Biliteracy: Why this trilingual dad thinks being biliterate is key to fluency
Yoshito | Dad of 2 | Grew up in: France; Currently lives in: UK
Quadrilingual: French, Japanese, English, Spanish
Raising trilingual sons: French, Korean (wife’s language), English
The first steps to bilingual learning are of course audio immersion - listening comprehension and conversant speaking. But how important is bilingual literacy? Until we spoke with bilingual teacher and dad - Yoshito - we would have thought learning to read in another language might be optional. After all, isn't it good enough to raise conversationally fluent bilingual kids? And while it certainly still is, this conversation did spark reflection about the role of literacy and whether we wanted to more actively include it in our bilingual journey. We hope you find it thoughtful too!
You’re so multilingual! What languages do you speak?
I was born in France (Lyon) - and lived there until my early 20s, when I went abroad to England. I grew up with the OPOL method (One-Parent-One-Language). My dad is French, and my mom is Japanese.
In primary school, I went to a supplementary Saturday school - where I met other half French / half Japanese kids. Then in secondary school, I attended an international school where everything was in French but where I had an additional 6 hours a week of Japanese literature, geography, and history.
So, I’m bilingual in French and Japanese. My English fluency comes from learning in school, plus moving to the UK in my 20s. And Spanish was also from learning in school, plus a crash course and immersion program in Spain, before I became a language teacher.
Your kids are learning French, English, and Korean. Why Korean?
That’s my wife’s language. I knew very little about Korea - neither language nor culture - before meeting her. Now, we use the OPOL method with our kids - where I speak French, and she speaks Korean. Of course, we live in the UK, so they will naturally learn English.
Bilingual literacy is something you emphasize a lot. Can you talk about why it's so important to you?
It comes from my own experience. When I was young, I was fluent in spoken Japanese - both because of my mom at home and also from speaking with friends at school. At the time, I did not see the point of improving my reading or writing. But because I couldn’t read that well, I wouldn’t pick up a book. Every time I did, I would stop every few characters. It was a frustrating experience, so I gave up.
And because I didn’t read, I didn’t pick up much vocabulary. It’s a vicious cycle. Even though I had all this supplemental Japanese education, I wasn’t motivated and did the minimum to pass my exams. So at the end of the day, I could speak about general things but didn’t have as expansive of a vocabulary as I could have had.
Reflecting on my experience now that I have children, I think that not being able to read will limit their language development and ability. If they can read and love reading, it will be easier to help them grow and also allow them to be independent on their language learning journey.
You are a bilingual (multilingual) teacher and father. What do you think is most important in raising bilingual kids?
Enjoyment and Independence. I think that they have to enjoy the process. When they’re little, there is not much resistance. But as they get older, they will have more opinions. And reflecting on my own experience, if it feels too much like forced schoolwork, it won’t stick. I experienced this not only with Japanese but with Spanish. I had learned Spanish in school but didn’t really enjoy the lessons, because they were “schoolwork.” It was only when I did a crash course, with full immersion in Spain, that the language became so much more meaningful - because I got to feel the culture.
So with my sons, I try to make sure language learning is lively and also purposeful - part of our daily lives. For example, if we are cooking, I will write the recipe card in French, so we can read it together. My goal is to build enough of a foundation - where they can carry on themselves independently (and joyfully). For example, my son knows enough French now that he can read a short book. And now when he receives a book from Amazon, he will spend the whole day reading it - which will naturally expand his vocabulary. That is the stage I hope he reaches in Korean too - so he can be more independent in expanding his language ability.
Any bilingual learning tips for parents out there?
Especially when they’re children, I prefer to stay away from worksheets. Just because it makes language learning so formal. I am worried about bringing about a negative association that makes them turn away from the language. I try to have them learn through games or really, anything that they are inclined to enjoy. That’s why I love the premise of your product (Habbi Habbi Wand & Bilingual Books) too - because it is about exposure through fun and not rote memorization or homework.
Also, I think confidence is key - building enough basic knowledge - such that they can feel empowered. For example, the other day, we got a box with lots of Korean foods, and my son was able to read all the brands and product names. He was so excited, and I try to find opportunities like this to nurture his confidence. That’s another important thing in my opinion - never push too much - because it might lead to discouragement or rejection. If he is not secure enough yet, I don’t push.
Finally, I think habits are important. One thing I try to do every evening is read together. It doesn’t matter which language it is - whether French, Korean, or English. It’s good bonding time. I also like to choose literature that is a little bit more engaging. I love Epopia - which is an exchange of letters, and the kids engage with the letters to suggest how the story can carry on. I also really like “Je suis en CP” - where the text starts quite easy but gets progressively more difficult such that by the last story, kids are reading at the level of someone in first grade in France.
Learning Japanese (character) and French (alphabet) are different. Do you approach language learning differently?
For phonetic based languages, I think there is a lot that you can leverage based on your knowledge of English. For example, my son can try to read French - based on his knowledge of English, as long as he knows things like “r” is pronounced differently in English (“ar”) vs French (“rrrr”). For Japanese and Chinese where things are character based, it is a bit more difficult because the whole character means something. I would start with games or things like art - that help give context beyond just memorization. For example, “fire” (火 huǒ) looks like fire. I love any games - physical or digital - that can help give context to characters and make it fun.
What is your language learning goal for your sons?
If I step back and think what ‘being bilingual’ gave me - I think it’s the ability to be open-minded. I can disagree with someone but also understand how they see a situation. And I’m generally interested in how people live, so it makes me more open to the world. It brings me a lot of enrichment, and I want my sons to be like that as well.
I also want them to have the choice of where they want to live - whether that’s an English-speaking country, a French-speaking area, or Korea. I think when you speak more languages, you have more choices in life. Ultimately though, I want them to be happy. Being multilingual, multiliterate, multicultural - has brought me a lot of happiness - maybe it won’t for them - but maybe it will. And I want them to have that option.
Other references: For more detail on tactics, techniques, and games Yoshito uses to teach his sons different languages, see some of his videos below. He is also publishing a book “The Parents’ Guide to Raising Multi-literate Children,” which is slated for release later this year.