Updated: Jan 29, 2022
I grew up bilingual, in France. When I was in primary school, I had the chance to attend a Japanese complementary school. Then, from the age of 11 to 19, I attended an international school where I had weekly lessons of Japanese language and literature as well as history and geography (6 hours in total).
Although it felt like a lot of work at the time, as an adult, I now feel very grateful for the experience. On a practical level, it kept a certain amount of Japanese in my daily life which helped me be able to speak, read, and write “decently” (Lack of practice means that I have now lost a lot though…)
Seeing other children speak different languages has also made my own use of my home language NORMAL. I believe that this has largely contributed to keeping the Japanese language as the “normal” language I use with my mum.
Even though this experience has largely been positive, it has pointed out a few areas that now, as a parent, I pay attention to, to help me teach my sons to read and write in our languages.
In the first part of this blog post, I will explain the challenges multilingual children can face. Then I will explain what I do as a parent to help my children on their multi-literacy journey.
A minority language cannot be taught/learnt like a majority language:
1) Less exposure
The first big difference is the exposure to the language. The majority language is used (spoken and written) all around us. We pick it up (generally) effortlessly. The vocabulary appears everywhere in context and as we encounter these words/expressions in the same context repeatedly, they become more memorable.
The functional character of all the messages we see and hear around us make the vocabulary (including the way they are spelt, or drawn in the case of Chinese characters) important. Understanding means the difference between being able to play a game or not, accessing a story or not, finding your way around or not, etc. This functional character of the majority language makes it necessary thus more memorable.
On the other hand, the home language / minority language appears in fewer places in our environment, it is also, generally speaking, less functional.
This inevitably results in a gap between what a child can say in their majority language and home language. See below what you can do to expand your child’s vocabulary by clicking HERE.
2) Time constraint
When our children attend a complementary school, or have the chance to attend a school where they also have lessons in the home language, it is only a few hours a week. Generally speaking, textbooks that are used in complementary schools are meant for students who live in the/a country where the language is a majority language. In other words, these resources are meant for students who spend a lot more time on them.
More time means being able to go more in depth, to consolidate the knowledge more, and to cover more content.
In complementary schools, in the same class, there are always (or at least, often) a wide range of levels of mastery of the language, with various family circumstances. Some students might have just arrived from the country where the language is the majority language, and therefore have a better grasp of the language (spoken and written). There might also be students whose family is planning to go (back) to the country where the language is the majority language and want to make sure their child will be able to follow well the curriculum.
Consequently, teachers are forced to follow the curriculum at a certain pace. And although they can adapt to various needs of their classes and individual students, there is a limit to what they can realistically do.
The stress that can be felt by students who feel like the knowledge necessary to follow is beyond them often start developing low self-esteem regarding they language skills. This is one of the reasons why many children stop attending complementary schools.
Click HERE to see what to do when “lacking time”.
3) Emotional barriers:
a) It is EXTRA-work.
Going to school, is considered “normal”. However attending a complementary school is optional. Therefore the effort required from our children seems multiplied! When their friends might be playing or relaxing why do they have to study!?
This is also why it might be difficult (at least to start with) to teach our children to read and write in a way that is too close to what they experience in school, and why games and fun activities are a great way to teach these skills to your child.
Play is fun! If your child has fun and CONSEQUENTLY learns something, they won’t mind at all! The learning is like the cherry on top!
Feel free to check out The Parents’ Guide to Raising Multi-literate Children for concrete ideas of games and fun activities – Download the first chapter for free HERE)
b) It is not a priority.
Unless it has to be done, everything is optional. Unfortunately, when living in a country where the home language is a minority language, it is optional to be able to understand it, speak it, read it, and write it. It is certainly perceived as a nice commodity. But when our children become increasingly busier with schoolwork (and other commitments), they might see working on their home language as a growing burden.
I will honestly admit that if Japanese was not part of my school timetable, I would have stopped studying it a long time before I did (at 19 years-old).
As a parent, this is a future challenge I keep in mind. Click HERE to see what I do to overcome this challenge.
Complementary schools (and any type of school that will offer your child lessons in your home language(s)) have to follow curriculums and there is so much they can do to overcome the problems mentioned above.
You, the parent are FREE to progress at your child's pace, and according to their needs and interests.
You already knew it: Raising a multilingual child is not easy. Raising a multi-literate child is most likely going to be harder!
Now that the main challenges have been discussed, let’s see possible solutions.
How can you overcome these obstacles?
1) How can I help my child expand their vocabulary?
When our children are little, their whole world is us! (Ah… *Nostalgia*) As they grow, their friends become more and more important … and that is great! But it might not be for their home language. This is why, if you talk to certain multilinguals who have not studied in their language, or lived in (one of) the country/ies where it is the majority language, many will tell you “I speak like a 12-year-old”. This is roughly the age when friends become more important than family (*sigh*)
What can we do about that?
These are of course only suggestions and things we pay attention and do. I would love to hear/read your opinions and ideas.
a) Making family moments part of our routine.
Spend time reading and listening to podcasts and audiobooks together.
Have movie nights and/or game nights.
Have one-to-one moments with each of your children
Fun literacy play/work once a week.
--> This creates time for your home language(s), consolidates your parent-child bonds AND helps your child(ren) create a positive relation with their language(s).
b) Creating a variety of relevant experiences
Holidays: The change of environment and activities is a rich source of new words.
Pretend plays: Our children’s imagination combined to ours can lead us to use new words.
Books, cartoons, podcasts, songs, etc. They are an invaluable source of new vocabulary. They are especially helpful to complement our idiolect. Even if we understand a wide range of words, we tend to only use the same small portion of it (this little portion is called “idiolect”). When encountering new words and expressions, we can clarify them in context.
2) What can we do to compensate the lack of time.
a) Focus on your child’s interests:
Find resources and opportunities centred around what your child loves and/or is curious about. They will remember and learn a lot more from it. This is of course the case for vocabulary as much as for skills. The more interests your child shows, the more time they will want to spend on it, and new words will “stick” more easily.
E.g.: A Pokemon dictionary has been of great help to teach my youngest to recognise and remember English phonics.
b) Helping our children to develop independence.
Teaching our children to read gives them access to books that will teach them more words. But for them to be fully independent, we need to show them the tools that will help them figure out the meaning of words they don’t know.
When they are young, it can simply mean that we read or watch their favourite cartoons with them and can clarify any word easily.
It can also be looking at words in the dictionary ourselves, and then, when they are older teach them how to use a bilingual dictionary. (On many e-readers, it is now possible to get the information with a simple click.)
By showing these tools and how to use them, our children become more independent and can access more complex texts on their own, which will come in very handy when they are teenagers.
3) What do I do about the emotional barriers.
a) Avoiding the the negative connotation with literacy in the home language.
As mentioned earlier, work on literacy in the home language can often be seen as EXTRA work. Especially at the beginning, I made ALL the learning through games and play. Although they were aware that they were working, and therefore had to put some effort, they were more than happy to do so as it enabled them to play the games and have fun!
b) In order to prevent or at least minimise how much of an “option” our home languages will be in our child’s eye, we can tackle the issue on two fronts.
First, we need to make sure our languages are emotionally important by making our child aware and proud of their multilingual and multicultural identity.
Secondly, we need to present their languages as tools that enables access to more fun, experiences, and opportunities. This, indeed takes a lot of though and time to research the most compelling resources and experiences for them.
In the end, we all prioritise what is important in our eyes. If what being able to read and write in their home languages proves to give "enough back" our children will be less likely to consider their home language(s) as an option, thus to drop it/them.
I would like to leave you with this final thought:
In the end, no method or technique is "bullet-proof". Our role as parents is to do the best we can (and we cannot do more than that). If we put enough things in place, we are providing solid foundations our children can choose to build on.
My brother has rejected the Japanese language and its culture in his teenage years, but came back to it when he was 20. He started learning to read and write the Japanese kanji, read more and found more opportunities to write in Japanese. A few years later, this enabled him to have the level necessary to teach Japanese to university students. He now lives in Japan, has a Japanese wife and is currently doing his PhD research both in French and Japanese.