Let me propose a basic principle of success at raising bilingual children, something that I suggest is true for 99% of families in the world, whatever the minority language. (And this is especially true if you seek higher levels of literacy in that language, though your children attend a majority language school.)
The more resources you have in the minority language, the more suitable those resources are for the child’s age, language level, and interests, and the more actively you use those resources in the home, the more progress will be made.
This sounds obvious, I know, but my sense is that many families, despite high hopes for their children’s bilingual development, are lacking in resources (books, magazines, games, CDs, DVDs, software, etc.) for the minority language.
Why is that?
In some cases, the reason is clear: resources in a particular minority language are difficult to obtain.
In other cases, the challenge is more within the parents’ control: materials in the minority language are easier to obtain, but a lack of action results in a lack of resources.
In both cases, though, the prescription is the same: more action will bring more resources into the home. Excuses are all well and good, but excusing a lack of action, for whatever reason, will still result in a lack of resources.
And let me stress: I sympathize with parents who face the difficulty of obtaining resources in a less-common minority language—and I recognize, when dealing with resources, that it’s a distinct advantage to have a minority language like English—but please don’t let such circumstances become an excuse for not taking action. If you act, you’ll surely produce some results; if you don’t, you simply won’t.
Freeing up funds
At the same time, unless your family is truly at rock bottom in terms of finances, money should not be an excuse, either. If you have to cut back on other expenses in order to free up funds for resources in the minority language, then do it, make those cuts. From a larger perspective, the resources you need are relatively inexpensive, and are a vital investment in your children’s language development.
When it comes to my own family, I’ll be very honest to say that our finances are pretty tight—and have been tight ever since I became a freelance writer in November of 2010. But because I view materials in our minority language as so critical to our success, I will scrimp in any way I have to in order to maintain this flow of resources into our home.
An ongoing challenge
This leads me to an important point, and perhaps one large reason why parents face difficulty in this area: obtaining resources isn’t a one-time, or even occasional, task; it’s a continuous, ongoing challenge. Ideally, as I just mentioned, there should be a regular flow of resources into your home.
This flow of resources is necessary for these two key reasons:
1. Because your children are constantly growing, and evolving, your resources must match their age, language level, and interests to the closest degree possible at each moment in time. The closer the match, the more effective that resource. (See Fuel Your Child’s Passions and Proficiency in the Minority Language.)
2. Fresh materials in the home will create fresh curiosity and new opportunities to engage with the target language, boosting exposure and feeding growth.
6 personal examples
This week, I tried to be especially conscious of how our resources impact my children and their use of the minority language. The result, below, is a private peek into six examples of this impact, involving a range of resources. My hope is that these real-life examples will help demonstrate why maintaining a steady stream of suitable resources is at the very heart of nurturing strong language development.
My daughter Lulu is 9 and, truth be told, is not always the most motivated child when it comes to reading in her second language. This week, though, she received a new issue of “American Girl” magazine (see Recommended Resources: The Magic of Magazine Subscriptions) and promptly flipped to her favorite section, with the quiz seen above. After posing the quiz to me and Roy, she eagerly moved to the kitchen to ask these questions to her mother.
Keiko, however, doesn’t speak English well, so Lulu had to translate the entire thing for her in Japanese. I stood there watching, occasionally prompting when she got stuck on a harder word or phrase, but I was really pleased to see her persevere and successfully share the quiz with her mother. (And when I told her so, she was all smiles.)
“American Girl” magazine inspired this spontaneous “translation practice” and provided Lulu with another early, positive experience of interpreting between her two languages.
This week we also received an issue of “ask,” a colorful children’s magazine with factual information about the world. (Please note that we don’t normally get two magazines a week! It’s more like one or two a month.)
The theme for this issue is “How Smart Are Animals?,” with articles exploring animal intelligence, and I’ve been reading it aloud to the kids at breakfast, our usual read-aloud time. These days, along with fiction (we just finished the glorious classic Charlotte’s Web), I’ve been trying to read more nonfiction as well, to widen their understanding of the world (and mine!) and feed their vocabulary in the minority language.
Yesterday I was reading aloud the article “Escape Artists,” about clever zoo animals that escaped from their cages and enclosures, and this reminded me of the time, long ago, when I had a pet hamster and that hamster escaped several times from his plastic box, even chewing a big hole in the bathroom wall. So I told the story to my kids, acting out how the little creature would leap from his food bowl to the water tube, clamber up the tube, then bump the top with his head until it slid open…and he could scramble for freedom. (See Strange-But-True Tales: Baby Chicks in the Bathtub for more on sharing childhood memories with your kids.)
This issue of “ask” magazine not only provided rich nonfiction material to read aloud, it prompted me to tell a funny story from my past.
The other day, in How to Use Poetry with Your Bilingual Kids (And Why You Should), I mentioned how I regularly post poetry in the bathroom as a form of captive reading. Because I’m also intent on adding more nonfiction texts to their diet, this week I turned to an old book I have on my shelf—a reading textbook for English learners that Keiko once used—and I copied a short article about the child star Shirley Temple and posted this on the inside of the bathroom door.
Soon after, Lulu, a little dancer herself, came to me with curious questions about Shirley Temple, and I answered them to the extent I could. I then took her to my computer and showed her several video clips of Shirley Temple on YouTube. (In this clip she’s singing “When I Grow Up” from the 1935 movie “Curly Top.”)
New resources don’t necessarily have to be “new”—a page from that old textbook not only encouraged independent reading practice, it also sparked curiosity, which led to further language exposure with the use of video.
Earlier this month, in My “Bilingual Resolutions” for 2014, I told you that one of my main aims for the year is to increase my use of graphic novels (comic books) so that my kids will be more motivated to read in the minority language on their own.
Last weekend I received another shipment of graphic novels (six books, courtesy of an amazon gift card from my aunt), but I decided not to give the books to them all at once—I would start with two, Lunch Lady and the Video Game Villain and Flight Explorer, Volume 1. (Because at Christmas they received a good number of graphic novels, but devoured them within a week…which was “too successful,” really.)
When I brought out the books after school, they got really excited and began reading them as soon as they finished their homework. In fact, Roy (who turns 7 in March) not only read both books, he started re-reading the other books in the “Lunch Lady” series, which were part of our batch from Christmas.
These two graphic novels motivated independent reading, which was my hope, as well as some further reading from Roy, a welcome bonus.
Although we limit the amount of TV the children watch (a little before dinner, if homework is done, and on weekends), from the very start I pushed TV shows in English and tried to restrict the amount of Japanese TV. The result is that their favorite programs have always been in English and they seldom watch anything in Japanese.
They love the Disney channel, and their favorite show these days is called “Austin & Ally,” a comedy about teens who write and perform pop music. The show, naturally, has led to a couple of music CDs, and because we have the first CD—and they listen to it so often—I ordered the second CD for Christmas.
That CD, though, didn’t arrive until the other day. But when I gave it to them, they immediately played it and began dancing about the living room. Later, Roy even took out the little booklet from the CD case and was reading the lyrics as he listened along to the music.
The CD prompted eager listening, and even some reading (at least from Roy), in the target language.
Because we rarely travel back to the U.S., I’m also making efforts to share my cultural background with them through books and DVDs. One example is the book Little House in the Big Woods, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, about life in America in the late 19th century. Last year I read the book aloud to them, and as they seemed intrigued by the story, for Christmas I ordered a set of DVDs of Little House on the Prairie, a popular TV show from my childhood that’s based on the Little House books.
We’ve been watching episodes of this show, once or twice a week, and this week we watched one more. (In fact, I broke our rule about not watching TV after dinner on a weekday, which I’m now regretting because Roy has been clamoring for it every evening since!)
The episode of “Little House on the Prairie” not only offered useful language exposure, it nurtured their cultural knowledge of the U.S. and stirred some discussion, too.
Week after week
Of course, a variety of other resources were also used during the week (in particular, the workbooks and books of fiction for their daily homework), but I chose these six to spotlight and detail their impact. The truth is, taken individually, the impact of each resource may not be so significant, but when you combine all these moments of exposure and engagement, week after week, well, this is what enables the minority language to bloom.
In other words, as I’ve mentioned before on this blog, bilingual success isn’t the result of one thing you do, it’s the result of everything you do, and when you have a good home library (see How Many Books Do You Have In Your Home?), and a steady flow of suitable resources, you’re in a far better position to provide a rich, stimulating environment for your children in the minority language.
P.S. For a range of helpful resources in English, just head to the Categories menu in the right sidebar and browse through the recommended resources of your choice.