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Why Resources in the Minority Language Are So Vital to Bilingual Success (With 6 Real-Life Examples From My Own Family)


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?

Obtaining resources

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.

"American Girls" magazine

1. Magazine inspires “translation practice”

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.

"ask" magazine

2. Magazine provides read-aloud material

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.

3. Article encourages reading, sparks curiosity

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.

Lunch Lady

4. Graphic novels spur independent reading

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.

Austin & Ally

5. CD prompts listening, even reading

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.

Little House on the Prairie

6. DVD offers language exposure, cultural background

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.

How about you? Are you maintaining a steady flow of suitable resources in your target language? What more can you do to add useful resources to your home?

19 Responses

  1. Hi Adam,

    Thank you for the informative post. This actually comes at the perfect time for me because I’ve been thinking about the question “At what age does ‘age-appropriate’ become appropriate?” My daughter will be one month tomorrow and I’ve been doing what I can to engage with her in English. In order to keep it interesting for me as well, I make sure that she is around when I listen to my radio shows (Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me and This American Life Mostly), but these shows are clearly geared for an older audience. My logic is that until she is more interactive, that I’d rather get her any exposure at all, regardless of the age-appropriateness.

    What are your thoughts on this, and is there an age by which I should start introducing more age-appropriate material?

    1. Justin, thanks—and happy one-month birthday to your daughter!

      I think this sort of “general exposure” to the minority language is fine and helpful, though “age-appropriate exposure” should also begin from birth, by playing children’s music in the background and engaging in more interactive efforts, particularly a daily dose of reading aloud. Just lay your daughter on the floor, snuggle up beside her, and read children’s books. Simple, colorful books (as well as high-contrast black and white) designed for infants and toddlers are naturally best, though be careful with those board books—I nearly dropped them on my children’s heads a few times!

      Remember, the point of reading aloud from birth is twofold: not only is this interactive exposure important for the child’s early language development, it quickly establishes—for the parent—the essential practice of reading aloud each day.

      1. One reason I got off of magazines is that they are so flimsy. I like my books kept all in order and neat and it drives me crazy when a magazine is falling apart. So it makes me wonder if money is better spent on actual books. I bought a 2014 Kids’ Almanac (National Geographic) which I sort of thought would replace my magazines. It has lots of the same sorts of articles that go in the regular magazines.

        Also, I replaced our magazines with an Ipad App National Geographic Kids magazine. I am not happy with it at all. First, National Geographic for Kids is lower quality than My Big Backyard/Ranger Rick. Second, the Ipad is so distracting and did not work well for us as a magazine.

        Anyway, enjoying your blog. Keep up the good work.

        1. I can relate to this downside of magazines. At the same time, since subscriptions are relatively inexpensive, I’ve found it really worthwhile to maintain subscriptions to at least two or three children’s magazines. As I explain more fully in Recommended Resources: The Magic of Magazine Subscriptions, these regular “booster shots” of English, delivered right to our home, not only provide additional exposure in the minority language (through reading aloud and independent reading), they kindle my children’s curiosity in a range of new subject matter. So I see magazines as a tasty and nourishing “side dish” to our “main course” of books.

          I do wish I could devise a better way of encouraging their further use after the initial reading—because we now have a large stack of magazines that they don’t often pick up on their own—but I’ve had some success when I pull them out and make “magazine reading” part of their daily homework from time to time. Perhaps I’ll try that again today…

  2. I love to read and I love to read to my children, so I am always increasing the number of Spanish books in our home. My husband is always teasing me that I have the biggest Spanish children books library in whole Germany. ;-)

    Other than that my older son (5) does not watch TV (which would be in German) but only dvds in Spanish (or minority language).

    Where I want to do more is in the audio part. We do listen to Spanish children songs CDs but I want to “upgrade” to songs that are not only for kids because I think both my kids would enjoy them. And I also want to have more audio CDs with read aloud stories in Spanish for car rides, which I am thinking of doing myself (with help of the Spanish family).

    1. Kikirime, thank you for sharing this look at your family. It sounds like you have a lot of helpful resources in your minority language (good for you!) and I wish you well as you add to your audio resources, too.

      Personally, I’ve had good success with stories on CD, and your comment now makes me think I should consider refreshing this side of my own audio resources. Arigato!

  3. Adam,
    Just wanted to add that I sometimes update majority games into a minority one… A good and easy one to update was ‘who am I?’ where you have a card on your head and the other players have to guess what you are by asking questions. I covered the English words and replaced it by the minority language words and made cards with the questions they could ask to guess… Took a little bit of time but great resource to practise talking…

    1. Nathalie, thanks for adding this helpful idea. It’s true, many games can be converted from one language to another without too much trouble.

  4. We do use youtube a lot for watching cartoons in our minority language (Spanish). They love to see the same cartoons I did when I was a kid. The last year or so, I have started to watch also documentaries at youtube from whatever interest them at that moment and what helps them further to develop vocabulary about that subject.

    We do not listen to books on cd but I invent stories for them with the words, characters they give me. For example: ninjas, pirates, lego set. Now I am trying, with the help of home made story cubes, that they start telling me stories.

  5. When I first started out in bilingualism I did not have any materials and, not having grown up in France myself, did not have a lot of the cultural knowledge (children’s songs etc.) So my first daughter’s first “lullabies” were actually slow songs by Johnny Hallyday and Maxime Le Forestier!

    From which two points:

    1) life is indeed a lot easier when you get the resources you need

    2) there is nevertheless a lot of use in material that is not specifically “age appropriate” but is nevertheless “all age appropriate” – we listen to a lot of 60s “variete francaise” on the car stereo so my children are now fans of Claude Francois and even the Quebecquois Robert Charlebois! Maybe not really up to date, but as a result they are aware of popular song and cultural icons in the French-speaking world and practise listening skills on music where, in general, the enunciation is clearer and vocabulary simpler than on immediately contemporary material.

    1. Sean, you make a very good point about resources that may be “all age appropriate.” It depends, of course, on the particular family, and the particular resources, but music is an excellent example of a resource that can have considerable breadth.

  6. I completely agree – resources in the minority language are everything. I taught myself to read and write English (having learnt to read German at school) simply through having so many books around.

    Another way to bring the minority language into play, is to go through activities and events (like a trip to the zoo) in the minority language back home. My mum used to do this – at the zoo all the signs were in German but back home we’d talk about what animals we’d seen in English.

    1. Julie, thank you for your helpful comment. Your experience is a good example of the power of resources and a proactive approach to the use of the minority language.

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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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