Let me begin this important post with a little story…
Not long ago I bumped into another American father in town, cradling his newborn daughter. His other two children, of elementary school age, were playing nearby. As we talked about our children, and naturally touched on our efforts to support the development of their minority language—English for us—it became apparent that he was feeling some frustration over the fact that his older kids seem to understand his English, for the most part, but typically respond only in Japanese.
I’ve lived in Japan since 1996 and I’ve seen this situation over and over and over again: despite the parent’s high hopes, the child won’t speak the minority language.
Lately, too, I’ve received email from a number of parents—located in a range of countries—who have expressed concern over this same dilemma. So, clearly, this is a common and widespread challenge for parents raising bilingual kids. The question is:
Why does this happen, and what can be done to address it when it occurs?
Two key areas
Recently, I wrote a post entitled Warning to New Parents Who Dream of Raising a Bilingual Child. If you haven’t seen it yet, I urge you to read it and share it with others who are just beginning the bilingual journey. That article, I hope, can help spare some parents the frustration felt by many when it comes to the development of the child’s minority language ability.
The basic point of that post is this:
If you want your children to use both languages actively when they start to speak, you must hit the ground running, right from birth, and do all that you can—day in and day out—to ensure that they form an organic need to use the minority language and receive sufficient exposure to that language.
When a child starts speaking, yet comes to rely mainly on the majority language to communicate, her reluctance to use the minority language can generally be traced to shortcomings in these two key areas—need and exposure—during the first few years of life. This period, when the young child’s brain is building the foundation for future communication, is a vital time for firmly supporting the minority language.
The necessity of need
If the growing child discovers that the minority-language speaking parent also has ability in the majority language, her need to use the minority language will naturally diminish. And if there is little need to use the minority language outside the home, either (such as attending a minority language school), chances are the child won’t be as moved to communicate in that language as the parent desires. (Though, as always, every family situation is different and I think the odds are better when the minority-language parent is the main caregiver.)
In my case, before I had kids, I would watch how other native-English parents interacted with their children and I realized that, all things being equal, the more those parents used Japanese around their kids, the less need the children felt to use English. In essence, each time the parent used Japanese, they were sending this unspoken message: “I can speak the majority language, too, so you don’t really need to use the minority language to communicate with me.”
This is why, once my children were born—and bear in mind that I’m not the main caregiver—I was determined to speak as little Japanese as possible when they were within earshot, especially as babies and toddlers. It’s true, my own Japanese ability has suffered, but it was far more important for me to convey the idea that I could only speak the minority language. In this way, they would form a real need to communicate with me in English.
It’s odd, but even now, when I do speak a bit more Japanese around them—especially when we have guests or we’re out in the community—they still think that “Daddy can’t speak Japanese.” This is how deeply conditioned they’ve become. In their minds, “Daddy speaks English and that’s the language I have to use with him.”
If your children have already come to realize that they needn’t use the minority language with you—and that using their stronger, majority language is “easier” for them—altering the pattern of communication that has been set will likely require more than simply insisting that they speak to you in the language you wish.
I understand the deep desire to communicate with your own children in your native language (see Why Communicating in English with My Kids is So Important to Me)—and being firm may bring some results, depending on the family dynamic—but if you really want to “activate” their passive language ability, you should also vigorously address the lack of need and exposure.
Addressing the lack of need
Again, an organic need is crucial for motivating their use of the target language. If, at this point, you’re unable to create a genuine need for your children to speak the language with you, look elsewhere to shore up that need. Seek out monolingual settings and situations where they will have no choice but to communicate in that language: schools, clubs, tutors, family members, babysitters, other children, homestay guests, homestays for them, trips, etc. Be proactive about this—don’t just assume that such opportunities aren’t available to you. The more you’re able to build this real need into your children’s lives, the more they’ll start using the language.
Addressing the lack of exposure
At the same time, you should make every effort to increase the amount of meaningful exposure your children receive in the target language each day. In my experience, most families facing the problem of passive ability in the minority language aren’t providing their children with enough exposure in that language on a regular basis.
What’s “enough exposure”? I discuss this question in detail in How Many Hours Per Week Is Your Child Exposed to the Minority Language?, so I urge you to read that post. A good target, though, would be about 30% of the child’s waking hours, or roughly 25 hours a week.
Along with the opportunities for interaction that you’ll hopefully create when you address the lack of need, I strongly suggest that you increase your children’s exposure to the minority language in a wide range of ways, including books, conversation, music, media, and games.
When it comes to nurturing language development, books and reading have tremendous power. If you’re not already reading aloud to your children every day in the minority language—for at least 15 minutes a day—you’re not taking advantage of the number one way to boost their language ability. Make a vow, right this minute, to build a home library of suitable books and read aloud to them each day, whatever their age.
Because I’m such a mad believer in the power of books and reading, I’ve written extensively on this subject. For all my posts on reading (including recommended children’s books), see the reading category. Here are some articles you might start with…
The Secret to Raising a Bilingual Child
How to Get Your Child Hooked on Books
What Is Captive Reading and How Will It Help My Bilingual Child?
Recommended Resources: “The Power of Reading”
Recommended Resources: Good Books on Reading Aloud
Also, at Free Report: The Power of Reading in Raising a Bilingual Child, you can download a handy PDF file which summarizes my thoughts on reading.
Along with daily reading, make an effort to increase the sheer volume of speech you direct toward your children in the minority language. (See The Most Powerful Thing of All in Nurturing Language Development for a fuller discussion of this important principle.) Even if they aren’t responding in that language, right now, this additional exposure will help pave the way for communication.
Try telling true stories from your past (Strange-But-True-Tales: Baby Chicks in the Bathtub) and fanciful “made-up memories” (Using Made-Up Memories to Engage Bilingual Kids). Make images (photos, illustrations, etc.) a staple of your efforts (How Images Will Stimulate Your Child’s Bilingual Development). Turn to riddles, which have built-in “kid appeal.” You’ll probably find plenty of riddles in your target language online—or simply make up your own. (Here’s a collection of “Ridiculous Riddles” that I concocted in English.)
You should also make persistent use of music in your target language. Playing music regularly in the background, when your children are at home, or in the car, will quickly increase their input. You may even find your children starting to sing along to a catchy song! (See How the Power of Music Nurtures Bilingual Ability and—for suitable music in English—Recommended Resources: Great Music for Kids.)
At the moment, I’m pretty clueless when it comes to new computer apps, but in the past, I made use of computer games and electronic gadgets as one component of my efforts. If you investigate, you’ll likely find some enjoyable and effective resources for your target language. (The electronic device I describe in Are You Accidentally Hindering Your Child’s Bilingual Progress? might be of interest to those promoting English.)
As for TV, I’ll admit that TV programs and DVDs have long played an important role in my children’s exposure to the minority language. At the same time, I do try to limit this input since the passive exposure of TV can’t match the positive impact of more interactive experiences—and, besides, I don’t want my kids turning into glassy-eyed zombies.
Over the years I’ve collected a lot of fun, useful games—board games, card games, word games, storytelling games—and I play them regularly with my children and my students. This is another area in which I would encourage some investigation and investment. I also suggest, in addition to “competitive games” (where there are winners and losers), that you seek out some “cooperative games” (where the players work together toward a common goal). (For information on cooperative games in English, see Recommended Resources: Great Cooperative Games.)
It’s never too late
In the end, activating a child’s passive ability in the minority language will depend on the actions you’re willing, and able, to make. If you can adequately address these areas of need and exposure, you’ll likely see signs of progress.
It may be, however, that in your particular situation, at this particular time, you’re unwilling or unable to take action to the degree needed. There’s no shame in that. It then becomes important, though, to modify your goal and feel at peace with the idea of supporting your children’s minority language to whatever extent you can. Never permit yourself to get to the point where, out of discouragement, you just stop trying. Remember that every effort you make can have a positive impact on your children’s language development and their longer-term future. Even if you don’t see the fruits of your efforts right away, the actions you make now could very well lead to the day when your greater goal is realized and your children come to use the minority language more actively in their lives.
In other words, it’s never too late to keep trying. At the same time, go at this as lightly, as playfully, as you can. The bilingual journey, for both you and your children, should be more joy than burden. I understand the frustrations that can come with supporting the minority language (just ask my daughter), but we can’t let those frustrations weigh on our day-to-day relationships with our kids.
After all, from the child’s point of view, being loved will always be more important than being bilingual.