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Guest Post: 5 Key Strategies That Have Enabled Me to Successfully Foster My Son’s Bilingual Ability

ADAM’S NOTE: As I often stress, when the basic circumstances of your life work against your bilingual aim, raising the odds of success involves two choices: 1) You can reshape those conditions in more conducive ways, and/or 2) You can be as proactive as possible in your daily efforts. This lively guest post by Matthew John Thoren is an encouraging example of that second solution, where the persistent efforts of a proactive parent have produced happy success through the important early years of the bilingual journey.

5 Key Strategies That Have Enabled Me to Successfully Foster My Son’s Bilingual Ability

Matthew John Thoren is originally from the U.S. state of Vermont and has lived in Japan for most of the last 15 years. While working full-time at a U.S. biotechnology company in Tokyo, he spends as much time as possible playing board games, riding bicycles, reading, and practicing living-room sumo wrestling with his 4-year-old bilingual son. When everyone else has gone to bed, Matthew is either (quietly) working on DYI projects in the family’s new home or shopping for fun English books.

This article describes five key strategies that have enabled me to successfully foster my son’s ability in the minority language, to the age of 4, despite being basically the only source of exposure to this language in my young son’s life.

My wife, my son, and I live in Tokyo, Japan. My wife is Japanese, I’m American, and our son, Soma (a name we considered, but not his real name) is a dual citizen. As a family we have never lived outside of Japan, and my son has spent a total of 18 days in the U.S. on two separate visits. Exposure to the majority language, Japanese, comes from my wife, her parents, daycare, and the community. Exposure to the minority language, English, comes almost entirely from me.

I speak only English to Soma and to my wife. My wife speaks very little English to him and speaks to me in English about 35% of the time. While not native, both my wife and I speak and understand each other’s first language very comfortably. For Soma, there is almost no English language exposure besides me, apart from some TV programs (which is not a fundamental part of our strategy) and a short weekly exchange with family in the U.S. on Facetime or Skype. Despite this, by adhering to the following five tactics, Soma has an English vocabulary of approximately 1,500 words at age four, which is about normal for a child his age growing up in the U.S.

1. Speak only the minority language.

For me, this is the simplest of the five strategies. I speak the minority language to Soma 100% of the time, with absolutely no exceptions. Period. In four years, I have never encountered the need and have never spoken the minority language to my child.

My wife and I generally spoke Japanese to each other before our son was born, but I made the decision that I would only speak to Soma in English. Knowing that I needed to break the habit of speaking Japanese in the house, I began speaking to our son in English well before he was born so that the habit was already formed before he arrived. So, if my son is present, English is the only thing you will hear from me. Period. (The only exception would be if his life is in danger and I knew a warning in Japanese would be more likely to save him!)

2. Increase your “share of voice.”

Think about your child’s day and how much time they spend in each location, such as at home, daycare, and school. At each location, what share (amount) of what they hear is in the minority language? This is the share of voice and our goal is to maximize it wherever possible.

With Soma, I only see him for about an hour on weekday mornings as we rush though our routine, and another hour or two on weekday evenings before he sleeps. On weekends, I generally spend the entire day with him. Other than that, he is at daycare, or he is home with his mother immersed in the majority language.

It is generally accepted that a child needs around 25 hours per week of exposure to the minority language in order to actively speak it. Currently, I’m providing about 40 hours per week to Soma, but remember, because his mother is also there, only half of what he would hear is in English (me) and the other half in Japanese (my wife). Can I bring English (my half) up to 60% of what my son hears? How about 70% or 75%? To do this, I would have to say everything two or three times, so that’s what I do. Does this drive my wife crazy? Of course. Still, when we’re at the table and Soma asks me what’s in my coffee cup, I don’t tell him once, I don’t tell him twice, I tell him three or four times. “It’s coffee! Hot coffee, brown coffee, coffee! And I really like it!” If my wife tells him once when she gets the same question, presto, that’s 3-to-1 and we have our 75%.

I ask him a lot of questions, too, three times as many questions as my wife asks: “What did you eat today? Was it good? What teachers did you see? Who’s your favorite? Did you see your friends? Great! I like them too! Did you take a nap? What’s the weather like today?” Sometimes Soma responds enthusiastically with a full description, sometimes only a word or two, and sometimes he’s not in the mood to say much at all. But when I’m home, English, the minority language, has the number one share of voice in the house.

3. Expand on every interaction.

In every little interaction and routine that occurs inside or outside the house is an opportunity to talk to your child and expand on their growing knowledge of how the everyday world works.

For example, during our morning routine, while I’m always working to keep the minority language share high during my limited hours with Soma, my wife mumbles “gomi…” (“garbage” in Japanese), a hint for me to take out the trash. A reasonable response would be to say, “Okay” or “Yup, you got it.” What I do is find Soma and say, “Hey! Look at this! The garbage is full! This is all the packaging and scraps that we don’t need anymore, so I’m going to take the bag, tie it up, and take it downstairs! Pretty good deal! Oh look! Bottles! Cans! Listen, you can hear them! Clang clang! This is all full, so we have to take this down, too! Be careful, we don’t want to break it! Okay, I’m going to take it down now and I’ll be back in a minute! So see you soon! I’ll be right back!”

We have to remember that we take our understanding of implications and routines related to “garbage” totally for granted, but for a four year old, this is a novel and fascinating idea! Bottles and cans! Involve them fully! If you do this every single time you take out the garbage, get the mail, or wash the dishes, it won’t be long before your child knows what you’re talking about and eventually starts explaining it to you. Not once, twice, or for a month. Do this every single time from now on.

4. Keep up quantitative reading.

Read aloud to your child, over and over, more and more, and have the mindset that it’s never too much! Ever! Sometimes you feel like you’ve exhausted the sources of things to talk about, so books can be another source of input. The content is already there (you don’t have to come up with it) so you just share it with your child.

There are a few things to keep in mind, though. The book should be read and shared together with a sense of purpose. If your child isn’t paying attention, isn’t engaged or interested, than something isn’t working and the reading time together won’t be effective. So, if possible, I make sure that the TV is off and other distractions are out of the way and I make it an interactive experience.

First, read the title clearly. “This book is called… I wonder what’s going to happen!” Then read the author’s name. “That’s a nice name. What’s your name? Oh! Good to see you! What’s your last name? Really?! Wow, me too!” Ask questions about the pictures. Ask if they like the things in the pictures. Can they identify numbers? Ask what number the page is. What number comes next? Ask them what happens next. Make faces like the people and animals in the books. Have them make the faces. Do voices. Ask them to do voices. And react when they do it! Make it fun! FUN! When you finish the book, ask them what they thought about it. “Was that a good book? Do you like this book? I liked it!”

This, now, becomes more than reading. It becomes quantitative reading and it needs to happen a lot. Every day. EVERY DAY! At the same time, consider these two points…

First, there should be a daily goal for your quantitative reading. Last year our goal was four books per day. Period. This is easy because children’s books are short. And second—and this is a little harder—if the daily goal isn’t met (and this will happen) there needs to be a sense of awareness that the day is ending without having met the goal. Of course, there are late nights at work, kids get sick, and things happen which disrupt routines, but when something is not within our control and we can’t read together one night, I don’t feel particularly bad, or worry about it, but I am aware of it.

Before you know it, if you make the effort to reach your reading goal every day, your child will be asking YOU questions about the book, and you will answer. Then they will respond and you will realize that you just had a good conversation in your own language with your child.

5. Keep simple records of efforts and progress.

During the calendar year when Soma had his second birthday, we read 1,090 books. I know because I counted them. Now, having turned four, he has a vocabulary of around 1,500 English words. I know because I counted them.

I keep simple records of input—how many books we have read—and output, the breadth of his vocabulary. I imagine there are many ways of recording our efforts and progress, but we want to keep things simple. This record keeping gives us a sense of accomplishment (we read and discussed over 1,000 books last year!), tracks progress (Soma speaks some 1,500 words!) and reminds us to do more. I have a simple list on the refrigerator which reminds me of our journey so far and reminds me that we need to keep going!

Emphasize these five strategies

In this article I’ve shared five strategies that I feel have significantly contributed to my child’s development in the minority language from birth to age four. While the only experience and evidence I have is a single child, practically all the input he has received, and all the progress he has made, comes from my emphasis on these five tactics. If you truly adhere to these tactics, too, I’m confident that you and your child will also make significant progress in your minority language. Best of luck!

Want more great guest posts? Just browse the guest posts category.
How about you? Are you as proactive as you could be in your efforts? What more might you do to advance your bilingual aim, day by day?

17 Responses

  1. This is a very refreshing read! I am inspired to increase my share of voice when I get home in the evening. Thank you very much for sharing this!

  2. Thank you Matthew for sharing your experience and enthusiasm! Your tips are inspiring and I’ll definitely keep them in mind when interacting with my kids! 🙂

  3. Great post, and I really admire Matthew’s dedication, but I’m curious about something that he says: that in front of his son, English is the only thing you will hear from him, period.

    I also live in Tokyo, and am raising my 7 year old son to be J/E bilingual, but because I am his mother I don’t have quite the uphill battle that dads have as the speakers of the minority language. So far my son is quite a balanced bilingual, perhaps slightly stronger in English still even though he has been in Japanese elementary school for almost a year and went to a normal Japanese kindergarten for three years.

    I do speak Japanese in front of my son though because on a daily basis I have to communicate with teachers, doctors, dentists, shop staff etc, none of which usually speak much English, and I also speak Japanese with my in-laws when we see them (once a month or so), which all happens in front of my son. I wonder how Matthew deals with this kind of situation when he has his son in tow? Not criticising at all, just genuinely curious!

    1. I can share my own experience about this: kids don’t really care about which language you speak with others. They pay attention to the language you speak with them. In our family me and my son speak Italian, my husband and my son speak German, me and my husband speak Italian or English. We live in the US. There has been no English in the house until some has become necessary for school homework. Still a limited, well defined time, where we include some English but discuss in our minority language.

      Anyhow, this just to give you the picture. It is understood that everybody speaks English, but it doesn’t really matter. I don’t speak German, understand it a little. My husband speaks fluent Italian and we have lived one year and spent every summer in my child’s life mostly in Italy. Well, the amazing fact is that my son for the longest time thought his dad did not speak any Italian. He would listen to us talking to each other, he would see him get about his day in Italy. Still because Italian was never directed to him and he connected German with his dad, he thought and would tell people that his dad did not speak Italian. It was the funniest thing! And we have a bright child. But he focuses so intensely on things he wants to learn and takes for granted the relationship/language with his parents, which is the basis for his going out into the world and learn. Now we is 8 and recognizes that his dad speaks Italian (though in his mind “not that well”). Still, it does not make a difference, he always speaks German with him.

      Long story short: the only important thing is that you ALWAYS speak your language WITH YOUR CHILD.

      1. Emanuela, thank you for your comment. This is a valuable point and, in fact, I had to laugh because I’ve experienced the same thing in terms of my children believing, for many years, that I had no ability in the majority language. :mrgreen: So it’s certainly true that the most important part of “conditioning” a child to communicate in the target language is using that language with the child consistently, from early on.

        At the same time, because every child and family is different and it’s hard to predict how liberal use of the majority language may affect this “conditioning process,” I think it can also help raise the odds of success if the parent makes a mindful and proactive effort to control his/her use of the majority language in front of the child, to whatever degree is realistic, particularly during the first few formative years. In my experience, the more the minority language parent actively uses the majority language, too, the more this may eventually undermine the child’s perceived need to communicate in the target language. Again, this very much depends on the specific child and family, but I generally advise that parents err on the side of caution during those early years by emphasizing the minority language and “de-emphasizing” the majority language.

  4. Lots of food for thought in this post, Matthew. Thanks for the great tips! I need to up my talking and start describing things more.

    1. Teresa – great question; and thank you for recognizing the uphill battle that dads have as we are very rarely the primary caregiver. The best way I can respond on the first principle “speaking only the minority language” is through examples.

      1. Around town: I play the “foreigner” and simply speak English. Big “Hello!” and smile. This is a little strange after living here and speaking the language for so long, but it is kind of fun to test the English level out in the community and in most cases it is sufficient. I have never had an experience where staff at a department store or the post office simply could not handle my question. I would imagine that it actually may please a few shopkeepers to have that interaction.

      2. Friends/Visitors/Neighbors: We do have Japanese-speaking-only visitors and neighbors. In this case I wait to speak when our son is off focused on something else and the volume is much lower (again, almost a mumble) compared to when I speak English. In the house with friends, I tend to remain quiet (smile, bow, repeat) until our son is off in another room or completely focused on something else. This has been successful because – as you know – the attention span of a small child is pretty short!

      3. In-laws: This is the most difficult – tactically and emotionally. My mother-in-law has some command of English (great!) so I may communicate some very basic questions or thoughts in English, but I tend to save the deeper, necessary conversation (in Japanese) for after he goes to bed or is well off in another room. I do make it a point to find the time to have these conversations as the family relationship is very important to me. While difficult, I do believe that they have an understanding of and respect for my adherence to the minority language and have expressed (to friends and neighbors) with pride about their grandchild’s language abilities.

      Certainly, some of this comes as quite odd or rude, but with the limited time I have, and as the only source of English for him, this goes towards keeping the establishment of the need for the minority language. I have – twice- in the last 12 months been caught speaking Japanese by my son. He noted it with some excitement (“Papa! You’re speaking Japanese!”) but (thankfully) it has not at all shifted the paradigm and he continues to speak only English with me. It brings some relief in terms of the depth that we have achieved with the establishment of English.

      Finally, I realize (and appreciate) that much of this is possible because English is so widespread and may be exceptional as a minority language.

  5. Great post! I really like the way you say everything 3/4 times and will try doing that myself. I’d be interested in hearing more about how you keep count of the words your son knows.

    1. Alison…
      Yes, I started when our son had an English vocabulary of 57 words – it is (estimated) over 1,500 now. Currently, when he says something that I have not heard him say before (either a new word or a different use of a previously used word) I make a note in my iPhone which I forward to my e-mail and finally paste in to an excel sheet. The excel sheet has a formula to check if I have already input the word or not and finally outputs a range, the lower being the number of unique words entered and the upper being this number divided by 0.95, as I assume that I can “capture” 95% of the new words he says. I only regret that I have never captured the dates of the entries – a growth curve (monthly?) could’ve have been interesting to pinpoint when the “naming explosion” (high growth in vocabulary over a short period of time) occurred. The list is interesting, however, in that it shows the approximate order in which our son’s English vocabulary developed.

      1. That sounds like a great system! I love a spreadsheet! And yes, it’d be great to have graphs too. My son is only 10 months and may or may not have said his first word (we’re not sure if it’s deliberate or accidental!) so I need to look into setting up my own system.

  6. Hi Matthew and Adam,

    Thank you for the post.

    Something that has resonated with me over the years thanks to Adam’s blogs is the importance of reading out loud, day in day out, to my children so I couldn’t agree more with point 4!

    I’d just like to add that now that my kids are 7 and 9, they are also developing their own reading skills and so our bedtime routine is to read out loud all three of us!

    My 7 year old is currently reading Mr. Topsy Turvy from the Mr. Men series and he reads a page, my daughter is reading naughty Amelia Jane (Enid Blyton) and she reads two pages. Then I read a chapter of whatever it is we are reading at the moment (Roald Dahl, David Walliams, at the moment).

    The whole thing takes 30-40 minutes but it is a nice relaxing way to end the day and it’s a firmly established routine.

    There have been times when we are tired and read less but we always read!



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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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