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The Secret to Raising a Bilingual Child

September 7, 2012

The Secret to Raising a Bilingual Child

The secret to raising a bilingual child is very, very simple.

In fact, if you make this one simple thing the bedrock of your efforts, I guarantee that your children will stand a much better chance of developing active ability in the minority language.

To tell the truth, it’s a secret that everyone has heard, but not everyone puts into practice.

Read aloud to your children every day.

If you’re already doing this, and doing it for at least 15 minutes a day, day in and day out, kudos to you. You understand the real power of a practice that is often underestimated because, well, it looks too simple.

If you’re not already reading aloud to your children, or you’re not reading to them consistently, I encourage you to rethink your current efforts.

Are you really “too busy”?

First, let me tell you a little story. As a teacher at Hiroshima International School, I worked with hundreds of children, both bilingual kids and monolingual English children, and it wasn’t long before I could quickly distinguish which ones were being read to routinely by their parents: their English skills were stronger, with a wider range of vocabulary; they displayed a greater background knowledge of the world; and they themselves seemed to enjoy reading more, picking up books more frequently than their peers.

Soon after I left the school, but continued tutoring some students privately through my Bilingual Kids program, the parents of one nine-year-old girl contacted me. The mother was Japanese and the father was American; the girl’s spoken English had gotten pretty good in the year she had attended the international school (after first attending a Japanese elementary school), but her reading and writing ability was still weak for her age and the parents wanted my help.

The first thing I asked the father was: “Do you read to her in English?”

His reply was a regret I’ve heard all too often: “I’d like to, but I’m so busy.”

Now, believe me, I have sympathy for parents in this position. But I’ve honestly never met a parent whose schedule was so full that they couldn’t find 15 minutes a day to read to their children…if they really wanted to. (And if worse comes to worst, you can still try cloning yourself.)

Make reading aloud a priority

All the excuses aside, it’s a question of priority, isn’t it? If reading to your children is really important to you—because you truly understand its importance in raising a child with good bilingual ability—then you’ll make it a priority in your day and do what’s necessary to implement this practice in your family’s lifestyle.

It starts with your commitment. If you’re still on the fence about the significant impact of reading aloud on your children’s language development—and later success in life, even—I encourage you to get a couple of good books on reading aloud. The Read-Aloud Handbook and The Power of Reading, in particular, make a very compelling case based on extensive research.

Then it continues with your persistence. Not only must you establish, and maintain, a regular reading time (my main read-aloud time with Lulu and Roy is at breakfast), you’re also faced with the challenge of obtaining a steady supply of suitable children’s books. In my experience, this is the other obstacle that parents of the minority language must make a special effort to overcome.

Buying books
No matter how tight your budget, buying books for your home should at least be a small part of it. (See How Many Books Do You Have In Your Home? for research which shows a strong relationship between the number of books in your home library and a child’s language development.)

In the long run, the money you spend on books will be a modest investment with a substantial payoff: your child’s language ability, and interest in reading, will be significantly stronger. Again, it’s a question of priority—if you have to cut back on some other aspect of your current lifestyle in order to free up funds for books, it’s an adjustment worth making, in my opinion.

The other challenge, of course, involves choosing suitable books for your child’s age and interests. After all, if you find the time, but not the right books, your read-aloud effort won’t be the source of pleasure it should be…and will likely peter right out.

If English is your target language, check the category Books for Kids for titles that have been popular with my own children and students. At the same time, you should be aware that The Read-Aloud Handbook also contains a wealth of suggestions for good read-aloud books, and the terrific How to Get Your Child to Love Reading contains “over 3,000 hand-picked titles on every subject under the sun.” Using such ideas as a springboard, head to amazon.com to scan the helpful reviews left by other parents and browse about for more books your child might enjoy.

One more pertinent thought: Ever since Lulu and Roy were small, books have been featured as gifts for every birthday and Christmas in our home. Giving books as gifts—and encouraging others to do the same for your kids—is another way to add to your home library while also elevating books as “special things.” (My aunt, for instance, sends us an amazon gift card each holiday season—they’re easily sent by email—then my kids and I choose a stack of books together.)

Borrowing books
If you have friends collecting children’s books for their own kids, perhaps you would both benefit from regular exchanges. Or if there’s a library in your area, maybe it has a shelf of books in your target language. In our case, the local library in Hiroshima has a modest selection of English books—which I’ve checked and rechecked out—and I’ve occasionally borrowed books from friends as well, though not as often as I probably could if I made a little more effort.

Stealing books
I can’t recommend stealing. (After all, if you wind up in jail, who’s going to read to your child? :mrgreen: )

Day after day after day

So that’s the “secret” to raising a bilingual child. Start reading aloud from day one, and keep up this practice, day after day after day, for as long as you possibly can. (I argue in Don’t Stop Reading When They Start Reading! that you should make a point of continuing to read aloud even long after your kids have begun reading on their own.) If you do, like the students at Hiroshima International School who were read to by their parents, your own children will no doubt benefit by gaining stronger language skills, a richer vocabulary, a wider awareness of the world, and a greater enthusiasm for books and reading.

How about you? How would you rate your commitment to reading to your children? Is there anything more you can do to strengthen your read-aloud practice?

1 Julie Taeko July 11, 2013 at 2:08 am

My website is being renovated right now, but I am working on a book about my experiences of growing up mixed. I am 1/3 of the way through, and I would love to get your feedback.

Your site is phenomenal, particularly because I used to be called a monkey, and the site is very creative. I downloaded your free PDF and will look into it soon. Thank you.

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2 Adam July 11, 2013 at 7:58 am

Julie, thanks for your kind words. I think it’s great that you’re writing a book about your younger years. Please persevere to the end and share the draft with me—I’d love to read it.

P.S. I stopped by your site and saw that you live in San Francisco! I lived in San Francisco, too, for about 8 years, in Noe Valley! And I did my Master’s degree at San Francisco State University!

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3 Aileen Kawagoe October 22, 2013 at 7:02 pm

Hi Adam,

I agree. Reading to one’s kids, there is no substitute for it, as one of the most effective methods for bilingualism and language learning. I’ve read to my son till practically into his sixteenth year…recently stopped on account of the college exam prep taking a toll on his time, but am thinking of instituting a “Fireside reading time” for the family once the kids are grown. The effectiveness does differ though for different personalities and different learning styles, it works great for my son who is auditory, and loves listening, but is sometimes lost on my daughter who is more kinesthetic/tactile and sensorial. Nevertheless, I persist because I feel she needs it even more, because of that deficiency and inability to listen well.

Aileen

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4 Adam October 23, 2013 at 8:59 am

Aileen, thanks so much for sharing your family’s experience. I agree 100% (even 1000%). It’s clear that your longstanding practice of reading aloud to your children has had a tremendously positive impact on their language development over the years, and I’m sure their awareness of the world, too. I’ll definitely try to follow in your footsteps as my kids get older. (And I love that idea about a “Fireside reading time” for the family! I’ve just put a fireplace on my “to-do list”! :mrgreen: )

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5 fady May 18, 2015 at 10:49 pm

Hello Adam,

I need your advice. I am from Egypt and my wife is Japanese. My kids are 5, 3, and 2 and can only speak Japanese. I have recently got an offer to move to UAE, and I am willing to have all my kids in international schools/preschools that are only in English. I am a bit worried if this will work and they will learn English, or will it be stressful for them and may lower their confidence to talk? Please reply and let me know if you have any experience regarding to that? I am now in Nagoya.

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6 Adam May 19, 2015 at 11:30 am

Fady, don’t let this be a worry. Your children are still small and they will acquire English just fine once they’re immersed in an English-language environment. It’s true, the first few months may be a bit challenging for them, and they may go through a “silent period” where they don’t speak much at school, but this is very natural. Just ride out it together, with patience and perseverance. As a teacher at Hiroshima International School, I worked with many children who spoke only Japanese (or another language) when they first entered the school, but in time they all developed good English ability. Your children can, too. Best of luck!

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7 Leng October 23, 2015 at 6:36 am

Hi Adam

I love reading your articles. They give me more confidence to deal with the challenge of teaching my 3 year old bilingual. Thanks for sharing your experience.

I live in the UK and I am trying to teach my daughter Mandarin. My husband is English. My daughter prefers to speak in English than Mandarin. She needs to think before she speaks in Mandarin, therefore she sometimes avoids talking to me. She is more talkative to daddy because she can speak to him in English. I am feeling a bit of loss. I want my daughter to be able to share everything with me and I don’t want the language to become an obstacle. I need your advice on how to deal with this problem.

I also noticed my daughter has a slight speech delay, I wonder if it is to do with learning two languages?

I would really appreciate your help!

Leng

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8 Adam October 23, 2015 at 7:59 am

Leng, I’m glad to hear my site is a source of support to your efforts with your daughter.

I’m sorry, though, that you’re facing some difficulty. Keep in mind that at the heart of fostering active language ability are the two “core conditions” of exposure and need: your daughter must receive ample exposure to Mandarin and feel a genuine need to use it. If she isn’t getting enough language exposure (at least 25 hours of meaningful input a week is a good benchmark) or she doesn’t really need to use Mandarin (because she knows you’re proficient in English, too), then these are areas you should proactively address.

Toward that end, I suggest that you look closely at the posts on this “resource page”…

The Essentials

As for your question about speech delay, I think it’s unlikely that this has any strong connection to her learning two languages. For more on this subject, please see these threads at my forum, The Bilingual Zoo…

Speech delay and bilingualism

Speech delays or speech problems and teaching languages

I hope this response is helpful to you, Leng! The main thing is to be as proactive as you possibly can about providing your daughter with exposure to Mandarin, day after day, while trying to consciously limit your use of English when around her. At the same time, definitely read to her every day in Mandarin and build up your collection of books and other resources in this language.

Keep going! Your daily efforts will pay off over time!

Adam

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9 Leng October 24, 2015 at 7:42 am

Adam, thank you so much for the useful links. I will have a good read, there’s a lot that I can learn from your experience.

I work full time, therefore my daughter’s exposure to Mandarin is limited to evening and weekend. When I am at home, she is only allowed to watch Mandarin programs and she enjoys watching them.

With regards to books, I don’t have many Chinese books. But, I will be getting more. At the moment, I read to her in English but I explain in Mandarin. I am not sure if this is appropriate?

I have another question. If my daughter speaks to me in English, should I insist she speaks in Mandarin?

Thanks,

Leng

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10 Adam October 25, 2015 at 7:46 am

Leng, because of your work circumstances, you will need to be proactive and resourceful in order to increase the weekly hours of exposure to Mandarin. If at all possible, I would strongly suggest finding a school or caregiver that can help you boost this language exposure. Without some type of outside support, I’m afraid it may be difficult for you to foster active ability in Mandarin.

At the same time, I encourage you to be more consistent about your own use of Mandarin. You should be consciously limiting your use of English with her, and around her, including when you read books. Even if the books are in English, you needn’t read them in that language: just tell her the same story in Mandarin. For more ideas in this area, see What to Do When It’s Hard to Find Children’s Books in Your Minority Language.

As for “insisting” that she speak Mandarin to you, no, I don’t recommend using force. This could be counterproductive to your aim, and damage your relationship with her. If she responds to you in English, allow that, but continue to speak Mandarin to her. By doing so, and doing this with a playful spirit, you’ll be nurturing both her growing language ability and the parent-child bond between you. Remember, the more you can effectively address the two “core conditions” of exposure and need, the more your daughter will naturally begin using Mandarin more actively. Please see this excellent guest post on the same subject: Battling the Majority Language Giant (While Feeling Like a Minority Language Gnome).

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11 Leng Leng Teh October 26, 2015 at 8:09 am

Adam, thank you again for your valuable advice.

Should I leave the teaching of English language to my husband and the school? Will this mean I won’t be able to be involved in her school homework in future?! I am still very tempted to teach her both languages at the same time. For e.g. When she asked what is this mummy? I tend to explain in both English and Mandarin.

I live in a small town and there is no Mandarin class available in this area.

Thanks,

Leng

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12 Adam October 26, 2015 at 10:35 am

Leng, I can only tell you that the more you use English with your daughter, and around your daughter, the less likely it will be that she uses Mandarin actively with you and with others, and this is particularly true since she apparently isn’t receiving adequate exposure to Mandarin, either.

In fact, you don’t need to teach her English—she’ll acquire English just fine from her father, from school, and from society—and by using English with her so freely, you’re undermining your aim of fostering her ability in Mandarin. Helping her with homework in the future is a separate issue that could be handled later, when she’s older. Right now, during these early formative years, your highest priority should be “conditioning” her to communicate with you in Mandarin by effectively addressing the “core conditions” of exposure and need.

I encourage you to read the contents of my blog and forum carefully. The truth is, the situation as you describe will likely produce only “passive ability” in Mandarin: she will understand much of what you say but won’t be able or inclined to speak it. I’m not saying this is “bad”—passive ability is still a significant achievement and can be activated in the future, when the time is right—but if fostering active ability in Mandarin is important to you, then I strongly suggest that you rethink your approach and take stronger action.

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13 Leng October 27, 2015 at 3:58 pm

Adam

Okay, I will follow your suggestions and spend some time reading your blog. Hopefully, I will see some improvement with my daughter. I will be in touch again if I have more doubt.

Thank you so much for your help! I really appreciate it.

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14 TL December 28, 2015 at 4:30 am

I have the reverse version of what you have. I live in Canada, married to a Japanese wife.

I encourage my son to speak Japanese and I even speak Japanese to him as well and read to him Japanese books sometimes and try to make him watch Japanese versions of Thomas the Train on Youtube.

Living here and going to school, he is speaking English and my wife also responds and speaks a bit of English to him as well (she is probably thinking it is easier for him to understand English as most Japanese feel this when speaking with foreigners). There are too many complexities to list why it would spark a negative reaction and a fight as to why I can’t tell my wife to only speak Japanese to him but she does speak it mostly, about 75% of the time that I observe.

Almost everyday her and his conversations consist of her speaking Japanese but he’ll respond in English. She doesn’t correct him or teach him the Japanese equivalent so much since she wants to promote his confidence in speaking in general with English.

I try to create the Japanese environment more and speak Japanese at home; my wife and I met and spoke Japanese and still do this at home. (She has many people in Canada to practice English with and she goes to ESL school). I speak Japanese to my son, even though I think my wife may feel this is a bit strange as I am not Japanese. We discussed this before and she realizes why I do this with him, which is to promote his bilingual ability.

Japanese classes and schools here tend to just speak to kids in Japanese even though kids keep replying in English. The schools don’t prompt or try to encourage kids to speak Japanese I found after observing classes.

I would like to help him develop more of his active ability, sometimes I will teach him the Japanese equivalent of what he is saying in English and he will repeat after me.

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15 Adam December 28, 2015 at 10:46 am

I understand your concern, and I commend your efforts. It’s a fact that the basic conditions themselves are working against your success, but I’m afraid it’s also true that the odds have been reduced further by the lack of consistent support given to your son’s Japanese side. Ideally, in such circumstances, the way to substantially raise the odds of success involves establishing, from early on, the minority language as the family’s main mode of communication, then carrying out this choice consistently. In other words, you would pursue the “minority language at home” approach, with both you and your wife using Japanese with your son, at least to the degree realistically possible.

I’m not sure how old your son is now, but if nurturing his Japanese side is important to you and your wife (and wouldn’t her extended family in Japan, who may not speak English, be a strong source of motivation for her?), I would encourage you to gently, but firmly, shift toward making Japanese a more central part of your life as a family, in all ways: language use by the parents, resources in the home, activities outside the home, travel to Japan, etc. If you and your wife can agree on this aim, and work together proactively to increase your son’s exposure to Japanese and his need to use it, then you’ll surely fuel more productive movement. Although getting him to switch to using Japanese at home may not be a realistic short-term goal—since he’s already grown accustomed to communicating with you and your wife in English—the more effort you put into supporting his bilingual development on a daily basis, in persistent but playful ways, the more progress he will continue to make over time. And, ultimately, when the time and opportunity is right, his passive ability in Japanese can become increasingly active. So, even if you don’t see the fruits of your efforts as quickly as you’d like, your perseverance will no doubt eventually pay off in the success you seek.

I hope this response is helpful. For further food for thought, please see these posts…

What to Do When Your Bilingual Child Won’t Speak Your Language

Guest Post: Battling the Majority Language Giant (While Feeling Like a Minority Language Gnome)

Have You Failed at Raising a Bilingual Child?

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