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Watch Out for the Tough “Second Stage” of Bilingual Development

April 11, 2014

Watch Out for the Tough "Second Stage" of Bilingual Development

This week was the start of the new school year in Japan. (The Japanese school year runs from April to March.) Lulu is now in fourth grade and Roy is in second grade at our local elementary school.

In Japan, as children advance to higher grade levels, they spend longer days in school, and come home with heavier loads of homework. For example, in third grade, Lulu arrived home at 3:30 p.m. on Mondays and 2 p.m. on Thursdays, while the other days she trudged in at 4:30 p.m. (We live about 20 minutes from the school on foot.)

But now that she’s in fourth grade, she’ll be arriving home at 4:30 p.m. every day.

The great “exposure gap”

I’ve written before about the great “exposure gap” between a bilingual child’s two languages once schooling begins in the majority language. In Do Your Children Go to School in the Majority Language?, I related the story of how I visited Lulu’s third grade classroom (with a hole in my sock) and was hit hard by the reality of her exposure to Japanese—at the expense of English, our minority language. The fact is, despite my ongoing efforts, this “exposure gap” has been wide, and growing wider, ever since she entered first grade.

And starting this week, it grew wider still. (Sigh.)

My second post about schooling in the majority language, Help! My Bilingual Children Are Losing Their Ability in the Minority Language!, describes this challenge in even greater detail. And in that post, I make an important distinction between the “first stage” and the “second stage” of bilingual development.

The “first stage”

The “first stage,” which spans the first few years of a child’s life, involves making proactive efforts to establish a firm foundation in the minority language and “condition” the child to communicate with you in that language once she begins to speak. If the two “core conditions” of language acquisition are in sufficient supply—the child receives enough exposure to the target language and has an organic need to use the language to communicate—then active ability should follow.

On the other hand, if these “core conditions” are not adequately met, the majority language tends to grow dominant and passive ability in the minority language is the more likely result.

The most common concern I hear from parents is exactly this outcome from the “first stage” of bilingual development: the child understands the minority language when addressed, but responds mainly in the majority language.

(For ideas on “activating” passive language ability, see What to Do When Your Bilingual Child Won’t Speak Your Language.)

The “second stage”

The second most common concern I hear involves the “second stage,” where the scenario is typically this: the “first stage” happily produces active communication in the minority language, and all seems well for a while…but once formal schooling begins, use of the minority tongue fades and is largely replaced by the majority language.

(If this describes your situation, I encourage you to look closely at that detailed post, Help! My Bilingual Children Are Losing Their Ability in the Minority Language!, where I offer a number of practical suggestions for addressing this difficulty.)

My primary aim for this article is to provide a warning for parents who will one day face this “second stage” of schooling in the majority language. (My warning for the “first stage” is made in Warning to New Parents Who Dream of Raising a Bilingual Child.)

The fact is, unless your circumstances lend firm support to the minority language—such as the use of this language at home by both parents or enrollment in a dual language school—you are bound to encounter a new set of challenges in maintaining and advancing your child’s language ability once schooling begins.

And in my experience, parents tend to underestimate the impact of this “second stage” and the great gap in language exposure it brings. (I did as well!) Especially after success is experienced in the “first stage,” unexpected difficulties at this time can come as a blunt shock.

The “first stage” of bilingual development is indeed a crucial and challenging time for families seeking to nurture both languages simultaneously from birth. Still, this “second stage,” which involves sustaining the child’s active language ability, is no less challenging in its own way and must not be overlooked.

Tough in different ways

One basic principle of raising a bilingual child is this: To effectively address your current circumstances, you must be clear-eyed about the challenges. In my case, I’m afraid the longer schools days, and heavier loads of homework, have made my task even tougher. (My goal is high, and I seek to nurture an advanced level of reading and writing skill, too, comparable to an educated native speaker. This is tricky when there’s so little time for English!)

Still, I’ll continue doing what I can, each day, to maintain our routines (reading aloud, homework in the minority language, captive reading, etc.) while pondering new approaches, too, to strengthen their minority side.

Lulu is 9 years old, and will be 10 in June. Assuming she skips off to college at the age of 18, I’m now roughly halfway through my bilingual journey. I wish I could tell you that it gets easier as time passes, and I can spend more and more time taking naps, but with my kids attending school in the majority language, it remains tough—just tough in different ways.

P.S. We had a two-week spring break between the old and new school year, and I got my kids to do homework in the minority language every day, right after breakfast. Want to know my secret? Just see How to Get Your Kids to Do Exactly What You Want.

How about you? What challenges have you experienced in this “second stage” of bilingual development? How have you addressed them?

1 Mayken April 11, 2014 at 5:12 pm

Adam,
my daughter (going on 4) has been attending majority language preschool since last September, and she’s there from 8am to 5.30pm every day of the week. During the school holidays (two weeks every seven weeks, can you believe it?), she goes to a daycare center located on the same premises and attended by much the same kids. Because we simply don’t have that many vacation days at work.
So far it doesn’t seem to have an impact on her language development, but then, before preschool she spent about the same amount of time with a majority language child-minder.
Still she chatters away happily in the minority language when she’s with me or her grandparents.
Depends on the kids?
Cheers,
Mayken

Reply

2 Adam April 12, 2014 at 7:00 am

Mayken, thanks for your comment. I’m glad to hear things are going well with your daughter.

It’s certainly true that the actual impact of this “second stage” will depend on the particular child and the family’s circumstances, but let me add that I think it’s felt more in elementary school, when the formal, academic path begins. My sense is that the emphasis on literacy in the majority language at this time strengthens that language in the child’s mind to a powerful degree, and if the minority language doesn’t have a firm enough foundation, this is when momentum may be lost: the majority language grows dominant and becomes more active than the minority language.

Also, maintaining a child’s oral ability in the minority language is only one side of the challenge. As I describe, if good reading and writing ability in the minority language is an important aim, this can be a difficult task when the time to nurture these skills is so limited. I suppose this is easier when the two languages are somewhat related, and share a common writing system, but when they’re very different (like our languages, Japanese and English), it’s tough indeed!

In general, then, I think it’s wise to err on the side of caution and keep in mind that, once a child begins more formal schooling, this will inevitably have a strong impact, of some kind, on the next stage of bilingual development.

For example, although I’m quite proactive about supporting our minority language—and our progress in all skill areas has continued at a solid pace—through these elementary school years the majority language is clearly becoming a deeper part of my children’s minds and now is their natural preference when they speak to one another. Up until elementary school, they used English more together, but I think the formal emphasis on Japanese has made this side of their language ability stronger, more “instinctual.”

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3 Edith April 12, 2014 at 8:22 am

Adam,
Thanks for this post. I commented about this issue on an earlier post. While my son is currently attending a dual language school (private) he received an offer to attend a very good public school in the fall. We decided to take the spot in the public school, and will make the final decision this summer.

I am grateful for your input on this, as we are already struggling and he favors the majority language. So, I am going to try to develop some kind of plan for the summer and beyond, to keep working on his Spanish. We will be going to Mexico for three weeks in July and I am hoping to enroll him in summer camp there—to force him to speak in Spanish.

This is hard! Never thought it would be this hard!

Thanks for your insight on this issue, at least now I know what to expect.

Reply

4 Adam April 13, 2014 at 11:05 am

Edith, you’re welcome. Yes, it’s tough, but if you remain proactive in the ways you describe, I expect you’ll have good success over time. I’ll continue cheering for you! :mrgreen:

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5 Tj April 23, 2014 at 10:42 am

As a former bilingual child, and now bilingual parent, I can offer hope to many of you parents, at least those whose minority language is English.

I grew up in Holland, with an American mother and Dutch father. Although my mother only spoke English to us when we were young, we mostly responded in Dutch. Of course we went to a Dutch school, with English classes only starting at age 12, and even then only for 1-2 hours per week.

Despite this, I was very nearly as fluent in English, including literacy, as my American peers, when I moved to the US at age 28.

So, my point is that just because your child speaks the majority language most of the time, that doesn’t mean they are not fluent in the minority language, at least if, as is the case with English, the language is so wide spread in business, science and especially popular culture.

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6 Adam April 23, 2014 at 3:26 pm

Thank you for this encouraging perspective. It’s a valid point, in many cases, when it comes to “successive bilingualism.” (And I’m glad it worked out well for you personally!)

At the same time, I think it’s also true that such success largely depends on the particular country and combination of languages. For instance, in Japan, where English isn’t broadly used and few people have good ability, coupled with the fact that Japanese and English are wholly different languages (the two writing systems are wildly different, too), a more “passive path” to a fluent outcome is less likely. So, especially when the circumstances are working against you—and your aim is “simultaneous bilingualism”: nurturing active ability in the minority language from birth in order to communicate with your child in your mother tongue for the life of your relationship—it’s vital to be as proactive as possible from the very start to put the odds more in your favor.

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7 Judit July 23, 2015 at 10:00 pm

Hi Adam,

I’m new to your blog but really enjoying it and hoping it will help us on our bilingual journey. I’m Hungarian, my husband is British and we live in Northern Ireland.

I have a son, Peter, who just finished primary 1 and a daughter Julia who is about to start P1. I have only spoken to them in Hungarian from birth and while they were with me, their Hungarian was the dominant language. Since Peter started going to school, his Hungarian really went downhill. :( He does extremely well in school. I still talk to them in Hungarian, read stories everyday, watch Hungarian cartoons etc. He understands me but replies in English. :(

We are in Hungary at the moment for 5 weeks. He is now forced to use Hungarian with his cousins and is managing OKish, though he has an accent and can’t say more complex things.

I really want to keep their Hungarian and I think I need to change things and work harder when we go back to Northern Ireland at the end of August to keep the progress made here.

Your thoughts would be appreciated.

Thanks,

Judit

Reply

8 Adam July 24, 2015 at 6:39 am

Judit, welcome! I hope my blog can continue to be a source of support to your efforts.

Although I don’t know the situation in detail, let me offer four suggestions…

1. Be even more proactive, day after day, in providing them with exposure to Hungarian from as many angles as you can. See such posts as What to Do When Your Bilingual Child Won’t Speak Your Language and 96 Things You Can Do Today to Boost Your Child’s Bilingual Ability.

2. Even if they speak English with you, continue speaking only Hungarian to them.

3. Since the distance isn’t so far, really, make trips back to Hungary an even higher priority. Go as often as you realistically can. (See Bilingual Travelers: Spring in Hungary Brings Blooming Language Ability.)

4. Join me and over 350 other parents at The Bilingual Zoo, my friendly forum for “keepers” of bilingual kids. Share your story there and you’ll no doubt receive a lot of supportive feedback.

Judit, I hope these thoughts are helpful! I know this can be a frustrating stage of the journey, but keep doing your best! Your persistent efforts will pay off over time! :mrgreen:

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9 George August 28, 2016 at 10:01 pm

Hi Adam,

A sobering and insightful post! I would love to read a follow-up post of where things currently sit, especially with Lulu starting middle school. If she’s aiming to sit juken, then I wonder if the situation will become even more challenging?

As always, my wife and I are very much guided by your experiences to plot our own children’s bilingual journey.

Warm regards,

George

Reply

10 Adam August 29, 2016 at 6:16 am

George, many thanks for your kind comment. I hope my work can continue to be a source of support to your family’s success.

Lulu is currently in sixth grade, the last year at our local elementary school in Hiroshima, Japan. Next spring (for those unfamiliar with the system here, the school year in Japan starts in April), she’ll enter the local junior high for grades 7, 8, and 9. This means that her “juken” (preparing for school entrance exams) will be put off until the high school level. I wouldn’t have been opposed to her taking entrance exams for junior high, if she had been eager to attend a school outside our area, but that wasn’t really the case. And, in fact, seeing how busy some of her friends have become over the past couple of years, going to cram schools and studying hard to enter other junior highs, I’m glad that it worked out this way for Lulu because, otherwise, it would have been quite difficult to maintain my daily homework for her in English, at a significant cost to her advancing literacy development.

Consequently, I’m now hoping that Roy will follow the same sort of path by attending our local junior high and putting off these preparations for entrance exams a few years longer, until high school looms. Every family’s circumstances and considerations are different, of course, but if it’s possible to delay such situations, where the child is compelled to focus almost exclusively on studies in the majority language, then this would certainly be beneficial to the continuing growth of the minority language.

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