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