I empathize, deeply, with how hard it can be to maintain sufficient support for the minority language, day after day, year after year. And this is especially true if, like me, your children attend school in the majority language and yet your hopes for their language ability are high: not only do you want them to communicate well in the minority language, you’d like them to have strong skills in reading and writing, too.
Recently, though, an experience with my daughter became a sharp reminder that, in the end, the important thing isn’t how hard a task is—the important thing is how much effort we’re willing to give to it.
And this is equally true of both parents and children.
Writing the essay
If you’ve been following this blog, you know that Lulu, who’s nine and in third grade at our local elementary school in Hiroshima, is a small, high-spirited child and tends to do almost everything at a quick pace. Imagine a squirrel monkey—one of those little creatures that perches on a pirate’s shoulder. That’s Lulu. It’s not that she can’t sit still when she wants to (or has to), but her natural inclination is to scamper about, eagerly seeking new stimulation.
Well, a few months ago she came home from school in a state of special excitement. The Hiroshima public schools were again holding their annual essay contest, with the winning essays published in a book: one book for first and second grades; another book for third and fourth grades; and one more book for fifth and sixth grades. Because Hiroshima is a big city (over a million people), and thousands of children submit essays, getting selected for the book in your grade level isn’t easy.
I don’t recall what Lulu wrote about in first grade and second grade, but I do remember the minor meltdowns she had after learning that her essays hadn’t made the cut. And her disappointment was even keener in second grade when a classmate’s essay was one of the winners.
So when she told me that it was essay-writing time—and that she was determined to have her work appear in print this year—I offered to help. I couldn’t help her compose the essay (she was writing in Japanese, anyway), but I could help her choose a topic and first organize her thoughts in English. Then her mother could assist with the Japanese.
I’ll reveal what she wrote about in a minute, when I share the English translation of the original Japanese text. What I want to stress here is how much effort she put into writing it, and rewriting it, first in English with me and then in Japanese with her mother. As a longtime teacher, I know how hard it is for small children to rewrite their work and improve it through several drafts. But Lulu felt such determination in this case that she put forth far more effort than she ever had before on a piece of written work.
Making the translation
And happily, this effort paid off. She came home from school bubbling with joy on the day she heard the good news from her teacher: her essay had been selected for the third and fourth grade book. I was thrilled for her, and I naturally suggested that, once the book was published, she make an English translation of the essay for my family back in the United States.
Last week, it was finally distributed in the schools, with Lulu’s essay appearing on pages 80 and 81. As we looked at the book, I emphasized the fact that she achieved this dream because of the hard work she had put into writing the essay. I then reminded her about making an English translation, and set this task as part of her daily homework.
Unfortunately, the effort she put into her translation was lacking, and the result was poor: she had skipped entire sentences, in fact. After the strong effort she had made to produce the original essay, I was surprised and disappointed.
Me: Lulu, you can do much better.
Lulu: I tried, but it’s hard.
Me: I’m not saying it’s easy, but how hard did you really try? On a scale of one to ten, with one meaning “I didn’t try at all” and ten meaning “I really tried my best,” what number would you give yourself?
Lulu: Five. But it was hard.
Me: Lulu, it’s not about how hard something is, it’s about how hard you try.
And then I sat with her and helped her rewrite the translation, line by line. Here it is…
My Grandma is American. She has brown hair, like me, and she loves the piano.
She has two cats. Their fur is really fluffy and feels nice.
She lives in America so I can’t see her very often, but I visited her last summer.
These are my memories with my Grandma…
Every Sunday she plays a big pipe organ at a church. When she plays the organ, her fingers and feet move so fast! It’s amazing! The sound of the organ is loud and powerful. When the sun shone on the stained glass in the church, it glittered. It was pretty.
I also showed her a Japanese game where two people move their hands together, but she couldn’t do it very well. We all laughed.
My Grandma read a book to me. It was an exciting story. After that, I read a book to her.
We also danced together while listening to classical music. We held hands and swayed back and forth, dancing happily.
My Grandma lives far away, but my memories with her are still in my heart, so it feels like she’s close to me.
Focus on effort
Afterward, it struck me that the very same thing is true for parents raising bilingual kids:
It’s not about how hard it is, it’s about how hard you try.
Again, I know this journey can be tough—I’m not downplaying that struggle. It’s hard for us all, each in our own particular ways. But that shouldn’t be our focus. Of course, if we can reshape our circumstances to make them less challenging, these are actions worth taking. But if we’re unable, or unwilling, to make changes to our situation, then we must live with our challenges as gracefully as possible and remain effective in spite of them.
You see, dwelling on the difficulties can undermine your motivation—much as it did with Lulu when translating her essay. The thing to focus on, above all, is your effort: How hard are you really trying each day, and are you satisfied with the extent of your effort? On a scale of one to ten, how would you rate yourself?