According to one of the better guides to raising a bilingual child, called, well, Raising a Bilingual Child, the amount of exposure needed in the minority language is about 20 hours a week (at a minimum) to enable the minority language to keep pace with the majority language. In other words, if the exposure your child receives in the minority language is less than 20 hours a week, maintaining a balance between the two languages could prove difficult. The majority language will gradually grow dominant, and the child’s use of the minority language may become more passive.
20 hours. That’s like another half-time job on top of the full-time job you might already be working. Busy as you are, how can you possibly increase the time you spend with your child to reach that important threshold of 20 hours a week?
Simple. You clone yourself.
No test tubes required
From 2007 to 2010, I worked full-time for the Chugoku Shimbun, the Hiroshima-area newspaper. (In 2007, Lulu was 3 and Roy was still a baby.) Not long after I started working there, I read Raising a Bilingual Child and came across that yardstick of 20 hours a week. When I calculated the amount of time I was spending with them—which was essentially the amount of time they were being exposed to English, our minority language—I was alarmed to find that the total from breakfast, dinner, evenings, and weekends was barely reaching that minimum threshold. (On a good week.)
Because I knew how important it was to nurture their English ability between the ages of 0 to 6—the years these little brains are most primed to learn language—I was determined to somehow increase the amount of exposure I was providing, even if I couldn’t actually be there in person.
One night, after the kids were in bed, I gathered up a stack of their favorite picture books and closed the door of my little home office. Then I put my video camera on a tripod and made a video of myself talking to them and reading the books, just as I would if they were sitting right in front of me. I brought it to a finish by giving them (the camera) a big kiss with my big lips.
The next day I asked Keiko to play the video for them, which ran about 15 minutes. When I got home from work, Keiko told me that my antics had captivated them both—and, in fact, Lulu had been chatting back in English to the questions I posed from the screen and then approached the TV at the end and kissed the glass.
That night I created another short segment of “Daddy TV,” as I came to call it. And over the next couple of months, I made about a dozen more 15-minute segments of me talking, reading books, telling stories, singing songs, and making funny faces.
Each day while I was gone, Lulu and Roy watched two 15-minute segments of “Daddy TV.” And we maintained this routine for the next two years or so, until the children seemed to tire of “reruns.” (I had intended to record new segments, but never managed it after the first burst of videomaking.) At that point, though, I felt the idea had largely served its purpose: the children’s English development seemed strong and I was no longer quite as concerned.
The benefits add up
Full disclosure: I’m terrible at math. Assuming, though, that the children watched “Daddy TV” for about 30 minutes every weekday, that comes to 2½ hours a week, 10 hours a month, and 120 hours of additional English input a year. So my investment of a few hours up front to make the videos resulted in an increase, for Lulu and Roy, of roughly 240 hours of language exposure over the two years we made use of this strategy.
Is “Daddy TV” (or “Mommy TV”) equivalent to the parent being present in the room with the child? Of course not. But it’s probably as close as you can get to cloning yourself when you can’t actually be there. “Daddy TV” is far more personalized and interactive then a regular TV program, and because small children find the whole nature of the parent appearing to them in this way so engaging, even magical, their attention is highly focused on the language exposure. (It’s fun, too, to play a video while you’re there in the room. It freaks the children out when they see you and your clone together. )
“Daddy TV” proved to be one of the most enjoyable, and I think, effective, strategies I used while the kids were small. And its use needn’t be limited to the early years—the idea is really only bounded by your imagination. Is your son having difficulty with 2nd grade math? Make a video of yourself showing multiplication flashcards like a jokey game show host, the child getting 10 points for each quick and correct response. (He’ll reap the benefits of math and his minority language at the same time.) Does your 6th-grade daughter need help with spelling? Make another “game show” video, quizzing her on a list of suitable words. (Not only will it improve her spelling, I bet she’ll find the fun approach refreshing.)
Hmm, maybe it’s time I set up my tripod again…
Do you have any more suggestions about activities besides reading story books?
Sandra, thanks for your question. Picture books were the main focus of the videos that I made for my kids—and they worked well for the purpose—but, as I mentioned, I would also spend some of the time simply facing the camera and talking to them, telling them stories, singing songs, and making funny faces. Anything is possible, really, if it’s an activity your children would enjoy watching you do. Consider your own talents and interests and perhaps that will also provide clues for additional content. If I was better at magic tricks, for example, that’s something I might have tried, too!
I find this article so refreshing and the idea of “cloning” so novel! I think I will try it in my family because we have been thinking about how to teach my husband’s native language to my children when his time with them is so little. I am so excited to try this out!
Felicia, I’m so glad to hear this idea might be useful to you and your family. (I stopped by your blog! Your kids are very cute!) In our case, “cloning myself” was an important part of our early success, I think, as it proved effective in increasing my children’s exposure, and interest, in the minority language. It takes some effort up front, but the payoff is significant. Best of luck!
I love this idea – thanks for sharing! We’ve been using your message-board-in-the-bathroom idea for a while now, and it is definitely a hit, so am looking forward to trying this one out.
By the way, you may be doing something like this already, but I’ve recently started doing “projects” with my daughter – we choose a topic together (at the moment we’re working on “trees”), then after talking about & mind-mapping what kind of things she wants to find out about the topic, she researches it using books, the net, talking to family in the UK on Skype, etc. (Reading & speaking practice!) We then make a poster to display what she’s learned (writing practice, and good fun!), and finally she makes a mini presentation using the poster, which we video & share with grandparents. (More speaking practice – yay!) The whole process takes a few weeks, as we are fitting in 30 mins here & 20 mins there around school and my job, but I’m finding she gets really into it, and is motivated to read/watch/write more in English. Just an idea!
Tove, thanks, I’m glad this idea might add to your good efforts at home. The “projects” you’re pursuing with your daughter sound terrific, and I should definitely try to push current themes of interest in this direction more than I do. I’m grateful for the valuable suggestion, and I bet other parents out there will find the idea useful, too. Arigato!
Great idea!! I have a 7 months old baby and Spanish is my mother language but we would like our baby to be bilingual. I just know basic English and my husband doesn’t know it at all but we played at home many educational videos and I try to read and talk to him in English. What else can I do if my English isn’t good? :/
Laura, whatever your English level, I think the most important thing you can do to nurture your son’s language development is read aloud to him in English every day. Build up a large library of children’s books in English (and visit your local library for more), and read to him daily for at least 15 minutes, day after day after day. If you do, you’ll not only be nurturing his English ability, you’ll be nurturing your own English ability, too.
See these posts for further details…
The Secret to Raising a Bilingual Child
How Many Books Do You Have in Your Home?
At the same time, you should also seek out opportunities where he can be exposed to other English speakers: babysitters, play groups, tutors, schools, etc. In order to foster active English ability in your son, you’ll likely need the support of other English speakers, too.
I also recommend studying the articles I’ve assembled on this page…
Posts for New Parents
Keep up your good efforts, Laura! Best wishes to you all!
Hi, Adam, good idea! I have been thinking to do it for my children just for fun! I am sure that they will enjoy it. I give myself day and night to raise them bilingual. Now and then I enter in your site to read something that makes me strong in my adventure!!! Yesterday we went for a picnic. I was surprised to hear my younger one, Ricky, speaking only in English!!! He’s 2 years and seven months!!! My big boy, Jacopo, 4 and a half, was shaking his head to listen his little brother!!!
Reena, keep up your daily efforts and your children will continue to make steady progress.
I’m happy to hear that my site is a source of support and inspiration to you!
Thanks Adam. Your suggestions are really helpful. I am concerned about the children above 10 who have their own choices and prefer to watch programs in their native language and struggle in second language acquisition.
Anila, yes, encouraging children to consume resources in the minority language is very important. After all, the more children are exposed to the minority language, the more their language ability will grow. Since the majority language generally doesn’t need this additional exposure—in fact, such exposure can be counterproductive to a parent’s efforts (see Are You Accidentally Hindering Your Child’s Language Progress?), it’s wise to seek out resources in the minority language that will appeal to the child: resources that suit the child’s age, language level, and personal interests.
To make resources in the minority language the child’s preference, the best way is to start early by emphasizing the use of minority language resources in the home while limiting the use of majority language resources. It’s a kind of “preventive medicine,” really (see What Frustrates Me About Raising Bilingual Children), because if you can “condition” your kids, from early on, to prefer resources in the minority language, then this preference will likely continue as they grow older. (This is what I did with my own kids, when it came to TV, and they now have a strong preference for watching TV in our minority language.)
This is such a wonderful idea! I work away from home a lot so I have started recording videos for my daughters. Sorry Adam, but I plagiarised your term ‘Daddy TV’, I hope you don’t mind. As you said, it’s magical for my daughters, and personally for me it relieves some of my frustration and guilt for being away from home and gives my girls a connection to me. There are SO many benefits!!! 🙂
Dave, I’m happy to hear you’re finding this idea helpful and fun! It takes a little effort to prepare, but the payoff is immense. And no, I don’t mind at all if you call it “Daddy TV”!
You could get other members of the family—who are far away—to record stories or stories of their childhood too for your children to watch. Or you could make these videos when you next visit them. With ipads or even phones nowadays it’s easy enough and using whatsapp or Viber to send is free. I am gonna ask my parents to do that! They could send a new word of vocabulary for example. Or you could reciprocate with some friends/your brothers and sisters who you could send something to their kids in your ML whilst they send to your kids something in their ML. Thanks again Adam. Needed something as our exposure is getting thinner 🙁 and technology is surely the way for my teenagers!!!
Nathalie, thanks! These are very useful suggestions! Raising bilingual kids will always be a challenge, I suppose, but advances in technology are certainly creating new and powerful possibilities for increasing language exposure.
Best of luck with your teens! My own daughter becomes a teen in just two weeks!