Click to Look Inside: MAXIMIZE YOUR CHILD'S BILINGUAL ABILITY

ADAM’S NOTE: Ever feel shy or uncomfortable about speaking the minority language in a majority language setting? In this guest post, Sam Zerin writes eloquently about this emotional challenge and offers some very helpful suggestions. It’s an important post that I think will speak to many parents and I urge you to read it and share it with others. Thank you for writing it, Sam.

Sam and his son

Sam and his son in the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens, Spring 2016

Sam Zerin is a musicologist and amateur language enthusiast, currently living in the U.S. state of Rhode Island with his wife, toddler, and two adorable bilingual cats. He is raising his son in Yiddish, a language that runs deep in his family history, though he himself only learned it as an adult. You can follow his adventures of raising his son in a non-native language on his blog (at tate-loshn.weebly.com) and on Facebook (at facebook.com/tateloshn).

Like many American Jews of the past few generations, my mother’s parents spoke Yiddish when they didn’t want the kids to know what they were talking about. They wanted their kids to assimilate and become full-fledged Americans, and that meant speaking English, not Yiddish: that so-called “dying” language that symbolized Jewish life in the Old World, before Hitler came along and destroyed it all. And so, my mother, like so many other American Jews, never learned her parents’ native language. Of course, it’s ironic that now I’m speaking Yiddish—and only Yiddish—with my own child, specifically so that he’ll learn and use the language. It’s also an ironic twist of history that when I speak Yiddish with my son, it’s my parents who don’t understand.

Reversing History: Raising My Son in a “Dying” Language

I’ll be honest: I enjoy the irony. It’s a positive reversal—some might say an antidote—to the modern course of Jewish history. Instead of allowing Yiddish to die, by refusing to give it to the next generation, I’m bolstering it and giving it a future. Instead of memorializing it as a nostalgic relic of the forever-gone Old World, I’m embracing it as an essential part of my modern, daily life right here in the New World. Instead of casting it aside in favor of English, in order to assimilate and become “more American,” I’m equally valuing both halves of my “Jewish-American” identity. Instead of defining monolingualism as an essential element of national pride and identity—whether English for Americans or Hebrew for Zionists—I am celebrating multilingualism as a hugely important Jewish, Zionist, and American value.

And you know, I get a lot of compliments for it. Sometimes people think it’s really cool. Others get nostalgic and tell me how they always wished their parents had spoken Yiddish with them, but alas, they hadn’t. The guy who installed our home alarm system told me my son is going to be a genius someday, because I’m raising him bilingually. At our synagogue’s barbecue for new members last weekend, somebody asked if I’d consider teaching a Yiddish class—she thinks it’d be really popular. It’s nice to be met by such positivity.

Is the Yiddish Language Doomed?

An article in the March 23, 1928 edition of The Jewish Transcript. The Yiddish novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer famously quipped: “The Yiddish language has been dying for a thousand years, and I’m sure it will go on dying for at least a thousand more.”

The Challenges of Raising My Son In A Language That My Family Doesn’t Know

But I’ll be honest: the fact that I’m raising my son in a language that none of my parents, siblings, in-laws, aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbors, or babysitters speak or understand can sometimes be uncomfortable, too. For example, when my son and I are hanging out with my parents, and my parents speak to him in English, I understand what they’re saying—but then when I speak to my son in Yiddish, it unintentionally excludes them. Mealtime conversations are particularly hard, because I want to continue interacting with my son in Yiddish, but at the same time, I want the conversations to include everyone at the table. And it’s not just about being inclusive or exclusive; I don’t want it to feel like I’m hiding secrets from people, or like I’m talking about them in a language that they can’t understand. That can be very uncomfortable when I’m at the playground with my son, for instance, and he’s interacting (or I want him to interact) with other children who are there. Sometimes I point at another child and say to my kid in Yiddish: “Do you want to say hello to them?” or “Look, so-and-so is going down the slide! Weee!” or “Hey, look, those kids want to play with you!” And if those other kids’ parents don’t understand Yiddish, will they worry what this stranger is saying about their children?

Besides all that, I want people to know what I’m saying to my son, because that’s how relationships develop, and that’s also how positive memories form. Birthday parties can be awkward, for example, when everyone laughs and smiles and sings the birthday song in English, and then I sing the Yiddish birthday song and the entire room falls silent. Of course, there’s also the “weirdo” factor, especially in a place like the United States where multilingualism is generally viewed in a negative light (even while it’s celebrated as an academic resumé builder). It sometimes feels like I don’t belong when I’m speaking a language that even my own family and friends don’t understand, and when I’m out in public there are xenophobes to worry about. That’s all really uncomfortable.

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WANTED: Good guest posts for Bilingual Monkeys, a popular blog about raising bilingual children

I began this blog almost four years ago. At this point, there are now 305 articles about raising bilingual kids, but so far only a handful of these (13, to be exact) have been guest posts.

Until now, my call for guest posts at Bilingual Monkeys has been limited, but for two key reasons I think it’s time to make a broader invitation…

1. Three years ago I opened a forum, The Bilingual Zoo, and this lively community, with 3,588 posts produced to date, has made it clear that there are a lot of people out there with stories to tell and suggestions to share—stories and suggestions that could form helpful and engaging blog posts.

2. Honestly, I think it would now be healthier for this blog—and for me, personally—if more people were involved. After writing hundreds of articles myself, a greater number of guest posts would not only add richer variety to this site, it would enable me to keep a saner schedule and pursue other projects, too. (High on my list, for example, is creating videos more regularly for my YouTube channel.)

So if you might be interested in writing a guest post for Bilingual Monkeys, please read on!

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Annick De HouwerA few weeks ago I shared two excellent books on early child bilingualism in the post Recommended Resources: Books on Bilingual Acquisition by Prominent Researcher Annick De Houwer. Along with my impressions of these books, the post included an insightful interview with Dr. De Houwer and a book giveaway, which generated a number of questions from this audience.

Dr. De Houwer, a professor of Language Acquisition and Multilingualism at the University of Erfurt in Germany, generously offered to respond to some of these questions (and expressed regret at not being able to respond to everyone). On behalf of us all at Bilingual Monkeys and The Bilingual Zoo, let me thank Dr. De Houwer for her helpful thoughts today, and more broadly, for the important work she has long pursued to shed brighter light on child bilingualism. The world’s bilingual families are very grateful!

Question from Elodie in Germany: Can bilingualism not happen, even if the parents do everything that can be done? Can children resist that much that it will never work?

Question from Lainy in the U.S.: I’d like to know some strategies to get my children to produce the second language. They understand the spoken language very well, but they are hesitant to speak it.

Question from Stephanie in Japan: What I really want to know is how best to divert the child back into speaking the target language when s/he responds in the “wrong” language. Currently we ask our daughter “How do you say that in English?” Or we say “Please speak to Mama in English”. But I’ve heard from several friends in child development that children can’t actively distinguish between languages until age 4, so I am a bit confused as to whether that’s true (in which case I should just tell her the word in English?) or if that’s not true and I should continue as we have been doing.

Response from Dr. De Houwer: Indeed, children can strongly resist speaking a particular language, Elodie. In the preschool years there certainly are strategies that you can use to counter this. Using the names of languages, Stephanie, will not be particularly helpful, though. If very young children are not using the language you want them to speak, you can do various things to try to get them to change. You can ask: Oh, did you mean so-and-so, where ‘so-and-so’ is the word or phrase in the language you want them to speak. If they say yes, then ask them to repeat what they meant, so you can properly understand them. Or you could say: I really don’t understand that word very well, can you say it differently? (That’s if you think children know the word in the ‘right’ language.) You can try this for a few weeks and often this will be enough to switch very young children over to the ‘right’ language but sometimes that doesn’t happen. Then you could bring a cute hand puppet into the house and tell your child that this puppet only understands Polish, or Spanish, or whatever language you want them to speak. And then…it’s time for your talents as a puppeteer to develop! Play games with your child and the puppet, so that your child gets into the habit of using the right language.

Now with older children I’m afraid it’s nearly impossible to change ingrained habits of using language X with a parent who speaks language Y to them, but it is worth talking to them about it and explaining that you understand that they don’t feel good talking a language they have little fluency in, but that it’s really important to you that they speak your language. Educate your school aged children about your language, and show them (online perhaps?) children who speak it. Try to increase their motivation to speak it, and put them in circumstances where in order to say anything they must use it, because the person they’re talking to doesn’t know another language they know.

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Here's the Bright Side to Bilingual Kids Getting Sick

My son is sick today. He woke up with a headache and fever and stayed home from school. (Summer vacation hasn’t quite begun yet in Japan.)

Of course, I’m not happy that he’s sick. Like any parent, I don’t like to see my kids suffering, even if that suffering is only mild. And in my case, since I work from home (and my wife works outside the home), when my kids are sick this means there’s another presence in the house pulling at my attention.

Still, though I want them to be healthy and in school, I’ve also come to see the bright side of these occasional days of illness at home.

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

For nearly a decade, I’ve pursued a strategy I call “captive reading” and this tactic has made a tremendous contribution to my children’s language and literacy development. At this point, as my children are getting a bit older (they’re now 12 and 9) and their ability in the minority language has reached a fairly advanced level, I’ve now taken what is probably the final step in my captive reading efforts, one I’ll try to sustain through the rest of their childhood.

But before I share that final step, let’s look back at the larger arc of this strategy since my daughter was 3. Obviously, from age 3 to age 12 there has been great growth in her language development and, in line with this growth, I’ve used a progression of captive reading forms and materials over the years.

Below is the broad chronology of my efforts, based on the main blog posts that have described these ideas. For full details, please turn to the original posts.

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It's Quiz Time!

I have another quiz for you about raising bilingual kids! (This is the third quiz at Bilingual Monkeys. Try the first quiz and the second quiz, too.)

For this new quiz, I’ve created questions based on information found in Annick De Houwer’s book Bilingual First Language Acquisition. To read my impressions of the book, see Recommended Resources: Books on Bilingual Acquisition by Prominent Researcher Annick De Houwer. That post also features an insightful interview with the author.

Ready for the quiz? Good luck!

1. BFLA stands for Bilingual First Language Acquisition and, in Dr. De Houwer’s words, refers to “the development of language in young children who hear two languages spoken to them from birth.” On the other hand, when monolingual children begin to acquire a second language on top of their first language, not from birth but from a young age, as in day care or preschool, what is this process called?
a. ESLA, which stands for Early Second Language Acquisition
b. ESLA, which stands for Early Successive Language Acquisition
c. BSLA, which stands for Bilingual Second Language Acquisition
d. BSLA, which stands for Bilingual Successive Language Acquisition

To check your answer, open this box by clicking the plus sign!
a. ESLA, which stands for Early Second Language Acquisition (Along with BFLA and ESLA, the other main language learning context is MFLA, or Monolingual First Language Acquisition, where “children learn to understand and speak only one language.”)

2. Jules Ronjat, a French linguist, wrote the first book about BFLA, a case study of his son growing up with two languages from birth. When was this book published?
a. 1853
b. 1883
c. 1913
d. 1943

The world’s interest in children's bilingual development has grown profoundly since that time!
c. 1913 (In his book, Ronjat describes the bilingual development of his son, Louis, who acquired both German and French.)

3. What is the term used to describe the exaggerated way of speaking, marked by a higher pitch, that adults tend to use when talking to babies?
a. canonical babbling
b. infant soundscape
c. infant-directed speech
d. floating utterances

Isn’t it remarkable how adults will automatically switch to this special way of speaking when interacting with babies?
c. infant-directed speech (IDS) (This instinctive way of speaking by caregivers attracts the attention of young children and heightens early language input. Dr. De Houwer adds: “As babies grow older and appear to understand more, parents will use less and less of the typical characteristics of IDS.” After all, it would be quite funny if we spoke to our children at the age of 10 the same way we spoke to them at 10 months!)

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Books on bilingual acquisition by Annick De Houwer

Want to learn more about the science behind your child’s bilingual development? You won’t find a more knowledgeable guide than Annick De Houwer.

Dr. De Houwer, a professor of language acquisition and multilingualism at the University of Erfurt in Germany, is a leading scholar and researcher in the field of early child bilingualism and has written two excellent textbooks on the subject. Her work, in fact, has greatly enriched my own thinking and writing when it comes to the practical challenge of raising bilingual children and her illuminating efforts to understand the mechanisms of bilingual acquisition will continue to benefit multilingual families worldwide.

In this post, I’m very pleased to feature Dr. De Houwer and her work. I’ll offer my compact impressions of her books then step back to share an insightful interview we pursued via email. After that, you’ll have a chance to win the book of your choice in a special giveaway.

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Last Wednesday was my birthday.

In hamster years, I’m now 1080.

In human time, though, I turned 54.

As the years continue to hurtle past, my birthdays, I admit, are starting to get me a bit down. When I look back, it feels like I’ve done quite a lot in my lifetime…but I also wonder how much of this activity has really been of significance.

I guess I was seeking some confirmation of my worth in the world when I set the homework for my kids that afternoon. Along with other tasks, I made an unfinished list for them to complete: “7 Things I Like About Daddy.”

Of course, my kids groaned when they saw it, but they couldn’t really refuse when I whined, “Come on, guys! It’s my birthday!” (That’s certainly one good thing about birthdays: They serve as your trump card for getting people to carry out your needy requests.)

And, so prodded by guilt, my children went to work.

Click to see their actual lists →

The building blocks of the bilingual journey

Today I’d like to put to rest the false and unhelpful notion that we “don’t have enough time” to make the regular efforts that are necessary to provide persistent input in the minority language and promote strong bilingual development in our kids.

I empathize with the lives of busy parents, believe me, but when we claim that we’re “too busy” to maintain effective daily routines or take on a productive short-term project, we’re not only acting in a way that’s counterproductive to our own greater aim, we’re deceiving ourselves. Because here’s the truth:

No matter how busy you claim to be, you can always give more time to your children—even if just a little more time—by making this aim a higher priority in your life.

And the only exception to this, I think, would be if you’re reading these words from a maximum security prison and thus have no choice in the matter.

Because that’s the thing: It’s about choice. It’s about consciously choosing how you spend the hours of your day. And let me emphasize that the building blocks of success—the time and effort we invest in nurturing the target language—are particularly needed early on in the journey, during the child’s first few formative years. It’s certainly possible to make up ground at an older age, but the whole experience can be a smoother success when a sincere commitment of time and effort is made from the very start.

Now I don’t discount the other obligations we have, not the least of which is making a living. But even when our work makes us terribly busy, we ultimately still have options: We can be mindfully resourceful about reshaping our daily schedule to create additional time for our kids or, if that proves difficult, reshaping our work situation itself. (In my case, I was blessed that the chance arose to do my work remotely, from home. If that hadn’t been possible, I would have had to take some other sort of action.)

Of course, an au pair or nanny who speaks the minority language is another viable option for language exposure, but let’s focus, firstly, on optimizing our own efforts: Beyond the language input we can provide, the greater amount of time we spend with our children will surely deepen the parent-child bond, enabling us to create even closer relationships with our kids.

An encouraging example

Let me offer a concrete and encouraging example. Deepti Gupta (DeeptiGupta.com) is a busy actress who lives in the United States and has pursued an international career in film and theatre that stretches from the U.S. to India, Singapore, and Pakistan. At the same time, she juggles work off the set and stage as an actress for voiceovers and audiobooks and as a consultant and educator.

Meanwhile, Deepti is a mother with a preschool son and a minority language, Hindi, that she wants her child to speak in addition to English.

Despite her busy days, Deepti has also been mindful of her vital role in the process of handing down Hindi to her son. And this is clearly seen in the short-term project she pursued, with his help, to create a set of “alphabet blocks” in Hindi.

When Deepti, a reader of this blog, reached out with a photo of her finished blocks, I saw them as a lovely metaphor for the building blocks of time and effort that are so necessary for success on the bilingual journey. Via email, I asked Deepti about this creative project with her son and she kindly responded. Here are the highlights of our exchange…

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My Favorite Metaphor for Raising Bilingual Children

Note: Today’s post is from the preface to my book Maximize Your Child’s Bilingual Ability: Ideas and inspiration for even greater success and joy raising bilingual kids, available worldwide at Amazon and other retailers.

Not far from my house in Hiroshima, Japan are several wide rice paddies nestled among apartment buildings and homes. In the autumn these fields are thick with tall, green stalks, nodding their heavy loads of rice.

Growing a good crop of rice isn’t easy. Rice farmers spend long hours preparing the land, managing the water level, planting and fertilizing and weeding. And the farmers who do all these things a little more effectively, a little more diligently, day by day, end up harvesting a larger crop.

Their yield is bigger.

I can think of no better metaphor for raising bilingual children. The truth is, if we, too, pursue the range of daily efforts for nurturing language development a little more effectively, a little more diligently, our children’s bilingual ability will grow better, stronger, over the years of childhood.

By providing ideas and inspiration to help you become more effective and more diligent in your efforts, this book will serve to strengthen your children’s language development and maximize their bilingual ability.

The question is: What actions can a busy parent take to optimize the growth of a child’s bilingual ability? At the same time, how can this be done in fun, child-friendly ways?

I’ve spent 20 years seeking answers to this question. This book holds the fruits of what I’ve found.

Get the book at Amazon.

Learn more about it.

Lulu's great-grandfather

My grandfather was a social worker who led the National Refugee Service during World War II, helping refugees settle into new lives in America. His parents had immigrated from Romania and he was their first child born in the United States.

My family and I were looking at old photographs last night and made an astonishing discovery.

My father’s father—my grandfather and my children’s great-grandfather—was born on June 28, 1904.

Given the fact that the time in Japan is always one day ahead of the United States, the date of my daughter’s birth—June 29, 2004—means that Lulu and her great-grandfather were born exactly 100 years apart.

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