When I first came across Bilingual Monkeys, I didn’t know it yet, but it was the beginning of my efforts to pay a lot closer attention to my son’s language learning. I’ve always been fascinated by language. And I like to think I’m pretty good at learning languages. Plus, I teach English as a foreign language for a living. But up until about a year and a half ago, with my son well into his second year, I was taking a lot of his language learning for granted. Actually, I was taking a lot of my son’s development for granted.
Oliver was just beginning to walk and talk. And suddenly, I realized that I needed to be a lot more active about being his father. The days of letting Ollie crawl around the living room while I did chores or read a book were over. Our major interactions used to take place mostly around bedtime and mealtimes. I had begun working longer hours. My personal time was feeling more and more precious. But at the same time, playing with Oliver and giving him my full attention was starting to seem more and more valuable and necessary. So, for me, making a commitment to my son’s English has guaranteed that we spend at least a certain amount of time together. Really, my commitment to Oliver’s English has gone hand-in-hand with my commitment to being a good father.
My role as a bilingual father
I’ve been Oliver’s only steady source of exposure to English in our community in Japan. And honestly, I haven’t been particularly intentional about that role, either. I use Japanese at work and there are many situations with my Japanese family (including my partner, whose English is limited) when I feel that using Japanese is necessary for building and maintaining good relationships. In fact, the only time when it’s absolutely necessary for me to use English in my daily life is during the English classes I teach. And so, my inclination even at home, and especially when I’m tired after work, is to answer Japanese with Japanese, and to not be very strict about which language I’m using, or about which language my son (or my partner for that matter) is using in a given context. But this behavior, I’ve come to realize, is largely a matter of laziness on my part.
Then again, I don’t want to just be the language police at home. That’s no fun. Besides, I have to be so strict about which language my students are using when I’m at work. It would be exhausting to carry this through to my family life.
From language police to quizmaster
So, instead of policing language, I tend to treat English time with my son as more of a puzzle, an investigation, or a game. When Oliver says something to me in Japanese, which is the stronger of his two languages and the majority language in our community, I often ask, “How do you say that in English?” At first my questions were generally met with silence. Then gradually, Oliver began to say “Please” and point. A lot of our early English interactions were motivated by his desire for me to give him something he wanted.
Now, when he’s asking me for something, he’ll often combine a Japanese word or some baby language with “please.” But in those cases, I’ve gotten into the habit of prompting him further with “How do you say that in English?” This has been a great way to build his English vocabulary to the point where he has begun quizzing me, his other family members, and even his preschool teachers with the same question: “How do you say that in English?” To my delight, he’s even learned how to ask that question in Japanese! He has been known to quiz his teachers and his grandmother on the English words for animals and other objects, providing correct answers himself when he knows them.
Finding leverage for the minority language
With this new evidence of my son’s curiosity about English, I’ve begun to raise my expectations little by little. But my new awareness of his English capabilities also makes it easier for me to switch languages midstream and provide him with new mini challenges. “What’s this/that?” is an ongoing favorite. He’s also begun using those sentences to build his own vocabulary. “Where is the ___?” “It’s here/there/over there,” is another pattern we often use.
There are a couple of favorite bedtime books that are ideal for making use of these patterns. One is a type of reference book for kids, which groups objects by themes with English labels: food, toys, sports, etc. Another book is the classic Richard Scarry picture book Cars and Trucks and Things That Go. The sheer variety of situations and things—especially cars and trucks—makes this book really fun to read and explore. “Where is the tomato car?” “How many alligators do you see?”
A father’s confidence grows
Gradually, with some creativity and effort, the quality and frequency of my English interactions with my son have improved. Of course, now Oliver’s little sister, Sophia, is in the mix, too. There are definitely more constraints on my time than ever before. However, the structure that bilingualism has given to my relationship with my son is encouraging, as is my son’s seemingly bottomless curiosity.
One memorable opportunity my son and I experienced was the father-son trip we took to Tokyo last May, just a few weeks before his sister was born. It was a wonderful way to for us bond, spending a lot of time together traveling and sightseeing. Plus, since it was just the two of us, there was much less pressure or need to speak Japanese. So it was a great chance to sustain a kind of English-only environment that isn’t normally realistic at home.
As far as I’ve come in my relationship with my son, and in my relationship with bilingualism, I feel like this is still the beginning of a long journey. We’ll naturally experience many more challenges and rewards over the years ahead. In fact, every day seems to bring a new challenge, but instead of frustration or discouragement, I’m learning to rely on a growing set of tools that I’ve gained from Bilingual Monkeys and other websites. These days, the tricks I use most often are:
- Using my son’s interests and curiosity to promote my bilingual aim.
- Praising his minority language use in whatever form it takes.
- Always praising my son when he uses the minority language.
- Always preferring minority language media (books, movies, music) to majority language media when there’s a choice.
- Approaching language use creatively as a game, a puzzle, or art project, rather than as a problem behavior to be policed.
This is certainly not a complete list. And I only expect it to grow as our bilingual journey continues. Likewise, I expect I’ll come to rely on new tools and tricks as my children develop intellectually. For me, bilingual parenthood is still a work in progress. But it’s been an amazing trip so far. And I’m so grateful to be able to share the beauty, fun, and excitement of language with my children. As hard as it is to keep up my commitment to raising Oliver and Sophia so that they learn to speak both Japanese AND English, I know these efforts surely strengthen our relationship, too.
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Thank you for this! We are in the opposite situation, where English is the majority language and we’re trying to speak Spanish at home, but I often feel the same struggle. There is not a Spanish speaking community where we live, so it really is just me, and it’s so hard to remember to answer English with Spanish (just doesn’t come naturally). It’s encouraging to know that the bilingual journey doesn’t have to be all or nothing, but that just taking it one step at a time is sufficient.
Juliana, I’m definitely NOT an all or nothing type of person. On the one hand this has made committing to becoming a bilingual family more difficult. I didn’t just wake up one morning and decide to make all of these changes. On the other hand, being flexible lets you choose what works for you and your family, instead of stressing over following someone else’s model completely.
Thanks so much for your comments. And I’m glad you liked the post!
Thanks for sharing your experience. I remember being a new parent and how unusual it was to use my minority language (Romanian) with my newborn after having spoken English on a daily basis for six years. We live in the US and I am solely responsible for my two girls now to speak Romanian. I agree with you there is an effort but it is well worth it and it pays off especially with the birth of the second child. We decided to introduce a third language when our girls were 2 and 7 months (German) and the magic of kids learning languages happened again and now we live in a trilingual environment between me with Romanian, my husband with English and our au pair and preschool in German. From what I have seen so far, my girls learned German fluently in about 6 months so maintaining the languages will be our future challenge.
Thanks for sharing!
Thank YOU for your words of encouragement, Alina!
Lately, despite some of the stress of parenting—illness, choosing schools (we’re having to decide on a kindergarten for my son now)—I am often reminded of how lucky I am to be able to raise my children in such a rich language environment.
Just today, for example, in the New York Times there was an article about how beneficial being bilingual (let alone trilingual!) can be for our brains. I’m really happy to be able to pass that along to my son and daughter.