Friday, August 17, 2012

Should I bother learning Japanese?

Recently, I have been writing some posts about raising my son to be bilingual. A lot of you out there have been interested in reading about this topic. Of course, everything I write are my own thoughts and opinions. Some of you out there may not agree with the methods we take in my house to make sure my son speaks both Japanese and English fluently, but you of course are entitled to your own opinions. I have my own and am pretty confident about them.

Now, what I have been thinking about lately is my own language development and how that will influence my son’s language.

My Japanese sucks! That is a very true statement.

I was in South Korea for about five years and now, I am coming up to that point in Japan. My Korean was MUCH better than my Japanese is.

Why is my Japanese so terrible? I am lazy. I can make a million other excuses: “I work in an international school and never hear Japanese throughout the day.” “I met my wife outside Japan and we have always communicated in English.” “”When I speak Japanese my left ear gets itchy.” “I’m really dumb!”  (The last two excuses are only partially true).

At the end of the day, I am a lazy guy. Well, I am not lazy in general. I work long hours. I work six days a week often. I produce TONS of online blog/vlog content. I run at least two full marathons a year. I just wrote a book about teaching. I am not lazy about life. I am lazy about learning languages.

At this point in my “Japan journey”…wait…not Japan journey…that makes it sound as if I am a traveler or someone passing through for a year or two to teach and then move back home.

I am pretty invested in Japan. My wife is Japanese and my son is half Japanese. My son was born in Kobe and I was there when it happened. I hope to leave Japan and start our life in Canada within the next couple of years, but even when we move to Canada, I will always have a foot in Japan. I will be coming back to visit my wife’s home, to visit my in-laws, to visit my son’s grandparents and aunt.
What am I getting to with all of this?

Language. Will my lack of Japanese skills work to my advantage as my son learns English? Will it make my life far more difficult?

I see both things happening.

Don’t get me wrong. I can speak some Japanese and understand a lot. I probably know as much Japanese as the average 2-3 year old Japanese child! Problem is, my son is now two and although he speaks Japanese often and I understand it, within the year his skill level will surpass mine.

Now, when my son speaks in Japanese, I just say “Ah yes.” And then rephrase what he just said in English. I am able to do that and it helps a lot. It is a great teaching tool. I never speak Japanese in front of him (he hears it all day from everyone else), but I understand what he says and then I help him say it in English.

Eventually I will have trouble doing that. What do I do when I am alone with my son and he wants/needs something and I don’t understand what he’s saying to me? That is a legitimate fear I have. When I think about that, I start thinking it is time to study again.

Then I hear what other foreign fathers in Japan have to say about the topic.

I have received advice from men who have been here far longer than I and both speak and do not speak Japanese.

Some fathers who speak little Japanese have told me that their kids speak English well because of that. Their children were forced to use English to communicate with their fathers. They knew they couldn’t use Japanese so were motivated to improve their English.

On the other hand, I have met some foreign fathers who speak fluent Japanese and said that it caused issues. Their kids knew that they spoke Japanese well and would understand everything they said in Japanese so never bothered to practice their English. The father’s Japanese skills made the kids lazy!

Where does this leave me? I dunno. I know I should improve my Japanese skills simply for myself. I would be happier here if I could communicate with others more effectively. I know I should...i know I must improve my japanese. That is a no brainer. 


As for my son’s Japanese/English language development…poses some interesting food for thought!

What are your thoughts?


Adam Windsor said...

I have a 3-year-old and a 1-year-old daughter who are half Japanese. I can understand Japanese and my daughter (the one who can talk) NEVER speaks to me I English unless I ask her to. But she CAN speak English, I speak English most of the time in front of her and my wife talks in Japanese and every other person in her life speaks Japanese. She sometimes speaks to my parents in Oz on Skype and she understands what they are saying but talks back to them in Japanese.
The big concern I have is that we want to send our kids to do a year of primary school in Oz when they're in about grade 4 or 5 and if they can't speak English fluently then they will have a REALLY hard time. Also if they can't read at at least a 3rd or 4th grade level at that time they'll have a lot of trouble. SO, I'm thinking about educating my kids in English (since I am a primary school Eglish teacher myself).
I'm taking my older daughter to Oz - just the two of us - in a couple of days for about a week. It will be interesting to see how she copes with it. I'll keep you posted, and I'd like to hear how everything goes with your son.
But to be honest, if I wasn't planning on staying in Japan for the long-term, I think I'd be lazy about learning Japanese, too. Maybe having Canada looming on the horizon is what prevents you from expending energy on learning Japanese.

Frederick said...

First to say that it is very good that your son is learning both languages. It was for me hell at school after my family moved from the US to Switzerland because English was the only language...
About you and learning Japanese: It depends how long you are staying in Japan before moving to Canada. Here in Switzerland there are many foreigners living and working here without knowing some of one of our four language. So they meet only people of their own nationality.
But if you know some life is easier.
Greetings from Switzerland

Corinne said...

I'm stressing about my kids being bilingual at the moment too. My almost 4 year old understands English (most of it I think anyway, sometimes he just ignores everything that's said in any language) but he replies primarily in Japanese unless I prompt/force him to say it in English. He goes to a Japanese Kindy and spends a lot of time with his j-family while I'm working though, so this probably has a lot to do with it. Do you plan on sending him to international Kindy?? If yes then I'd say you'll have nothing to worry about.

gaijinwife said...

I think you need to learn more Japanese more for the sake of your wife's family and the other Japanese people that you will have to interact with (doctors, teachers) as your son gets older.

I speak Japanese. We speak it a lot at home and my kids speak it all day. My husband and his mother - no English. i NEED to speak it more to my kids but I am also lazy. My friends with less Japanese skill have pretty much fluent English speaking children.

I am hoping our two months back in NZ in Oc/Nov will help reverse things :)

Good luck to you

Perogyo said...

For my own sake, I am glad I put in the time necessary to learn Japanese. It comes in handy and it certainly makes me happier having the tools to live a literate life in Japan.

But that being said, it is rough that my kids know, even though I don't speak to them in Japanese, that I speak Japanese. They know they can get away with it, because they see me speak it at PTA and at work and with the neighbours. The most successful bilingual kids I know are the ones with parents who both speak English in the home, and the second are those with a parent who does not have Japanese skills sufficient to speak in the community and therefore require their kids to interpret.

But it totally depends on you. Are you satisfied with your Japanese skills? With how you interact in the community?

Wolf Haven said...

Hmmm I don't have children but I was in high school not to long ago, and I can tell you it kind of depends on your kid/school and maybe how much English/Japanese they learned before hand.

So let me tell you how my school kind of functioned with language. So in my school (NY) there were a high number of student that spoke Spanish and English, but we also had a large number of students who came over to the US only speaking Spanish.

Now among those only speaking Spanish there were those who learned English at an astounding rate and those who just seemed not to get it at all. Why do you think this is?

It's because, pretty much all the ones who were excelling at English were the ones who were actually making friends who only spoke English so they were kind of forced to only use English. The ones who weren't really getting anywhere with their English seemed to only make friends with other Spanish speaking kids which didn't help their English at all.

One of my friends was one of the ones who excelled at English and eventually I was invited over her house and the interesting thing was that her parents hardly spoke English but her siblings did. So at home all they pretty much spoke was Spanish.

Now in your case you probably wouldn't have to worry about your son sticking to the Japanese population of Canada and only making Japanese friends at school since it isn't as prominent as the Spanish speaking community. Though on the reverse side that would probably hurt his Japanese.

All in all whether you use my suggestion or not is to learn Japanese yourself for you, your family, or whatever and help your son get at least a basic grip on English. That way if you end up in Canada he won't have a hard time catching up to the other kids in English and when at home you guys can just use Japanese or whatever to keep his and your Japanese skills a float.

How plausible that is I have no idea it's just a thought. Anyways thanks for the interesting blog post and thanks if you actually read all this.

Wolf Haven said...

Oh and one more thing. Looking into a school that teaches Japanese to kids & whatnot in Canada would also be... promising? (dunno if that's the right word) but for example there is this university by me that gives Japanese lessons to all ages mainly because there is a good sized Japanese population near me and it's pretty much every Sunday during the school year. A lot of Japanese parents take their kids there so that they can still have their kids to learn Japanese while being in america.

It's interesting because I've been going there for about 3 years now and you see the difference between the age groups. The kids are awesome at Japanese because they speak it at home and are taught on Sundays, but the older kids you know around like 16 - 18 who kind of just use English all the time only know a little bit of Japanese even though their parents speak it since they probably don't seem to use it much at home and don't take frequent trips to Japan.

Mark said...

Frankly said, and without wanting to offend you, I think you are making a lot of foul excuses . You are living in Japan, and even if you work in an international school, your wife is japanese. Your son is half japanese. I know it's hard to motivate yourself, but as soon as you see the first success, you will want to keep on with it. Just like running :)
Best luck with it!