Here’s an important principle to keep in mind: When it comes to nurturing good bilingual ability in your kids, everything you do either moves you closer to that goal, or impedes your progress. In other words, all the choices you make, all the actions you take, will either help or hinder that effort because nothing you do is neutral.
Did you read a book to your children in the minority language today? Yes? You just moved another small step closer toward your goal. No? Well, assuming their majority language is continuing its relentless development, you’ve just fallen one small step behind. (What’s more, since bilingualism is a long-term effort and demands reliable habits, if you read today, you’ll be more likely to read tomorrow; if you didn’t read today, that could well become a pattern, too.)
And this is true of every other choice you make, every other action you take, day in and day out. Your child’s bilingual ability as a teen will ultimately be the sum total of all the small choices and actions you pursue, or don’t pursue, throughout his childhood.
Step after step
I know all this sounds pretty daunting (and the child has some responsibility here, too!), but I just want to underscore the importance of staying awake, each day, to the necessity of taking these tiny steps toward your goal. After all, raising a child with good bilingual ability is a long journey, “a journey of a thousand miles,” and you and your child will only get there if you are consistently, persistently taking step after step after step. If you get “too busy” to take regular action, or you make choices that are counterproductive, you shouldn’t be surprised when, down the road, you find that you’re not as far along on this journey as you had hoped.
Let me give you a good concrete example.
Your little boy comes to you and says he wants a “Nintendo DS” or another of those handheld electronic toys.
What do you do?
Now I realize every family is dealing with different circumstances, but all things being equal, getting him that device in the majority language—that’s Japanese if the child lives in Japan and attends a Japanese school—will set back your efforts. Think about it: If your intention is to promote his English exposure, and inhibit his Japanese exposure—as it should be if you’re serious about your long-term goal for his bilingual ability—then this is a counterproductive choice. Not only will you not be advancing his English ability, you will be fortifying his Japanese at the expense of his English. Such choices are the surest way to impede steady progress and, ultimately, leave your child with weaker English skills.
How, then, can we turn this situation around and make a more productive choice, one that will still please the child while promoting the English exposure we seek?
Find an alternative
One possibility would be the Leapster Learning Game System from a company called Leapfrog. Geared to children ages 4 to 9, this educational device promotes literacy, math, science, art, and other skills through an extensive line of appealing games.
We got a Leapster 2 a few years back, and have accumulated eight game cartridges. Although it isn’t something my kids use every day, the device has definitely played an important role in boosting their English exposure and basic academic knowledge.
Already, however, the Leapster 2 is practically an antique. As with all technology, the device has developed rapidly over a short time and the newer, spiffier versions are known as the Leapster Explorer and the Leapster GS. Though I only know the Leapster 2, my experience of the product has been very positive and I could confidently recommend these two descendents of the version we own. (And I have no financial interest in linking to the Leapfrog site.)
The takeaway today? It isn’t possible, of course, to control every element that impacts your child’s bilingual development, but whenever you do have some control, you should exert it. You should make conscious, productive choices that are in line with your long-term goal for your child’s bilingual ability.
And remember: That destination is the fruit of ten million tiny steps, taken day after day after day.