My daughter is 13, in her first year of junior high school.
My son is 10 and in 5th grade.
Both attend local Japanese schools and have grown up under virtually identical circumstances when it comes to sources of input in English, our minority language.
And yet, in my personal observations of their language skills, as well as their performance when practicing for a standardized English test widely used in Japan (the Eiken test, where their level is now at the second highest on a seven-level scale), their ability is basically the same.
How can that be if their upbringing has been so similar and a substantial gap of three years exists between the two? Shouldn’t Lulu’s level now be demonstrably higher than Roy’s?
In fact (and here’s a big hint as to the reason), Roy’s sense of spelling is actually stronger than Lulu’s at this point. Lulu continues to make spelling errors that are typically seen in children who are several years younger. In other words, the gap of three years in age no longer exists in terms of language ability because Roy’s level is higher than a typical monolingual child of his age while Lulu’s level (at least her literacy level) is a bit lower than a typical 13-year-old.
Quantity and quality of input
You see, a child’s level of ability in the minority language is largely the evolving result of the quantity and quality of input in that language.
Naturally enough, when there is more quantity, and higher quality, to this exposure, the child will generally make stronger progress and advance to more sophisticated levels of ability at a swifter pace.
But how does that explain this situation with my own two children, especially when my efforts to nurture their English side have been virtually the same when it comes to language exposure? And, moreover, given the fact that Lulu is three years older and so has theoretically received three more years of language exposure than Roy?
Of course, there are natural differences among children, with regard to their innate potential for language learning and other abilities, but in this case, I don’t think there’s a notable difference between the two when it comes to their potential.
So what, then, has enabled Roy’s potential to grow at a somewhat stronger and swifter pace than Lulu’s potential?
The answer, I firmly believe, is books and reading.
If you’ve been following this blog, you probably know that one of my own ongoing challenges over the years has been to encourage Lulu’s interest in books and motivate her to read independently. (For instance, see this post from three years ago: Big Breakthrough with My Bilingual Daughter?)
While I’m pleased with her growth as a reader, it’s also true that, by nature, she simply hasn’t been the eager bookworm that Roy has been ever since he was very small. In this respect, Lulu has a more active and social personality and has therefore reached for books considerably less on her own than Roy, who can frequently be seen lying on the floor with another book in his hands.
Thus, because of this regular book-reading, the volume of input in English that Roy has received over the first 10 years of his life is comparable to the amount of exposure that Lulu has received in her 13 years. And what’s more, while the quantity of that input may be roughly equal, the quality is actually higher in Roy’s case because books provide input that, on the whole, is more sophisticated in the use of language than the language we generally use in daily speech.
It should be no surprise, then, that there is stronger development in the sophistication of Roy’s language ability, including his sensitivity to the quirks of English spelling. (For a very clear—and very funny—example of this, see A Powerful Perspective on Raising Bilingual Children: The Great “Iceberg” of Bilingualism.)
The best “return on investment”
In my work—this blog, my forum, my book—I put special emphasis on the power of books and reading: on fostering a love of books and literacy, and motivating children to read on their own. I know that sometimes parents think I overstress this aspect of the bilingual journey, but after more than 20 years of working with many, many children, including my own lovable monkeys, I’m even more convinced of the value of this approach to nurturing language ability.
Look at this way: If quantity and quality of input is the engine for maximizing language development, books not only can serve this function quite effectively, they can perform this service even in our absence, during the childhood years and then beyond, for the rest of our children’s lives. (Not to mention enhancing their mind and spirit in a range of other ways.)
To me, the efforts spent on cultivating a love of books and literacy, and motivating children to read on their own, actually provide the very best “return on investment.” The truth is, the time we physically spend with our children is necessarily limited, but our influence can extend beyond us, through books and reading, and in that way maximize the quantity and quality of the input that they receive.
This is easiest to see in the dozens of children I’ve taught privately over the years. Because I only see them once a week, for generally an hour, my actual contact with them is limited. But whether they attend the international (English-speaking) school here, or a regular Japanese school, the children who make the strongest progress in their English ability are, without exception, the children who read the most. And this is why my highest priority, for any child, is to get them enjoying and reading books, week after week after week.
In search of “home run books”
In the recent post How the Minority Language Can Flower in Your Bilingual Child, I discussed the idea of breakthroughs on the bilingual journey and how our actions can pave the way for those breakthroughs to occur in conjunction with the child’s growing maturity.
Well, I’m happy to report that my continuing efforts to maximize Lulu’s potential as a reader have just led to an important breakthrough for us. Since suitable books are always at the heart of motivating children to read—books that are an appealing fit for their language level, level of maturity, and interests—my main aim with every child is to match them with “home run books.” As I explain in The “Home Run Book”: A Key Idea for Promoting a Child’s Language Development…
If we can just connect our kids with the “right” books, they’ll show more enthusiasm for books and reading, whether or not they happen to be natural bookworms.
The thing is, finding “home run books” for a child isn’t so easy—and strike-outs or singles are more common than bigger hits. But it’s also true that the more you swing, the more often you’ll hit the ball. And because I’m continually swinging—continually searching for books that I think could appeal to my kids and students—I’m able to get those bigger hits from time to time…and help generate new breakthroughs.
So, last Christmas, when I was buying gifts for my kids, I hunted for books—whether fiction or non-fiction—that have a “track and field” theme (because Lulu is on the track team at school) and might suit a young teenage girl. There aren’t many choices, really, but I did come across a novel for young adults called The Running Dream by Wendelin Van Draanan. I wasn’t familiar with it, nor with the author, but I took a chance, hoping that Lulu might enjoy it.
I certainly didn’t expect this book to become a massive “home run.”
Reading “harder books”
It’s important to understand that Lulu generally doesn’t read that much beyond the pages I assign each day in the latest novel I’ve given her (or she chooses from our home library), as part of her daily homework in the minority language. It’s true, she does regularly pick up graphic novels and comic books, but until recently, she would rarely read “harder books” on her own.
So I was surprised—and delighted—when, with no prompting from me, I saw her open The Running Dream a few days after Christmas and begin reading the first few pages. And as the spell of this “home run book” took hold, she went on reading and reading and reading…and finished the whole 332-page book in less than a week.
Meanwhile, when I asked the kids to write down their 10 goals for the new year, this was number 6 on Lulu’s list…
Of course, when I saw that, I immediately placed an order for half-a-dozen more books by this author! And once the books arrived, Lulu quickly began reading the first one in the stack.
Her first favorite author
Again, breakthroughs in language or literacy development are the evolving outcome of two things: our persistent efforts alongside the child’s growing maturity. While it’s true that Lulu may not be the natural bookworm that Roy is (and that’s okay), my long-running efforts to fuel greater interest in books and reading have helped pave the way for this moment, at age 13, when she has found her first favorite author and will eagerly read these “harder books” on her own.
The truth is, now that she’s getting older and our time together is shrinking as she leads a more independent life, a breakthrough like this, where her motivation to read is internal, becomes even more important for advancing the potential of her minority language ability, this year and through all the years to come.