Raising bilingual kids

Is it said that building a bicultural family is a challenge that lasts a lifetime. I believe that raising young kids in a bilingual environment can be an incredibly rewarding experience that doubles the fun with each new word learned or spoken. It’s far from easy though when, in any given week, if both parents are working, your kids’ exposure to the minority language probably doesn’t total 5 or 10 hours. Frustration can build up quickly as soon as they start conversing with the other parent while having difficulty understanding you or simply ignoring you.

At the time of writing, my own kid has just turned 3. From discussing with other parents in our situation, I believe our personal experience to have been pretty standard. A recent thread on Facebook’s Tokyo International Parents & Pals (TIPP) group discussed various approaches to raising young kids in a bilingual environment. The discussion culminated in a seminar and party  held early March in Tokyo. I noticed several patterns in the thread that I want to highlight and preserve here.

The golden rules

  • Be Patient. Most kids only seems to really start speaking both languages around 4 or 5. Remember that this is not an earlier is better race. Don’t give up when your kid asks you to speak in mummy or daddy’s language or throws a tantrum.
  • Be Flexible. Adapt your interaction and attitude with your kids to match age, environment and what seems to tick with them. Above all, make it fun!
  • Be Gentle. Getting angry if your kids don’t understand or don’t want to interact in your language will create stress for everyone and complicate further interaction. Remember that it’s a big challenge for them too.
  • Be consistent. Choose a method or routine and stick to it until you see progress and your kids have gained confidence.

The tips

  • Send kids to spend holidays abroad with the grand parents at least 1 month a year. You should join too but the Japanese parent should probably stay home
  • Speak to them in your language as much as possible even when they answer in Japanese. If they don’t understand, you can explain things slowly to them and guide them through the task but try not to switch to Japanese.
  • Take a few hours a week to spend time with your kids without the Japanese parent. Great bonding experience and learning time.
  • Avoid yes/no questions. Instead, you might want to offer a choice and have them choose the answer in your language.
  • Read bedtime stories in your language everyday. Try to make it as much of an interactive activity as possible. Ask questions, highlight pictures and words, try to relate some of the story bits to real-life situations your kids came across recently.
  • Replace morning TV by DVDs in your language (something they like and doesn’t make you cringe too much.)
  • Avoid faking not understanding their questions in Japanese to force them to rephrase in your language. It just doesn’t seem to work. Instead, repeat their question in your language and ask them to confirm whether this is what they were asking.
  • Play games. For example: have them try to repeat what your partner just said in Japanese in your language. Or try a projective technique: use a favorite stuffed animal as a proxy : “Oh, the little monkey doesn’t understand Japanese today, let’s try to speak to him in <your language>.”
  • Sing to/with them. Kids are very receptive to songs in any language. Find a songs DVD in your language, notice the ones your kids seem to be most into and learn them in your spare time (download on iTunes, learn during commute) so you can sing to them (and progressively with them) during bath time, before sleep etc. They’ll have fun with you, be impressed you can sing the songs from the DVD, learn new vocabulary and also gain confidence in their pronunciation.
  • Find other parents with the same language configuration and organize playgroups where the only language spoken around and to the kids is your own.
  • If you are uncomfortable with the “1 parent = 1 language” technique and both parents are bilingual, you may want to try the “1 language at home (usually the minority language) / the other language outside” technique.

I hope it’s helpful. Don’t hesitate to share more tips or recommended reading in the comments.

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1 Comment

  1. Gomi Child

     /  March 18, 2012

    I usually repeat what I say in both languages. Songs and TV programs are good especially for accents.

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    Based in Paris & Tokyo, Paul Baron is a senior product manager for hire. Ex-@AQworks. Co-founder of cultural platform Tokyo Art Beat.
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