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Why Raising a Bilingual Child Is Very, Very Simple—and Very, Very Difficult

April 25, 2014

Why Raising a Bilingual Child Is Very, Very Simple—and Very, Very Difficult

Note: This post originally appeared at Multilingual Living, a recommended resource for parents raising bilingual children. Also see the Inspiring Interview with Corey Heller of Multilingual Living, here at Bilingual Monkeys. It’s a personal and in-depth look at Corey’s own bilingual journey.

On one hand, raising a bilingual child is very, very simple: given sufficient exposure to two languages, and a genuine need to use both, the growing child will become bilingual quite naturally.

In my work as a longtime teacher of bilingual children, having watched hundreds of children become proficient in two languages at Hiroshima International School, I can say that the process itself is straightforward. When these key requirements of exposure and need are met, nature will work its magic and do the rest. The result is the desired outcome: active bilingual ability.

This process may be simple, but it’s hardly easy, particularly when the child attends a majority language school, like my own two kids. In such circumstances, the simplicity of the challenge can become very difficult indeed.

How will adequate exposure in the minority language be maintained, week after week (roughly 25 hours a week would be a good benchmark), when parent and child have so little time and energy beyond the school day? How will the child feel a true need to use the minority language when it becomes obvious that the minority language parent is also capable of communicating in the majority language?

Two crucial factors

Of course, the answers to these questions will naturally be different for each family, since the challenge involves matching effective actions to a particular set of circumstances. So the solutions will vary widely, but the crux of the problem is always the same: to become actively bilingual, the child must receive sufficient exposure to the minority language and feel a genuine need to use it expressively.

When there is a lack of exposure or need (often both), the majority language quickly grows dominant and the minority language is then relegated to a more passive role. To increase the odds of fostering active ability in the minority language, these two crucial factors of exposure and need must be kept firmly in mind throughout the bilingual journey.

In fact, the more they are attended to from the very start, from birth, the less difficulty they will likely present as time passes. This isn’t to say that new challenges won’t arise once the child enters a majority language school and becomes further immersed in that tongue, but those challenges will generally be easier to manage if a solid foundation in the minority language has already been fostered through the first few formative years.

Shaping your fate

In Japanese, the word “en” can be roughly translated as “fate.” For parents seeking to raise bilingual children, the word is a fitting acronym because exposure (e) to the minority language, and need (n) for its use, will ultimately decide the “en,” or “fate,” of the family’s bilingual journey.

To shape the fate that you wish, give conscious and concerted effort to addressing, from day one, the core conditions of exposure and need in the minority language.

How about you? Have you managed to effectively address the core conditions of need and exposure in your target language? Is there more you could do?

1 Stefania August 25, 2016 at 6:26 am

Hi Adam,

I’ve just discovered your blog and I’m currently immersing in the vast world of experience and advice that you kindly chose to share.

This article brings up a particular issue to my mind. In case you have already covered this, please direct me to an existing article.

When my still very young children will eventually go to school I might continue successfully maintaining daily dialogue in the minority language – that only I, the mother, speak – BUT when I’ll be helping them study at home, could I still talk about Math ( & other advanced subjects) in my (minority) language or should I switch to the majority one?

What did you do?

I’ll join the zoo community soon, maybe I’ll find some insight there too.

Thank you for the effort, highly appreciated!

Reply

2 Adam August 25, 2016 at 3:17 pm

Stefania, I hope my work will be helpful to your bilingual aim. I look forward to welcoming you to The Bilingual Zoo.

Actually, I think some of our members there can offer more personal views of the question you raise. In my case, it’s my wife that largely supports my children in their majority language homework from school. But I can say that when I do become involved, I continue to only use the minority language to explain or guide. In fact, I think maintaining the minority language for majority language homework can productively nurture both languages at the same time, while this strategy avoids the potential pitfall of undercutting the child’s need for the minority language when the parent starts regularly switching to the majority language.

It may be possible to separate this use of the majority language in the child’s mind, so “school homework” is the only time when the parent and child communicate in that language, but I’m not sure this is a realistic hope for most families. The risk is that this use of the majority language to attend to school homework will “give permission” to the child to use that language more actively with the parent, even outside this homework time. In other words, use of the majority language with the child can be a “slippery slope” and thus I generally recommend that minority language parents proactively limit their use of the majority language with and around the child, especially during early childhood.

As I stress in this post, the “core conditions” for success are exposure and need so, along with providing ample exposure to the minority language, parents who are primarily responsible for the development of that language should also be cautious about how much exposure they’re openly offering in the majority language.

Reply

3 Stefania August 25, 2016 at 10:24 pm

Thank you for the prompt response!

This moment that I dread is still light years ahead of me, as my boys are currently 3 years old and 14 months respectively. But I am preoccupied about the bilingualism above the average, I might say. And so far things are going great, the big one has a 50-50 language development. I’ve been reading since day 2, let’s say :-) , he loves books and I solely use my language with both boys.

Thanks again for the time you took to write in great detail.

Conclusion, I’ll start learning from now how to say logarithm, integral and other sophisticated terms, in order to recognize them in the first place.

Reply

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