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This Is the Bottom Line for Success at Raising Bilingual Kids

Lulu giving her speech in the finals of the speech contest.

Two threads of my life, both of them months in the making, have suddenly come together with the same message.

The first thread involves my 15-year-old daughter and an English speech contest (recitation contest) that took place on Saturday. This event was the culmination of a long process that began in the spring, when her English teacher at school encouraged her to take part.

When Lulu, now in her third and last year of junior high at a public school here in Hiroshima, told me about it, I first expressed surprise that I hadn’t heard anything about this speech contest in her first and second years. (I’m always the last to know things around here!) But then I, too, encouraged her to participate.

Writing the speech

The contest involved writing a short speech—to be presented within a time limit of five minutes—and giving this speech at the city-wide competition involving students representing junior high schools in Hiroshima. (Hiroshima has over a million people so there are a lot of junior high schools.) The winners from this round of city schools would then go on to the finals that brought together the winners from the junior high schools throughout Hiroshima Prefecture, which covers a sizable chunk of western Japan.

It was the finals that took place on Saturday.

But first, back to last spring. Before Lulu could even enter this speech contest, she needed a speech. So we brainstormed together and came up with a theme. Then I asked her to write a first draft. While it’s true that this first draft was a mess, I also knew that, as long we both stayed persistent, it could be improved through draft after draft.

And that’s what happened.

The date for the contest

So, finally, she had her speech—and I’ll share the full text with you below, so you’ll know what she spoke about.

At that point, in late May, we still hadn’t received information from her English teacher about when the city-wide round would take place…and then suddenly her teacher was on leave, awaiting the birth of her first child.

As it turns out, it took far more effort than expected to get that information from the school, but we eventually learned that the city-wide contest would be held on September 7, after the summer break.

Unfortunately, I would be out of town on that date, having already made plans for a trip to Europe to interview parents for a new book on raising bilingual and multilingual children.

Practicing the speech

Still, I could help her prepare for the contest and so we began practicing her speech. (I also have a background in theater arts, so I was eager to work with her in this way.)

First thing to know: Lulu has been terribly busy this year, not only studying hard for school but also studying hard for high school entrance exams, which will take place early next year. In fact, most days she attends a juku (cram school) in the evening, which means that we could only practice together after that, when both of us were tired. But night after night (with only rare exceptions, when she was just too tired), we did.

Second thing to know: Lulu isn’t very big, but she’s brave. She’s been in the public eye before on a number of occasions—dancing, playing piano or guitar, reading aloud at presentations (sometimes in Japanese, sometimes in English)—but this was the very first time she would be memorizing a speech and standing on stage alone to deliver it. And, frankly, when we first began practicing, her presentation left a lot to be desired. I mean, she could recite the words well enough, but her delivery was so wooden, so stiff.

In fact, I wasn’t sure how successful I could be in getting her to open up and express herself more fully and naturally, but since the writing process had also been a test of persistence, I figured that we would surely make progress over time, no matter how far she finally got.

And so we both stuck with it, though it’s true that this process was made more difficult by the fact that she insisted on practicing the speech with her back to me…because she would break out giggling when she faced in my direction.

Results of the first contest

Finally, I left for Europe on September 2, which meant she was on her own for the last few days. On September 7, my wife took her to the city-wide contest, held at an auditorium in downtown Hiroshima. Considering the time difference between us on that day—I was in England and she was in Japan—it’s hard to say exactly what I was doing when she was standing on stage, delivering her speech, but perhaps—and fittingly, as you’ll soon see—I was in the midst of interviewing a parent about their bilingual or multilingual journey.

Soon after, though, I received the news by text: Lulu had won the contest in Hiroshima and would advance to the area-wide finals, scheduled for December 7.

My interviews continue

Meanwhile, my interviews with parents continued. In Europe, I recorded the stories of 15 parents on a bilingual or multilingual journey with their kids; then back home in Japan—by the day of the speech contest finals—I had interviewed another 12 parents via Skype.

As a result of all these interviews, I came to recognize, more keenly than ever, that there is a basic bottom line to the success of every family with a bilingual or multilingual aim—no matter their living conditions and life circumstances—and that this fundamental force was also at the heart of my daughter’s experience over the course of this year’s speech contest.

Practicing the speech some more

Although Lulu had won the city-wide contest in Hiroshima, it was also clear from the evaluation sheets she received that day that her delivery could still improve for the finals. While I couldn’t be there to watch, the judges’ written comments indicated that her performance, overall, was strong, yet her delivery was still rather stiff.

And so, for the next six weeks, we continued to practice, with the aim of expressing the message of her speech with more spirit, both in her voice and in her body. Getting her to speak while gesturing naturally—instead of simply standing there stock still—was particularly challenging. I didn’t want her to start making large gestures that looked forced and fake, but the lack of body language also seemed unnatural. I stressed the fact that, in everyday life, we tend to gesture naturally as we speak, as we convey our messages to others—we don’t pre-plan our gestures—and for that reason it was best to focus on the message itself. The more “real” she could make the message, the more naturally, spontaneously, she could express that message through her voice and through her body.

Little by little, practicing for 10 or 15 minutes each evening, she continued to make progress. Her delivery was becoming more expressive, more spirited. There was more color in her voice, and she was gesturing more naturally as she spoke. We even videotaped the speech, again and again, so she could watch it and learn from that perspective.

Just days away from the finals, she seemed to be ready. I didn’t think there was much more she could do to prepare. The only thing left, really, was for her to give it her best on the day of the contest by focusing outward, on the aim of conveying her message to others, and not inward on herself. My hope was that she had gotten to the point where she would peak at the right time and deliver the speech as strongly as she potentially could.

The finals of the speech contest

Venue for the speech contest finals

The venue for the finals of the English speech contest was an auditorium in a civic center that was located about an hour’s drive from Hiroshima. Though we had to be there by 9:30 in the morning, Lulu didn’t actually give her speech until around 3:00 in the afternoon because she was second to last among dozens of participants.

When she finally took the stage, I could tell she was nervous—her voice quivered slightly at the start—but she soon settled into the speech and her words were flowing well. Eventually, as she came to the last part, she seemed to connect with the message of the speech more deeply than she had ever experienced before and genuine emotion rose into her voice. My wife and I were sitting toward the back of the auditorium, so I couldn’t see Lulu’s face closely, but tears welled in my own eyes because I could sense that she was now keenly feeling these words. The speech had finally become “real” to her, and as a result, she was able to express its message to the audience in a way that was authentic. (Afterward, she told me that she had nearly begun to cry at that point and had told herself to keep this emotion from spilling over, which she managed to do.)

Text of the speech

Here, then, is the text of her speech, which was titled “Bridges”…

When people describe Hiroshima, they often mention the many rivers that flow through the city. And this isn’t surprising, because the rivers are beautiful.

But there’s one thing that people don’t often mention. Because Hiroshima has many rivers, the city also has many, many bridges. Probably hundreds of bridges of all different kinds: old and new, big and small, plain and fancy. And each day, thousands and thousands of people cross these bridges from one side to the other.

Of course, no matter what a bridge looks like, its basic purpose is the same: a bridge is a way of creating a connection between two different sides. And because we have bridges, we can live bigger and better lives.

Just try to imagine what the world would be like without any bridges!

So bridges are enormously important, and yet they’re something that we don’t often appreciate.

In the same way, people can be bridges, too. But again, like real bridges, maybe this is something that we don’t think about as much as we should.

I’m now 15 years old. From the time I was born, my father, who’s American, has done his best to help me learn English. As a result of his efforts—and all the English homework he makes me do—I’m now fortunate to be bilingual in English and Japanese.

Because of my bilingual ability, I’ve had many opportunities to be a bridge between people who don’t speak English well or don’t speak Japanese well.

Not long ago my cousin, who’s also 15, visited Japan for the first time. My cousin lives in America and can only speak English. So I was able to help him by being a bridge between English and Japanese and creating a stronger connection for him to the Japanese culture. For example, when we went to Miyajima, he got an “omikuji” at Itsukushima Shrine, but, of course, he couldn’t read it. So I helped him understand it, and he was happy to know that it was “dai-kichi”! [Adam’s note: An “omikuji” is like a fortune written on a small piece of paper and a “dai-kichi” fortune is the luckiest kind.]

Language ability, though, isn’t the only way we can be a bridge for others. Just like the many different bridges of Hiroshima, there are many different ways of being a bridge.

Another way, I think, is through art. When we make art—when we play music or dance or draw a picture or write a story—we’re also creating connections in the world with other people. We become little bridges to feelings and ideas.

In my case, I love music and dance. When I’m playing the piano or guitar, or when I’m dancing, I’m expressing something—without any words at all—and hoping that the people watching my performance will feel it, too.

Along with opportunities that involve language and art, we can be bridges in our everyday lives as well. We can reach across to others and try harder to understand them. We can also try to understand two different sides of a situation then help each side better understand the other.

And we can try, too, to reach out to people who are different and feel lonely. Being a bridge could simply mean giving them a smile and letting them know that they’re not alone.

You see, there are many ways to be a bridge for others—to create connections—and anyone can be a bridge, in your own way, if you want to. The world needs bridges—both real bridges and people bridges—because both kinds of bridges bring the world a little closer together.

And finally, isn’t that what we want? A world of bridges that bring us closer together and create a more peaceful and happier planet for us all.

So as you continue to cross bridges in your own life, also continue to ask yourself:

How can I be a bridge, too?

Results of the finals

After Lulu gave her speech, there was one more contestant, and then the judges conferred for about 30 minutes before announcing the winners.

And Lulu won the first place cup.

Lulu receives the first place cup.

As her father, I’m naturally thrilled, but to me, this success isn’t so much about the winning outcome—though that recognition is certainly affirming for her—but about how her persistent efforts, over many months and despite being very busy with other obligations, enabled her to do well at a significant challenge. In fact, even before the awards were announced, people were coming up to her to offer their congratulations for her heartfelt speech. So it was a very special day for her, a very special experience, that will surely continue to reverberate in positive ways, for her minority language and more, for years to come.

And in the end, this result—as I’ve tried to illustrate by sharing the whole story with you in some detail—was the fruit of one tremendously important thing:

Perseverance through the process.

The two threads come together

This, then, is where the two threads of my life over the past year—the speech contest and my interviews of parents—have come together. Because the bottom line for the success that each of these parents is experiencing—despite their circumstances, despite their challenges, despite their failures—is the very same thing:

Perseverance through the process.

Now I know this point will sound obvious, but I really can’t overstate the importance of this factor in the fate of bilingual and multilingual families because, ultimately, it is this perseverance through the process, or the lack of it, that will determine whether a bilingual or multilingual journey is successful or not. Quite simply, when parents persevere, whatever their circumstances, they are guaranteed to generate progress over time and enjoy success of at least some degree. But if they lose this larger, longer-term perspective by becoming mired in a short-sighted view of difficulties, the discouragement they feel can lead to suspending their efforts and abandoning their bilingual or multilingual dream.

Let me add, though, that for some parents, the actual practice of perseverance needn’t always be continuous. As long as, over the long run, there is overarching perseverance, it’s possible to generate progress and success even amid situations where the parent feels the need to stop and restart his or her efforts, even multiple times, because of large obstacles that may include illness or other preoccupying conditions. The point is, in such cases, the larger journey itself has not been permanently abandoned, but only temporarily postponed.

The bottom line for success

So again, the bottom line for success in a speech contest (doing well, not necessarily winning prizes) and in a bilingual or multilingual journey (however you define success for your family)—as well as all the other larger aims in our lives—is, simply, perseverance through the process. If we persevere, we will succeed, at least to some degree; if we do not, we will not, we cannot.

As for the speech contest, I’d like to highlight one more thing—and I don’t mean to minimize this point just because I’m adding it last as it was a priceless side effect of the whole process. I’ve mentioned before that my biggest difficulty these days is the fact that, because my kids are now getting older, I no longer can spend as much time with them as I once did, and not only is this sad for me as their father, it’s also frustrating because it’s become much harder to maintain their exposure to English. So, because of the speech contest, I was able to spend more time with Lulu and this experience also brought us closer together as parent and child. In fact, after her speech, when there was that break for the judges to confer, she ran up the aisle to where we were sitting…and gave me a big hug! I don’t often get big hugs from her these days (it’s a teen thing) so I savored that moment!

Keep this thought in mind

As this year now winds down, and a new one rises on the horizon, I encourage you to keep this empowering thought firmly in mind, for your bilingual or multilingual journey and for all the other large aims of your life:

At the end of the day, it is always and only perseverance—perseverance through the process—that will reward you with the pay-off you seek. No matter how discouraged you may feel at any given moment, as long as you continue moving forward—even crawling if you must—you are assured progress and some success.

And as I’ve mentioned many times before, if you ever feel so disheartened with your bilingual or multilingual aim that you’re on the brink of abandoning the whole goal—even though, down deep in your heart, it’s still profoundly important to you—then don’t hesitate to reach out to me directly for some encouraging words. With a little encouragement, I know you can continue for another day, and then another. And as you persevere—day by day and year by year—you and your children will be rewarded with the many great joys that bilingualism can bring to your lives. :mrgreen:

How about you? What are your thoughts or feelings after reading this post?

18 Responses

  1. That is such a beautiful speech. It made me tear up even without body language. You must be so incredibly proud of the amazing young woman she has become.

    If nothing else, the speech demonstrates that she has reached that point of maturity where she can carry her own English journey forward even when you are not there to help her. She now sees and feels the value in English, which will give her the motivation to keep going on her own. That is an incredibly important point and I hope my own children reach it one day.

    1. Tatyana, I really appreciate your comment. You’ve articulated exactly what I’ve been feeling lately, that my daughter is nearing the ultimate milestone where she will take over her own bilingual journey without the same sort of daily support from her flagging father. Once she enters high school, next year, this process of gradually letting go will continue and, just three years later, she’ll be off to college. It’s awfully hard to believe that my journey with her has flashed by so quickly, but our lives pass at such a faster pace than we normally imagine…which, again, is all the more reason to stay as mindful and proactive as we can from day to day, making the most of each one.

  2. I just discovered your blog for the first time.

    I too am a parent who is trying to raise my kids bilingually. I grew up in Hong Kong and am an immigrant living United States. I am teaching my kids Cantonese. At 3.5 years old, they converse with me in 80/90% Cantonese, which is already a success from any way you look at it. They speak English to their father and the rest of our daily world.

    Lately, I have been getting discouraged because I see their dramatic improvement in English since they started preschool 3 months ago. I am also a bit intimidated by the task of teaching the kids written Chinese.

    Anyway, I am going to read more of your posts and adopt your long term view.

    Thanks for sharing part of your parenting journey with the world.

    1. Karen, thank you for stopping by. I hope you find my blog a source of support for your bilingual journey with your kids. I also warmly invite you to join me and many other parents at my forum, The Bilingual Zoo. It’s a really lively and supportive community. (And it’s free.)

      I applaud the success you’re already experiencing and I encourage you to continue being as proactive as possible. The start of schooling in the majority language can be a challenging transition, but it sounds like your kids have a firm and active foundation in the minority language and your efforts can continue to sustain and advance their ability in Cantonese. Literacy in this language is, of course, a large challenge, but gradual progress is certainly possible.

      Karen, I send my best bilingual wishes to you and your family! I’m cheering for you!

  3. Dear Adam,

    I deeply admire your and your daughter’s work ethic, drive and determination. Thank you for the inspiration, in this (moving) post and in all of your projects to help others on the multilingual journey.

    While I’m happy with my daughter’s progress in English and French, the minority language here of Corsican has fallen by the wayside of daily life. It’s time to pick it back up and see how I can help as I learn it myself.

    Thank you for sharing!


    1. Marya, thank you for your kind response to this post. Warm congratulations on your daughter’s bilingual ability and I wish you further success as you make efforts to nurture Corsican, too. Your persistence will surely pay off as you move forward, doing what you can, day by day.

    1. Carrie, thank you! Cheers for the holidays to you and your family—and to all bilingual and multilingual families out there in the world!

  4. Warmest congratulations to both LuLu and you, Adam! I’ve enjoyed reading this post so much. Reading the text of her speech, coupled with the photos you added, I feel as though I’ve witnessed the whole thing live myself too! Thank you for sharing what it truly means—“day by day, it’s the only way”.

    1. Veda, I’m so glad you enjoyed this post! Thank you for joining us, virtually, on our adventures, and I will relay your kind congratulations to Lulu!

  5. Wow! Adam her speech is beautifully written. This blog post is amazing. It will give me courage for a long time. I know it. Kudos!!!

    1. Deepti, I’m so glad this post can be a source of encouragement to you! And thank you for your kind comments. All the best as your bilingual journey continues!

  6. Lulu is our niece and we are so proud of her (you, too, Dad!) – it’s a beautiful speech and her cousin (our son) greatly enjoyed the chance to hang out with her this past summer!

  7. That was a great speech, better than I could have written. It’s a credit to her that she could persevere through learning it, connect it to her personal experiences, and present that to an audience.

    How did you find a speech contest that allows bilingual kids to participate? The one I know around here (Chubu) do not allow kids with an English speaking parent, or who have been overseas for more than five years, to participate.

    1. John, thanks for your nice comment. As for the speech contest here in Hiroshima Prefecture, it’s run by a Japanese association of English teachers for the junior high schools in the prefecture. I didn’t even know about it until this year, when my daughter came home with the initial information. In this particular contest, there are actually two divisions, one for “recitations” (memorizing and delivering a passage from a textbook or other source) and one for “speeches” (writing and delivering an original speech, which tends to attract children who already have some English ability). This seems to be a fair and effective way of enabling kids of varying levels to take part.

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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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