Multilingual dad raising multi-literate children

Do you remember Yoshito from my last post about mother tongues? He’s my fellow PEaCH Ambassador and a father who’s raising trilingual (for now!) sons. We’ve recently talked about his family’s multilingual journey and his methods of teaching children to read and write in several languages. I had so many questions that we decided to keep it short during the live talk on Instagram but share the rest of Yoshito’s answers below. Enjoy!

Magdalena Makowski: You were brought up bilingual and now you’re raising your two sons to be multilingual. What is the language set-up in your family? Do you have any specific language strategy in place?

Yoshito Darmon-Shimamori: We live in the UK. My wife is Korean, I’m French and we follow the OPOL method. I speak 100% in French to my sons, my wife 100% in Korean. Our sons reply to us mostly in our languages but they also include some English. My wife and I speak French together as we met in France. And between our sons, it is generally in English, but they sometimes talk to each other in French or Korean, depending on their mood, what they are doing, or who is with them.

MM: You grew up in France and it was your mother who wanted to pass on Japanese to you. How did you feel about that then and has anything changed?

YDS: When I was a child, I don’t remember feeling anything special. It was just the way it was. We were speaking Japanese, and with my dad it was French. But I remember that when there were other people around who didn’t understand Japanese, and my mum wanted to include them in the discussion, she would speak to us in French. And that felt very weird.

As I attended a Saturday Japanese school and was in an international school where I had six hours of Japanese weekly, it was normal for me that children would speak another language than French to their non-French parent, and French to the French parent (many families were mixed).
When I was around 12 years old, I remember feeling lucky I could speak Japanese as well. It helped me enjoy my favourite cartoon Doraemon. I was also able to be a bridge between people speaking French and those speaking Japanese. When a Japanese friend came to visit me in France, he, my best friend who was half-French half-Italian, and I could all play together because I was there to facilitate the communication.

Now that I am a parent trying to raise my sons with 3 languages (French, Korean, and English), I reflect back a lot on my own experience, and I realise other more “invisible” positive consequences of growing up bilingual: I understand that it made me more open-minded and understand that the “norm” is very specific to each culture. What is normal in France, such as walking in the house with shoes on, is unimaginable in Japan. These “consequences” of growing up bilingual are a gift that my parents gave me, and that I now want to pass on to my sons.

MM: Do you feel Japanese? What are your hopes when it comes to the national identity of your sons?

YDS: I feel French AND Japanese. As a child, I always saw myself as being BOTH. But I think I was quite lucky, because many people question their identity, feeling like they are neither one nor the other. My brother was one of them. So as a parent, I understand that we can raise our children in the same way and have each one react differently. My brother even went through a stage during his teenage years where everything Japanese was “stupid” and “ridiculous”. His bilingual/bicultural identity came on top of everything we go through as teenagers when trying to find ourselves (I of course questioned my identity, but I never questioned whether I was French OR Japanese. I was BOTH). He later on discovered the spiritual side of the Japanese culture, mainly with Buddhism. And that is one of the things that helped him accept his dual origin.

For my sons, I know that they might, at some point, reject one culture or the other (or maybe both!) but like my mum did, I understand that it is more to do with internal conflicts than with us parents or the cultures themselves. So we will need to help our children navigate these internal conflicts to find who they are.

To answer your question regarding my sons’ national identity, I believe that they will feel British, French, and Korean. To help them build their identity, my wife and I, of course, speak our languages, expose them to our cultures, help them build strong relationships with members of our family. But we also let them speak English and read books in English.

Being trilingual/tricultural should be about having three times more opportunities, and richness. So we do not reject the English language.

MM: So your sons know 3 languages at the moment. Do you expect them to learn to read and write in all their languages?

YDS: Yes. We are working on it. Reading and writing does take the knowledge of the language a step … or many steps further. When you are able to read, you have a lot more access to a variety of resources. So we can expand our vocabulary. It helps as well with the pronunciation, and gives overall a better grasp of the language. The mastery of the language also plays a role in building someone’s identity.

MM: You wrote The Parents’ Guide to Raising Multi-literate Children. I suppose you “tested” your methods on your own children. What has your sons’ literacy journey looked like so far? When did you start teaching them to read and write?

YDS: It’s a long story so I will keep it short. As mentioned in the interview, I started when my eldest was 5 years old. Although he enjoyed the activities we were doing together, he wasn’t really motivated and didn’t see the point of learning to read. He also found it challenging. Dr Carol Dweck’s book Mindset (that I mention later) really helped in being more resilient and face challenges more positively.

When he was 6.5 years old, he wanted to learn to read, but I made the activities too focused on literacy, and I was more excited than him about his progress. This put too much pressure on him and he didn’t want to learn to read in French anymore.

A couple of months later, I started teaching him Korean as he was curious about it. But I did it EXCLUSIVELY with games (see three videos on my IGTV detailing how I started teaching Korean to my son). The literacy component was only part of the games, so he learnt to read AS A CONSEQUENCE of playing these games. He enjoyed it so much that I was then able to start teaching him again French through games. Since then, it’s been quite a smooth journey. Now we just need to carry on, so the journey is quite smooth.

With my youngest, it is also a lot easier as he has seen his brother learn and can see the benefits of learning to read and write in all his languages. He said that over the summer he wants to learn to read as well as his brother.

MM: When is the right time to start and how to do that?

When they show interest. As parents, to see if they are interested, we need to present frequent opportunities. Once they show interest, it becomes a lot easier to start teaching them.

MM: What or who inspired you to write the book and who is it for?

First, there is the fact that I started teaching my sons to read and write in our home languages (French and Korean). When I did that, I reflected back a lot on my own experience learning to read and write in Japanese while attending a Japanese supplementary school and then being in the Japanese section in an international school. I struggled a lot.

Being a language teacher helped me a lot. I was trained with the Cumbria approach that focuses on making the use of the language purposeful and motivating for the learner, through games, team competitions, songs, etc.

As I was documenting our journey on Instagram, I realised little by little that many parents were not sure how to teach their children, and it was especially a struggle when the parents felt like their children were not seeing them as teachers and that their children wouldn’t sit still… which is actually normal. My sons are like that too! Having a teaching background in addition to my personal experience gave me quite a lot of tools to navigate with certainty this journey we were embarking on.

Most of the time, parents who end up giving up don’t do that because they don’t have the motivation. It is because they don’t have this degree of certainty and few tips that would allow them to rectify their approach when needed. I wanted to provide other parents with the knowledge and tools to be able to give the gift of literacy, even if they were not teachers! This is why my book contains three chapters:

  • Chapter 1: Before starting – where I deal with the psychological and emotional aspects of learning to read and write in a home language. This chapter is available as a free download.
  • Chapter 2: How to start – where I give precise examples of ways to start teaching your child to read.
  • Chapter 3: Games and activities – where you have 70+ examples to teach and practise reading and writing. These activities start at a letter/character deciphering level, and go up to reading and writing short texts, always in a fun, engaging, and purposeful way.

I have also realised that when children are younger, teachers tend to do a lot of arts and crafts type of fun activities to teach their students to read and write. I have seen amazing practice in my sons’ Korean Saturday school, and on various Instagram accounts. But then, when children are about 7 years old, the way literacy is taught suddenly becomes a lot more literacy focused, and the fun is forgotten. So hopefully my book can also show that it is possible to work on more complex texts for older students to practise reading and writing.

MM: How often should a child practise literacy skills? How long should one session take?

YDS: As often as possible, but you have to judge how often your child wants to practise. This will vary a lot from one child to another. One thing to keep in mind is that if your child is having fun by playing games, they will want to carry on a lot longer than if it looks like work, and they will also remember better what they have learnt.

Personally, during the week, I don’t have much time to prepare any activities. So the only thing we do on a daily basis is reading books together as part of our bedtime routine. And on the weekend, we play a couple of games that help them practise a bit more actively their reading and writing. On Saturdays, they also attend their Korean school.

MM: Do we need a plan when we wish to start teaching our child to read or write?

YDS: When we start, yes, it is very important to plan as we need to show our children that it is fun to learn to read and write, and that they can do it.

  • The first step is to give a taste for reading and books.
  • Creating opportunities for your child to try deciphering. If they can already do that in their school language, it is only a matter of transferring skills from one language/writing system to another. I have five videos in my IGTV section where I explain how I have introduced French and Korean to my sons, and how I started teaching Japanese to students.

Once you started well and your child sees that they can do it, and it is enjoyable and fun, it is a lot easier, but we need to be consistent and set aside time in our daily or weekly schedule to practise these skills.

MM: Praise – do or don’t, and if so, how?

One book I would recommend on this topic is Mindset by Dr Carol Dweck. The main message is that it is important to praise the process and the effort. Instead of saying: “Wow! You’re so clever!” or “This is perfect!”, say “You found it difficult, but you persevered! Well done!” or “You were not sure and you checked/asked for help!” We need to express the trait we want our children to pursue and develop.

Saying “You’re so clever” will tell your child that you like them when they look clever. They will therefore make an effort to show you that they are clever. Later, when they are presented with a challenge, they will avoid it so they don’t appear as not being clever enough for you. However, if you praise their effort, they will want to take up any challenge, whether they succeed or not. This makes our children resilient.

MM: What if the child doesn’t like the exercise/game or just doesn’t feel like going on with it?

YDS: Your child needs to enjoy the activity if you want them to carry on. Focus on creating a fun and enjoyable experience for your child. Because if they do, they’ll remember things much better. The advantage with your home language is that your child doesn’t need to follow what the school sets. You can really go at your child’s pace and personalise the learning completely.

MM: Should we check the progress and if so, how?

It is good to check that your child understands before you carry on. It isn’t good to just continue for the sake of it. How to check? Don’t test. Just continue playing or reading and see if they got what you’ve seen. Keep in mind that you will need to repeat things many, many times before they actually remember.

MM: Showing our child’s skills off – good or bad?

If you are asking if I am for or against saying “Look how good/talented my child is” to other people, I am against it, because our children are not trophies. For our children, it comes back to praising them by saying “You’re so clever”. It just focuses on the results rather than the effort and perseverance that led to those results.

MM: Do you have anything to add?

With our sons, my wife and I try to cultivate their bonds with our home languages and cultures. That is our main focus. Speaking, reading and writing is important, what will allow all of this. But I say that to stress the fact that if our children don’t feel emotionally attached to our languages and cultures, they won’t want to speak them, or go through the effort of learning to read and write (because even though we want to make it fun, it still requires a lot of effort from them).

If our children see our languages and cultures positively, it will help them build their multilingual/multicultural identities. They will then naturally want to speak their languages, connect with people, read and write in these languages. If we take care of the emotional side the rest will follow … more easily.

Don’t forget to check Yoshito’s book — it’s available on Amazon, also as an ebook, and you can download the first chapter for free from his website


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