I went to the dentist again today. Lately, I spend more time with him than I do with my wife.
If you and I bumped into each other at a party for cool parents, and I laughed gaily at your witty remarks, you might think my teeth are just fine.
Maybe even kind of nice, if the light was low.
But that’s not what my dentist thinks.
He thinks the old fillings in my back teeth, top and bottom, need to be blasted out and replaced with shiny new ones. He says bacteria have crawled beneath the old fillings and are now eating away inside there like a horde of fire ants.
Okay, I added that part about the fire ants, but the upshot is the same: multiple, painful visits to the dentist to jackhammer off the old fillings, drill practically into my brain to clean out the cavities, and cement silver nuggets in the gaping holes.
You’re probably thinking: Well, whiner, if you had brushed your teeth more often, you wouldn’t have gotten all those fillings in the first place.
But here’s the thing: I’ve always had a good habit of brushing my teeth, even from a young age. I’m certainly not like a friend I had in college who lived in a dorm room down the hall from mine. Once I dropped by his room (this is a true story) and he was searching everywhere for something.
It turned out to be his toothbrush.
And you know where he finally found it?
Underneath his bed.
So I’m not like that. I mean, I doubt I would win any toothbrushing tournaments or anything, but all in all, I would say that my toothbrush and I have had a pretty good thing going for many years now.
(Wait, did that sound like I’ve had only one toothbrush in my life? For the record, friends, let me stress that I’ve had close relationships with many toothbrushes.)
So how did my back teeth get all those fillings?
It’s because, when I was a child, I ate too much sticky candy, chewed too much sugary gum, and drank too many sugar-soaked drinks.
By the time I was a teen, I already had that mouth of metal.
Compare this with my daughter, who’s now 13 and consumes these cavity villains much less than I once did. (I think it’s easier to achieve this in Japan than in sugar-mad America, where I grew up, but it’s also true that my wife and I have been mindful about not letting our kids go hog-wild with sweets.)
Lulu hasn’t gotten a single cavity yet. (Nor has Roy.)
Two kinds of daily habits
So what does all this embarrassing business about my crumbling teeth have to do with raising bilingual children?
Well, when I was squirming and sweating in the dentist’s chair today, I couldn’t help regretting the fact that I had no foresight as a boy when I made a habit of bathing my teeth in sugar, day after day. Because of that habit, which bred generous tooth decay by the time I was a teen, I’ve spent my adult life dealing with the unpleasant reality of making regular visits to the dentist for repairs. (And when you’re older, they don’t even give you a little toy at the end of your visit.)
You see, there are two kinds of daily habits and these habits gradually lead, over time, to two kinds of longer-term outcomes: satisfying outcomes and dissatisfying outcomes.
This cautionary tale of my teeth is an example of a destructive habit that ultimately produced a dissatisfying outcome.
When it comes to raising bilingual or multilingual children, what we need are constructive habits. In other words, we must establish and sustain daily actions that will incrementally create the satisfying outcome we seek over the months and years of childhood.
As I’ve stressed before…
Good bilingual ability is the result of persistent efforts that add up gradually over time.
Three constructive habits
What sort of constructive habits am I talking about?
Here are my top three, with links for further information…
1. Talk a lot to your children in the minority language.
The more talkative you are with your kids, starting right from birth (even before birth wouldn’t hurt), the more talkative they will likely be when they begin speaking with you. If you alone can’t provide enough input, add to that exposure by arranging for other speakers of the target language to spend time with them. (See The Most Powerful Thing of All in Nurturing Language Development.)
2. Read a lot to your children in the minority language.
Along with providing ample speech, reading aloud to your children, day after day, should be another habit that you establish early on and sustain throughout childhood. The more you read to your children, the more their language ability will grow and the more they will come to love books and literacy. (See The Secret to Raising a Bilingual Child.)
3. Enrich your home with books and other resources in the minority language.
A home that’s rich in appealing books and resources (music, video, games, etc.) can more effectively engage children in language exposure. Bringing suitable books and resources into your home, to match your children’s evolving maturity, interests, and language level, should be an ongoing priority throughout the years of childhood. (See How Many Books Do You Have In Your Home? and Do You Really Have Enough Resources in the Minority Language?)
Constructive habits, day by day, form the foundation of our efforts to generate the satisfying outcome that we seek.
(At the same time, go easy on the sweets, and keep close track of your toothbrush. )