Why Raising a Bilingual Child Is Very, Very Simple – and Very, Very Difficult

by contributor · 4 comments

bilingual family bilingual monkeys
By Adam Beck
Photo credit: Bill Selak

On one hand, raising a bilingual child is very, very simple: given sufficient exposure to two languages, and a genuine need to use both, the growing child will become bilingual quite naturally.

In my work as a longtime teacher of bilingual children, having watched hundreds of children become proficient in two languages at Hiroshima International School, I can say that the process itself is straightforward. When these key requirements of exposure and need are met, nature will work its magic and do the rest. The result is the desired outcome: active bilingual ability.

This process may be simple, but it’s hardly easy, particularly when the child attends a majority language school, like my own two kids. In such circumstances, the simplicity of the challenge can become very difficult indeed. 

How will adequate exposure in the minority language be maintained, week after week (roughly 25 hours a week would be a good benchmark), when parent and child have so little time and energy beyond the school day? How will the child feel a true need to use the minority language when it becomes obvious that the minority language parent is also capable of communicating in the majority language?

Two crucial factors

Of course, the answers to these questions will naturally be different for each family, since the challenge involves matching effective actions to a particular set of circumstances. So the solutions will vary widely, but the crux of the problem is always the same: to become actively bilingual, the child must receive sufficient exposure to the minority language and feel a genuine need to use it expressively.

When there is a lack of exposure or need (often both), the majority language quickly grows dominant and the minority language is then relegated to a more passive role. To increase the odds of fostering active ability in the minority language, these two crucial factors of exposure and need must be kept firmly in mind throughout the bilingual journey.

In fact, the more they are attended to from the very start, from birth, the less difficulty they will likely present as time passes. This isn’t to say that new challenges won’t arise once the child enters a majority language school and becomes further immersed in that tongue, but those challenges will generally be easier to manage if a solid foundation in the minority language has already been fostered through the first few formative years.

Shaping your fate

In Japanese, the word “en” can be roughly translated as “fate.” For parents seeking to raise bilingual children, the word is a fitting acronym because exposure (e) to the minority language, and need (n) for its use, will ultimately decide the “en,” or “fate,” of the family’s bilingual journey.

To shape the fate that you wish, give conscious and concerted effort to addressing, from day one, the core conditions of exposure and need in the minority language.

How are you shaping your family’s bilingual “en” or “fate”? What tips can you give to other families who are struggling?

Raising Bilingual Children Bilingual MonkeysAdam Beck is the blogger of Bilingual Monkeys, “a fun jungle 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 now a writer for the Hiroshima Peace Media Center. Adam is the father of two children who are bilingual in English and Japanese. To learn more about Adam and to read more of his articles, go to: bilingualmonkeys.com

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Len January 15, 2014 at 7:26 am

Do you have any opinions on, say, the MINIMUM number of hours per week that constitute “sufficient” exposure. Of course, it likely depends on the goals, but I’m just curious what others have to say.

Reply

2 Adam Beck January 15, 2014 at 4:22 pm

Len, there’s no universal “magic number,” of course–as every family is so uniquely different–but that doesn’t mean that each family doesn’t have a “magic number” of its own. And if that number of hours falls too low (again, roughly 25 hours a week of meaningful exposure in the minority language is a good benchmark for most families, I suggest), it will generally become more difficult for the child to acquire active ability in that language. In other words, the lower the number of hours of exposure, the greater the odds that the majority language will become dominant and the minority language will turn more passive.

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3 Len January 15, 2014 at 5:28 pm

Adam there’s a Dr. Barbara Pearson with a book on the topic who would surely agree with you. We are doggedly trying to keep the number at 4 languages for our children, and, now that both our girls are school-age, there simply are not enough hours in the week! In our case it’s fine with us if the school language dominates, but we would very much like for them to remain conversational in all 4. So far so good, but it’s still early in the game. We can grapple with the “literacy” problem later in life.

Please “like” my nascent facebook page — it needs a few more hits to reach viability!

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4 Mike March 12, 2014 at 5:45 pm

From what I’ve read, 30% of the child’s exposure must be in a language for it to be learned well, per some studies.

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