Your present circumstances don’t determine where you can go; they merely determine where you start. —Nido Quebein
Think of it this way: Raising a child to be bilingual is about odds and each family’s odds of success will be higher or lower depending on their particular circumstances and how proactive they are about shaping these conditions in effective ways.
My experience as a teacher at Hiroshima International School demonstrates that the odds of a Japanese child successfully becoming bilingual are extremely high when that child acquires Japanese from the family and community, and English from the school environment. Of course, the degree of that ability in English will depend on such variables as the age at which the child enters the school and how long that attendance lasts. Still, I think it’s safe to say that, generally speaking, strong bilingual success for children who are exposed to the majority language at home and the minority language at school is virtually assured.
A different scenario
Many families, though, face a very different scenario, with circumstances that inherently make the challenge of fostering active ability in the minority language far more difficult. In other words, such circumstances, instead of working in the family’s favor—as in the example above—work against their success.
Let me quickly remind you of the basic circumstances of my own situation, which will provide a concrete example of a scenario where the inherent odds of success are rather low: I’m the minority language parent, yet not the main caregiver; my kids have always gone to majority language schools; my partner doesn’t speak the minority language well; the minority language isn’t used much in our environment; and we don’t often travel.
The truth is, if I had done little to overcome these odds, and put them more in my favor from early on, the results would likely have been quite different. But because I recognized this dilemma, and was willing to pursue every reasonable effort I could within the bounds of these basic conditions in order to raise the odds of success, the outcome has matched my aim. If it had seemed that these efforts weren’t sufficient to reach this goal, I would have had to either address the basic conditions themselves, such as pursuing some form of schooling for them in the minority language, or scale back my ambitions to an appropriate extent to avoid disappointment and frustration.
Raising your odds
So it’s vital to look squarely at your circumstances—if possible, before your bilingual journey begins—and assess your odds: Are they generally favorable or unfavorable? If the odds seem stacked against you, you must be as proactive as possible in order to shift those odds more firmly in your favor. The greatest impact, of course, often results from reshaping the basic circumstances themselves in certain contextual ways: your spouse begins using the minority language, too; you enroll your child in a minority language school; you travel more to a minority language location; etc.
But if such larger changes aren’t feasible, the responsibility for raising the odds of success will fall solely on your daily efforts. Amid the challenging conditions of your situation, you must remain as energetic and resourceful as possible, day by day, in order to provide your children with ample language exposure and a need to actively use the language. By doing so, you can overcome the lower odds inherent to your circumstances and recast them more in your favor.
When it comes to raising a bilingual child, the more your circumstances seem to bring down the odds of success, the more proactive you’ll need to be to create better odds of achieving your aim.
QUICK TAKEAWAY: Take a clear-eyed look at your circumstances and create the strongest conditions you can to strengthen the odds of success as much as possible.