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Do Your Bilingual Children Go to School in the Majority Language?

Page from Lulu's Japanese dictionary

Last Wednesday I visited Lulu’s third grade classroom for “parents’ day” and a chance to observe a lesson. The truth is, I haven’t really taken advantage of these opportunities in the past. This is partly because of my work (though I work from home, I face deadlines as a freelance writer), but the other reason is that fathers in Japan generally don’t appear at these school functions. They aren’t barred from the school grounds or anything; it’s just that mothers are traditionally the ones who attend.

In fact, it didn’t really cross my mind to go on Wednesday, either, until after lunch when I saw my wife leaving the house with a friend. When she reminded me that it was “parent’s day” in Lulu’s class, I suddenly felt the impulse to take part, too. I’m not sure what it was—maybe just spring fever and an urge to play hooky on a sunny afternoon—but I’m glad I did. The experience was a powerful reminder of how important it is to be proactive in supporting a child’s minority language when the child attends school in the majority language.

Huge “exposure gap”

It didn’t start on a promising note, though. After my wife left, I scrambled to get ready and hurried to the school (about 20 minutes on foot). But when I arrived, I realized that I had forgotten to bring a pair of slippers. Since outdoor shoes can’t be worn in most Japanese schools, I was forced to slink into the building in a sorry pair of gray socks with a hole in the toe. I found my wife outside the classroom door, among the gaggle of mothers, and the first thing she says to me is: “Where are your slippers?” And the second thing she says to me is: “You have a hole in your sock.”

When Lulu’s teacher opened the door, I was the first to dart in. I claimed a position in the far corner of the room (where no one could see my sock) to observe a lesson on using a dictionary. And as the lesson wore on, and I watched Lulu in her seat across the room, the enormous gap between her exposure to Japanese and her exposure to English became alarmingly clear.

Seeing the hard reality

Of course, I’ve always been aware of this gap, but I really felt it at that moment. All those hours Lulu has spent in this school—in first grade, in second grade, and now in third grade—suddenly became more real than they had been before. I imagined her there, day after day after day, soaking up Japanese at the expense of English.

What happened, I think, is that I experienced the difference between an intellectual understanding of this “exposure gap” and a more visceral realization. And though the intellectual idea alone might be motivating enough to maintain solid support for the minority language, I now sense that a direct, organic experience of this reality has even greater power to inspire action.

So if your children attend school in the majority language, I suggest making the effort to observe them in the classroom from time to time. Imagine them in this environment every day, for hundreds of hours every year, and how their development in the minority language depends on you being as proactive as you can to narrow the gap in language exposure to whatever degree is realistically possible.

The fact is, sustaining support for the minority language—particularly if you seek a high level of literacy for your kids—demands persistent energy each day, for many years, and times of fatigue are a natural consequence. Perhaps one way to strengthen motivation, and action, is by paying the occasional visit to school to see the hard reality of their exposure to the majority language with your own eyes.

From now on, I’ll make a point of doing just that.

How about you? Have you had the chance to observe your children at school? What sort of impact did it have on you?

12 Responses

  1. Hello Adam,

    I did not really have the occasion to watch them in the classroom but my last one Jenny is currently learning to read in French. I think I would not experience the same trauma as you did. I as well was taught in French and studied in this language. But I do try hard to find a book in Esperanto she would accept to read to me but none of them have passed the test yet. I am fully aware that the chance that she will read in both languages is by practicing right now.

    Mary the second daughter does not read in second language either. I am obliged to read to her otherwise she does not get any literacy in Esperanto. Even Amy makes sometimes some silly misspelling in Esperanto. I am amazed by the mistakes they all make although reading in Esperanto is phonetic, but the influence of French, German and now English is so strong that they become totally illogical!

    That is why I usually advice to my readers: Do not do the job that the school will do. Understand that there is enough other work to do for you. What I would really like to do is to be able to be in the classroom when I put Amy at school in Germany. That would be nice to get the reinforcement the third language is getting.


    1. Cyrille, thanks for your comment. It sounds like you and your kids are keeping busy with those four languages! (My hands are full just juggling two! :mrgreen: ) Despite the difficulties, I’m sure they’re making good progress and will one day appreciate all the efforts you’re making at home.

      Keep up the good work!

      1. Do not get confused. Both a mother and father tongue, the two others are only learned at school. It is simply that we must pay attention to german because
        – it the language of our neighbours
        – it is quite difficult to learn as a grown up
        – it will give the children a great competitive advantage (Silly to think that about children, but that is the world we live in 🙂
        – it will prepare them to learn english.
        But there is no rush for them to learn english as we have no meaning to make them bilingual in english through early bilingualism. And finally, the pressure about english will be strong enough for them to catch up.
        I wish you a good trip to the states.

        1. I see, Cyrille. Still, it’s great that so many languages will eventually be part of your children’s lives. I hope my own children will be interested in learning another language or two someday…

  2. My eldest begins her school education journey this September and this gap you’re mentioning will become a problem of our family. Not that there is no gap nowadays; since it’s me, the dad, who is the main source of the second language, things aren’t that easy. I do work long hours and though I try to spend all the available free time with my children I get a feeling it’s not enough. The forthcoming big change will not make things easier…

    1. Czeslaw, yes, I certainly understand your feelings. I don’t know the details of your circumstances, but I would encourage you to continue being as resourceful as possible when it comes to supporting your children’s minority language. It becomes more challenging, it’s true, once children begin attending school in the majority language, but our daily efforts—even if we’re unable to do everything we’d like—will definitely make a difference. I wish you and your family all the best!

  3. Hello, I’ve just discovered Bilingual Monkeys and I can tell it will be a great help to me! My son is almost 2 and is already in Italian daycare and will continue through the Italian school system (though I am researching international schools it is almost next to impossible financially…) I try to visit my family in the US as often as possible, books and TV are in English, and I’m trying to find playgroups with other English speaking children…but I still have an awful fear that all my efforts won’t be enough…what else can I do????

    1. Megan, welcome! I hope this site will be helpful to you and your family.

      First of all, it sounds like you’re being conscious and proactive about this challenge, and these qualities are the very basis for success. So you’re definitely on the right track.

      To ensure that your son’s English develops roughly on par with his Italian, and that he becomes “conditioned” to use English with you, two things are crucial:

      1. He must feel a natural need to communicate with you in English, as opposed to Italian. (See What to Do When Your Bilingual Child Won’t Speak Your Language.)

      2. There must be sufficient meaningful exposure in English so that Italian doesn’t become dominant. (See How Many Hours Per Week Is Your Child Exposed to the Minority Language?)

      Consider these two issues carefully, and if necessary, be even more conscious and proactive, if this is possible. (Also see 96 Things You Can Do Today to Boost Your Child’s Bilingual Ability.) The first three years are critical for nurturing and activating the use of the minority language, so make this aim the highest priority possible right now.

      Megan, I’m cheering for you! Please keep us posted on your progress!

  4. This post hit home for me. I am so torn right now about schooling. My son is entering Kindergarten in the fall and he has been accepted to a wonderful public school in Chicago. The scores are fantastic, very diverse…just great. The problem is that he is currently attending a private, dual-language (English-Spanish) school and he would not have any Spanish instruction at the public school. I am a Spanish native speaker, and I am wondering if I can take on the role of teaching him how to read and write correctly in Spanish. Should I keep him in private school for the sake of bilingualism? Should I send him to the public school and take the chance he won’t be completely fluent in Spanish? What to do?

    1. Edith, my sense is that either path could work out well, but I think it’s true that attending the public school would make this more of a challenge and you would need to be persistently proactive at home. If you’re able to make this extra effort, and implement a daily homeschooling session in Spanish to nurture his reading and writing ability, then perhaps the public school would be a fine choice. If not, it might be wise to continue sending him to the private dual-language school.

      I’m assuming, too, that one benefit of the public school is that the cost would be lower. You could then draw on that savings to support your son’s Spanish, as needed, such as enrolling him in a Spanish class or hiring a tutor, building up your books and other resources in Spanish, traveling to Spanish-speaking lands, etc.

      I send my best “bilingual wishes” to you and your son!

  5. My son has started school in majority language this week, he just turned 4 last week, and this post made me realise the challenges ahead!

    He’s doing well in his minority language so much so that his nursery staff thought it’s his 1st language. Besides the majority language, he’ll learn French at school as 2nd language (in fact, 3rd for him) in a few years. I decided to stick to reading books in minority language only this week but this has proven tricky at times as he knows I’m fluent in the majority language.

    I’m still hopeful for now. Your website has been such a huge encouragement & inspiration for me. Thank you!!

    1. Amelia, I’m glad this post gave you some useful perspective on the challenge of supporting the minority language when a child attends a majority language school. It’s not easy, but if you continue to be proactive and persistent, you can maintain and advance your son’s active ability in the minority language alongside the rapid growth of the majority language. Keep at it, day by day! You can do it! :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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