As parents we always want what’s best for our children and we do our best to provide them with as many tools as possible to grow into outgoing, innovative honest individuals. As such, being able to give your child a second language, or to raise them as a true bilingual, is a wonderful gift that many of us hope to give to our children. Last year we had our first child and since his birth have read as many books about raising bilingual children, and bilingualism in general, as possible. As a side note, our favourite general parenting book is by far What Our Children Teach Us by Piero Ferrucci, an Italian psychologist and philosopher. This book is a theoretical approach to raising children, concerned primarily with allowing children to lead us through daily life, claiming that children who are forced to follow our schedules, our rules and our set ways of doing things will grow up without any creativity or imagination. It’s a very strong position, and although it’s not for everyone, we were immediately attracted to it.
A few of the better books about raising multilingual children that we have read are The Bilingual Family by Edith Harding-Esch and Philip Riley and 7 Steps to Raising a Bilingual Child by Naomi Steiner. The former is a theoretical book packed with case studies and also discussing parallel concepts such as parental multilingualism and growing up with multiple cultures. The latter is a practical guide to the key steps along the road to multilingualism. Both books are packed with great examples, anecdotes, facts and research study results. All of the books we have read we got from Amazon Japan, for quite reasonable rates. We also found a couple at the local prefectural library.
Despite all the reading we have done, the best piece of advice we have received was from a colleague. He told us that the first language a child learns to read will always be loved by that child, and they will always enjoy reading in that language. Living in Japan, we know that Japanese (L1- Language 1) will always be the dominant language, and that our child we have ample opportunity to learn Japanese. Therefore, we decided that learning to read in English (L2- Language 2) BEFORE learning to read in L1, is critical to our child’s L2 learning and thus eventual bilingualism. Since receiving this advice, we have been witness to dozens of examples among friends and family of this principal in action.
Family 1 has 2 children. Their mother speaks L1, their father L2 (L1 being the dominant language in the country of residence). The children were raised with each parent speaking to them in their own language, but the children never learned to read in L2 until after they had started elementary school (in L1). They constantly rebelled against reading in L2, and their father struggled with this. As a result, the children had difficulty studying L2, as they couldn’t read it well. Over the years their L2 studies regressed while their L1 confidence grew and grew. Eventually their father gave up, as his task had become impossible. The children would never feel comfortable reading L2, and would never consider L2 as one of their native tongues.
Family 2 has 1 child. As above, their mother speaks L1, their father L2. Their father insisted on teaching their child L2 reading first, and actually stopping all active teaching by L1 until entering elementary school. Of course, if the child wanted to learn L1 reading, nothing could stop him, but no active L1 reading was taught. Thus the child was able to read in L2 before entering elementary school, where he quickly learned to read L1, spoke in L1 with teachers and classmates, and had no problem whatsoever with L1. The difference is that this child wanted to read in L2 all the time. he requested L2 storybooks at bedtime, he borrowed L2 books from the library. His L1 learning kept pace with his peers, meanwhile his L2 reading skills allowed him to easily learn L2 at the same pace he would have had he been in an L2 dominant country.
These are but a small sample of the stories we could relate. In our case we have chosen to encourage L2 reading by first and foremost removing ALL L1 reading materials from our home. Of course our child will still be able to passively learn L1 reading through daily contact in shops, train stations, and so in but at home he only has L2 materials available to him. Although almost 2 years old and basically only learning to read L2 thus far, his curiosity gets the better of him and when we are out and about he asks us how to read L1 words and characters, which of course we oblige. The most important thing is to never discourage your child from reading and learning, but where possible to provide him with as much L2 opportunities as possible. Good luck!