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If This Isn’t a Big Part of Your Strategy for Raising Bilingual Kids, It Really Should Be

Reflections on our first trip back to the U.S. in five years

For much of June, we were in the U.S., visiting family and friends. This series of articles offers observations of that trip in connection with raising bilingual children.

The first thing I noticed after arriving in the United States were the billboards.

My mother had just picked us up at the airport in Memphis, Tennessee (after a long journey from Hiroshima to Tokyo to Chicago to Memphis) and was now driving us back to her house, in the early evening, for the first leg of our trip. As I sat in the front seat beside her, blinking sleepily out the window at the billboards lining the highway, I was struck by the fact that they were all in English.

English billboards in America—yes, I know that’s hardly a brilliant observation. But you must remember that, in Japan, all the billboards are in Japanese, our majority language. And not only the billboards, of course, but the signs, the posters, the flyers, the newspapers, the magazines, the text on household products and food packaging, the information sent home from school, even the labels on our underwear—the whole print environment is in Japanese.

But now our surroundings were suddenly and utterly different: everything was in English. (Well, except the labels on our underwear.)

Diarrhea Bear

It’s true, there’s some English to be seen in Japan, but it’s minimal compared to Japanese. And a surprising amount of this English isn’t exactly a conventional use of the language.

Like this sign…


This notice…

The restaurant with Bilingual menu

And this ad, which I find completely baffling…
(I sincerely hope he’s not “your only best friend.”)

Diarrhea Bear

My point here isn’t to belittle “non-standard” forms of English. (My Japanese is no doubt equally “non-standard”!) However, it’s nevertheless true that our surroundings in Japan don’t do a whole lot to support the development of my children’s minority language because models of conventional English are very limited in this print environment.

Impact on the target language

In the U.S., though, our eyes were abruptly bathed in English! Depending on your perspective, of course, all this excessive messaging can be a negative influence, but for the purposes of language development, an abundance of print in the target language is enormously beneficial.

In fact, just minutes after we arrived in the U.S., and were driving along that Memphis highway, my kids, who are already pretty competent readers, began mumbling the words on the billboards we passed by. And this sort of “automatic reading response,” which occurs quite naturally when our eyes fall upon comprehensible text, then continued for the duration of our trip, everywhere we went.

By the end of our stay in the U.S., I was more convinced than ever: an environment that’s rich in print has a profound impact on a child’s language development simply through the persistent exposure it provides. When a child who has begun to read is continually exposed to examples of that target language in her environment, and her eyes unconsciously take in that text throughout the day, this regular “practice” offers powerful fuel for boosting language ability.

Create a print-rich environment

So where does that leave us as parents seeking to support the minority language in a print environment largely barren of that language?

We must make a continuous effort to replicate—on a more modest scale, in a more targeted way—the sort of print-rich surroundings we would find naturally in the home country. In other words, along with ample books and magazines in the minority language, we should take advantage of a strategy I call “captive reading” to craft an environment that will engage the same “automatic reading response” in our children and thus promote their language development on a daily basis.


Well, I’ve written several posts on the subject of captive reading and they’re a good place to begin. Not only do they offer concrete tactics for turning your home into a print-rich environment, they may inspire new ideas that suit your own special circumstances.

What Is Captive Reading and How Will It Help My Bilingual Child?
Captive reading is a highly effective strategy for increasing a child’s exposure to reading material and strengthening language ability.

Don’t Read These Words! (Really! Don’t Read These Words!)
Boost the time your children spend reading by taking advantage of the tendency to “automatically read” whatever words our eyes fall upon.

Why You Must Put a Whiteboard in the Bathroom
Making use of a whiteboard in the bathroom is a cheap and effective way to nurture the reading ability of your children.

Turn Your Kids into Eager Readers with This Fun, Simple Strategy
The use of “serial stories” can motivate children to read independently, and eagerly, in the minority language.

How Rats in the Bathroom Can Boost a Child’s Bilingual Ability
This new “captive reading” idea can nurture more sophisticated forms of language, including advanced vocabulary.

More captive reading ideas

Since our return from the U.S., I’ve been brainstorming additional ways to employ captive reading and make our home environment even richer in the minority language.

Here are a couple of them…

  • Can I take the basic idea of labeling objects in the home, which we did fairly long ago (“desk,” “chair,” etc.), and upgrade it to stretch their current language level? Maybe more advanced vocabulary and their definitions, printed individually on slips of paper and posted about the house on doors and walls? Even on the ceiling above their beds? Like a dictionary that blew its covers, words flying everywhere?
  • Or perhaps use quiz questions of some kind? I could write a set of questions on a particular topic, say “animals” or “geography,” which would promote both language and background knowledge. And then the topic, and questions, could continuously change. (This is a key point: Whatever sort of captive reading material we use, we must change it regularly to refresh the opportunity for exposure. If we don’t, the material will soon grow “stale” and our kids will no longer even “see” it.)

Establishing a print-rich environment through creative uses of captive reading has been a big part of my strategy since my kids first began to read. Although I wish their print environment in English could extend beyond the walls of our home (I’m afraid I’d get scolded if I started posting English signs around the neighborhood, like along their route to school!), it’s clear to me that an ongoing effort to mirror the natural print environment of the home country can have a substantial impact on the development of the minority language—on both literacy and overall language ability—and I strongly recommend incorporating a captive reading mindset into your own daily routine.

How about you? Can you suggest other “captive reading” ideas to enrich a child’s print environment in the minority language?

14 Responses

  1. For some reason this post made me imagine billboards inside the house. “Eating your breakfast will make you achieve glorious results in school” plastered on the kitchen wall, “It’s 6 o’clock, have you hugged your parents today?” in the hallway, and “5 out of 5 dentists recommend brushing your teeth 3 times a day” in the bathroom.

    1. Tatyana, this is a great idea! Not only is it cute and fun, but it promotes exposure and provides pertinent reminders. In fact, just last night my daughter went to bed without brushing her teeth! I bet a “billboard” in the bathroom would have helped!

      Thanks for the inspiration! :mrgreen:

  2. Just starting to read your blog, and chiming in here to say that I vividly remember reading billboards as a child. In fact, I shocked everyone by reading street names out loud, when no one knew I had already learned to read. While I’m not in a hurry for my son to grow up (he’s only 1), I look forward to implementing some of these ideas. In the meantime, I suppose I could test them on my husband. 🙂

    1. Elizabeth, welcome! I hope you find the site helpful to your efforts as time goes by. (With your husband, too!) Best wishes to you all!

  3. I definitely agree with the “print-rich surroundings” thing. Another good source is task-based reading material – for example instructions for games, or recipes in kids’ cookbooks. I’m sure there are tons of children’s cookbooks, but one we really like is the Beginner’s Cookbook, published by Usborne.

    We’ve tried many of the recipes in here and they always turn out well. And the kids don’t really think of reading the recipe as a “reading activity”, since they are focused on the yummy end-product!

    1. Jane, thanks for the tasty tip! My daughter likes to cook so I’ll definitely keep this book in mind!

  4. i love your website and this article reminds me when i was reading billboards too…great comments..thanx u all

    1. Kiara, I’m happy, too, with the many helpful comments readers share at this site! I’m glad you’re enjoying your visits!

  5. It is really so kind of you to keep on making efforts to provide invaluable tips on our bilingual journey in spite of your busy schedules along with your work and your family! Thank you for keeping us inspired by this blog of yours!

    Thank you for the newsletters!

  6. I’ve just stumbled on your great website. Thanks for taking the time to make it. We’re just down the road in Osaka. Anyway, a question. I’m a BIG fan of picture book reading, and read everyday for our 1 and 3 year old. But I’ve been unsure when to start teaching my elder son to read. My reluctance has simply been because I don’t want to sacrifice time that I normally read to him (as you know, they pick up so much new language from it). Anyway, from your webpage am inspired to give it more of a try. But I’m interested in the age at which you started having your kids read aloud and how much time every day you’ve done it, especially at first. Apologies if you’ve written this somewhere and I’ve missed it. Thank you for your help!

    1. Paul, welcome! If you’re reading aloud to your kids every day, you’re already doing the most important thing to nurture their literacy development. In fact, I would argue that reading aloud—and surrounding children with appealing books—is pretty much all you need to do to “teach” them to read on their own. In my experience as a teacher and parent, the vast majority of children will gradually acquire the ability to read at their own natural pace, as long as they receive sufficient exposure to print.

      To some extent, it’s like speech: we wonder if the child will ever really speak, and then when it suddenly happens, we realize that this outcome was the inevitable result of all the oral input we had been providing since birth. That magical moment when a child starts reading is predominantly due to a certain “tipping point” of exposure to print, coupled with his maturing mind. (See Thoughts on Babies and Hammers for much more on this point.)

      In my case, when my kids began decoding the words in familiar picture books—at around age 3 or 4—I then introduced a terrific set of early readers to help launch their emerging literacy. (See Recommended Resources: “Now I’m Reading!” for a full description.) I used these little books, as our first step in “shared reading,” in addition to our regular read aloud time. In other words, this “shared reading” (where we take turns reading, page by page, for around 15 minutes) has never replaced or infringed on the time I spend reading aloud to them, even now. These are two distinct routines for us. (And, today, the third wheel of our “reading tricycle”—along with reading aloud and “shared reading”—is their own independent reading, which I also try to encourage each day through captive reading, graphic novels, magazines, etc.)

      I look at these different “domains” of reading in a PDF which summarizes my thoughts on the subject, available here: Free Report: The Power of Reading in Raising a Bilingual Child

      Paul, I look forward to hearing good news from you as time goes by!

  7. Hi Adam, first thank you for your invaluable blog. There’s nothing else like it on the web. And to my question – I have a 1 yr old who doesn’t talk yet. The best thing we have going is his love of books. He can sit on my lap for ages and listen to me read. But in addition to this, do you have any more tips/ideas for the real little ones? I try to talk to him as much as I can but often feel a bit awkward/forced.

    1. Sarah, I’m really glad to hear that my work is a helpful source of support.

      It’s wonderful that your son loves books. Make books and reading the bedrock of your daily efforts and I expect you’ll experience a lot of success as time goes by.

      At the same time, here are a couple of suggestions…

      1. On this blog, browse through the Babies and Toddlers categories for additional ideas and inspiration.

      2. See this thread—particularly, Tatyana Lefkowicz’s terrific idea about using pictures to aid talking time—at The Bilingual Zoo. (And if you’re not already a member of that community, please join us!)

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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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