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A Powerful Perspective on Raising Bilingual Children: The Great “Iceberg” of Bilingualism

My son is 9 and the other day I gave him a simple writing task, as part of our daily homework routine, to help stretch his ability in English, our minority language.

But as it turns out, I found the results quite revealing in terms of our entire bilingual journey together.

The simple task involved making a list of things of a certain color; in this case, a list of 10 things that are black.

That was all. I offered no further direction or guidance.

And here’s what Roy wrote…

Make a list of 10 things that are black.

Two powerful principles

While this list contains just a handful of words, I think it demonstrates two of the powerful principles that I continually stress in my work:

Keep it playful
Most obviously, Roy’s list reveals a spirit of playfulness and a sense of humor. Though this sensibility may be hard-wired to some degree, from the DNA he inherited from his silly Dad, I’m sure it’s also true that my emphasis on play in our activities together has helped shape this orientation toward his own expression. And the key point here is that playfulness and humor promote engagement, which means that Roy wasn’t simply scribbling through this task, without thought, because his silly Dad told him to do it—he was personally engaged in the activity.

Stay persistent
Of course, Roy isn’t a perfect speller—like all children, he naturally makes his fair share of mistakes when he writes. But with this list, the words are all spelled correctly and indicate a decent breadth of vocabulary for a 9 year old. A word like “nostril,” for instance, is certainly more sophisticated than “hair,” and much trickier to spell.

To me, this list is like an iceberg: The results themselves—the things he wrote—are the visible tip of the iceberg, while what lies beneath the surface, harder to see, are the great mass of efforts and progress over the past decade that have brought him to this point.

In other words, I doubt that Roy would have written “nostril” at all—let alone spelled it correctly—without the years of persistent input he has received in English from so many regular angles, including books read aloud; a large home library of books, comic books, and magazines he reads himself; daily doses of homework with reading and writing tasks; music in English; games in English; captive reading in many forms; and much more.

The “iceberg” of bilingualism

Now I realize that your child’s use of the word “nostril” may not be one of your higher priorities (just above “ant butthole,” perhaps), but my point, of course, is much broader:

If you are the main source of support for the minority language, your child’s language ability at the age of 9 (and eventually, 19) will largely be a reflection of the range of efforts you persistently—and playfully—pursue over all the days and years leading up to that point.

This blog—as well as my forum and my book—offer a thousand practical ways to pick and choose from to fortify these efforts. But in the end, it is your perseverance from day to day that will produce the great “iceberg” of bilingualism: the mass of language development we foster beneath the water’s surface that finally gives rise to the visible ability we see in the world.

How about you? Is your “iceberg” forming as you hope?

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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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