My 12-year-old daughter graduated from our local elementary school the other day. It was the 139th graduation ceremony at this school (really!), which means that the first class of graduates are now 151 years old (really?).
In Japan, children attend elementary school through the sixth grade, then begin going to junior high school. And since the school year runs from April to March, graduation ceremonies—for schools everywhere—are held at this time of year.
Smiles and tears
At Lulu’s graduation ceremony, Keiko and I were sitting in the school gymnasium, toward the back, but were still able to spy her smiling face among the other roughly 150 sixth graders. It was a long ceremony of speeches and diplomas then toward the end, when the students stood and sang a moving song, the tears began to flow from both the children and their parents. Until then, I had been keeping it together pretty well, but seeing Lulu cry while continuing to fight her way through the song, I got really choked up, too.
And I found myself flashing back on her life, from the day of her birth, when I first held her in my arms, to this large milestone, the day she graduated from elementary school.
Making the most of each day
Friends, I know this point is made so often it’s now a near-meaningless cliché, but the past 12 years of Lulu’s life have flown by so fast, my head is spinning. Ironically, this hasn’t been true of the days themselves—which have sometimes felt very long indeed—but the years…the years have been a blur. I now look at that photo of us from the day she was born and I think: What happened? Where did all that time go?
The truth is, the milestone of your own daughter’s or son’s graduation from elementary school is much closer than you might imagine—no matter how old they are right now. And that fact is vital to hold firmly in mind, day by day, because making the most of this time is not only crucial for creating happy memories of the only childhood they’ll have, it’s essential for effectively advancing their language development and fostering strong bilingual ability. Each day is important, for both aims, and persisting in these efforts over the weeks, months, and years, with the most playful spirit you can muster, is what ultimately leads to the greater success and joy of this whole journey.
I feel blessed to say that Lulu, on the brink of becoming a teen, is now fully bilingual and biliterate in Japanese and English and has also been making steady progress in acquiring a third language, Spanish. At the same time, it’s clear that, given the challenges involved in supporting her English side (our main minority language), good fortune has actually had a lot less to do with this outcome than all the mindful efforts made on a daily basis over the past 12 years, from the very first day of her life.
Those efforts—with both Lulu and Roy, as well as with my students—have been described in extensive detail at this blog, at my forum, and in my book. And I feel blessed, too, that my own journey as a parent and teacher of bilingual children can serve as an empowering source of ideas and inspiration for the greater success and joy of other families in this multilingual world.
BONUS! CAN YOU SPOT LULU IN THIS VIDEO???
Here’s a short video clip of the sixth graders leaving the gymnasium after the graduation ceremony. I’m waiting for Lulu to appear while shouting out my congratulations (“omedetou” in Japanese). Can you spot Lulu as she walks by??? (Hint: She’s crying! And she has a light blue backpack!)
I love these bittersweet moments in life.
Congratulations to Lulu and lots of fun in junior high.
Our daughter will start kindergarten in a few weeks and it will be all in Japanese. She’s three and a half and we mostly speak English and German at home. Right now it’s a big mix of Japanese, English and German and I feel we didn’t set up a proper structure. So now we worry a bit that she’ll stop speaking German.
Your blog is amazing and with it I hope to get a grip to be her leader in our trilingual journey.
Ago, thank you for your kind comment. Because your daughter will soon start attending a Japanese school, I would encourage you to now consciously limit the amount of Japanese you use within the family. Otherwise, it’s true, as her Japanese gets stronger, she may feel less “need” to speak German (and English) at home. As I don’t know the full details of your situation, I hesitate to offer further advice, but be sure to keep the “core conditions” of this process firmly in mind: the child must receive an ample amount of exposure to the target language on a regular basis and feel a genuine need to actively use that language. So if German is your main minority language, make sure that exposure and need for this language are both being adequately met.
I send my best bilingual (trilingual) wishes from Hiroshima!
I love the video. It reminds me of the clap out that our elementary schools do on the last day where the whole school lines the halls and claps for the 5th graders leaving to thank them for being the school leaders. Parents and teachers all come as well and sometimes even grandparents!
One bit of advice (not for you, I know you know this) for parents wanting to raise bilingual kids is make sure to incorporate lots of reading and writing time as well in the non-dominant language. Lots of my students who are native Spanish speakers can’t read and write in their native language due to lack of exposure to written as well as spoken language.
Shelly, I’m clapping for your comment! And I wholeheartedly second your very good advice!
Congratulations to your family! It does indeed go very fast–and it will only continue to speed up from here. My ‘baby’ is now in high school, and her older brother and sister are in university. All three are bilingual and biliterate in Japanese and English, and I am very proud of their efforts. I am also very glad I put in the time and effort to work with them on their English when they were growing up. With my work, their Japanese schoolwork and afterschool classes and clubs, it was often hard to find the time for English. Many evenings I fell asleep next to my kids while reading to them in English, only to wake up around midnight with dinner dishes still to be done, or emails or articles still to write for my work. But looking back, the effort was worth it–my kids were worth it! All the best to Lulu for junior high school.
Louise, thank you, and congratulations right back to you and your family! I admire your efforts and the rewarding outcomes you’ve achieved. When the basic circumstances are working against us, the only solution for success is staying proactive, day after day after day…and, yes, nodding off when necessary! Cheers to you all!
I send my heartfelt congratulations to you and Lulu! This is indeed one of life’s most bittersweet and vulnerable moments and I am so glad that you decided to share yours with us. Thank you so much. 🙂
Lulu is such a loving and emotional child. I can see how her whole face and nose is red from your video. Hope she was alright after that. Hehe! I cried when I attended my students’ graduation ceremonies so I know how the songs and atmosphere can really affect you.
I sincerely wish Lulu all the best in her new school and hope that even MORE exciting adventures will be waiting for her there. Junior high is going to seem so short if you compare it with elementary. In no time at all, she’s going to whizzzzzzzz past that as well. As she is now fully bilingual and biliterate in Japanese and English, I hope she continues to enjoy Spanish. Kudos to you and all your effort all these years! Take care!
Mei, I really appreciate your nice comment. Yes, I’m afraid it won’t be much longer than a blink before she’s finished junior high and high school, too. Sometimes I wish this life would slow down a little, but I do try to make the most of it while it’s speeding past. What else can we do?
I hope you and your family are enjoying your multilingual adventure and I continue to wish you much success and joy. Cheers from Hiroshima!
Late congratulations to Lulu!! And thank you so much for sharing with us.
I am reaching a milestone myself with my eldest son, who is getting ready to sit his GCSEs next month, and we are feeling the stress. It is with him that my fascinating bilingual journey started, and I am now starting to actually count down (!!!) how many years left before I cannot influence it anymore? What next Adam??? The journey with him has been very tricky—rejection of the ml—but thankfully, our ml being French, it was covered at school (he consistently had an A in that subject, just to say…) and I was pleased to see (and questioned his level of rejection?!!) he selected French for his A-levels. While he lives with me, I can keep talking and writing notes to him in French, taking him to France on holidays, but soon…a million questions in my head AGAIN!! Although I have loved it, it NEVER was a walk in the park: for me, frustration and feelings of guilt were always present, especially as I could see FOR MYSELF little return (my 3 sons mostly speak ML to me!!). More than once I wanted to give up but I just couldn’t (depending on Adam’s book and blog for motivation!). This ‘monster’—my language, my culture, my/their heritage—was what I wanted to pass on to my children the most.
Despite all the frustration, I still wish I had more time so that (I can suffer more! lol) I could get rid of this feeling of ‘I could have done more…’ So just to ‘warn’ you, dear fellow bilinguals, make sure you do all you can, and all your heart tells you to do, in the SHORT time you have, so that when the time comes you do not have any regrets! Good luck x
Nathalie, I can certainly empathize with your feelings! Of course, there’s always “more” that we could do, but I think we also have to gradually get to the point, when they’re teens, where we start to “let go” of this intensity, feel satisfied with all the efforts and progress we’ve made, and allow our children to then take over this journey as young adults. This doesn’t mean we can’t continue to encourage and support their engagement in the minority language(s) by maintaining language-filled interactions and providing appealing resources (books, CDs, etc.), but it’s nevertheless true (as you aptly stressed) that our time of greatest influence is earlier in the process. To my mind, the most crucial years are the first 12—before the child becomes a teen—and if we do our honest best through those 4380 days, I think we’ll realize some very rewarding results: the child will have achieved a good level of language proficiency that can continue to be advanced throughout his or her life.
Nathalie, despite the frustrations you’ve felt—and perhaps continue to feel—it sounds to me like you and your son have accomplished a tremendous amount over the childhood years and I applaud all the efforts and progress you’ve made up to this point. (And I’m happy to know that I could be a source of support to you in this adventure!) Let’s keep going, but let’s also begin letting go…