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What Frustrates Me About Raising Bilingual Children

September 3, 2013

Tearful defiance

Even as a baby, Lulu displayed tearful defiance (and a tiny middle finger).

There isn’t much that’s universal about our experiences of raising bilingual children. After all, our circumstances are invariably different: different countries, different languages, different lifestyles. And even when they might look similar on the surface, they can’t help but be different because our children are different: each child is unique, with a unique temperament, unique preferences, and a unique learning curve.

There is, though, one thing that’s clearly universal:

frustration

In fact, I suspect that every parent raising a bilingual child feels some form of frustration practically all the time! It’s just part of the process! The trick, I think, is to keep these endless frustrations reasonably small because the big frustrations are symptomatic of more serious concerns in your bilingual journey. And big frustrations, when they fester, can even have a negative impact on family relationships.

At the same time, every frustration, large or small, is also an opportunity to respond and somehow address the challenge at hand. In other words, frustration puts a problem sharply in our awareness and spurs us to take steps to improve the situation. In that sense, frustration is a positive and motivating emotion, which can lead to productive energy and more favorable conditions for a child’s language development.

Of course, I’ve felt my own series of frustrations over the years. In today’s post, I’ll tell you my main frustration at the moment. Then, in the comments, I encourage you to share what you find frustrating these days. Perhaps by airing our frustrations in this way, and offering helpful suggestions where we’re able, we can all come closer to our own effective response.

Dwindling time for homework

From time to time, on this blog and in my newsletter, I’ve mentioned that my daughter, now in third grade, is a bit high-strung. And when she’s facing some stress about the expectations she feels from school and from home, this can sometimes result in tearful defiance when it comes to doing daily homework in English, our minority language.

Although I’ve been able to maintain our “homework habit” since my children were small—in order to nurture their reading and writing ability, and overall proficiency—as they get older, this is becoming more difficult: we just don’t have as much time after school. As children in Japanese schools move into higher grades, the school day grows longer and the load of homework grows heavier. If their majority language also used the Roman alphabet, I imagine this would make things easier for them, but Japanese is completely different from English and it’s a notoriously time-consuming language to learn to read and write.

So I sympathize with my daughter, I really do. (My son is still in first grade, so his school hours, and homework load, aren’t as demanding yet.) At the same time, I’m reluctant to lower my expectations for their literacy development in English, which means I need to respond in such a way that manages to maintain these expectations, yet doesn’t feel like a burden to my kids.

Practice “preventive medicine”

In a way, my response to this situation began long before it finally arrived. Because I knew, early on, that I would eventually face this difficulty, with school hours and homework crowding out time for literacy in the minority language, I pursued a strategy of “preventive medicine”: I did my best to foster a solid foundation of reading and writing in English before they entered our local elementary school. This is why I established the homework routine that I describe in Secrets of a Successful Homework Routine, Part 1 (and Secrets of a Successful Homework Routine, Part 2) from the time they were about 3. And then, over the years, day by day, their reading and writing in English could steadily grow and get a good head start on their literacy in Japanese.

So, although the current frustration of shrinking opportunity for English is real, and something I’m determined to somehow address, it’s not as big a frustration as it might otherwise have been because of the progress already made through these earlier efforts. And this brings me to an important point:

If you can envision some of the larger challenges that will likely arise in the future, you may be able to lessen those difficulties and the accompanying frustration, even before they appear, by practicing “preventive medicine.”

This isn’t always possible, of course, but just like the health of our own bodies, you’ll probably enjoy a healthier bilingual journey with your children if this sort of forethought and preventive action is part of your mindset. Remember, smaller frustrations are better than the bigger ones, and to an important degree, you have some control over how large those frustrations will finally grow.

How about you? What’s your main frustration at the moment? Did you practice any “preventive medicine” before the difficulty appeared? How are you addressing the situation now?

1 Annika / Be Bilingual September 3, 2013 at 3:06 pm

I agree that frustration is a part of raising children and I imagine it to be true even if bilingualism isn’t part of the equation! The “preventive medicine” is definitely to be recommended and I’m very happy that we served our kids a lot of that when they were smaller – now the biggest frustration we have is that the teen doesn’t want to talk (in any language) until it’s about 10 pm and then we want to go to bed already :-). I think it’s wonderful that you look for ways to develop your children’s literacy without making it a burden. One day they will thank us for all the “engineering” we do behind the scenes for their biliteracy. Keep up the good work!

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2 Adam September 3, 2013 at 9:08 pm

Thanks for your comment, Annika. I like your way of describing our efforts as “engineering” behind the scenes—that’s exactly right. And I do hope my kids will thank me one day, because I’m not so sure they feel very appreciative right now!

As for your daughter, maybe you could get her talking in her sleep? :mrgreen: (Like my brother…)

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3 Tatyana September 4, 2013 at 2:59 am

My biggest frustration is how stubborn my daughter is. Once she sets her mind on something there is no talking her out of it. At the same time since she’s a preschooler she has an attention span of a gnat. She wants to play “make funny sentences out of flashcards” but then bounces around and finds other toys to the point where I constantly have to get her attention back to the flashcards. If I just stop then she throws a tantrum saying “but I want to play with the flashcards WAAAAAAA”. Same for reading, she picked a book that is too difficult for her to read but it’s that one or bust, and every day we read a sentence or two because it’s really no fun to be able to read only every 3rd word. I’ve tried giving her a simpler book for a bigger sense of accomplishment and better quality practice, but it’s a no go.
I wish I could find preventative medicine for stubborn. But looking at my husband I think it’s on a genetic level.

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4 Adam September 4, 2013 at 9:16 am

Tatyana, I can empathize. My daughter had a similar stubborn streak when she was younger, and though she’s still a willful child, it’s gradually getting easier to shape her behavior along more productive lines. As your daughter grows more logical and mature, this frustration will probably fade (and be replaced by a new one!).

In the meantime, when it comes to books more suitable for her level, and that might engage her interest, have you experimented with pop-up books and books with flaps that reveal hidden objects? These were among my children’s favorites when they were smaller.

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5 Liz September 4, 2013 at 3:54 pm

My only frustration is that our children would have the chance of being trilingual, if dear husband would just speak ml2 a bit more. He’s a really great father in every other way, but language consistency seems to be his weakest point.
Let’s hope things get a bit better with our upcoming visit to ml2-country.

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6 Adam September 4, 2013 at 4:25 pm

Liz, I hope you have a great trip and that the situation improves in time.

Anyone else have a spouse they wish would provide stronger support? How have you responded to that frustration?

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7 Wendy September 8, 2013 at 7:56 pm

Hi Adam,

It can be a struggle. Two things that are helping us:

1) My daughter (age 9) has a sticker chart, every English h/w gets a sticker, so do letters sent to UK grandparents ( provided they’re of a sufficient length) and she chooses herself what to save up for – at the moment it’s 30 stickers for a DVD she wants.

2) Negotiation with the school so that she doesn’t attend the English lessons there. This is hard-won and has to be re-negotiated on a regular basis but I supply the materials she works on instead. She stays in the usual classroom while the other children go to English and does her work. She still does the regular tests at school – we just look through the coursebook to see what they’ve covered. This has the added benefit that we don’t have so much stress at home about doing the workbook as she’s done it at school.

I’m sure we’ll face other challenges in the future, for now though, this seems to work.

Best of luck to you and the children.

Wendy

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8 Adam September 9, 2013 at 6:20 am

Wendy, these are very good ideas. Actually, it’s funny that you mention sticker charts, because I just started one with my son, who’s in first grade and still hasn’t settled in well at school. In this case, though, because we were afraid that he would balk at going back to school after the summer break, the stickers are awarded each day simply for attending with a positive attitude and trying his best. As time goes by, I’ll probably experiment with sticker charts for motivating their English work, too.

My daughter is 9, too, but doesn’t have English lessons at school yet. When she does, I’ll try following your example. This sort of arrangement would definitely help us maintain the regular flow of English reading/writing work that I want my kids to continue doing when they hit the higher, more demanding grades of elementary school and have increasingly less time for this work at home.

Wendy, thanks for your helpful thoughts! I’m sure other parents will benefit from them, too!

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9 Cameron April 19, 2014 at 12:58 pm

My situation is similar to yours, being in Japan. And like yourself I’ve started down the homework path early too, getting them into the habit and getting them ahead of the majority language. I’m also lucky in that I own an English school so my kids are doing the same homework as their class buddies in my school so there is competition to keep up with the students and stay ahead. In reading, too, I use a graduated reading system and my boy who is 1st grade this year is reading at the same level as my 5 6th grade students and he wants to read more. Healthy competition is good, it also helps the lower students because it gives them something to strive for but that’s another subject for a different website (EFL in Japan). Good article.

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10 Adam April 21, 2014 at 6:00 am

Yes, when your circumstances are working against you, I think you can put the odds more in your favor by being proactive from the very start. Establishing firm, effective habits early—like a homework routine in the minority language—is an important part of this challenge.

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11 Glenn Bryan August 1, 2014 at 10:02 pm

Hi Adam,
I came across your site recently after a hefty bout of FRUSTRATION! I was very glad to find it as it’s always great to read about other people’s bilingual adventures and remind myself that frustration is part of it, even on a daily basis!

I live in Sardinia, Italy. I’m English and my wife is Italian. I also work a lot so as minority language/not main carer parent, I too find it hard to make up the hallowed 20-30 hours contact time. Chiara is 5 and Alessandro is 3.

What really frustrates me is when my kids, especially Chiara, speak to me in Italian! I’m also an EFL teacher which makes it even more frustrating.

Although my wife’s English is quite low, we decided to try and speak more English between the two of us in front of the children. Mealtimes are becoming a firm ‘English’ moment too. It has taken time, at least a year, but I think it has improved the situation because know that they have to speak to me in English!

Regarding preventive medicines, since they started watching TV, I have been buying DVDs in English and last year I got sky TV which means we can choose English language on most programmes. Bedtime reading too has been predominantly English since birth.

Still a long way to go though! And so much to say!

Speak soon.
Glenn

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12 Adam August 3, 2014 at 5:22 am

Glenn, I empathize completely. Raising bilingual children can be much tougher than most people realize, but the sort of proactive efforts you describe will certainly pay off over time. So, despite the inevitable frustrations, success is virtually assured if we continue to be persistent, day after day, year after year. Let’s keep at it!

To find friendly kinship with other parents facing similar challenges, please visit the Bilingual Zoo, a lively forum for “keepers” of bilingual kids. Admission is free for all. :mrgreen:

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13 Glenn Bryan August 3, 2014 at 6:45 am

Thanks Adam,
I’ll check out the zoo asap. Your site is really useful and I also like the format! I have lots of questions as well as experiences to share so it’s all a breath of fresh air. Thanks again and keep up the excellent work!
Glenn

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14 Michelle August 4, 2015 at 11:45 pm

Once again, I just admire you and all those parents who have to work so much harder at it than I do. I know I couldn’t. And even I have my moments of complete frustration and worries about the future. I absolutely LOVE Wendy’s idea of sending a different workbook when they start English lessons. I never even thought of that. I definitely do have to stick around and follow this blog as my son gets older. I pretty much just accepted that he would have to sit in English class and be bored stiff.

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15 Adam August 5, 2015 at 2:47 pm

Michelle, this thread at The Bilingual Zoo may offer more useful food for thought…

Children “learning” English in school

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16 Michelle August 5, 2015 at 9:38 pm

Thanks Adam. Sadly I can already see that some of those great suggestions would never fly here. The Germans are just too rigid to allow you to pull your child out of English completely or to bump them up a few grades in just one subject. Usually different classes do not have English at the same time nor do they have the same subjects in the same time slot every day. On Monday English could be the 1st class for 5th grade, on Tuesday it might be after recess and on Friday it might be the last class. The logistics of a child attending a high level English class…it just wouldn’t work out.

We did have some who would give us more challenging work (though I never found that work challenging either) but we had to sit in the English class for our grade. Though in my last year of school the teacher would often allow me to leave class, particularly during test/exam prep. Technically that isn’t allowed though, at least as far as I know. The only time we were allowed to leave English class was when I was behind in math and when my sister needed some extra German when we first came back. A tutor would come a few times a week (I believe it was two or three). Normally kids would have to stay after school or come early for this tuition, or be pulled from a fun class like art or PE. I’m pretty sure my parents negotiated that this be during English though. I do have to ask my mom.

Some teachers would be so rigid they’d insist that the only option was to sit in class and “learn” the material along with everyone else. SO much depends on the teacher so all I can do is hope that my son gets good, flexible ones. I do dread it already. I honestly still believe that the main issue the 1st one had with me is that she genuinely did not understand 50% of what I was saying/writing because her skills did not go beyond the level she was teaching. Which is absolutely fine but she should have just admitted it. If my son gets one like that…oh boy. But I’m sure that she would have been a stinker no matter what subject she taught. She antagonized the slow kids too. I’m not really looking forward to the school years but you can probably tell. There is still plenty of time though.

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17 Adam August 7, 2015 at 5:45 am

Michelle, I can empathize with your feelings here. At the same time, even if the English lessons are far less than ideal, it will all work out in the end, for us both. Ultimately, we don’t have much control over this schooling situation, so, apart from whatever actions are viable and productive, it’s really best to put our energy into the circumstances over which we do have control, and those are our own daily efforts throughout childhood.

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