The secret to raising a bilingual child is very, very simple.
In fact, if you make this one simple thing the bedrock of your efforts, I guarantee that your children will stand a much better chance of developing active ability in the minority language.
To tell the truth, it’s a secret that everyone has heard, but not everyone puts into practice.
Read aloud to your children every day.
If you’re already doing this, and doing it for at least 15 minutes a day, day in and day out, kudos to you. You understand the real power of a practice that is often underestimated because, well, it looks too simple.
If you’re not already reading aloud to your children, or you’re not reading to them consistently, I encourage you to rethink your current efforts.
Are you really “too busy”?
First, let me tell you a little story. As a teacher at Hiroshima International School, I worked with hundreds of children, both bilingual kids and monolingual English children, and it wasn’t long before I could quickly distinguish which ones were being read to routinely by their parents: their English skills were stronger, with a wider range of vocabulary; they displayed a greater background knowledge of the world; and they themselves seemed to enjoy reading more, picking up books more frequently than their peers.
Soon after I left the school, but continued tutoring some students privately through my Bilingual Kids program, the parents of one nine-year-old girl contacted me. The mother was Japanese and the father was American; the girl’s spoken English had gotten pretty good in the year she had attended the international school (after first attending a Japanese elementary school), but her reading and writing ability was still weak for her age and the parents wanted my help.
The first thing I asked the father was: “Do you read to her in English?”
His reply was a regret I’ve heard all too often: “I’d like to, but I’m so busy.”
Now, believe me, I have sympathy for parents in this position. But I’ve honestly never met a parent whose schedule was so full that they couldn’t find 15 minutes a day to read to their children…if they really wanted to. (And if worse comes to worst, you can still try cloning yourself.)
Make reading aloud a priority
All the excuses aside, it’s a question of priority, isn’t it? If reading to your children is really important to you—because you truly understand its importance in raising a child with good bilingual ability—then you’ll make it a priority in your day and do what’s necessary to implement this practice in your family’s lifestyle.
It starts with your commitment. If you’re still on the fence about the significant impact of reading aloud on your children’s language development—and later success in life, even—I encourage you to get a couple of good books on reading aloud. The Read-Aloud Handbook and The Power of Reading, in particular, make a very compelling case based on extensive research.
Then it continues with your persistence. Not only must you establish, and maintain, a regular reading time (my main read-aloud time with Lulu and Roy is at breakfast), you’re also faced with the challenge of obtaining a steady supply of suitable children’s books. In my experience, this is the other obstacle that parents of the minority language must make a special effort to overcome.
No matter how tight your budget, buying books for your home should at least be a small part of it. (See How Many Books Do You Have In Your Home? for research which shows a strong relationship between the number of books in your home library and a child’s language development.)
In the long run, the money you spend on books will be a modest investment with a substantial payoff: your child’s language ability, and interest in reading, will be significantly stronger. Again, it’s a question of priority—if you have to cut back on some other aspect of your current lifestyle in order to free up funds for books, it’s an adjustment worth making, in my opinion.
The other challenge, of course, involves choosing suitable books for your child’s age and interests. After all, if you find the time, but not the right books, your read-aloud effort won’t be the source of pleasure it should be…and will likely peter right out.
If English is your target language, check the category Books for Kids for titles that have been popular with my own children and students. At the same time, you should be aware that The Read-Aloud Handbook also contains a wealth of suggestions for good read-aloud books, and the terrific How to Get Your Child to Love Reading contains “over 3,000 hand-picked titles on every subject under the sun.” Using such ideas as a springboard, head to amazon.com to scan the helpful reviews left by other parents and browse about for more books your child might enjoy.
One more pertinent thought: Ever since Lulu and Roy were small, books have been featured as gifts for every birthday and Christmas in our home. Giving books as gifts—and encouraging others to do the same for your kids—is another way to add to your home library while also elevating books as “special things.” (My aunt, for instance, sends us an amazon gift card each holiday season—they’re easily sent by email—then my kids and I choose a stack of books together.)
If you have friends collecting children’s books for their own kids, perhaps you would both benefit from regular exchanges. Or if there’s a library in your area, maybe it has a shelf of books in your target language. In our case, the local library in Hiroshima has a modest selection of English books—which I’ve checked and rechecked out—and I’ve occasionally borrowed books from friends as well, though not as often as I probably could if I made a little more effort.
I can’t recommend stealing. (After all, if you wind up in jail, who’s going to read to your child? )
Day after day after day
So that’s the “secret” to raising a bilingual child. Start reading aloud from day one, and keep up this practice, day after day after day, for as long as you possibly can. (I argue in Don’t Stop Reading When They Start Reading! that you should make a point of continuing to read aloud even long after your kids have begun reading on their own.) If you do, like the students at Hiroshima International School who were read to by their parents, your own children will no doubt benefit by gaining stronger language skills, a richer vocabulary, a wider awareness of the world, and a greater enthusiasm for books and reading.