Yoshito Darmon-Shimamori is the founder of the Library 4 Multilinguals, a secondary school language teacher, and a dad to his two trilingual sons. He is passionate about helping multilingual children grow up proud and empowered by their languages and heritage, and sees reading and writing in the home languages as a cornerstone of this process.
He is the author of The Parents’ Guide to Raising Multi-literate Children, and the upcoming In Search of the Lost Words – A Bilingual Time Travel Adventure.
As a secondary school language teacher, I see every day how much of an impact motivation has on my students’ learning. If they are interested, find an activity fun and/or useful, they will want to complete the activity in the best way possible.
Writing is probably the skill that children find the least motivating. It is tedious (especially at the beginning of the multi-literacy journey), and it requires kids to pay attention to the details. And when it comes to the home language, it might be difficult to justify why our children genuinely need to write.
If writing is a tedious task, it needs to be worth it, if we want our children to be motivated to carry on. Here are two different approaches that are important on their own, but if combined, lead to much greater results!
Let’s see how we can motivate them to write in our home language.
Let’s make it purposeful
An important question to keep in mind when planning an activity with our children is: “Why would he/she want to do it?” As adults/parents, WE know how important writing is, and WE want them to be able to read and write. Yes, “we” do, not them. So, we need to make sure they see a purpose.
For children, having fun generally is enough to make an activity worth it. And let’s be honest, we, adults are exactly the same! (Have a look at this short video that shows how adults were encouraged to walk up and down the stairs instead of taking the escalator. )
We therefore need to find what would make writing fun for our children. (For inspiration, feel free to have a look at The Parents’ Guide to Raising Multi-literate Children.)
Having an impact on the world is also worth it. Remember how only a little while ago your child started pointing at objects for you to hand it to them? Or how they would raise their arms up for you to pick them up? This was all to be able to have a bigger impact on the world around them. And later on, words came to help them clarify their thoughts and desires.
Having an impact on the world around us is a powerful motivator. At the beginning, it demands a lot of effort to learn and develop the necessary skills. The impact (= the reward) should therefore be immediately visible.
Let’s take the activity “Create your own menu” from The Parents’ Guide to Raising Multi-literate Children. Here, you provide a menu to your child to personalise it and decide what they will eat for their next meal. It needs to be as customisable as possible. Let them decide to eat something they love but cannot always eat (an ice-cream?) and what they do NOT want to see on their plates (mushrooms?). Being able to have so much say in what they eat is probably not usual. They will feel empowered and will WANT to write!
CAUTION! The magic ratio: 80% fun – 20% effort
Unfortunately, writing in our home languages is (probably) not useful for them on a daily basis, to function in the society they are growing up in. It is a nice-to-have skill. So let’s make sure we nurture in our children the desire and pleasure to write.
A ratio to keep in mind is 80/20: 80% of fun for 20% of effort. If putting a little bit of effort can bring a lot of fun, our children will be up for it. And the progress will seem effortless. 20% of effort may not seem much. When it is translated visually in the amount written, it might seem minimal – a few words, a sentence maybe? But little by little, as their skills improve, this 20% of effort will represent more and more.
Let’s take the pressure off
Unless our children have to take an exam, there is no real need to hurry. Every child is different, and develops at their own speed. But like the tortoise says at the end of the famous fable The Hare and the Tortoise “It is better to get a good start”. If our children enjoy their experience of learning to write in our home language, as their skills develop, they will happily carry on, and write on their own. So especially when there are no academic constraints, we ought to follow our children’s pace. (And as a teacher, I would argue that this should also be the case, up to a certain degree, in classroom.)
New tool available
As a dad raising multi-literate children myself, I constantly think about ways to motivate my children to write (and read) in our home languages. And in the grand scheme of things, I try to find ways to empower my children to grow up being proud of their heritage and who they are.
This led me to develop a new “tool” – a book that will both help my sons be motivated to write in our home languages AND reflect positively on their multilingual and multicultural identity. And this is how In Search of the Lost Words – A Bilingual Time Travel Adventure was born to help every multilingual child across the world.
In Search of the Lost Words is the story of a 14-year-old girl who, although she grew up bilingual, now only really speaks one language. This led her to distance herself from her family. She is mysteriously sent back in time, and the adventure she will embark on will help her want to speak her minority language by reconnecting with her family.
The book is ideal to be discovered WITH our children and offers plenty of opportunities to discuss our culture and family with illustrations to complete with specific items, food, scenery.
As you can see in the example above, some speech bubbles are empty and are accompanied by little key words/annotations. This represents how a person who only understands a little of a language perceives the situation. The reader, your child, will then need to work out from the situation what people who speak the main character’s home language (also your child’s home language) are saying.
(Please note that this particular example contains many places to be filled in by the reader. In the rest of the book, there are many less.)
Let’s see how all the principles mentioned previously are present in this book:
1. Writing needs to be purposeful: The situation gives a genuine reason for having empty speech bubbles. And the reader who is likely to speak and understand the language better than Anna (the main character) can assist her in making sense of what is happening around her. Completing the speech bubbles is therefore useful (and empowering for your child who can realise that they speak their home language quite well!)
2. 80% of fun for 20% of effort: In Search of the Lost Words is above all a book to allow children and their family to discuss their culture(s), language, and family. The empty speech bubbles do not need to be completed straightaway. The story could be read and told. And the writing could happen to keep a trace of ideas you both came up with regarding what the characters are saying. That way, there is a genuine reason to write.
This book is also a tool for multilingual children to improve on their writing skills. The reader is given the opportunity to write part of the story, in a published book. They are therefore likely to want to make sure it is written neatly and without mistakes. In these circumstances, your child is likely to listen very carefully to any spelling or grammar rule you are explaining to them. Of course, feel free to write things first on a piece of paper or a mini white board before your child completes the speech bubbles.
The format and the content of In Search of the Lost Words are therefore designed to help multilingual, multicultural, and multi-literate children on many different levels.
If you like what this book could provide you and your child, help bring it to life by sharing the news around and perhaps even get your own copy along with rewards.
I wish you a lot of fun and bonding moments with your child(ren) during their multi-literacy journey!