As I mention in My Best Tips for Raising Bilingual Kids, about 25 hours per week would be a productive target when it comes to the exposure a child receives in the minority language. (That’s roughly 30% of the child’s waking hours. Less than 20 hours may make it difficult for the minority language to keep pace with the development of the majority language.)
Now I’m no math whiz, but from time to time, I force myself to sit down and do a concrete count of the minority language exposure in our family. It’s a necessary exercise, I think, and can clearly reveal if the total hours are inadequate or perhaps need tweaking in certain areas.
Every family is different, of course—and any conclusions here won’t be universal—but I thought it might be helpful to share my findings for January 2013. At the very least, the makeup of minority language exposure in my family can offer some food for thought for yours, and may even move you to attempt this exercise at home. (Feel free to use a calculator, like I did. )
And hey! I made a cool pie chart, too!
First, I should probably offer a quick recap of our current circumstances…
- My children are Lulu, 8, and Roy, 5 (turning 6 in March).
- We live in Japan and they attend a Japanese school.
- My wife, the main caregiver, is Japanese and uses only Japanese with the kids.
- I use only English (our minority language) with them.
- I’m the main source of English exposure.
- I was formerly a teacher at Hiroshima International School, and have continued to tutor bilingual children in this area through my Bilingual Kids program.
- I’ve been a freelance writer since 2010, so I generally work from home.
Cool pie chart and breakdown
Reading aloud each morning at breakfast
3.5 hours (7 days x 30 minutes)
Reading aloud has been the bedrock of my efforts since the kids were born. It’s an essential form of minority language exposure and should be started from the child’s first day of life, and maintained throughout childhood. Right now I’m reading chapter books at a somewhat higher level, like the terrific titles by Beverly Cleary. I’m also reading more poetry these days, including the work of Shel Silverstein and Jack Prelutsky. (I’ve come to love reading aloud good poetry.) See these articles for more information on reading aloud:
Good Books on Reading Aloud
The Secret to Raising a Bilingual Child
How to Get Your Child Hooked on Books
Don’t Stop Reading When They Start Reading!
Doing daily homework together
3.5 hours (7 days x 30 minutes)
In order to nurture reading and writing ability in the minority language, I established a daily “homework habit” when my kids were around the age of 3 so that English would get a strong head start before Japanese literacy took off at school. (It began with gentle steps like dot-to-dot books.) At the moment, this routine mainly involves completing one page in a reading workbook and reading with me from a chapter book (taking turns, page by page). Lulu is now attempting the first Harry Potter book while Roy is reading the longer titles from The Magic Treehouse series. Other activities, pursued once a week or so, include: writing in a journal, writing letters to pen-pals, and translating picture books from Japanese to English. For all the details on daily homework, see Secrets of a Successful Homework Routine.
Interacting on weekdays
7.5 hours (5 days x 1.5 hours)
I’m able to interact with my kids in the morning before school; in the late afternoon after school; and at dinner and in the evening before bed. Apart from our read-aloud and homework time, this interaction consists of such things as: playing games together, playing catch on the quiet street in front of our house, and chatting at mealtimes (which sometimes includes telling strange-but-true tales, made-up memories, and ridiculous riddles).
Interacting on the weekend
6 hours (2 days x 3 hours)
The amount of time naturally varies—depending on my work load and the particular weekend—but beyond the interaction that takes place at home, I do make an effort to take my kids out of the house, just the three of us, to focus exclusively on English. These activities include: playing in the park; going for walks in the neighborhood; hiking in the woods nearby; visiting the children’s library (and children’s museum, right next door); and taking in special events in town.
0.5 hours (7 days x 5 minutes…but let’s round it down to an even 30 minutes)
I discuss this strategy in detail in What Is Captive Reading and How Will It Help My Bilingual Child? and Why You Must Put a Whiteboard in the Bathroom, but the basic idea involves posting written material in the bathroom (or other “captive location” in the home) in order to increase the amount of time the child spends reading in the minority language. I’ve done this since my kids were first starting to read and these additional minutes of reading practice each day (and I don’t even have to be there!) have added up to a significant amount of time over the years. Also see Turn Your Kids into Eager Readers with This Fun, Simple Strategy and How Rats in the Bathroom Can Boost a Child’s Bilingual Ability for further ways to make use of “captive reading.”
5.5 hours (3 days x 30 minutes on weekdays; 2 days x 2 hours on weekends)
We don’t let our kids watch a lot of TV—particularly on weekdays—but when they do, it’s almost always in English. They tend to watch the Disney channel and, these days, enjoy such American-made comedies as “A.N.T. Farm,” “Austin & Ally,” and “Shake It Up.” TV and DVDs have definitely been a helpful form of support in my efforts to provide English exposure—as well as exposure to American culture—but maintaining reasonable limits on the amount of TV watching can be a challenge. (Lulu, in particular, loves to watch TV and will sometimes throw a fit if I say “no.” The other day, she shrieked at me: “You’re a bad Daddy!”)
Listening to music
1.75 hours (7 days x 15 minutes)
This is hard to quantify—so my estimate is conservative, I think—but I make a point of regularly playing background music in English when the children are playing in our “play room.” Their favorite Disney shows also feature pop music, and they often dance about the house to these CDs. For more on music, see How the Power of Music Nurtures Bilingual Ability and Great Music for Kids (and Parents, too!).
These, then, are the forms of minority language exposure that make up our weekly routine. Other, less-consistent forms of support (so I didn’t add them to the total above) include such activities as playing with other English-speaking kids, speaking to family members in the United States via Skype, and playing English games on an electronic gadget (mentioned in Are You Accidentally Hindering Your Child’s Bilingual Progress?).
Assessing the results
- As I had sensed, it seems their current English exposure is sufficient to maintain an effective balance with their majority language, Japanese.
- The exposure is rich and varied, providing input in all language areas.
- The exposure is largely active, not passive, with TV watching making up a relatively modest percentage of the total time.
- One recent concern—and it’s clearly seen in these findings—is the lack of regular writing practice. As I mentioned, we do pursue such activities as journal writing and letters to pen-pals, but these efforts are somewhat sporadic. Writing in the minority language is the toughest, most time-consuming thing to address so this is definitely a challenge, but I’ll have to consider additional ways to make writing a more active part of their lives.
Increasing minority language exposure
I realize, of course, that my situation—the fact that I’m working from home—offers advantages when it comes to providing exposure in the minority language and that other parents may be more pressed for this precious time.
Please keep in mind, though, that no matter your circumstances, it’s always possible to shape them in ways that can help increase the minority language exposure your child receives.
When my children were smaller, I worked a busy full-time job and had considerably less time to spend with them. Because I knew how vital it was to ensure that they received regular English input—particularly during the youngest years—I did what I reasonably could to keep the number of weekly hours of exposure above 20, which included the idea of cloning myself (as I explain in The Busy Parent’s Guide to Cloning Yourself).
My point is this: If raising a child with proficiency in the minority language is important to you, the degree of your ultimate success—whatever your situation—depends largely on you. On your desire and determination, your energy and endurance. It’s a significant challenge—especially if you’re the main source of exposure to the minority language—and sacrifices of time and money must be made. But if you give your very best to this from the day your child is born, your efforts can pay off in a lifetime of good bilingual ability.