Like my earlier article 16 Tips for Raising a Bilingual Child in Japan, these thoughts are suggestions for supporting the English side of a child attending a Japanese school — they’re not prescriptions. Because every family’s make-up, and circumstances, are naturally different, what works for one family may not work as well for another. The strategies that have proven effective for my family, and for other families I have known, might be useful for you, too—or not. The point is: What would be effective for you, for your unique situation, at this particular time? If raising a bilingual child with good English ability is important to you, then this is the question that should remain uppermost in your mind throughout the journey.
1. Don’t leave it to chance
Don’t let the whims of circumstance determine the outcome. You have to actively shape the situation, on an ongoing basis, so your child will receive sufficient English input to counterbalance the weight of Japanese exposure. Some take a more laissez-faire approach, saying that English can be picked up later, when the child is older. That may be true, of course, but this disregards the natural desire of many parents to interact with their children in their mother tongue throughout the childhood years. For me, it’s about both the present and the future.
2. Ignore the naysayers
Some people, even those who are otherwise well-educated, may warn that your child will become “confused” or suffer other hardships trying to learn two languages at once. Don’t let such comments deter you. At the same time, take people’s prescriptions with a grain of salt. There is no “one size fits all” when it comes to families raising bilingual children. In my case, I’m eager to hear about others’ successful experiences—because maybe I can adopt or adapt those strategies for my own family—but only I can really decide what’s appropriate for my particular situation.
3. Seize each day
A child’s bilingual development is a long-term process, but it’s a process that can only be advanced bit by bit, day by day, through regular habits and routines. Thus, the idea of “seizing each day”—taking action day in and day out—is at the very heart of this challenge. Strive to be mindful of your long-range goal and commit to doing your honest best, each day, to move forward another few small steps. Remember that Japanese will continue its relentless progress, so you must be as consistent as you can, as persistent as possible, when it comes to providing English support.
4. Make it fun
There’s no getting around the fact that raising a bilingual child is a lot of hard work for everyone involved, so it’s vital to make the experience enjoyable, too—to whatever degree you can. It’s an odd balance, but I think it’s important to be both very serious and very playful at the same time: serious about the process and yet playful when it comes to carrying that process out. Half of this is simply attitude, but the other half involves implementing activities (books, stories, riddles, games, etc.) that can nurture language development in a lighthearted way.
5. Clone yourself
When your children are small, and are especially in need of English exposure, it can be frustrating when you work long hours and are unable to spend as much time with them as you’d like. One way to address this lack of exposure to some degree—and, again, have fun in the process—is to create videos of yourself reading picture books, telling stories, singing songs, and talking to your children. I did this when my kids were younger and asked my wife to play these videos every day for about 30 minutes. The videos captivated them (and amazed them when I happened to be in the same room!), while adding many hours of English exposure over those years.
6. Give books as gifts
By making a practice of giving English books as gifts for birthdays, Christmas, and other special occasions—and encouraging family and friends to do the same for your kids—you achieve three important things: 1) You help foster their love of books and literacy; 2) You convey the idea that books are special and valued by their loved ones (including Santa); and 3) You continue growing your home library, which should be an ongoing effort.
7. Turn to chapter books
As soon as your children reach a suitable age and language level, I highly recommend reading aloud chapter books that come in a series to help get them hooked on books. Do this daily, for at least 15 minutes, and chapter books will quickly cast a spell and whet their appetite for literacy. (And if reading regularly in person is difficult, try “cloning yourself” on video and have your spouse play a chapter or two each day.) You can find a list of some good series for young children in the post How to Get Your Child Hooked on Books at the Bilingual Monkeys blog.
8. Find a pen-pal
For a child, there may be no better way to promote the written word than through a pen-pal relationship. My daughter has been exchanging letters with a girl in the United States for almost three years. They write to each other (with some support from the parents) about every other month and send presents for birthdays and for Christmas. Hopefully, we can maintain this connection for some time to come, but even so, the experience has already benefited her growing writing ability and her grasp of the value of English.
9. Fuel natural passions
Make an effort to fuel your child’s passions via English resources and opportunities. For example, my son currently loves Lego and super heroes so I plan to give him books on these subjects for Christmas. In this way, his natural passions and his English ability are being nurtured at the same time. As with books, you can probably find a good DVD on most any topic. If your child likes dinosaurs, for instance, the BBC has a marvelous series called “Walking with Dinosaurs,” including our personal favorite “Chased by Dinosaurs.” Depending on where you live, you might also have access to opportunities in English—like classes, clubs, or other activities—that connect to a child’s special interests.
10. Write a story serial
Last time I mentioned the idea of “captive reading,” in which suitable material for children with basic reading ability is posted in “captive locations,” particularly the bathroom, in order to promote reading practice. Toward this end, I’m now making use of “serial stories.” I write one page every other day or so (with a cliffhanger ending) for a running storyline that features us as the main characters. The roughly ten-part stories are very silly—I’m basically just typing out what pops into my head—but my kids find them funny and are continually pestering me to produce the next installment.
11. Use “carrots” and “sticks”
There are various views when it comes to giving rewards, but I’ve found that a reasonable use of “carrots” has provided an effective framework for nudging my children to read books and do daily homework. In our case, when they finish reading a book, they earn a little prize—something that genuinely excites them. My son, for instance, likes plastic Pokemon characters and this small reward has heightened his enthusiasm for reading. As for daily homework, it may sound funny, but they’re quite content with a piece of (sugarless) gum after their tasks are complete. And the only “stick” I seem to need (at least so far) is the reminder that they can watch no TV until all their work is finished.
12. Give time and attention
Our children will be little only once, and even then, for barely a blink. Whatever your circumstance, do all that you can to give time and attention to your kids while they’re small. Not only do they need the English exposure that you offer, they need, more than anything, your love. It isn’t always easy to stop in the middle of something when your child interrupts, or answer yet another curious question without irritation, but it’s worth making the effort—every time—in order to promote your child’s English ability and deepen the bond between you as parent and child.