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3 Good Ways to Boost a Bilingual Child’s Language Ability and Loving Bond with Grandparents

Reflections on our first trip back to the U.S. in five years

For much of June, we were in the U.S., visiting family and friends. This series of articles offers observations of that trip in connection with raising bilingual children.

Grandpa plays the banjo and sings a folk song.
Grandpa plays the banjo and sings a folk song.

The main purpose of our trip to the United States was to provide an opportunity for my kids and my parents to spend time together in person. As it had been five years since our last trip—when my kids were just 4 and 1—they didn’t really have clear memories of their grandparents from that visit. With my parents getting older, and our trips abroad rare, this was a special chance to make some lasting memories.

I’m happy to report that this mission was accomplished—Lulu and Roy had a wonderful time with their grandparents. (My father lives in Quincy, Illinois, my hometown, and my mother lives in Memphis, Tennessee.) But it was also bittersweet, in a way, because Japan and the United States are on opposite sides of the earth and the sad reality is that the defining nature of the bond between my children and my parents will probably always be distance. This fact was continually on my mind while we were there and I often reminded myself to take in these moments of togetherness as fully as I could because I knew how fleeting they would finally be.

Although I wish the situation was different—I wish my kids could grow up with my parents as a more active presence in their lives—these are the circumstances we must work with and make the most of while we can. Toward that end, I thought I would share the three main ways that I try to bridge this distance and facilitate a connection between my children and my parents, a connection that not only nurtures the loving bond between them, it gives a regular boost to my children’s language ability.


1. Strengthen ties through photos and video clips

Today, technology offers an easy and inexpensive way to share photos and video clips with grateful grandparents. I’ve used Google’s Picasa for several years, posting a new batch of photos and video online every month or so. By giving my parents this regular peek into their grandchildren’s lives, I’ve been able to bring the two generations closer, at least emotionally.

Of course, there are a range of options for sharing photos and video these days, but I’ve been very satisfied with Picasa for these reasons…

  • Picasa can be downloaded freely.
  • It’s a solid, user-friendly program for organizing digital photos and video clips, and enhancing the appearance of your photos (through lighting adjustments, sharpening, etc.) before you share them.
  • You can quickly upload your photos from Picasa to Picasa Web Albums, a photo-sharing web site. (Space on Picasa Web Albums is free, too.) Visitors to your web albums can view each album as a full-screen slideshow, as well as download their favorite photos to their own computer.
  • There are several levels of privacy for sharing, depending on your needs.
  • Because Google owns YouTube (it won’t be long before Google buys up our kids, too!), you can upload video clips directly to YouTube by simply clicking a button in Picasa. Once these clips are uploaded, try tinkering with the quality and privacy settings in your “Video Manager,” then share the links via email. (A YouTube account is free, too.)

If you’re not regularly sharing photos and video clips of your kids with their grandparents, I highly recommend giving Picasa and YouTube a go. It doesn’t get much easier (or cheaper) than this, and once the pieces are in place and you’re familiar with the process, maintaining the routine is almost effortless. For a minimal investment of time and expense, the payoff is priceless!


2. Create communication via Skype video chats

A regular routine of video chats via Skype can create wonderful opportunities for face-to-face communication between grandparents and grandchildren.

Christmas chat with Grandma.
Christmas chat with Grandma.

To this point, we’ve been using Skype maybe twice a month, mainly to catch up with my mother—though I hope to get a similar connection going with my father, too. Although the image quality of our chats could be better (I think that’s largely a function of the quality of the computers and webcams involved), Skype has been a valuable way of strengthening ties while providing my kids with a chance to exercise their spoken ability in the minority language. And the fact that photos and video clips are being shared regularly through Picasa and YouTube makes it easier to engage in conversation, since the grandparents then have a vivid idea of what their grandchildren have been doing of late.

Skype, too, is easy to use and setting up an account, and video chats with others, is generally straightforward. Both the Skype software and the chats themselves are free.

Letter from Roy

3. Establish an exchange of handwritten letters

Handwritten letters between grandparents and grandchildren not only deepen the emotional bond here in the present, the letters themselves can become cherished mementos of this bond for the future. Meanwhile, the children are receiving a regular workout in both reading and writing.

Because Lulu and Roy can both write reasonably well for their age (9 and 6 as of this post), I’ve been helping them exchange letters with their grandparents for over a year. Though email has been used, too, from time to time, I’m far more eager to facilitate the exchange of letters for these reasons…

  • Letter-writing is a lost art and I’d like my kids to have some experience of this—writing letters by hand—during their childhood. (Letter-writing to friends and family was a big part of my own youth!)
  • Email print-outs simply aren’t the same special keepsakes as “real letters” delivered by post.
  • Letters have more “emotional weight” than email, and I believe the words written by my parents to my children will have a more meaningful and lasting impact in letter form. (Along with news of the day, I plan to encourage my parents to write more about their own lives, including childhood experiences, and the lessons they’ve learned over the years.)
  • Letters provide children with the opportunity to read, and become accustomed to, different types of handwriting. (My mother writes in flowing cursive, while my father’s writing has a distinctive quiver due to a tremor in his hand. For this reason, he has begun typing out his letters, too.)
  • At the moment, my kids are far better at writing by hand than they are at typing. The rare times I let them sit at my desk and type an email reply are an exercise in perseverance for us both! (Lulu writes the first draft herself on scratch paper, which we edit together, then she produces a clean final draft on stationery. Roy is nearly capable of this, too, but for the time being I’ll still have him dictate to me what he wants to say, then copy the letter over on lined paper.)

Exchanging letters takes some diligence, it’s true—and parents must be actively engaged in helping their children produce timely replies—but the gains to the relationship between grandparents and grandchildren, now and to posterity, as well as the meaningful language use it encourages, make this well worth the effort for all involved.

Want to read more on bilingual children making stronger connections to their grandparents? See this guest post by Annie Dye, a lovely piece titled Extraordinary Grandparents—Extraordinary Moments.

How about you? What do you do to strengthen ties with grandparents (and other family members) who live far away while stretching your children’s ability in the minority language?

12 Responses

  1. Thank You Adam, I really enjoyed reading this. Loved your idea about handwritten notes and to share photos, I shall look into Picasa.

    1. Kristin, I’m glad the ideas in this post may be useful to you in your own efforts. Best of luck creating connections between your children and their grandparents!

    1. Marta, thanks for the suggestion. I’m not familiar with Google+ hangouts. How does it work and how do you use it with distant family members? (Anyone else using Google+ hangouts, feel free to chime in!)

  2. Skype: Hope you will try out the Group conference calling feature. You can talk with both grandparents at the same time…and aunts and uncles, up to 10 parties at the same time. (But it becomes like a zoo)

    Your video quality is most likely due to the camera. My father was eeking the last legs out of his computer and the video was TERRIBLE! He upgraded his CPU with a better built in camera, and KAZOW…nice quality video.

    Google+ hangouts is for the “young generation”. Just as ooVoo is.Both have features such as allowing the video chat to be easily uploaded to youtube for public viewing. Neither one provides calls to land based phone numbers (800, 888, etc numbers)

    I use both. I only allow my mother to use Skype.

    1. Dennis, thanks for your helpful tips. The “group conference” feature on Skype certainly sounds interesting, though I can see how it might become a free-for-all with more than a handful of people online.

      As for the video quality, my webcam is pretty decent, and the few others I’ve tried Skyping with say the picture is clear, but they often look like astronauts in space on my own monitor so I suspect the quality of their cameras is lacking. I look forward to the day, surely not far off, when we can all be chatting in beautiful high-definition!

      Thanks again for this good information!

  3. Dropbox is an even easier way of sharing photos with family living overseas.
    Skype is awesome!!! Best way for the little ones to build a relationship to the grandparents living far away.

    1. Vera, thank you for the Dropbox suggestion. I have a DropBox account, but don’t make use of it much, and it never occurred to me to explore how this might be another solution for sharing photos.

  4. Hi Adam, I can so relate to what you are saying about distance being a defining aspect of the relationship between your children and your parents.

    We just had my parents stay with us for 3 months and it was amazing to see the bond being formed between them and my 2 1/2 year old son, but also the boost in his minority language was amazing.

    The goodbyes are always hard, but Skype, Dropbox, Picasa, Facebook and the likes help to feel a bit closer.

    When we Skype I always encourage my son to tell my parents what he recently did or where we went. When my parents visited, my dad gave him a harmonica, I can’t wait for the first Skype jam session.

    We also have lots of photos and videos we share, and I tell him about what we did or ask him to tell me who he sees in the photos. It helps to keep his memory fresh. So when my parents were standing in front of him for real, they weren’t strangers, they were “Oma” and “Opa”. Can’t wait to visit them next year.

    1. Sandra, I’m glad your son had such a good time with his grandparents. Cultivating this relationship with grandparents is so important, both for the child’s family ties and minority language development. Although it’s true that modern technology makes overcoming distance easier (kids like mine would never have known their grandparents 100 years ago!), it’s inevitably a challenge and still leaves some heartache. (My mother’s only granddaughter is my daughter…and yet they see each other so seldom…)

      But we do the best we can, with the circumstances we have.

      I hope your father and your son enjoy making music together!

  5. Yes, my dearest pals, Picasa is an essential aspect of our continued connection. But Skype and exchange of letters are also important too.

    Growing older is a true challenge for most everyone. In my life, it’s become sometimes overwhelming.

    I do pray that my singing won’t quit before I am fully prone.


    Papa and Grandpapa

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Welcome to Bilingual Monkeys!

I’m Adam Beck, the founder of this blog and The Bilingual Zoo, a lively worldwide forum for parents raising bilingual or multilingual kids. I’m also the author of the popular books Maximize Your Child’s Bilingual Ability and Bilingual Success Stories Around the World. I’ve been an educator and writer in this field for 25 years as well as the parent of two bilingual children, now 19 and 16. I hope my work can help empower the success of your bilingual journey.

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