Monday, August 12, 2013

Raising a Bilingual Child: Code Switching

Code Switching  - Up close and personal

I have to admit that watching my son’s language development is absolutely amazing. I grew up in “one language” household. My family used English. Now, my family in Japan uses both English in the house and outside as well.

My son is now a newly minted 3 year-old. As I’ve mentioned before, his first language is Japanese and his second language is English.  His speaking skills are quite high and it is clear that he can communicate much more fluently in Japanese, but what I have noticed recently is the dramatic increase in his code-switching skills.

In linguistics, code switching is switching between two or more language varieties, in the context of a single conversation.

When my son was only one year old he started conversing in both English and Japanese with family and friends. At that point he didn’t realize that there was a difference between the two languages he was learning. He would speak to his little friends in a mixture of English and Japanese and they would just look at him blankly. Their Japanese skills were also just emerging, but of course, they didn’t understand any English. Not long after he was two years old, a switch in his brain was flipped and he realized that when he was at the local kindergarten, community center or playground with his friends and their mothers, he should only speak Japanese. 

The most basic and obvious examples of code switching with my son are in the home when he interacts with his mother, who is Japanese and myself. When I come home from wok in the evening, he runs down the hall yelling “Hello Daddy” and then he commences to tell me about his day’s adventures in English. When I respond to him in English, he runs back down the hall and tells my wife what I just said, but in Japanese.

At the dinner table he sits at the end and we sit on either side of him. The majority of his day is spent “living in Japanese” so when I come home my wife and I speak English to each other and to my son (and now daughter). We haven’t set an “English Only” rule in our house that some other people do. We just tend to use English because my Japanese skills are not strong. Also, even though I am currently learning Japanese, I choose not to use it around my son since his only daily opportunities to hear natural English are with me.

Our normal dinner experiences are in English. At times though, my son will tell me a story in English and then immediately turn to his mother and repeat the story in Japanese. Other times, he will share it with her in English.

Watching his code switching skills evolve is a constant and wonderful process.

You can follow me on Twitter: @jlandkev


Timothy Sullivan said...

Found this article via Jason Ball on facebook. My kids are also bilingual (Japanese and English), so thought you'd appreciate this short clip I put together on how bilingual brains are structured. If the spirit moves you:

Anonymous said...

I also found this via Jason Ball on Facebook. Thanks for writing and I'm glad he is re-posting. I have a question for you and any parents of bilingual kids. Is there anything that you recommend or that you are even perhaps doing differently with you younger daughter to better facilitate and encourage mixed language learning from birth?

Our first child is due on Friday (Aug 16th). Our home has always been a Japanese home, but my Japanese husband is not adverse to English, so we will try to use it more together and I will try to only speak to the baby in English (though I am already failing while she is inside since I am so used to a bilingual lifestyle myself). Thanks for posting!

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