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.
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