If someone had told me that 1) I would be raising a child in a culture that was the complete opposite of my own, 2) I would be raising a child to be bilingual and biliterate in dissimilar languages like Japanese and English and 3) my child would be able to switch seamlessly between two languages and ask to learn another at the age of five, I wouldn’t have believed it.
When I was young, my dream was to visit a foreign country and be swept away by a local with a beautiful accent and live happily ever after. For some reason, the thought of children and mothering did not cross my mind, but I guess that is the mind of a teenager.
Fast forward to 2020. I’m in my thirties and a parent who is living and raising a bilingual family in Japan, a place far away from the little island of Jamaica.
When my first child arrived in 2014, I had hopes of raising him as bilingual. While I had my dear mother to rely on for parenting tips, bilingual parenting wasn’t something she was familiar with, nor was it something I had experience in. It was all up to me to do it my way and learn as I went along.
Over the years, I have managed, and I continued to travel along the wonderfully challenging route of bilingual parenting. Today, I will share four things I have learned so far.
1.Bilingualism Is a Marathon, Not a Sprint
Cultivating bilingual competence in my child had to happen with continuous and consistent effort. It is a long marathon that requires loud spectators cheering, lots of water, a towel for sweat, shades to protect your eyes from the sun, and all the other paraphernalia marathon runners need on their journeys. That is bilingual parenting.
With my child, there was high interaction in the minority language in the first few years, but that was not enough. I couldn’t stop there and leave it up to chance, hoping that he would be bilingual. I had to find consistent, intentional, and purposeful ways to continue providing daily input to nourish his bilingual development up to this very day.
2. Creating Habits from the Start Will Make Your Life Easier
I have learnt that starting early was one of the best decisions I made in my bilingual parenting journey. Starting early meant starting from birth. From the time my child was a little goober, we interacted in my native tongue. Fostering that habit of speaking to my child in the minority language pushed me to become committed and made it clear to my child what language was going to be used between us.
To my child, there is absolutely no other way to communicate but with the language that we started with and the one that I consistently use. There was an expectation and a need to use the minority language.
3. Don’t Worry About What People Say About Your Bilingual Parenting Strategies and Stick to What You Believe Will Work
Another lesson I learnt was not to let people who have no direct impact on my life influence the goals I have for my family. Many people will try to give you advice and share opinions about bilingual parenting. I am talking about people who ask why you decided to pursue bilingual parenting in a monolingual country, look at you strangely in the supermarket when you talk to your child in the minority language, and give advice about the supposed negative impact of bilingualism on children. I have learnt not to care about those people.
One important thing that I did in the beginning was read almost any and everything on bilingual parenting, especially scientific research and lived experiences. When people offer their advice, I know what to take and what to throw out.
4. Reading Aloud Has Amazing Benefits
I am not sure if this a lesson, because I already knew about the power of reading, and I am an avid reader myself. Still, it was one of the many things that stood out that I can say for sure impacted my child’s bilingual growth.
Reading is important for developing lifelong skills in children. It helps them to develop analytical skills, their imagination, and their vocabulary. In my bilingual parenting journey, it contributed greatly to my child’s linguistic growth. Reading to my child in the minority language has been a wonderful part of developing his interest in reading in both his first language and minority language, and it played a huge role in the vocabulary that uses.
Reading aloud has helped not only intellectually but also emotionally. Reading is associated with bedtime, which is bonding time that gives us the mushiest feeling at the end of the day.
So there you have it, the four lessons I have learnt so far. I hope you saw just a little bit of my journey and that you learnt something that you can use with your family.
Please share the things that you have learnt along your bilingual parenting journey. I’m looking forward to hearing from you!