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


Kevin Wood said...

kinda in the same situation but a few years ahead of your. My children are both Japan-rasied emigres to Canada. We came here in 2010 and my daughter, then seven, spoke some English but could not read or write at all, my son, then 10, was more fluently bilingual but had trouble reading English and expressing himself in English. Two years after emigrating, they both read above grade level and you would never know they were not raised in Canada. My daughter is actually starting to lose her Japanese fluency.

Anonymous said...

I don't have kids here but know a few people in the same boat as you. It certainly doesn't seem straightforward to raise a child to be bilingual but you've got half the battle won in that you know what needs to be done and are set on doing it! From what I've heard, the early teen years can be tough when the kids don't want to stand out from their friends and sometimes become less inclined to use the 'other' language in front of friends etc. At least with Skype and such your son has the benefit of speaking and seeing his Canadian family on a regular basis and that can only help. However you choose to proceed, best of luck!

Hiko Saemon said...

This is a tough one for me. We have lots of English books, DVR'ed tv and so on, but I find it hard to speak English at home - just not used to it now. I'll throw in English words when I remember, and jnr is picking those up and using them, but my wife is giving me a hard time for not speaking to him more in English. I figure he is going to use Japanese with his friends and teachers at daycare/kindy anyway, so I will happily familiarize him with English, but I don't want to miss out on communication.

Anonymous said...

I'm in the same boat as you. While my daughter is nowhere near the stage when she starts speaking, I need to work hard on speaking English with her as much as possible. I also didn't do much in the way of studying Japanese, so I think I'll be at a disadvantage. My wife is speaking 50% English, 50% Japanese when she's at home alone with our daughter. I speak only English with her, no Japanese. Hopefully, this will work.

QiRanger said...

We have some friends going through a similar debate. English/Korean. They're trying to do both and getting mixed results.

Thanks for putting this out there, as it would be helpful for many!

TyYann said...

My two children are trilingual. French, Korean and English. Your wife shouldn't be concerned about your son's English skills and neither you should be concerned about his Japanese. Spend time with your son when you come from work. If you don't understand what he's saying because he's talking to you in Japanese, tell him "I'm sorry, daddy's Japanese is not so good, can you repeat that in English?"
Also don't worry, his English skills are going to surprise you. He will be fluent. Since he's in a Japanese environment, his Japanese will develop at first faster. But be sure he will always understand more than what he can say, that's why your role is to interact with him, with games, sports etc. Also read him some books in English, and watch some English programs/DVDs with him, to share some of his universe, to have some common "cultural" reference.
Feel free to ask me any question anytime.

Perogyo said...

Thanks, this is a great post!

It is a lot more work than I ever expected. My Japanese has plateaued because I do not have time to study it, all my extra time goes into my kids' English. I'll have many years when they are out of the house to learn Japanese!

For us the focus has become books and raising biliterate children. My kids love reading together with me, I have lots of books they love. Even our local library has some English books, and I bet up there in the city your would have a lot more.

I participate in the Bilingual Blogging Carnival every month, and this is really important to me, to find the support I need. Most of the monolinguals around me have no idea how much work goes into raising bilingual kids. The "ii na" comments drive me nuts.

Perogyo said...

Also- I think not speaking Japanese with kids is actually an advantage. My kids know I understand them and will take the easy way out. The kids I know who are more bilingual have a parent who does not understand the majority language, or pretends very well.

MazzyMouse78 said...

Hi Kevin,

1st off, I'm a language teacher (was a primary teacher) and also a runner! I have to say, I have the same problem: personally, I speak 6 languages. Her father speaks 2: French and German. At home, we converse in French. Now, my daughter is bilingual English/French, but I have to say, both Japanese and German have fallen to the side unfortunately. BUT, this was a part of my PhD thesis: first of all, if children are actively exposed to a foreign language, at pretty much a rate of 50% and more of the time, they will "acquire" that other language. Whether they choose to speak it or not, is another question. Also, take into account the different types of intelligence (of which we all varying levels). The acquisition of foreign languages relies heavily on certain types of intelligence, and not others, thus the importance of highlighting certain activities that go with the acquisition of foreign languages.

I'd like to move BACK to Japan and teach. What is your advice and what are your thoughts? Feedback on this would be highly appreciated! (I teach both French and English). Thanks and good luck! Raising a child is the hardest thing, but also the most rewarding!

Rebeca Brown said...

I'm Brazilian, living in the US and I've seen many families raise bilingugal Portuguese/English kids. Basically, what they do is, they make one language the "home" language, and the other language the "outside" language. They teach only Portuguese to their kids, and speak only in portuguese, because Kids will learn English naturally from going to school.

So my advice is to worry about your kid's English only. Speak to the child in English, have your wife speak to the child only in English. When it comes time for your kid to go to school, he will learn the Japanese naturally.

I moved to the US when I was 8 from Brazil. It took me 6 months to be fluent in English. Don't worry about your kid struggling in school in Japan becuase he won't know enough Japanese. Just worry about the English. Living/Studying in Japan will take care of the Japanese.

I guarantee if you make your home and English Only home, your kid will be fluent in both languages.

Rebeca Brown said...

By the way...if you do move to Canada, then switch the "home" language to Japanese, and have your child only speak in Japanese at home. English will be spoken in school and with friends.

city said...

nice posting.. thanks for sharing.

Kent Middlemarch-Byron said...

My wife is also Japanese, though we are based here in Illinois. My three kids speak English, but we made sure that they do not forget their Japanese heritage. My wife teaches them what they need to know, like writing and speaking (and is rather good at what she's doing too, my 2 year old son already speaking a couple of japanese words) and every time we get the chance we travel to Japan and visit their aunts and uncles there. I know its a tough job, there are times that we cannot translate some english words to japanese and vice versa, but I think we're managing so far. :)

ChefNick said...

Uh, dude . . . all I can say, and I hate to be negative in any way, especially in any way towards your wife, but WATCH OUT.

I lived in Bentencho for five years from 1988 to 93 and taught English around Osaka (most of the schools I was at are gone now. I taught at the Travel Journal Institute in Kita Umeda -- that might still be there).

To cut a long story short, I got married there and we moved to Montreal in 1994. First few years were fine. It was both our first marriages -- she was 14 years younger (I was 34, she was 20).

In 2001 we had a son here in Montreal. Then, she started to get cold feet about Montreal. "When are we moving back to Japan?" became a chant of hers. Of course we weren't moving back to Japan -- I had a good job here and we owned the apartment we lived in.

But in 2004, when Taishi was just 3, she "met" some guy over the Internet. Yeah, I know, it sounds fantastical. But it's true. She met some guy who actually lived in Kansai somewhere (dunno where. Don't even know his name). Started up a relationship with him OVER THE INTERNET. Met him in real life after bring our son to Japan. Long story even shorter: started up with the guy -- moved back to Japan. At first it was amicable. We both had Taishi for three months at a time. I was always the one going to pick him up and bring him back (she didn't have a job, no money.) She married him. had two kids with him. he started messing around with someone else on a business trip (heh! What goes around . . .) They divorced. He had bought a house. I have no idea what happened to it. Do you want to know why? Because she won't speak to me any more. She has our son with her in Nara. She knows there's not a thing I can do about it. I tried to renew his Canadian passport. She refused. I can't do a single thing about it.

She refused to let me bring him to Montreal for Christmas, for no reason. I couldn't do a thing about it. She refused to let me bring him here this summer. I can't do a thing about it.

She refuses to speak to me on the phone. I can only talk to my son when he is at her parents' house, which is maybe once a week, if she lets him. Her parents refuse to speak to me, saying they have "nothing to do with it." If I send him a letter, no one reads it to him. She sends any letters I send to her back to me, unopened.

So basically, the only person I talk to is my son, who is soon to be 11. He can't read or write any English. he's forgetting what English he learned. I am going to get on a plane next week and go stay in a hotel in Nara for two weeks and pray that she lets me see him. If she doesn't THERE'S NOT A SINGLE THING I CAN DO ABOUT IT.

Be very careful, my friend. You and your wife may get along like houses NOW. But if there is ever a time you don't . . .*shudder* . . . God forbid, because YOU, my friend, will be kissing your child goodbye until he's 18 and THERE IS NOT A SINGLE THING YOU CAN DO ABOUT IT.

Mark my words, my friend. I swore it would never happen. In my worst nightmares I would never have predicted this. But sometimes nightmares are far, far worse than you can ever conceive of.

So you be VERY, VERY careful. Cover your ass BIG TIME. The impossible could AND CAN and even MIGHT happen to YOU.

I'm LIVING PROOF. If you want it in the flesh I'll be at the Washington Nara Plaza Hotel from the 19th till Aug 2.

At this very moment I'm PRAYING she'll let me see my son.

Cheers, mate. Watch yourself VERY CAREFULLY and don't let what happened to me happen to you.

Anonymous said...

Hi Kevin. I am in a similar family situation in Nagoya with a 4 year old daughter. If you want to do something for your child, don't start practicing Japanese so you can communicate. Make sure they can communicate with you and your family.
There are so many families in our situation and many parents who are worried about how to proceed.I started writing a blog about raising my daughter bilingually. I hope that you will find something of use on my blog.

Aleksander Każurin said...

I heard that in families where two languages exist one parent have to speak only one language. So your wife don't need to turn on to English even when you two speak. And of course till 4 years child mostly listen, after 4 years he or she start to speak in two languages very quickly.

Perogyo said...

I want one of those kids that mostly listens before 4 years old. Or listens ever. Ha.

Charlotte Bendijo said...

My advice is, decide right now what will be your sons's primary language. You don't want your son ending up like my niece. We are Filipinos (Japanese descendants) living here in Japan and raising our kids here. She is now 10 and attending a Japanese School. When she was younger, we tried to let her learn Japanese and Tagalog (Filipino Language).She did well, she can speak basic Japanese and Tagalog. But the problem begins to show right now. She cannot speak both languages fluently. It is really frustrating because if you wanted to talk to her regarding very important matter, she cannot clearly understand everything whether in Japanese or Tagalog. In school, her teacher advised my sister to enroll her in extra Kokugo (Native language - which is Japanese) lessons to improve her Japanese skills. At home, my sister speaks to her in Japanese and Tagalog mixed! So If I were you, let him master english first. Allow him to express himself in english. Then only you can teach him his secondary language which is Japanese. That way he won't get confuse.