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How to Create Breakthroughs in the Language Development of Bilingual Children


My daughter will be 14 in June. My son turned 11 in March. If you’ve been following this blog over the years—when I made my first post in September of 2012, they were just 8 and 5—you know that they’ve had very different inclinations when it comes to reading in English, our minority language.

While both have become competent readers through a variety of long-running efforts—which include reading aloud from birth; flooding our home with books, magazines, and comic books in the target language; maintaining a daily homework routine; and making persistent use of the strategy I call captive reading—it’s also true that Roy’s progress has been stronger because, ever since he was small, he has been reading by himself more eagerly than Lulu. In fact, I detailed this important aspect of our bilingual journey in an article I wrote not long ago…

My Bilingual Daughter Is 13. My Bilingual Son is 10. So Why Is Their Level in the Minority Language Basically the Same?

Fundamental shift in motivation

With Roy, because he has long been a more natural bookworm, I’ve mostly just had to continue feeding his desire to read by providing a steady stream of suitable material. (Naturally, this still takes some regular time and energy on my part to find engaging resources.)

Lulu, on the other hand, because she has always preferred active play, has been more difficult to motivate when it comes to independent reading. However, over the past two weeks a fundamental shift in this area has been taking place and I now see that the previous breakthroughs I’ve documented at this blog (see Big Breakthrough with My Bilingual Daughter? and, again, My Bilingual Daughter Is 13. My Bilingual Son is 10. So Why Is Their Level in the Minority Language Basically the Same?) have been steps leading to the manifestation of this moment, alongside her growing maturity.

Here’s what happened…

While I’ve often encouraged her to try reading more than comic books at bedtime—we have hundreds of good fiction and nonfiction books in the house—it was only the other day that she finally went into my little office, with its big bookcase of literature for older kids and teens (books that I also lend to my private students), and picked out two books that appealed to her.

When You Reach Me / Ella Enchanted

Lulu began reading When You Reach Me that night and—without any prompting from me—she continued reading it, night after night. The other day she finished the book and told me that she really enjoyed it.

And then she began reading Ella Enchanted, which she’s now already halfway through.

Lulu “takes over” the process

Why is this such a big deal? Because she’s finally making fuller use of her reading ability by reading “harder” books, entirely on her own, and she’s enjoying the experience! In a way, with this huge step, my work to promote her English side can start winding down…because, through more eager independent reading, she will now be able to continue the process of advancing her ability in this language without my direct involvement.

This isn’t to say that I’ll now lie in a hammock and do nothing—as appealing as that sounds. I’ll still continue my efforts to nurture her English ability at higher levels. But I also feel that Lulu is entering a stage where she’s beginning to “take over” the process of language development that I have led for so long.

A breakthrough for Roy, too

Meanwhile, I think Roy is experiencing an important breakthrough, too, in terms of books geared for older children and adults. Over the past couple of months, I read The Hobbit to both kids at breakfast, a few pages each day. In fact, I bought The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy as a boxed set…but after finishing The Hobbit, I felt it would be difficult to read aloud the next three books because Lulu and Roy are attending different schools (our local junior high school and our local elementary school) and they aren’t waking up at the same time these days…which means that I ended up reading much of The Hobbit book twice.

Well, I admit, I didn’t think I had enough energy to do this all the way through The Lord of the Rings trilogy and so, instead, I posed the challenge to Roy:

“Why don’t you read them by yourself?”

The Fellowship of the Ring

At first, when he cracked open The Fellowship of the Ring and saw the tiny print and the 458 pages, he was nearly spooked away from the idea. (And, truth be told, I thought the challenge might be too tough for him at this point.) Nevertheless, he decided to try reading it, as the book for his daily homework in English…and now he’s on page 102 and seems hooked.

Creating breakthroughs in language development

So how do you create breakthroughs in the language development of bilingual children?

You see, as long as you do your honest best to promote your child’s exposure to the minority language and the need for its active use—day by day and year by year—you will experience steady progress, and important breakthroughs, over time. But the fruits of your efforts can’t really be controlled—you can’t exactly predict how the larger process will unfold. Still, if you move forward faithfully, playfully, your persistence—combined with the child’s rising maturity—will gradually generate the sort of satisfying results that you seek.

How about you? What sort of breakthroughs have you experienced, or hope to experience, in your own language journey with your children?

7 Responses

  1. Hi Adam, I can relate to what you wrote about the breakthroughs for your children on their bilingual journey.

    In my case my older son was always very interested in read-alouds and as he grew up I could easily move to longer and more complicated books.

    My daughter is a much more active kid and while she enjoyed me reading aloud picture books, it was very hard to get her interested in longer stories. But I didn’t give up, I kept reading aloud to her and trying different types of books to see what could grab her interest. And then with The Famous Five from Enid Blyton came her breakthrough and since them she is also keen on read-alouds of longer books. 🙂

    1. Marta, good for you! This is a perfect example of how persisting past obstacles can finally lead to a favorable outcome. It just takes the will to keep trying, keep going, until those efforts produce positive changes.

  2. As you may recall, my boys have always been reluctant speaking to me in the minority language, let alone reading it by themselves—in fact, reading full stop even in the majority language…till 2 weeks ago, one of them (he’s 13 and a half) asked me if he could borrow one of my books he had found in the bookcase (Me: he’s looked in the bookcase!!!). Curious to see what book, I turned round… ‘It’s in French, isn’t it? You realise that?’ (I know I shouldn’t have reacted with such surprise!!! (To myself: keep calm, you might be mistaken) ‘Yes, but I read the blurb and it sounds interesting.’ (Me in my head, by now singing: ‘he’s read the blurb, he’s read the blurb, alleluhia!!’) The title you may ask…? ‘The Alchemist’ by Paulo Coelho!!! And yes, he has been reading it, he has talked to me about it, whether he understands the layers I doubt it but hey he is reading and…in the minority language!! Woohoo…

    1. Nathalie, I can certainly understand your delight! Well done, both of you! May he now continue reading more, and in both languages! :mrgreen:

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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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