How to Nurture Bilingual Kids (and how to screw it up)

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Japanese Mother. American father. Put them together and voilà: bilingual kids from birth, right?

How to Nurture Bilingual Kids

Growing up in a bilingual house doesn’t automatically make bilingual kids. Fluency takes work. A lot of work. And while I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished with M and S so far, I’ve made a lot of mistakes and have a lot more work to do. At the time of writing, we aren’t that worried about their Japanese skills because Japanese is their first language:

  • There are few non-Japanese in our neighborhood
  • Both kids went to Tokyo’s public schools and daycare
  • Their favorite books and TV programs are all Japanese
  • Aside from me, they just don’t see English speakers on a daily basis.

But children are supposed to be little sponges, right? They are, but if you want them fluent in more than one language, you have to provide those sponges with plenty to soak up.

My goal is for the kids to have equal proficiency in both languages, but I won’t win any awards for my efforts just yet. I’ve made mistakes and I’ve occasionally been lazy and took my eye off the prize. It happens.

As for Japanese, M and S’s skills are on level — or perhaps slightly above — with their peers. When it comes to English, their speaking and listening abilities are quite good, but they’ve fallen far behind in the reading and writing. This is especially true for S: he whips through his kanji homework, and constantly brings home tests with perfect scores, but he couldn’t read an English book at his grade level if I offered him one-on-one soccer lessons with his hero.

I’m putting my own strategies into place, and a lot of it is coming from the links below. If you want to read people who actually know what they’re talking about, look here:

  • Adam Beck of Bilingual Monkeys gives a comprehensive list of tips for raising bilingual kids.
  • Jennifer Miller from Edventure Project wrote a great piece on roadschooling. I will be using her journaling methods to teach the kids how to write.

Still with me? Ok. Here’s what we’ve tried so far — how it’s worked, and how it hasn’t.

#1: One language in the house, one language out

How it works: It’s pretty straightforward: The dominant language (in our case, Japanese) is given free reign in the outside world, with the minority language (English for us) being the only language spoken inside the house. We live in Japan, and not in a fancy expat neighborhood in downtown Tokyo.

Japanese is the language M and S hear in the supermarket, the classroom and on the street. That’s the language they use with their friends and teachers — even with each other. So once they step into the house, it’s all English, all the time.
How it falls apart: It looks good on paper and works well for some people, but when either kid gets into some heated exchange — like a shouting match with each other, say, or an argument with Keiko or me — intense emotions bring them back to their first language.

Continuing to speak in English when emotions are high just raises the tension. This method has started to break down in other ways, as well. For example, despite Keiko’s English fluency, it’s much easier to talk to them in her native tongue when she comes home after a long day, and besides, her thinking goes, we’re about to leave Japan, so this last bit of Japanese as the dominant language can’t hurt, can it? The jury’s still out on that.

#2: One parent, one language

How it works: Keiko only speaks to them in Japanese, I only speak to them in English.
How it falls apart: This may work for some people, but it really requires both parents to be fluent in both languages, and I’m just not there. Not by a long shot (I’m not proud of it). I can follow along and reply in English appropriately for the most part, but the kids are getting older and conversations are getting more complex (following S’s story of a rumor circulating the 5th grade lost me almost immediately last week).
For this to work, both parents have to be completely involved in the conversation, interjecting in their respective languages. I just can’t keep up, and then Keiko has to break into English to keep me up to speed. It will be interesting to see what happens once we leave Japan for the Chinese-speaking world, where Keiko and I can communicate (poorly) in a language that M and S do not understand at all.

 #3: A steady supply of entertainment in the minority language

How it works: Everyone wants to be entertained, so let the entertainment become the sugar to help the language lessons go down easier. My kids, like kids everywhere, love to watch movies and TV, and there is plenty of both on offer in Japan. Here’s where I sneak in English-language programming whenever and wherever I can. Keiko records western movies that play on TV here and can be switched to English, and when a new Western kids movie comes out, I’ll take them to one of the few theaters where the movie isn’t dubbed (most Japanese kids don’t want to read subtitles).
How it falls apart: The occasional movie or random TV show is not enough, so an American iTunes account has been incredibly useful. And frustrating. Let me explain: thanks to iTunes, I have access to thousands of movies and TV shows that they might take an interest in that we otherwise would not have in Japan. We stay away from animation and puppet-type shows — I want them watching English being spoken by human mouths. While I personally find iCarly annoying and far from educational, the kids enjoy it and by following the (inane) storyline, they pick up a lot. Of course there have been lots of movies as well, although I find it maddening how few PG-rated action movies are left that aren’t animated.

Aside from this, the real challenge has been finding something that a 10-year-old boy and a 7-year-old girl will both like. They’ve enjoyed the show Supah Ninjas (perhaps identifying for the Japanese-American protagonist?) and we all enjoyed watching Expedition Impossible, a variation on the “Greatest Race” theme that was set in Morroco. Keiko and I liked it too, because it emphasized teamwork and didn’t sink to the bitchy, backstabbing drama that makes up most of reality television. I’ve wondered if that’s why it was cancelled.

The only downside is that we just can’t find enough that’s both appropriate and that they both like. Most TV is garbage, and one smaller issue and that our kids deal with is a context deficiency. They can understand what any protagonist is saying, but because their lives have been in Japan they don’t follow a lot of the slang and inside jokes that any American we get immediately.They’ve never heard of Martha Stewart or the macarena, so they often wonder why people are laughing. UPDATE: S seems to be warming to the show Everybody Hates Chris, despite of everything I said above. There is so much context he doesn’t understand (life in 1980’s Brooklyn is a little different than Tokyo in 2013), but I’ll roll with it as long as he enjoys it.

I need more shows and movies, guys. Please recommend!

#4: Sing with them

How it works: Songs provide vocabulary, context and an easy way to remember new words and phrases.
How it falls apart: I just couldn’t stand listening to those CDs of Old MacDonald over and over. Play the song “Wheels on the Bus go Round and Round” backwards and I swear it says “Jason, jump out that window.”
I’m a music snob, ok? I like everything, but only certain bits of everything. But lately I’m having to revert back to music from my youth to find something for us to share. This interest in nostalgic sounds may be partly because I’m over forty now and that’s just what happens to geezers, but the main reason is I know the words to what I’m listening to, at least what we listen to together. What I’ve discovered recently is that I just don’t know the words to anything new. Part of the reason is that I consume a lot of new music each month — but I’m slowing down and going back into the archives, and nostalgia seems to account for only part of it.
I love Little Dragon, Black Lips and Frank Ocean, but I couldn’t sing along to save my life. But put on some Hall & Oates, Frank Sinatra or Prince and I can belt out every word. Ask yourself: could you sing Radiohead to your kids? Would you want to? Now how about David Bowie? Maybe parents in the States don’t have this problem simply because classic rock & R&B can be found playing on radio stations and in restaurants and shopping malls everywhere. But for me, it was a HUGE victory the day I heard my son singing Foghat.

#5 Turn language into play

How it works: Admit it — language lessons can be excruciatingly boring. That’s why you have to turn it into play wherever you can. For our boy, that took the form of soccer lessons. For several years, he took lessons through the British Football League, an organization of coaches that held soccer practice on the grounds of international schools. In S’s class, about half the kids went to the school and were fluent. The other half were local kids or “half” kids like him. The coaches are great and the kids don’t even realize they’re learning.

This has also translated into playtime with other english-speaking kids. For example, on Aussie buddy of mine and I took our boys on a hike, telling them it was basically “no Japanese-speaking day.” There was a bit of resistance at first, but if they’re having fun it falls away.

How it falls apart: Every bit helps, but it really needs to be a regular and consistent part of a kid’s routine. The soccer lessons fell away when they didn’t offer them at the closest international school any more, and the hiking, while great, just doesn’t happen enough (my fault, not by bud’s).

I’m hoping that we’ll find ways to do this on the road, of course. I’ve found some English-speaker soccer clubs in Malaysia already, and now looking for a ping-pong teacher in Taiwan for us to use some Chinese.

#6 Send them to family who speak the minority language

How it works: Whatever the minority language is, the more time they spend with people who speak it, the better. For us, that meant summers in Atlanta with my parents. Ever since the kids were old enough to use Delta’s unaccompanied minor program we’ve been shipping them off to “Nana & Papa’s” house.

My parents long to spend time with M and S — their only two grandchildren who happen to live on the other side of the planet — and the kids love being spoiled by their grandparents, who feed them whatever they want and let them watch TV in the morning. Keiko and I loved it as well. While they’re gone, we accomplish, like, a THOUSAND times more than when they’re around, and we get a chance to…well…get reacquainted. I’ll spare you the details.

But the real payoff is when they return: their grammar and vocabulary spikes.

How it falls apart: It doesn’t really. It’s just really, really expensive, since the kids have to pay full adult fares. Also it has to be a direct flight (Delta’s the only airline that flies TYO<>ATL direct) and on a specific day, so we have zero bargaining power. But it’s been completely worth it for us. It’s hard to put a price on family time and you could easily spend a fortune on language instruction.

What else have you tried to help your kids be bilingual. I’m always looking for tips and advice.


  1. Denny Aryadi says

    Hi Jason, I’m glad I stumbled upon your blog after read some of your articles on Japan Times, and I’ve been reading your story through this blog until now.

    I just want to share my experience especially about learning new language other than my native language (I’m Indonesian). Maybe in my case it is a little bit different since learn how to speak English is my top priority aside to be able to speak Japanese as well.

    From your article I agree with several methods like watch movies or sing an English song, because this is what I do when I was a kid. But then I found the most interesting and effective ways (at least it works for me) to learn English. The most important aspect to be able to learn other language quick and effective is to be enjoyed the activity. I love to play video games (and I happen to be work on this industry right now), mostly video games with interesting story. I remember the time when I played RPG games a lot such as Final Fantasy series. When I couldn’t understand the dialogue or the storyline, I asked my older sister who spoke English very well (my parents couldn’t speak English). And yes it happened to be very effective method for me.

    I’m not yet married and have any kids but at least I could share my fun ways to learn how to speak English.

    Good luck!

    • Hi Denny! Thanks for this. And you are totally correct: video games can be great opportunities for language learning. I’m actually discovering this right now. Both kids got iPod touches for Christmas, and now my son is playing a game (Knights & Dragons) that requires lots of reading. I’ve hear him use words form the game in conversation, or ask their meanings. It’s great! Would you recommend any other games for iPod/iPad that require reading?

  2. Hey Judy! Great to hear from you. You have an interesting question there, too — one I haven’t had to address: teaching reading in two languages that use the same phonetic system. I’m sure that would be confusing at first (“Wait Mom: now the J sounds like THIS?”) but to be honest it’s ALL confusing for bilingual kids at first — the rules and vocabulary change depending on where you are and who you’re with. I’m sure you’ve read this, but don’t be surprised if she appears slower to pick certain things up. She may, she may not, but just remember that she’s having to processing more than other kids! TBH, I would throw it all at her — Spanish, English, reading writing — as much as you have the time and energy for (RN’s work some ridiculous hours, yes? Or is that just a dated stereotype?). At first just, read to her in Spanish. Or better yet, have your husband do it or even have him record videos of himself doing it so she can practice when he’s not at home (just so she gets the native speaker). If you decide against it, and just let her start with English, no harm done, right? She’s four! She has time. Oh, and you asked about our trip: we’re in Taiwan, not in China (well, some people would say that’s China, too, but let’s not open that can of worms here). I’ve actually never been to the mainland, but I lived in Taiwan 1997-2001 before moving to Tokyo. Keiko (my wife) lived here too, and we still have a lot of friends here. We’re here for 2 months to show the kids the place that we know and love so much. I’ve missed this place. We head to Malaysia (a place none of us have been) at the end of the month.

  3. Judy Cox- Martinez says

    Hey Jason, everything sounds great here and you and your wife are very involved with your kids, and as team players. My husband is from Mexico, is ALMOST fluent in English, and I am, let’s say, very conversational in Spanish. My daughter loves to learn Spanish from both of us, and I hope she can become bilingual like I am working toward. As a new RN, it would not only be more lucrative, but it would enable me to help a larger scope of people. Destiny is 4 and she can already read a little. I understand the concept of non-animated entertainment so the language is seen being shaped by human mouths. I think once Destiny’s basic reading skills are underway, THEN introduce the reading in Spanish? Not sure if it would be confusing otherwise. Maybe not, because her Spanish is obviously slower than her English. I welcome your opinion. What is in China for you? Sounds like an exciting journey 🙂

  4. Need an English-language show for them to watch? Might I recommend “Adventure Time”?

    • Hey Matt! I’m actually interested in Adventure Time myself. Heard good things.It must be big in Taiwan as well, as I see the characters everywhere: on T-shirts, backpack, plush toys, etc. Only Angry Birds seems more prevalent. As entertainment, it sounds fun, and I haven’t seen it so I may be wrong, but my problem with shows like that as a way to fortify English skills (again: an assumption about a show I haven’t seen) is two-fold. Firstly, it’s animation, and I want them to see human emotions emitted and human lips forming words. Secondly, is there a real story arc here? Or is it one of those neo-dadaist Ren & Stimpy/Spongebob kinda plot lines? I want them picking up vocabulary and context. Not that I’m opposed to these shows. I like them — just not as a way of improving their English. That make sense?

  5. Jason, I’m happy I stumbled upon your blog. You’re a really fine writer, with an interesting story, and I look forward to reading more about your family’s adventures.

    Best of luck with everything–including the bilingual journey!

    Cheers from Hiroshima,


    • Jason Jenkins says

      Hi Adam! Late reply here — We’ve been on the road 2 weeks now and I’m finally caught up and launching this blog of mine! I’m a big fan of Bilingual Monkeys, and use your advice to keep my own monkeys moving forward. Great, great stuff. Stay in touch! And don’t be surprised if you see me link to your stuff again! (p.s. I really wanted to order some of those games you recommended, but we just don’t have room in our suitcases!)