Hsiung Blodgett, popularly known as Miss Panda Chinese, learned that recently when we spoke for almost an hour about a range of issues related to raising bilingual kids. It was a very lively discussion (watch out for my annoying puppet, Princess Pup!) and I’m happy to now share it with you.

Watch this video at Miss Panda Chinese.

This is a video I just had to share. It had me laughing a lot, until the very end…when it moved me so deeply, it made me cry. It’s well worth three minutes of your busy life…

Warm thanks to Mayken Brünings for first sharing it with me!