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

What Positive Action Have You Been Putting Off When It Comes to the Minority Language?

January 30, 2013

Examples of Roy's messages to meI recently posed a challenge to the subscribers of my newsletter. (If you’re not yet a subscriber, you can subscribe right here. The newsletter is free and contains additional content not found on this site, along with special offers and giveaways of interest to parents raising bilingual kids.)

So the challenge I posed was this: Choose an action you’ve been putting off—something that could positively impact the development of your child’s minority language ability—and take steps to get it going.

In my case (as I mentioned in How Many Hours Per Week Is Your Child Exposed to the Minority Language?), I had been wanting to do more to address the relative lack of writing in English (our minority language) in my children’s lives. And so, when I came across the idea of placing a “mailbox” in the home to encourage message-writing among family members—seen in Annika Bourgogne’s book Be Bilingual—I added this appealing idea to my lengthy “to do” list.

And there it remained…until I took up my own challenge and finally put it into action last week.

Preparing the mailbox

Our little mailboxThis is what our new mailbox looks like—I found it at our local home supply store. I then added labels with our names to the upper drawers (Lulu and Roy each have their own drawer, while Keiko and I share one), and stocked the bottom drawer with writing materials. I also made a list of “rules” for the activity and affixed this sheet to the top of the box. (One rule bans “rude” messages, but I suspect it was that very warning which inspired Roy to write me the rude message seen above.)

I then eagerly placed my shiny new mailbox on a shelf in the living room—a prime location—and explained its purpose to Keiko.

She promptly carried it into the kitchen. She didn’t want it in the living room.

But as it turns out, the kitchen is fine. It now sits in a convenient spot near the kitchen table.

Using the mailbox

I broke the ice by writing messages to them all, including Keiko, and putting them in the appropriate drawers. My hope was that she would see the wisdom of writing messages to the kids, too—in her case, in Japanese.

Lulu and Roy were excited to get my notes (who doesn’t like getting mail?), but it took a little prompting to get them to write back. Since then, however, they seem to be getting into the spirit of things and our messages have begun to flow back and forth.

Because the activity is still new, and could dry right up if I don’t tend to it, I’ve continued writing fresh messages to all three of them nearly every day. And—with a bit of reminding from me—the kids have been responding regularly with short notes of their own.

I’m pleased to report, too, that Keiko wrote her first batch of messages yesterday. In fact, I watched Roy check his mailbox drawer and happily discover her note. Although he’s already a competent reader in English, he’s just starting to read in Japanese so this sort of practice is ideal before he enters first grade at our local Japanese school this spring. (In Japan, the new school year begins in April.)

Assessing the mailbox

Although my motivation for this activity came from my concern over the lack of writing time—and it’s already clear that the mailbox helps to address this issue (in both languages)—I’ve also realized that writing messages to one another provides another valuable benefit:

Important ideas about life and learning can be reinforced through the written word.

For example, in 49 Inspiring Quotes for Parents Raising Bilingual Children, I shared Lulu’s frequent frustrations with math. Now it’s one thing to talk about this with her—as Keiko and I continue to do—but I believe seeing similar encouragement in print strengthens the message we’re trying to convey: Mistakes are okay. Just keep trying.

In fact, Keiko’s first note to Lulu said exactly that and Lulu’s little face flashed a determined look as she read it. “Yes, I’ll keep trying!” she chirped in Japanese.

So the start of this strategy has been promising, but I also know that the habit will remain fragile for some time and needs my attention to help it take root and grow into an enduring part of our lifestyle. Like any new activity we hope will turn into a steady routine, effort is required, especially at the outset. But the payoff for this modest investment of time and energy—as I’m already witnessing with this mailbox—can be very rich indeed.

How about you? Even if you’re not a subscriber, why not take up this challenge today? We all have something we’ve been putting off, some positive action that could benefit our children’s language development. What’s yours?

1 Annika January 31, 2013 at 5:18 am

That’s great Adam! Good for you! One thing that helped us increase the enthusiasm factor at one point was to have a small bell by the mail box that we rang each time there was mail. At some point it almost drove daddy crazy, true, but there was some real excitement about reading and writing there (like Pavlov’s dog, but with less drooling). We also needed to indicate which language was in question as the writing system is the same and it confused Sara not to know if she needed to wire her brain to read the French way or the Finnish way. Someone on my FB page gave us a great tip to draw a little flag to indicate in which language the message was written.

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2 Adam January 31, 2013 at 6:19 am

Annika, I like the idea of that bell! (My kids drool anyway, so it wouldn’t matter much. :mrgreen: )

As for distinguishing the two languages, I guess we’re lucky in that respect because English and Japanese look completely different! (Although in most ways the great differences between English and Japanese aren’t very lucky at all when it comes to language learning!)

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3 Tatyana February 1, 2013 at 10:36 pm

I guess I should take the challenge as I’ve been putting something off for quite a while.

My 3 year old takes an hour and a half to go to sleep from the moment you leave her alone in her room. She sings, she chats, she looks through her books. I tried to put a disc with fairy tales on for her, but she freaked out at the voices of strangers reading it. So for quite a while I’ve been meaning to record me reading books for her, hoping that it’ll lull her to sleep faster. Bonus points because I’d be reading in the minority language. I’ve always felt bad about wasting that hour and a half when I could be talking to her, but now I’ll be there in spirit.

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4 Adam February 2, 2013 at 6:57 am

Tatyana, thanks for your comment. It’s a great idea and I encourage you to pursue it. It sounds like it would benefit both of you.

Best of luck with this! I’m cheering for you!

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5 Jane February 15, 2013 at 9:41 pm

Oh this is a great idea. Funnily enough, my son’s teacher has set up a mailbox in her (monolingual German) classroom, to encourage writing. I’m quite tempted to try it at home now, too. My boys read a lot in English, but they don’t write that much, other than the odd postcard to Grandma and Grandpa when we’re on our hols.

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6 Adam February 16, 2013 at 12:00 pm

Jane, good luck! I’ve only had the mailbox for a short time, but it’s definitely helping to increase, in small doses, the amount of writing my kids are doing. (In all things, I’m a firm believer in the power of small steps, over time, bringing big gains.) As I mentioned in the article, though, the idea would wither if I didn’t make a conscious effort to keep the messages flowing among us.

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