In the recent post Make the Most of the “Golden Years” of Your Minority Language Influence, I introduced the challenging new stage of my family’s bilingual journey.
Now that my kids—Lulu, nearly 15, and Roy, 12—are both in junior high school and are leading busy, increasingly independent lives in Japanese, I’m afraid my presence in their days, and the English exposure that goes along with it, is far more limited than it was when they were younger. In fact, the balance between the time they spend in Japanese and the time they spend in English has shifted severely. When they were small, this balance was roughly 50-50, and even through elementary school it was a still productive 60-40 or 70-30, Japanese to English. Yet now, with their long days spent almost entirely in Japanese, and my hours with them in English badly squeezed by the lack of time and their growing social lives with friends from school, that ratio has deteriorated to less than 90-10.
I confess, I feel frustrated by this situation, but at the moment it isn’t realistic to consider reshaping these circumstances in any substantial way. The hard fact is, for us, the junior high school years (three of them) will probably be the low point when it comes to this balance between the majority language and minority language. (I’m hoping high school, and beyond, will bring more beneficial English opportunities into their lives.) Therefore, since changing the situation itself, for solely the sake of their English, isn’t a practical option, I have to accept the fact that their English ability will advance more slowly than I’d prefer during this time, simply because the balance of exposure and engagement is now so heavily weighted toward Japanese.
One simple, empowering strategy
Accepting this reality, though, doesn’t mean that I won’t continue to do what I can to engage their English side from day to day. Although their English ability may not grow as quickly or strongly during this stage of their bilingual development, I know it will continue to grow as long as I stay persistent in creative and resourceful ways…while also doing my best to be understanding of their busy lives if they’re not always able to meet my expectations for daily homework in English or other English activities.
In this post, though, I want to stress one simple strategy that can have a very empowering influence on children at an older age—as teens and even as adults—because it has the potential to engage them in the minority language on a regular basis and without the parent’s presence. Yet the key to making this idea work as productively as possible at that older age depends greatly on the actions you take from early on, when your children are still small.
The truth is, for me this was a conscious strategy that I pursued since the time they were very young, with an eye toward the future circumstances that I expected to face during their teenage years. And as long as I continue to make the most of this tactic, I believe it will have a significant influence on the amount of time and attention they give to English, despite the daily dominance of Japanese. By engaging them in English in this way—even without the need for my presence—I can continue to advance their English ability while also embedding the language more deeply in their lives as they grow into adults.
“Condition” the child’s preferences
So what is this strategy? It’s the idea of “conditioning” the child, from a young age, to prefer certain resources and activities in the minority language. This means mindfully emphasizing these experiences in the minority language while, at the same time, “de-emphasizing” them in the majority language to the degree possible. In fact, I’ve tried to do this in practically all ways—books, music, TV—though it’s true that, over time, I’ve been more able to maintain a stronger preference for English in some ways than in others.
Before I offer a few concrete examples from my own family, let me stress that I recognize that this strategy is easier to carry out when your target language, like English, has ample resources that are widely available. Still, no matter your target language, if you take this idea to heart and do what you realistically can, your efforts to emphasize materials and activities in that language from early on can have a productive influence not only through the younger years but potentially through older childhood as well—and even into their lives as adults.
Books, music, and TV
Since the very beginning of our bilingual journey, I’ve been very proactive about building a large home library of books in English. And because my wife hasn’t had the same sort of drive to acquire books in Japanese (our local library is a ready source of majority language books), this has meant that over 90% of the thousands of books we have at home are in English.
If you’ve been following this blog, you know that my kids receive a daily dose of English homework from me, and the core component of this homework routine has always been reading a set number of pages in a book of fiction or nonfiction. Over the years, of course, all this daily reading has enabled them to read hundreds of books, which has had a tremendous influence on their language development. At the same time, I’ve also sought to get them reading on their own—beyond the daily reading I assign—by supplying them with appealing books on topics of interest and placing these on accessible bookshelves. In this way, they not only can make further progress now, independently, they can continue to engage with English, and advance their ability, for the rest of their lives.
The truth is, I’ve had more success at this “independent reading” aim with Roy than I have with Lulu, and I basically attribute this to the difference in their personalities: Roy is more of an introvert and spends considerable time at quiet activities like reading, drawing, and constructing things out of Lego or craft materials, while Lulu is more social and active and is continuously seeking new experiences out in the world. As I explained in this previous post, the gap in their independent reading is largely why Roy’s English ability—despite the fact that he’s nearly three years younger—is now at the same level as Lulu. Quite simply, it’s because he’s a more natural bookworm and is inclined to pick up books more often on his own than his older sister.
This isn’t to say that Lulu doesn’t read on her own in English, too, when she has a slower day. In fact, on Monday she stayed home with a cold and lay there in bed, browsing through a stack of English books that she had taken from her bookshelf. As I suggested in this post, sometimes a sick day is just what the doctor ordered for more minority language input.
And alongside the stream of fiction and nonfiction books that I continue to bring into the house—for both daily homework and independent reading—I also continue to encourage this independent reading by adding to our collection of comic books and graphic novels. I’ve stressed the value of comic books in the minority language before—in this post—but, truly, I still find that suitable comic books are incredibly effective at getting my kids to read on their own, even when they’re tired and have little free time. In fact, the day before Lulu stayed home with a cold, I received a box of five new graphic novels so I added these to the stack of reading materials by her bed.
Like books, I have emphasized music in English—and “de-emphasized” music in Japanese—since the time my kids were born. This began with simple children’s songs then progressed to entertaining children’s music and finally, as teens, to popular music in various genres. For a while, of course, all this popular music was coming from me, from the CDs I had accumulated over the years—which meant that my kids were probably the only children in Japan regularly listening to The Bee Gees and U2.
But their access to music online has expanded their tastes and enabled me to feed new musical interests with new CDs for their CD players. (They’re now also becoming more familiar with Japanese musicians and groups, too, and that’s fine, but I don’t put my efforts—or my money—in this direction, which means that their interest in Japanese music will likely remain more limited.)
While I don’t really follow today’s music, when I see them watching certain music videos on YouTube, or they tell me about a particular musician or group that they like, I can then supply them with CDs. And I can even take that a step further by seeking out musicians or groups with a similar sound or style that they might also like.
Just today I got a small package of four CDs: two for Roy (who likes progressive rock) and two for Lulu (who likes contemporary country). And right now, as I write these words, I can hear Roy listening to one of them in his room and singing along! Really!
These new CDs for Roy are by a group called Twenty One Pilots, which he wasn’t familiar with, but seemed similar enough to his favorite group, Imagine Dragons. And since he’s already singing along to the English lyrics, this was clearly a successful choice!
Lulu isn’t home from school yet, but I placed the other CDs on her desk and I bet she’ll be eager to listen to them. Although she likes pop music, such as Taylor Swift, she listens to a lot more country music these days, particularly albums by Kacey Musgraves. (She’s now learning to play the guitar, too, and is excited about playing her favorite Kacey Musgraves songs.) So I got her a couple of CDs by a country group that she doesn’t know (and I didn’t know until I found them on YouTube), but I think she’ll like, called The Band Perry. Whether she’ll soon be singing along to this new music, too, I can’t say, but it will still be productive input, even if she doesn’t find it as catchy as Kacey Musgraves.
In this way, I plan to continue encouraging their preference for music in English, throughout their teenage years, because their natural enthusiasm for this music means that it can be a continuous source of productive language exposure far into the future, even if other sources of input become less frequent. In that respect, nurturing a preference for music in the minority language can be an invaluable part of promoting long-term success.
Lulu was born before YouTube even existed (it’s hard to imagine a world without YouTube, I know), which means that when my kids were small, I was making use of limited TV shows in English along with DVDs and even old video cassettes. I admit, I always felt torn about this sort of screen time, but it was never more than an hour or two a day and I knew it could be very helpful in supplementing the rest of the more interactive input they were receiving from me. Moreover, as with books and music, I was hoping to nurture a preference for TV in our minority language.
In fact, for much of their childhood, this was the case: from early on, they mostly preferred to watch TV (or movies) in English. This may have begun with my own curated choices for them, but that early preference was then fueled by the cartoons and comedy shows on the Disney Channel, when it became part of our cable package.
While they still enjoy watching TV in English, it’s also true that, as they’ve gotten older, their interest in Japanese TV has grown stronger. These days, it isn’t unusual to find them in the living room in the evening, watching a Japanese comedy show with their mother. So, unlike music, there has been a noticeable shift toward the majority language when it comes to TV.
At the same time, YouTube has become a source of regular English input for Roy because he enjoys watching funny videos or videos of people playing the digital games that he likes. He would probably watch these videos all day—on our iPad or TV—if I let him. But Lulu doesn’t show the same interest in YouTube—other than streaming music videos—so YouTube isn’t the same rich source of English input for her.
Now and for years to come
Again, I realize that this idea of “conditioning” a child’s preferences for the minority language when it comes to things like books, music, and TV is more challenging to pull off in some languages and situations than in others. Nevertheless, this is a key strategy worth keeping in mind and pursuing as proactively as you realistically can. In the end, the more you’re able to emphasize such resources and activities in the minority language, and “condition” your children to prefer the minority language over the majority language in these ways, the more you will empower their exposure and engagement in this language over the full length of childhood and even for the rest of their lives.
And it may be true, as well, that your children’s sustained, lifelong interest in books or music or TV in the target language will also be handed down to their children and serve to fuel the development of that language in your grandchildren.
Will Lulu one day share her favorite country music with her own daughter?
Will Roy inspire his own son to read more in English by giving him the comic books he loved as a child?
Friends, this is how our efforts today can productively impact not only our children’s lives—now and for years to come—but also the lives of their descendants, perhaps even promoting interest and ability in the minority language among generations of children born far beyond our own brief journey in this world.