KA Mom Diane Neill Tincher, mother of eight, gave us some tips on how to raise a bilingual family.
“Children who are raised in a bilingual home, or who acquire a second language at a very early age, obtain several brain-related benefits. They have improved subsequent learning and performance at school. They have enhanced ability regarding focus, concentration, and even multi-tasking.”
From Lifelong Health, by Anthony A Goodman, MC, FACS.
My husband is American, and we have eight kids, six of whom were born in Japan. We only spoke English with them, and we taught them to read when they were young, then followed up with Language arts and Spelling studies which I continue to this day.
When the kids were little, before entering first grade (no one went to school/kindergarten before first grade) we had a basic schedule that we followed most days. We would eat breakfast together, after which each child would have their little chore to do to help with the dishes or whatever. Then we would do “school” – reading always took top priority, then writing, math, science, art, and even a little world history and geography. We would do that for 1.5 to 2 or so hours in the morning. Reading started when the kids were anywhere from baby to 1.5 to 2 years old. I would start off with flashcards of large, clearly printed words in lower case letters, usually written with a red marker (then changing to black as they got the hang of it). I would show them these words when they would sit on the potty or at meal times, whenever they were a “captive audience.” We would progress to playing games with the cards, and I avoided testing them, which can be counter-productive with young children.
From this stage, I would move on to the Ladybird Key Word reader series and teach the flashcards to those books as we went along. By the time they reached book five or so, they could usually learn the new words from the list in the back of the book before we read, skipping the flashcard step. So, during our morning school time, usually reading was following through on their readers, reading a page or two each day. I would buy simpleKumon workbooks for math and some fun type books with mazes and such to help keep the kids that weren’t reading busy. After lunch we would go to a park or the pool as I wanted to ensure that all my kids learned to swim when they were young. Then after that, maybe we would do some craft or something, or maybe watch a documentary.
When it was possible, they played outside in our yard or at a nearby park. There was definitely time for a video or something while I cooked dinner (or have the kid/s help, if feasible). All of this was a commitment, and I guess one might even say a sacrifice of “me” time (of which I had none in those years) but before you know it, those kids will be off on their own, so it’s really worth the investment of time.
Of course, life is messy, and things didn’t always work out so neat and clean, but that was the general idea.
My older kids worked on school a lot more than my younger kids. Now, my two boys in junior high school do English studies each week. They had been required to do five pages of ABEKA Language Arts and one unit of Spelling each week, which takes maybe an hour on Saturday. They both just finished their language arts books up through grade six which I felt was sufficient, so I’m starting them on news lessons to enrich their vocabularies. Vocabulary and the pronunciation of that vocabulary are important issues for kids who learn a lot from reading and don’t always hear how those words are pronounced. I also give them research projects to write during summer vacation.
With the older ones, we watched a lot of documentaries. I have many English books; I love to read, and I’ve encouraged my kids to read. They read English books during the reading time before school starts in the mornings, and my second youngest reads clear through lunch break as well. They read at night before they go to bed.
Three of my older kids did not go to Japanese school, but the five that did spoke varying degrees of Japanese before they started first grade – the last three nearly nothing. It didn’t take long before they were fluent. I did nothing to help them towards learning Japanese – I think the only thing I could have possibly contributed towards that would have been teaching them poorly pronounced and ungrammatical Japanese. To me, it seemed obvious that it was more important for me to emphasize their English studies. I generally did not have them translate school papers or make phone calls for me, either.
As a rule, we only speak English in the house, as much as possible. Inevitably, they speak Japanese between themselves sometimes, but I encourage them to stick to English, reminding them that this house is the only place they’re going to be able to speak English until they go to college in the States (following the pattern of their older siblings). I also make it a point to use a wide vocabulary when speaking to them.
The two boys I still have at home watch anime and Japanese shows, it’s true, but they also watch plenty of English TV shows and movies. They enjoy the humor found in American, British, and Japanese shows. I’m pretty sure all my kids are fluently bi-lingual/bi-cultural. They’ve told me that they can think in either language depending on whom they are talking with.
I have two in college in the US now, and two working in the US, and one more heading off to college in the US this year. One graduated from college in the US and went on to graduate school in Tokyo on a scholarship.
List of Resources
For vocabulary building, onestopenglish.com news lessons that I use for my advanced English students.