by Adam Beck, blogger of Bilingual Monkeys
If you don't make the development of your child's minority language one of your family's highest priorities, chances are the majority language will quickly come to be dominant and the other language will be relegated to a more passive role. Don't underestimate how quickly this can happen once the child enters the world and spends the bulk of his hours surrounded by the majority language. Make the minority language a priority from the get-go and you'll stand a far greater chance of long-term success.
Informing yourself on the subject of children and bilingualism will make you better able to support the development of your child's minority language. Turn to helpful books, online resources, and other parents to broaden your knowledge and ideas. (And remember, this is a never-ending process. I'm continually trying to learn more myself.) At the same time, brainstorm with your spouse and create a healthy list of concrete actions to pursue so that your child's exposure to this language will be as rich as possible.
I know life is busy, but if you don't keep in mind how important each day is in the quest to nurture your child's bilingual ability, those days (weeks, months) can quickly slip past while the child is being shortchanged of exposure to the minority language. Remember, your child's eventual language proficiency at an older age will be largely the result of all the efforts you (and your child) make, day by day, over the childhood years. Our mantra must be: Each day is important.
Your goal for your child's ability in the minority language must match the amount of time and effort your family can realistically devote to that goal. Learning to read and write at the level of a monolingual child of the same age is certainly possible, but it will demand a significant commitment from you and your child both. If the goal is high, but the time and effort are lacking, there will be growing frustration over this gap-either more time and effort must be found or the original expectations must be readjusted to better match your real capacity.
Reading aloud to your children, every day, should be at the very heart of your efforts. This simple practice has enormous power, and will help turn them into enthusiastic readers themselves. Of course, it isn't really possible to read every single day without fail-and it's naturally much tougher during the teenage years-but this should still be the ideal we strive toward. Make reading aloud, and reading material, a perpetual part of your family's daily life right up to the time they leave the nest.
When you decide to take a certain action, employ it consistently. At the same time, avoid being rigid. When something isn't working, or when life brings its inevitable changes, it's vital to be flexible and responsive. The ongoing challenge involves creating the optimum environment for the particular time you find yourself in. Some of your efforts may stay the same over the years (the parents' use of language with the children, reading aloud every day, etc.), but other actions must naturally be modified, as needed, to maintain an effective environment..
It's not always easy to do, but it's important to be both very serious about the challenge of raising a bilingual child and, at the same time, very playful. It's an odd and delicate balance, but without it, the experience can become either oppressive (the parents take everything too seriously) or frivolous (the kids don't take things seriously enough). There's no getting around the fact that raising a child to be bilingual is hard work, for parent and child both. This is why it's vital to adopt a playful attitude and find or devise materials and activities that your children will enjoy (at least for the most part). Not everything can be fun, of course, but if fun is present much of the time, the whole experience will prove to be more enjoyable and rewarding for everyone.
It's fine, and helpful, to emphasize to your children how good ability in the minority language can benefit their lives in the future, but such intellectual truths won't touch them as deeply as emotional experiences in the present, like using their language ability to interact with someone from another country or exchange letters with a pen-pal. An important part of nurturing the minority language involves promoting stronger internal motivation (as opposed to the external motivation you represent), and this is accomplished most effectively by creating opportunities in which the child can feel the value of her ability in that language.
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 children while they're small. Not only do they need the language 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 bilingual ability and deepen the bond between you as parent and child.
If you give your honest best to the goal of raising a bilingual child, that's enough. Your honest best is all you can do, and all you should expect of yourself. For all the rest of it-the regrets over things you didn't do then or think you should be doing now, the comparisons with other parents and children-please give yourself a break. Just do your honest best. It'll be enough. Honest.
Adam Beck is the blogger of Bilingual Monkeys, the home of ideas and inspiration for raising bilingual kids (without going bananas). Based in Hiroshima, Japan, he is a former teacher at Hiroshima International School and the father of two bilingual children. For more tips on boosting a child's bilingual development, see Adam's best tips for raising bilingual kids.
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