This year my daughter, now 18, has taken two English proficiency tests. (English is her minority language; Japanese is her majority language.)
The first was the highest level of the EIKEN seven-level test, which is widely used in Japan and is essentially a pass-or-fail sort of exam.
And the second test, because she’s now applying to university programs in Japan that emphasize English, was the TOEFL, which provides a proficiency score up to 120 points.
If you met Lulu, and heard her American-accented English, your first impression might be that her English is no different, really, from high school students in the U.S., like her cousin there, who’s also 18.
However, the results of these proficiency tests have made clear—confirming my own sense of her progress to date—that despite her overall “fluency” in English, there are still certain shortcomings in her ability. Yet given the fact that she’s been attending Japanese schools from the age of 3—thus, her experience of academic English is far more limited than, say, her cousin growing up in the American school system—these shortcomings seem only natural.
In other words, scratch below the surface of “fluency” and we invariably find considerable nuance.
What the test results show
While Lulu passed Grade 1 of the EIKEN test, her total score wasn’t that much higher than the cut-off line for a passing result. And her first attempt at the TOEFL test yielded a result of 87 points, which is fairly good, but not great. (The average TOEFL minimum requirement for U.S. universities is apparently 78, though, of course, a minimum of 100 or more is often required at top-level schools.)
For both tests, what prevented her from gaining an even stronger score (apart from preparing more for the tests with practice materials, which would also be helpful) was her relative lack of academic vocabulary and academic reading skills.
Still, like I said, considering the circumstances of her upbringing, this isn’t surprising. I mean, even though I did whatever I realistically could to advance her English ability over the past 18 years, the fact that she has only lived in Japan and has only attended Japanese schools means that it’s basically inevitable that there would be shortcomings like this in her current proficiency: the breadth of her advanced vocabulary is still fairly limited (including her understanding of idiomatic expressions) and she sometimes struggles to comprehend more sophisticated reading passages.
(By comparison, her 15-year-old brother will likely score higher on both of these tests, when he takes them at 17 or 18, because he has been more of a bookworm during his childhood and thus his vocabulary and reading ability have already reached Lulu’s level.)
What does “fluency” really mean?
All along, my basic goal has been to support their English side, as proactively as I can, until they turn 18 and go off to college. Their life and language development will then be largely in their own hands.
With Lulu now on the verge of entering college next April, the end of my bilingual journey with her—then soon after with Roy—is now coming sharply into view.
The other day I spoke with a parent at the very beginning of her bilingual journey with a new baby and she told me that her goal was “fluency” in the minority language. I understand, of course, why parents use the word “fluency” when describing their aspirations for their children. Generally speaking, we all want our children to be as “fluent” as possible.
To my mind, though, the idea of “fluency” is too abstract, too ambiguous; even worse, it often signifies some sort of idealized or perfect mastery of a language. The reality is, as I suggested earlier with Lulu, there is always an array of nuance in actual language proficiency, with areas of “weakness” that will continue to grow stronger with more experience and effort. The goal of “fluency”—as if there’s an end point to this process—can be a kind of trap, setting up unrealistic expectations for the child’s language ability.
The continuum of language development
In other words, I think language acquisition is better viewed as a continuum from absolute zero at one end (no ability at all in that language) to endless advancement as this continuum stretches on forever since no one can possibly be “fully fluent” in any language. After all, even at the highest levels of proficiency in our native languages, there will always be words or expressions that we’re unfamiliar with. For instance, I read The New York Times every day and it’s not at all unusual for me to come across a word I don’t yet know, especially technical terms from various fields.
According to this interesting article at Lingholic, the largest dictionary in English—the Second Edition of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary—contains 171,476 words in current use, as well as 47,156 obsolete words. But the average English-speaking adult has a passive understanding of “only” about 40,000 words and an active vocabulary of around 20,000 words. So it’s not hard to see why I’ll still be coming across unfamiliar words for the rest of my life!
This is why I advise parents to disregard the goal of “fluency,” which isn’t really that meaningful or useful, and, instead, make their aim simply this:
Just give this adventure your best efforts, day by day, and travel with your kids as far as you realistically can advance along this endless continuum of language development over the 18 years of childhood. Do that, “merely” that, and you will go a long, rewarding way together on your bilingual or multilingual journey. And then, by the time your kids head off into the world as young adults, they’ll be ready to continue this ongoing journey on their own, wherever it may take them.
Adam, thank you so much for your post! As someone who teaches a second language for a living, I have to say I come across this same idea of ‘fluency’ all the time. When I ask my students, you’d be surprised how often the words ‘fluent’ and ‘fluency’ are mentioned in the conversation (“I want to be fluent in Spanish, I’d love to be fluent in Spanish,’ it’s so great that you talk to your daughter in Spanish, she’s going to be so fluent!”…. and more like these). It’s such an abstract idea. When I actually ask about what ‘fluency’ means for them, they actually never thought about it too much, and most of the time it is equated to ‘being able to TALK in the other language as you’d do in your ML,” so to speak… when the truth is, there are fields/topics in our MLs that we don’t know much about, so we can’t really have a conversation about it (I proudly volunteered to supervise and copy-edit my youngest brother’s engineering thesis, written in Spanish, only to find out that the only word I actually understood was “cylinder”…. that was the end of it, ha, ha!). Not sure how much of ‘literacy’ is implied when people mention this abstract idea of ‘fluency’… but oh well, it’s great to have these discussions and see what we can learn from each others’ experiences with ‘fluency,’ for sure.
Marisa, many thanks for your comment! Yes, it’s funny how commonly the words “fluent” and “fluency” are used, and yet, when we really consider what they mean, they’re kind of meaningless! Or, at most, they have a very broad, very vague meaning (active use of the language, to some degree).
For new parents, everything about this journey is still naturally an abstraction so it’s hard to grasp the reality below the surface of abstract terms like “fluent” and “fluency.” That reality becomes more apparent, though, as the journey continues and all the nuance of the child’s actual language ability develops.
I send multilingual cheers to you and your big girl!
Hi! So yes, I want my kids to communicate clearly in a second language. Will they be fluent by others’ standards? Perhaps, but only if they come to love it as much as I do – and yet, I don’t consider myself fluent because I’m not confident to speak with them all day. But it is an adventure and I want to keep it fun!
Heather, as long as you stay playfully persistent from day to day and year to year, you and your kids will no doubt make steady and satisfying progress over the length of your bilingual journey together. So just keep at it with your efforts and enjoy the process. The results will largely take care of themselves. I’m cheering for you guys!
Thank you for this! I have many bilingual friends, relatives, student, clients and am raising a bilingual daughter. The standardized testing system needs a long overdue overhaul! I love that you also compare “fluency” with your native language and see language as a continuum of learning rather than a destination.
Many thanks for your comment, Danielle. In reality, we can say that every domain of life is actually an endless “continuum of learning” since there’s always room to grow, right?
I send my best bilingual wishes to you and your daughter!
Hi Danielle, I totally agree with you. In my own experience as a Spanish professor, and especially with heritage speakers, I’ve seen many cases of students who are perfectly ‘fluent’ in Spanish and speak it with such ease that you wouldn’t know they’re bilingual…. and yet their grades in the class are low; these are the students who get to see how the more typical second language learners, who might still struggle to speak the language ‘fluently,’ get better grades in the class. The latter have been taught a more standard, academic-based variety of the language, while the former have not really learned that one…. and that’s the one they are being tested about. I also know cases of speakers whose mother tongue is Basque, one of the most difficult languages to learn that I can think of, and they have failed the advanced Basque language proficiency exams…. again, because those exams test a more formal/academic variety than the one they have learned, so these people lack the academic knowledge/resources that would allow them to pass those exams. Yes, I also think ‘fluency’ as a continuum, and also as something that involves not only oral proficiency, but other aspects of the learning/literacy process. This is definitely a topic that we can spend hours talking about!
I love the message at the end!! Thank you for the beautiful and encouraging post.
I’m grateful for your positive feedback, Yoshito! Cheers to you and the whole family!
Hi Adam — as always a pleasure to read you. And the message about the nuance underlying “fluency” really resonated with me as a person who grew up bilingual but with limited academic exposure in my minority language. But as an adult I found that this “failure” in fluency was not something static. With a lot of practice I was able to burnish skills in my second language, enough to work and write, when I was motivated enough. And my majority language has grown somewhat rusty for friendly conversation, but remains strong professionally. What you have given Lulu and Roy is a solid foundation that they can build into what they need as their lives evolve. On days when my daughter bubbles conversation in the majority language, I remind myself of your message questioning fluency. Abrazo!
Jordana, thank you for your wise perspective. It’s really good to hear from you. (See Jordana’s insightful guest post here.)
I think that’s an excellent way to view what might be considered “failure” in developing fluency: it’s not something “static” and whatever ability there is can be nurtured throughout a lifetime, given the motivation to continue growing.
I applaud your own rewarding bilingual journey as well as the bilingual gift you’re handing down to your daughter. May we keep moving forward as we’re able, giving our humble best to the aims we hold.
I also think that, as Adam pointed out, encouraging our children to read as much as possible is the key to acquiring a wide vocabulary in any language. I’m constantly amazed at how many interesting words my oldest daughter, now 15, is learning thanks to the huge amounts of fan fiction she reads daily.
It’s true that she’ll need to read other kinds of texts to pass the C2 level certificate in English, such as the newspaper, since the highest levels are aimed to certify people’s ability to study and work in English. However, I hope all the vocabulary she’s accumulating will help her too…
Arancha, thank you for underlining the importance of reading for overall language proficiency. I salute you and your daughter on her passion for reading in English!
My experience, too, has confirmed that the impact of ample input through reading cannot be overstated. This has been true of my students, my kids, and even myself. The fact that Japanese is such a complex language to read has unfortunately hindered my own stronger progress because reading things in this language is often such a chore. If only Japanese were written in an easier script, I would have read a lot more and become more proficient! (It’s by no means impossible, of course, and many “foreigners” gain good literacy in the language, but it does take a far greater commitment to learn thousands of kanji characters than it does to learn the 26 letters of the English alphabet!)
Thank you for your book. It has been inspiring to me how to teach my 4 year old daughter to become bilingual from birth.
I am from Hong Kong and speak Cantonese natively, and I learned English since kindergarten. I love learning languages but am not very successful. I have tried 2 years Spanish, 1 year Japanese, 1 year of Dutch (been in the Netherlands for 1 year) and 5-10 years of Mandarin, and only acquired fluency in Mandarin. Well, this is only a different dialect of Chinese, and I am still trying to perfect my pronunciation.
Recently I found out how to learn a language effectively and am doing an experiment. I am interested in French and had been learning it for 1 month, with video class and language learning apps like Duolingo, Babbel, Memrise, I found my skill in French advanced as if I have learned for 2 years in my previous learning experience.
There are four quadrants in learning a language (reading, writing, listening and speaking).
In Hong Kong we learned English since kindergarten, but the local curriculum forcused on reading comprehension (or because of the quality of teacher), few are able to write properly and even fewer are able to listen and speak it fluently. People outside may not know, English in Hong Kong is only a language of “record” while local communications are mostly in Cantonese.
In order for my daughter not to follow my old wrong path, I have sent my daughter to international school, where she learns English as the first language and Chinese Mandarin the second language. She is mainly taken care of by our Filipino helper, so she only speaks English from 1-2 years old.
At first, we were worrying when to introduce Cantonese to her while not disturbing her development of English and Mandarin Chinese. But it suprised me, that suddenly, she acquired our home tongue Cantonese naturally since 3 years old. We didn’t speak any Cantonese word to her and she learned from overhearing conversations between my wife and me.
Now she speaks perfect English and Cantonese, and Mandarin being a weaker language, which we are helping her with weekly Chinese online lesson (I requested the teacher to follow the curriculum of Mainland China as much as possible and hope this will really work).
I have also tried to send her to French online class, but she did not like it. She said she was unhappy because the teacher intentionally read her name in the wrong way (with the French “r”). That’s why I am learning it and maybe I can send her to French school some years later. The French international school here is good but even in international stream you will need some knowledge of French.
From your experience, my takeaway is there is no guarantee of being proficient even in a native tongue (Chinese and English in my case). I need to train my daughter in all the four quadrants of language learning of both languages. I will keep you posted on how her languages develop when she get older.
Leo, thank you for sharing your experiences. I read your comment with interest and I commend you for all your good efforts, both for your own multilingual development and your daughters’.
At the end of the day, “proficiency” is a spectrum of degrees, like “fluency.” In other words, both children and adults, in both our native language(s) and additional language(s), will always be evolving somewhere along this endless continuum of “proficiency” (or “fluency”), however that ability is defined and assessed. And, depending on how we use our ability, we may or may not need “more proficiency.” Maybe “less proficiency” is enough. (A person whose primary aim is language ability for casual daily conversation has less need for “more proficiency” than a professional interpreter, for instance.)
Again, Leo, congratulations on all the rewarding progress your family has experienced to date. I look forward to hearing more good news from you as time goes by. (And if you haven’t already shared your positive impressions of my book in a review at Amazon or Goodreads, I’d be really grateful if you did.)
Your bilingual book has helped me alot. I do have one question though. What would you have done differently if your kids had gone to an international school in Japan where English is the mode of instruction and where a lot of the kids speak to each other in English? Would you then have been more concerned that their Japanese was not good enough?
I met a teacher who previously taught in a Japanese international school, and he did say that local kids did suffer with certain aspects of their Japanese language skills.
John, I’m happy to know that my book has been helpful to your bilingual aim. (If you haven’t yet shared your positive impressions in a short review at Amazon, I’d be really grateful for your support.)
About your question, the short answer is that our bilingual journey would have been very, very different if my kids had gone to an international school. Because I was a teacher for a number of years at Hiroshima International School, and saw firsthand how many children there ended up with relatively weak Japanese, this was actually one of the main reasons that my wife and I didn’t seriously consider that option for their schooling. Since developing strong literacy in Japanese is so time-consuming, it’s far “easier” to support English at home (just 26 letters in the alphabet!) than it would be to support Japanese (with thousands of complex kanji characters).
Even though a typical international school in Japan also has classes for Japanese within the curriculum, the time spent on Japanese is minimal compared to the many more hours of Japanese when immersed in a Japanese school. Thus, children at international schools need a significant amount of support from the parents and others to more or less “keep pace” with their peers at Japanese schools. While it’s not impossible, it’s hard and, realistically, I don’t think most families are able to meet this large challenge. And, without adequate reading and writing ability in Japanese, I’m afraid graduates of international schools can struggle both socially and professionally if they remain in Japan. (Or they then bear down as young adults and study kanji more intensively to improve.)
So, in our case, since I was able and willing to take on the aim of supporting their English side at home, it made far more sense to have them attend Japanese schools, where they would not only gain good literacy but also experience the culture more fully and enjoy neighborhood friends from our local schools.
This is a very thoughtful question, and I can’t wait to read what Adam has to say about this. I kind of had a related situation with this. My daughter has never attended an immersion and/or bilingual school where the educational curriculum was in Spanish, her heritage language, but I did have an issue with the first school she ever went to and the ML. I think that, to this day, Spanish is her strongest language, so when she was 3 and a half years old and began going to school, her English-speaking skills were underdeveloped in spite of having attending daycare where only the ML was spoken. Her experience at that school wasn’t positive for a number of reasons, but her teachers kept bringing up the issue with her command of English. As a linguist, I knew this would be transitory; as a mom, it messed me up quite a lot, because I was given the impression I was depriving my daughter from the opportunity to reach her educational potential because she couldn’t communicate or understand (according to their teachers) the ML. I have to admit I considered speaking more English at home and communicating with her in English. Then the pandemic hit, she was with me at home, and sure enough, her exposure to English was pretty much non-existent. I was scared and concerned, and although I increased her exposure to English at home a little bit (for example, by watching some English-speaking cartoons, and doing some limited teaching/learning time in English), I followed my gut and continued favoring the exposure to mls, so no, I didn’t do anything different when all this began to take place. 3 and a half years later, this is no longer a problem. She still attends ESL classes at school, but her reading and speaking proficiency levels have skyrocketed.
Each kid is different, and I can’t say my experience will be the same for all kids that are/might have been in a school situation like the one you described in your comment, but I think that unless you make an extremely conscious effort not to immerse yourself in the ML culture, there’s no way you can fully escape it, and that applies to academic performance. I know my daughter will achieve her academic goals in English, and so far, what she’s been learning in Spanish has been pretty useful, and I can see how she’s transferring all those skills to English as well. I think her English is ‘good enough,’ to use your words, even though is not as strong as her Spanish, but I’m very confident her English will improve and be as strong as her Spanish just by… well, by living in the ML country/culture/educational setting.
Thank you for your timely post.
I’m raising my son, four, to be bilingual (I’m the minority-language parent). In the last year or so, it’s become increasingly clear that he has a speech delay, which of course impacts both languages. I’m therefore having to re-evaluate my goals for his fluency. Many of the parents whom I meet in online groups would be over the moon if their children could speak just one language as fluently as their peers, or at all in some cases.
I’m certainly not giving up on teaching him my native language, and I hope that he will be able to communicate in it, as well as in the majority language, as effectively as he himself wants and needs one day. That’s a more meaningful goal for us at the moment than test scores or ideals of fluency.
Emma, thank you for sharing this. I don’t know the details, but your son is still small and the road ahead, with all the progress it can bring, still stretches far into the future. So I encourage you to continue your good efforts from day to day and year to year. There always seems to be a payoff to perseverance.
Let me offer this guest post by trilingual speech-language pathologist Ana Paula Mumy. Perhaps it would be useful to you…
Speech-Language Pathologist Tells All About Bilingualism, Speech, and Language Delays
Emma, I’m cheering for you and your son. And if I can be of any personal support, feel free to reach out, anytime.
So true! And also the adventure varies according to each child, it is their adventure as well as ours. I have noticed the difference in my children’s minority language and they are only 2 and 4, they are already doing it in their own way! For me something that matters above fluency is for them to have the sense that they don’t have a first and second language but two languages that are linked to who they are, to their identity. Someone mentioned to me once that my daughter’s accent (in her minority language) was not that of a native and what was I going to do about it…’nothing’ was my reply, it is who she is, a mix of two cultures and a mix of two languages, it will show in its own unique way in her!
Ana, this is a very healthy perspective on a child’s language development. Your kids are clearly in good hands and will no doubt acquire both strong bilingual ability and a positive outlook on their personal identity. Thank you for sharing your experience, and I wish you and your family all the best on your bilingual journey!
I agree with everything in your post.
My 5 yo daughter is almost bilingual (Italian major, Russian minor – only comprehension and very little speaking). I relate to your experience a lot also because the two languages are very, very different…honestly it’s a struggle and an everyday fight for the future of my daughter’s bilingualism. We live in Italy and our community is 99% Italian speaking.
I do my best being “very serious and very playful” about living our minority language (btw your book helps a lot in this journey).
Fluency is…hard. Hard, hard, hard! Because it’s infinite, you are so right about it!
I often feel like a failure, but I remind myself that I really do my best, and my daughter does her best, and we do have results. Now we’re learning Russian ABC and she likes it, and she’s actually great at learning it (I can’t believe it but it’s true, after years of her resistance to learn Russian).
Because, again, I don’t want fluency and proficiency, I want me and her to enjoy our mutual language. Then, in the future, it’s her choice and her action.
Thank you for reminding this and for your insightful post!
Kamila, as I stress in my book (thank you for reading it!), there is no “failure” when it comes to raising a bilingual child because language development isn’t an “all-or-nothing” kind of challenge. As long as we sustain our best efforts over the years of childhood, our children will make significant progress over time. Your daughter is still only 5 so you have many more years to continue nurturing her ability in Russian. I don’t know all the details of your situation, but if it’s hard to find Russian speakers locally to help supplement your own efforts, you might try sites like https://italki.com to connect with Russian speakers for regular sessions of playful “immersion” online through Zoom (reading books, telling stories, chatting, singing songs, playing games, etc.). You would just need to find a Russian speaker who’s good with kids and preferably doesn’t speak Italian at all (or pretends not to) so your daughter will be “forced” to use Russian to participate. (She could sit on your lap, to start.)
I’m cheering for you, Kamila! Please stay persistent, from day to day, and keep persevering over the months and years ahead. If you do, you and your daughter can travel a long, long way together on this continuum of language development. And if I can ever be a source of support to you, don’t hesitate to reach out more directly.
P.S. If you haven’t already shared your impressions of my book in a short review at Amazon or Goodreads, I’d be so grateful if you did!