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!