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.)
Leapfrog, in fact, makes a number of other popular electronic devices that nurture learning and literacy and these may also be worth a look as a way of enriching your child’s English environment.
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.
We use a program from BBC, “Mazy in Gondoland” to teach the grammar. It works so well that I almost never needed to teach myself and the children got it right straightaway.
Sounds like a great resource, Cyrille. Thanks for sharing it!
I recently invested in a couple of iPad minis for my two wee ones. A big expense but well worth it. I uploaded a selection of educational but more importantly fun apps and my 6 year old daughter and 4 year old son love playing them. Check out the super duper publication apps if you get a chance. Highly recommended for any iPad owners with kids are the indestructible armour boxes!
Gregor, thanks a lot for your post. As I have no experience yet with iPads and their apps—but am eager to learn how this technology can help support the quest to raise bilingual kids—I’m always happy to hear from other parents on the subject. It sounds like your own experience so far has been very positive!
Another option is to buy a DS/3DS from your home country and import the games in English! Many games still support multiplayer between J and E versions, so your kid can still play with his/her Japanese buddies 🙂
Monster Hunter for example (VERY popular with teens in Japan) is now available in English – win/win!
James, thanks for this great tip! I’ll definitely keep this in mind for the future!
As Gregor already mentioned, iPads are excellent learning tools. Our 7-year-old daughter loves mine, and the range of educational apps available, (both free and for purchase), is impressive and constantly growing. For example, there are apps like Sentence Builder for grammar/reading practice, Spelltower for spelling, and all sorts of interactive stories and games. There are also some great apps for kanji practice, so it’s good for her (and my) Japanese, too!
Tove, I’m definitely sold on the idea of an iPad as a tool for supporting language development. I just have to make sure that I can introduce it into our lifestyle effectively or I’m afraid my kids will get addicted to it! (They have addictive personalities, much like their father!)
Thanks for these tips, Adam! I’m wondering if anyone have suggestions for good apps for android? I’ve been downloading a few, but haven’t found really good learning apps for children. For reading and spelling, I would prefer British English 🙂 My kids are 5 and 3, the oldest one has started reading in Norwegian, but not yet in English.
Anyone have any suggestions on android apps for Ingeborg? (I’m afraid I’m a fish out of water here!)
We have the older DS lite and DSi and game cassettes from the US work fine in them so we have collected a few from overseas to use. Some are great for English reading and writing! Unfortunately this doesn’t work with the newer 3DS as they have coded it for different countries.
We have tried a lot of Leapfrog products and I don’t know if it’s just bad luck but every single one stops working within the year. The only one I really liked was the Tag Reader, that is great and I use it in my English classroom too!
The very best thing though is an ipad! We couldn’t live without it! Hundreds and thousands of apps for English learning for kids!
There’s a great English books app called Farfaria, I know you would love it! Over 400 illustrated English books automatically read to you with decent voices and a self read option too. You can explore various themed lands to find new books. You subscribe but there is one free book of your choice allowed per day without the subscription.
Kat, thank you for all these helpful tips. Digital learning is a big new world for me to explore!
I am wondering if you have any advice/resources for parents wanting to make their children bilingual if these children are already 6 years old. My youngest (age 3) has picked up Spanish as a second language naturally because I am finally at a stage to speak in the house with my husband. My son, age 6, has not been so lucky and is struggling with it. We homeschool to maximize exposure, travel to South America every year for 6 weeks, and are close to speaking it in the home until he catches up, but I’m wondering what else I can do. Any suggestions? Thanks!
Charity, welcome! It sounds to me like you’re making excellent efforts to support your older son’s language development. By emphasizing the use of Spanish in the home, and traveling to South America for 6 weeks each year, my sense is that his ability in the second language will grow rapidly. For further ideas that might also help fuel the process, please see these posts. I wish you and your family all the best!
A Sneaky Way to Get Bilingual Kids to Use the Minority Language
96 Things You Can Do Today to Boost Your Child’s Bilingual Ability
Is It Too Late For My Child to Become Bilingual?
Can anybody give me the exact names of these IPad Apps for English? Thanks
Raffaela, I’m afraid we don’t have an iPad yet, so I’m not familiar with useful apps for English learning. Anyone out there have some suggestions?
(Raffaela, I also suggest posting this question on the new Bilingual Zoo forum under “Strategies, Ideas, & Resources.”)