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Update on My Son’s Bilingual Life at 11.9 Years Old: Funny Photos, Art Awards, and Junior High

Update on My Son’s Bilingual Life at 11.9 Years Old: Funny Photos, Art Awards, and Junior High

It’s been a while since I simply shared news of my family’s own bilingual journey. Despite the heartache of this year for me, I’ve tried to keep up my regular efforts to nurture my children’s progress in our two minority languages, English and Spanish. In this two-part series, I offer updates on the bilingual lives of my daughter (here) and now my son.

Two plastic tubs

Lately I’ve been sifting through big boxes of old photos: me as a child, my parents and my siblings, my years as a young adult, my time in Japan, and my kids when they were small. In fact, I’m slowly putting together two plastic tubs—one for Lulu and one for Roy—that will contain an organized collection of their family history on my side, with photos, videos, audio CDs, letters, newspaper articles, and other documents.

The truth is, since they’ve lived in Japan all their lives and have made only a couple of short trips to the United States, their connection to my history, and my family’s history, is pretty thin. I continue to try sharing this history, as I’m able, but I know it feels distant to them, particularly now that they’ve become so immersed in their Japanese lives.

I guess these plastic tubs are my attempt to leave them with this legacy when they’re older, even after I’m gone. Perhaps they’ll spend time with the contents one day and come to feel a stronger connection to these roots; perhaps not. But it’s what I can do.

Funny photos

So this week I was looking through photos of Lulu and Roy when they were just babies. I was sitting on the floor of the living room as they were perched on the couch, watching TV. Occasionally I would flash a funny photo their way, like this one…

Here’s what Roy was thinking in his baby mind: “What?! *This* is the guy I have to live with for the next 18 years?!”

And this one…

Wasn’t Lulu a little cutie pie?

They would glance over and laugh, then flick their eyes back to the TV screen. And as my gaze lingered on them—Lulu at 14.5 years and Roy at 11.9 years—I couldn’t square the fact that these strange babies in the photos have somehow become the odd young people sitting there on the couch.

In Japan, elementary school runs from first to sixth grade—as was the case when I was a child in America. Roy, now, is in sixth grade, which means that next spring, when the new school year begins in Japan, he will join Lulu at our local junior high school.

While it’s true that Roy’s upbringing has been far different from my own, in terms of circumstances, he still reminds me of myself as a boy in some basic ways…

*He has a shy exterior that hides a very playful, very humorous nature.

*He has a sensitive spirit, which can bruise badly at times.

*He loves sports.

*He loves books and magazines.
(My own love of books and magazines kind of dried up as a teen and young adult…but I happily rediscovered this love after college.)

*He loves to draw.

His drawing, though, also reveals an important difference between us at that age, a difference that has also impacted his bilingual development in powerful and productive ways.

Drawing and reading

From early on, it was apparent that Roy had the ability, when truly engaged in a task, to focus his attention very keenly and for lengthy periods of time. The best example of this are the times he draws a sports figure—often a favorite soccer player—in free hand as he studies a photo of that person in a magazine or from a computer print-out. He can stick with this task for hours, drawing and erasing and redrawing, until he’s satisfied with the accuracy and precision of his work.

Here’s one of his drawings, from last December, at age 10.9…

Drawing by Roy

Beyond the awards he’s earned in various art contests while in elementary school, this capacity to concentrate has also enabled him to spend significant amounts of quiet time with books and magazines, in both languages. And this, as I detailed earlier in a post that compared their language development, has helped fuel his strong progress in English literacy as well. Of course, my ongoing efforts to supply appealing books and other reading materials, and maintain a long-running routine of daily homework tasks, has been essential to his language development over the years. But the fact remains that his very nature has been the powerful engine for achieving a level of English ability that I think rivals my own at that age, even though I was a monolingual child. (I was stunned, frankly, that he was able to read the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy this year, which I also read at around the same age.)

At this point, the only thing holding Roy back from reaching even higher levels of ability in English is basically his young age: he hasn’t really lived long enough to acquire a wider breadth of knowledge about the world and, naturally, without this background knowledge, it can be hard for him to grasp the details and meanings of more sophisticated texts. But I’ll continue challenging him to stretch himself, and, with time and maturity (and hopefully some academic opportunities, too, in this language), I expect that his English level will continue to rise higher.

At the same time—as I mentioned previously with Lulu—I’ll do what I can to fuel his development in Spanish, too, through regular lessons with a Spanish speaker and daily bits of homework. He clearly has a good ear for the language and my hope is that his ability will eventually grow more active when Spanish can somehow become a larger part of his life.

Ample time and input

Let me underscore, though, the message that I made in my update about Lulu:

As my kids are growing into their teenage years, and they’re coming to lead busier, more independent lives, I’m finding it increasingly difficult to spend the kind of substantial amounts of time with them that I used to when they were younger. And this means that my influence as the main source of minority language exposure is diminishing. Depending on your circumstances as a family, you may not experience this struggle to the same degree. But I urge you to project ahead to this possibility and be as proactive as you can, while your kids are still small and your influence is still large, to spend ample time with them and provide them with ample input in the target language in order to nurture a firm and active foundation in this language by the time they enter junior high (not to mention cultivating a close parent-child bond).

In my case, I’m now relieved that this has been largely achieved and that their language ability can now also be advanced through books and other means that don’t necessarily require my presence. :mrgreen:


2 Responses

  1. Amazing drawing, Roy! (We love Paul Pogba, too!) Adam, I love the idea of the memory boxes for your kids. I’m far, far behind in photo albums but hope to catch up soon. My grandma let us look through a lot of my grandad’s albums when we were there in August. Such precious memories, and so important to encourage that connection every way we can for our kids.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Alisa! I’m afraid it will take a long time to organize my photos (and even longer if I don’t chip away at this regularly), but I’m hopeful that I can make some substantial progress this year.

      An even bigger challenge, though, is all the video I have of my kids, particularly when they were younger, on old cassettes and on my computer. Years ago, I was actually pretty good about editing the video and burning the best of it onto DVDs…but I wasn’t able to sustain this effort and now it feels so daunting to address. It would basically be a full-time job that lasts for months.

      Maybe I’ll finally attend to this when I’m old and gray…

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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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