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8 Meditations on Time and the Art of Raising a Bilingual Child

My "surprise party"
Here I am on my birthday, wild with pretend surprise, after my kids led me blindfolded into the living room for a “surprise party.” Reminding my family (over and over) that I had a birthday coming up made them feel so guilty that they put up some decorations for me and gave me a few gifts. (In my hand are birthday cards from my parents.)

My birthday was on Sunday.

I turned 52.

It’s hard to believe, because it doesn’t seem so long ago that I was flying around the house like a super hero, a pair of underwear pulled over my head like a mask.

Wait, that was last night.

The truth is, my age is actually the average of the age of my mind and the age of my body.

In other words, I’m now a 12-year-old boy inside a 92-year-old man. (I nearly passed out trying to keep up with the other two super heroes, my school-age kids.)

Today, I admit, I’m not only feeling a bit light-headed from last night, I’m in a philosophical mood, too, a little dizzy with thoughts of time. Time, of course, is the very fabric of our lives, and the way we perceive time, and use (or misuse) time, is ultimately at the heart of our bilingual journey—and the whole rest of our journey through this world, too.

The Faces of Time

As fate would have it, I also came across this stunning video clip last weekend. In “The Faces of Time,” Jan Langer, a Czech photographer, dissolves the faces of elderly men and women into their younger selves of years ago. It’s a mesmerizing video, and will put you in a suitable frame of mind for the rest of this post. Please watch…

For another remarkable video about the passage of time—where a child grows from birth to age 13 in just 3 minutes and 30 seconds—see Can You See How Quickly Time is Passing?

1. Take full advantage of the early years

For a parent, time is strangely elastic: With babies and toddlers, the days (and sleepless nights) can feel so long, and yet the years soon speed past. In just a couple of weeks, my daughter will turn ten. Ten?! Will Lulu really be an adult in less than a decade? (She still cries when we won’t buy her a little trinket at the store.)

The 18 years of childhood may seem to stretch on forever at times, for both children and parents, but they’re barely a blink, really. And the hard truth is, our distance on the bilingual journey can depend significantly on the actions we take (or fail to take) in the first few years. This is a broad generalization, of course—and it’s always possible to make up ground in later years—but the fact is, our influence on our children’s language development is strongest early on, when the window of language acquisition is also at its widest. As children grow increasingly independent, and the world of the majority language takes ever greater hold on their lives, time and energy for the minority tongue can shrink.

This is why, if you want your children to communicate with you in the minority language from the very start, and for the life of your relationship, it’s crucial to take full advantage of those first few formative years, the time when little brains are most primed for language acquisition and when you have the most influence on their development.

2. Persistent efforts add up over time

We must use time to our advantage, not only by emphasizing our efforts early on, but also by sustaining these efforts, day after day, so they will amass over the years. Our basic aim should be: Take small steps each day, right from the start, to steadily advance to the destination we seek.

You see, nothing is really neutral. Your action either moves you forward in your quest to strengthen the minority language, or your lack of action sets you back, because the majority language will surely continue its relentless development.

In The Dark Secret to Success at Raising Bilingual Kids, I compare this process to the rock formations (stalactites and stalagmites) that grow in a cave, bit by bit, through persistent drips of water over the course of thousands and thousands of years.

We don’t have thousands of years, I know, but the analogy still holds:

Good bilingual ability is the result of persistent efforts that add up gradually over time.

3. Stay as conscious as you can

In order not to shortchange your support for the minority language, you must stay as conscious as you can, day after day. This is easier said than done, I think, because the busyness of our lives, and our many other obligations, can often distract us from our efforts and become obstacles to our aim.

This is why regularly reading books and blogs about raising bilingual children—beyond the fact that such reading can provide good guidance and ideas—is so useful: this reading helps keep us conscious.

At the same time, writing about your journey can be an especially powerful way to remain mindful. By keeping a journal or even maintaining a blog, you’re actually strengthening your mind to stay awake and think more deeply about the subject. In my case, blogging about my journey to the extent that I do enables me to continuously focus on my current challenges and respond to them as effectively as possible.

This is also the main idea behind Bilingual Style, my online store offering products for everyday life that feature a bilingual theme: these T-shirts, coffee cups, and other items can serve as reminders of our journey, keeping us conscious of our aim and our efforts.

4. Seize each day strongly

By staying awake, we’re better able to make the most of our time. As the video above clearly conveys, our days slip past more quickly than we think. Not only is seizing each day so vital for effective action on the bilingual journey, it’s at the very heart, I think, of living a fulfilling life.

There shouldn’t be a frantic quality to our efforts, though. It simply means being steadfastly proactive, day after day, when it comes to the things that really matter most to our lives, like raising children with good bilingual (or multilingual) ability.

The truth is, I can be just as guilty as anyone when it comes to putting things off for tomorrow. But I think we do so at our own peril because time is fleeting, and one day of inaction can easily lead to many more. Before you know it, months, even years, may pass and the most important things in our lives somehow get lost and unfulfilled amid the noise of everything else that seems urgent in the moment, but ultimately contributes very little to the lives we truly want to live.

Let’s not allow ourselves to get sidetracked from giving our honest best to the goal of raising bilingual children.

5. Remember death, appreciate life

Now that I’m in my 50s, the end of my life is more sharply in view. As a young man, the thought of my own death never really occurred to me in any serious way. But today, just a couple of decades away from old age, it’s unavoidable: Time is running out.

The truth, of course, is that time is running out for us all. The amount of sand in our hourglass may be different, but that sand continues to pour, moment by moment. And we never really know how much sand we have left.

Thoughts of death aren’t pleasant, I understand. And as a parent, when I think of dying and I imagine the pain it would cause my children (at least I hope they wouldn’t be jumping for joy!), it breaks my heart. But there’s a marvelous irony when death is made a more present part of our lives: We can appreciate life more.

And the fact is, the more we appreciate the time we have, the more we’ll make use of that time in ways that matter to us—including our quest to leave our children with a legacy of more than one language. After all, if you knew this was your last year on Earth, how would you spend it? Wouldn’t you wake up each morning with a deeper appreciation for the day, and a firmer determination to live those hours as fully as you could?

That’s the way we should be living now, whatever the amount of sand left in our little hourglass.

6. Engage with every interruption

There are many reasons to love technology, but one of the things I loathe about it is the fact that these devices can be so alluring, they distract us from what’s really important. I mean, even when my kids are right here by my side, wanting to talk to me, and my work on the computer could surely wait until after this interaction, I still find it hard to pull away.

I even wrote a whole post about this problem called Are You Making the Moments with Your Kids Count?, where I made this pledge to myself: Engage with every interruption.

As I said then, there are two key reasons to make this extra effort to give our children as much full attention as we can:

1. It impacts their language development.

2. It impacts the bond we build with them.

And yet this continues to be a struggle for me, something that demands mindfulness each time one of my children enters my little home office…

Lulu is upset. Turn away from the computer and give her a hug.

Roy is excited about a picture he just drew. Really look at it.

To help remind me, today I’ll post a favorite quote, from Crystal DeLarm Clymer, on the wall above my computer:

When your child is talking, turn off the world.

7. Fill the “cracks” of each day

It’s wise to find ways to fill the “cracks” of each day with exposure in the minority language. A few minutes here and there, day after day, adds up significantly over time. And this exposure can be created while you’re there with your kids, and even when you’re not.

For example, when you’re present, you can use short periods of “down time”—like when your kids are putting on their pajamas and brushing their teeth—to read brief selections from books of poetry, jokes, or riddles in your target language. Keep such books in a handy spot and make a habit of reaching for them.

And even when you’re not around, you can still promote exposure to the minority language by taking advantage of the strategy I call captive reading, which involves posting text in the minority language (like my versions of fairy tales and fables) in the bathroom or other “captive location” and changing it regularly.

By strategically filling the “cracks” of each day with the minority language, you help boost its development because every little bit counts.

8. Your actions matter profoundly

The small steps we take, day after day—like reading aloud another picture book—may seem to make little difference, and perhaps, viewed as one lone experience, that would be true. But make no mistake: Your children’s eventual language ability will be the sum total of all these tiny steps. And this is why good habits and routines are so vital.

The thing is, reading that picture book doesn’t just impact your children’s language ability. Because it impacts their language ability, it potentially impacts the language ability of their children, too. And if you think about it, through the interactions of your children and their descendants with others, that impact actually extends far more broadly, touching the world at large.

All from the humble act of reading a picture book.

Sometimes our shortsighted minds tell us: These small things, they don’t really matter.

But that’s an error of perception.

The farsighted truth is: They matter profoundly, now and for many years to come.

The challenge lies in remembering that your day-to-day actions matter not only to you and your children in the present, but to the wider world, too, in the future.

This is the greater legacy of your bilingual journey.

This is the art of raising a bilingual child.

If this post spoke to you, see Instant Inspiration for Parents Raising Bilingual Kids. It’s another big blast of support.
How about you? What are your thoughts on time, particularly in connection with raising bilingual kids?

14 Responses

  1. Adam, superb post, as always. Thanks for your sharing your work.

    I’d like to know your opinion about this. I’m raising my children bilingual, English-Spanish, not being English our mother tongue.

    I’d say our 11yo son is on track to be bilingual, he’s been always exposed to the English language through TV, au pairs, and me talking to him the whole time. English is his fave language when it comes to watching TV as that’s the way he’s watched TV since day 1, and I think he understands almost everything, otherwise we would choose Spanish, which he doesn’t do.

    The thing is that he hardly speaks to me in English anymore. He used to do it from 7 to 9 approximately, but now he’s totally immersed in the majority language at school and with friends, and this is affecting his speaking seriously.

    The only way I get him speaking is through ‘formal’ exercises, which I’ve tried to avoid since we started this ‘journey’. What I mean by ‘formal’ exercises is, for example, question challenges, where I give an answer and he has to give me the question. Or making him write stories so that he reads them to me at the end.

    I’d love to know your opinion and also know if you are experiencing something similar with Lulu, now that she’s about to turn 10.

    Thanks in advance,

    1. GD, thank you. In your son’s case, it sounds like he has good ability in the minority language, but lacks an organic need to use it with you: because he knows you speak the majority language, and because his ability in this language is now stronger by comparison, he’s just being pragmatic.

      I understand your frustration, but I’m afraid getting him to use English, instead of Spanish, will require certain “structures” to encourage the switch. The “formal exercises” you mention are one way, but I would emphasize a playful quality to your efforts. In fact, this post might be useful to you and spark some ideas…

      A Sneaky Way to Get Bilingual Kids to Use the Minority Language

      Apart from specific activities, you could also try making certain times of the day your “English time” and link this with a reward system: if he tries to speak English during this time (like during breakfast), he gets a sticker; when he gets a set number of stickers, he earns a prize of some kind. A reward system like this—another useful “structure”—could help motivate him to use English, at least during these defined periods.

      Getting him to use English more freely with you, as in younger years, is likely difficult without a larger response, such as traveling together to an English-speaking country—and even then, this use will probably wane after you return to the same routine at home because of that lack of real need to communicate with you in English. (In my case, I’m not a native speaker of the majority language and my daughter is aware that my ability in Japanese isn’t nearly as strong as my ability in English, and so she still feels a genuine need to use English with me.)

      So my best advice (unless you can do something more dramatic, like placing him in an international school setting to shift the dominance of his two languages) would be to implement regular “structures” into your lifestyle which will encourage him to communicate in English, and, at the same time, continue speaking to him in this language more generally, even when he responds to you in Spanish.

      The fact is, your journey has already been a success (good for you!), and because his English ability is well developed, it will no doubt grow even stronger through the rest of childhood with ongoing exposure. When he’s older, I expect the two of you will be able to communicate freely in both languages! Keep going, GD! :mrgreen:

      1. Thanks for your answer and advice, Adam. I didn’t have the time to thank you till now.

        Unfortunately my son has outgrown stickers and other simple rewards but I think you are totally right when you say he’s being pragmatic, and fortunately he has no problem when it comes to speaking with his ‘teacher’ in the US via Skype.

        I’m using all your other resources though, and again we’re going to have a British au pair this coming summer for our 3yo daughter, so hopefully having a native at home for a month will make us all speak for a while.

        Again a big thank you!
        Take care!

  2. No. 6 is a good reminder I guess for any of us who do much blogging and writing…and of course the whole Carpe Diem message of the post, no, of your awesomely energetic website!

    Don’t forget to chill or stop to smell the roses too, do you do that in any language too?

    1. Thanks for your kind comment, Aileen. Unfortunately, most of my roses these days bloom only on a screen-saver, but I do try to get away from this computer regularly to play with my kids—times that are both energizing and exhausting!

  3. greeeeeat post, Adam!!!
    you’re definitely my guru!!! we should always, every single day, every single moment, remember what really matters!
    thank you so much for sharing your precious meditations!

    1. You’re welcome, Emilia. And thank you for your warm feedback. I’m so glad that I can touch your life from so far away…it’s like a little miracle.

  4. Thanks for yet another thought-provoking post that also made me laugh.

    Just had to say that you certainly do not look your age. Keeping a fun, playful approach to life must help keep the wrinkles at bay :)

  5. Thank you Adam, you help to keep me going. You always offer great ideas and encouragement, thank you.
    How come at 52 you have a full head of hair?? At 40 I have hardly any!
    Thanks and keep encouraging us.

    1. Simon, thanks. I’m glad to know my work is lending support to you and your family.

      As for my hair, I’m still clinging to some of it, but it’s also true that I’ve lost a lot over the years. It’s one of the many things I blame on my children.

  6. Great post, I enjoyed reading a lot. And I’m embracing numbers 4, 5 and 6. So good to (re-)realize all of this, in these fast hurrying distracting times, and to not forget what really matters.

    And the video… phew, so touching…

    Thank you so much for sharing, Adam!

    Best wishes,

    1. Heleen, yes, remembering what really matters… It’s hard to do, in our busy days, but it’s at the heart of everything, including our bilingual journey.

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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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