Friday, May 4, 2012

Raising a Bilingual Child in Japan

Parenting is something that is never easy. Being a first time parent is even more difficult since you basically don’t know anything. You can of course read books on the topic, scan blogs and talk to friends and family with children, but at the end of the day, the best way to learn is by doing. Trial and error seems to be how most new parents make their way through the complicated world of raising a child.

As parents, we are concerned with all aspects of our child’s development (or at least we should be). How are their gross motor skills? How are their fine motor skills developing? Do their vision and hearing seem to be good? Are they developing problem-solving skills? How is their language developing?

Language development is something parents around the world think about on a regular basis. I suppose parents in my situation think about it even more than some.

My wife is Japanese and I am Canadian. We come from two very different countries and cultures. We also grew up with two distinctly different languages. My wife is a fluent English speaker and since we met many years ago outside Japan, English has been our main language for communication.

Our son is of course half Japanese and half Canadian. Before he was even born, my wife and I decided that we would raise him to be bilingual. I have had friends in the past who were half Japanese and they were never taught Japanese. Many years later, as adults, they had regrets and even some anger that they were denied the opportunity to be raised bilingual.

So, how are we doing it? How are we raising a bilingual child here in Japan?

To be honest, the trial and error approach I mentioned before is how we are coping with it. We have also talked to other international families who find themselves in the same situation.

It is pretty simple I suppose. My wife speaks to our son in Japanese and I in English. When we are together as a family, the main language used in the house tends to be English. My wife is a stay-at-home mother so the majority of my son’s day is spent in an all-Japanese environment. During a regular weekday, while I am at work, his day is probably about 80% Japanese. The moment I walk in the door at night though, my wife only speaks English. She realizes that that really isn’t enough English exposure so throughout the day she tends to use some English with him.

Some of my son's picture books.

Throughout the day, my son watches some Japanese children’s programs on television, but also watches English children’s television. We realize that television or DVDs are not the best approach (actually using real language with real people is the best approach), but we have to use what we can.

When my son first began to develop speech, we noticed that he was learning English words. Words like “clock”, “car”, “truck” and “duck.” He seemed to understand Japanese far more though. My wife could give him relatively complex instructions in Japanese and he would understand them. The same instructions given to him in English just left him confused.

My son is now a few months away from his second birthday and in recent weeks has had an explosion of language if you will. He is speaking more and more each day and learning new vocabulary like a sponge. Although he continues to learn more English words, his Japanese is quickly overtaking his English. Now he bobbles around the house babbling in a mix of Japanese and English. Often, my wife has to explain what he is saying since it is really a form of Japanese baby talk.

I have quickly come to the conclusion that my years of “not” studying Japanese while in Japan are coming back to haunt me. Within weeks and months, I will have a great deal of trouble following a conversation with my son. I have recently cracked the Japanese books again and have to make studying the language myself a priority.

We are still not sure what our future has in store for us. I am interested in returning to Canada to work and live, but there may always be a chance that we will stay here in Japan. Either way, we will have to work very hard as a team to ensure that my son can learn and maintain both languages.

Raising a child is a challenge. Raising a child to be bilingual poses additional challenges. I am definitely not an expert on this. I am a parent learning as I go. One thing my wife and I both want is for our son to have a deep appreciation and understanding of both his cultures and the opportunity to speak both languages.

If you have any advice or ideas that might help, leave a comment below.

You can follow me on Twitter: @jlandkev

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Playing Outdoors

Playing outdoors and learning outdoors are things I have been thinking about a lot lately. As both a teacher and a parent, I understand how important it is for not only my son, but also my students to have as many meaningful and fun experiences outdoors in nature as possible.

Sadly, many people out there don’t seem to agree with me. In Japan as well as in my home in Canada, children in general are becoming disconnected with nature. Children are spending more time indoors and often, their parents do little to encourage them to get outside. Many find it convenient if their kids are downstairs playing a game as opposed to being outside running around where they may not know where they are. The growing fears of “stranger danger” lead many parents to keep their kids “safe” by keeping them inside the house.

On so many occasions, whether at the local playground or on a family field trip at school, I have seen too many parents scolding their kids for getting dirty or getting upset when they touch a bug. I’ve been witness to parents teaching their kids that dirt is bad. Bugs are bad. Playing with mud is bad. Running around in the woods is bad. Eventually, these kids will start to believe what their parents are saying. Parents are of course the most important teachers in a child’s life and if these negative messages are being sent to them by the most important of teachers, they will believe them!

As a teacher, I am fortunate enough to have large park within walking distance of my school. It is filled with fields, gardens, ponds, stream and even a small forest. I am lucky enough to get my class outside on an almost daily basis. We wander through the park and explore it on a regular basis. We run, play and learn about nature. My students are becoming bird watchers and love to collect insects. I encourage my students to get their hands dirty and discover the things that live under leaves and rocks.

I grew up in a small town in Canada and the forest was in many ways my playground. I am already encouraging my young son to play with sticks, rocks, leaves and other things he find outside. Hopefully, with lots of exposure to nature and playing outdoors, he will love the world outside as much as I do. 

My son (about 6 months ago) exploring a patch of nature close to our house.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Life in Japan Highs and Lows

It is the Golden Week vacation here in Japan and that is certainly a good thing. I am lucky enough to have nine days of to spend with friends and family. I have been running a lot and daydreaming of upcoming marathons. I have ben playing with my son and spending time with my wife. I have been eating good food and doing what one should do on vacation.

Japan has more than its fair share of public holidays. There are many reasons to love Japan, but the quantity of holidays makes it even easier to love. Vacation in Japan makes me feel good.

I have to admit though, as of yesterday I started to feel bad. Japan has a little to do with that, but news from Canada hasn't helped much.

After ten years in Asia, I am ready to come home. I have made no secret of that. I enjoy life in Japan, but my home has been calling me for some time. My family supports that and are very willing to pack up and move to the land of bears, maple syrup and people who say "Eh?"

There's a problem though. As you all know, I am a teacher. I am a teacher not just in Japan, but am an elementary school teacher in canada as well. there is a serious problem though that I have mentioned before. There are simply too many teachers in Canada and not enough classrooms for them. I was recently reading that a typical new teacher coming out of a teacher education program in canada can expect to languish in supply teaching (substitute teaching) purgatory for five years or more before landing a permanent contract. I'm not willing or financially able to move my family home and not have a steady income.

I have seriously thought about locating in Northern Canada and that is something I will look into further. Again, my family is supportive.

I had a "Plan B" as well. I have put serious thought into applying for work with the Government of Canada. I come from a family of career government workers and myself spent many summers as a student working at the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site. Finding work with the government would mean a good income and stability; something teaching used to offer when there were jobs for new teachers.

The current Canadian government has recently started to slash and burn the civil service in Canada in a form of austerity measures. News came down yesterday that thousands of civil servants received their pink slips. It appears as if up to 120 of those people at the park that I worked at for so many summers will be affected by these cuts. Lives will be devastated and my home town of Louisbourg will receive yet another kick while it is down. Sad stuff.

It also makes me sad because I had thoughts of working for a government that is now laying off thousands of people across the country.

No jobs for teachers and now, a bleak future for those wanting to work in government. This complicates my "exit strategy" from Japan. This has been a vacation "low."