Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Raising a Bilingual Child: Only Speaking English to my Children

Teaching Tips: ONLY Speaking English to my Children

Some of you out there may find yourself in a situation similar to the one I’ll talk about today. You may be in a different country and the language in question may not be English, but your situation may be similar.

I am in Japan. I have two very young children and a Japanese wife. We want our children to be completely and effortlessly bilingual. I work during the day and my wife stays home raising our kids. She takes them out everyday to play with their friends in the playground and they are very active in other ways. They go to the local community center, kindergarten and day care for various classes throughout the week. My son even takes swimming lessons. All of these are done in Japanese of course. We are in Japan after all. This means the majority of my kids’ days are spent immersed in the Japanese language.

My wife works hard to add some English throughout the day. She speaks to them at times in English and they watch DVDs of children’s programs from America, Australia and Canada. When I come home from work in the evening and on weekends that is really their chance to learn English. That is their opportunity to interact with a native English speaker using natural English. Time for them to play with their Daddy!

In a way, my poor Japanese skills have worked to an advantage for both my kids and me as I try to teach them English. At three years of age, my son already knows that English is his father’s language and Japanese is his mother’s.  Since I don’t speak Japanese (trying to remedy that at the moment), I must communicate with him in English and vice versa. Within our household it is a win/win situation.
Now, even if I could speak Japanese fluently I wouldn’t use it in front of my son during our day-to-day interactions. If I did, I would be robbing him of his chance to hear and utilize the Native English speaker living under his own roof. I would be taking away his teacher.

We live in Japan and every time my children head out the door Japanese surrounds them. They practice the language constantly and it is of course their first language. They don’t need me to speak it to them. Understanding Japanese does of course help me though. Often, my son may not know how to express himself in English. He asks me a question or makes a statement in Japanese. If I understand what he is saying, I can model the language for him in English. He speaks to me in Japanese; I repeat what he just said in English and then make him repeat it. The “modeling” style of language teaching works extremely well and the more Japanese I understand, the better I will be at using this method.

My wife has told me that some Japanese women she has met who are married to foreign men such as myself worry when their husbands only speak Japanese to their kids. Pre-school to early elementary school is what is known as the critical phase of language acquisition. That's the time when a child can learn a new language with no accent and sound like a native speaker (or at least close to it).  One mother shared her worries with my wife. She said that her kindergarten-aged children could only speak Japanese and was stressed because when they travel to America to meet her husband’s family, the kids would not have the ability to communicate. 

That’s something I think about often. I live far away from my family in Canada and someday I plan to return there with my family. For whatever reason, even if we stayed in Japan, half of my son’s family (and the majority of relatives) are Canadian and don’t speak Japanese. When we visit Canada and spend time with them, how will he be able to communicate with his grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles? He simply wouldn’t be able to. He’s be missing out on so much.

I suppose, another thing I would worry about, if I spoke Japanese to my son would be teaching him my bad pronunciation and broken grammar.

At the end of the day, whether my family moves to Canada or stays in Japan, my children will have wonderful advantages if they are able to communicate flawlessly in two languages. By using only English when I am with them, I am giving them the chance to always be with a teacher. I just have to remember to always be encouraging, make them comfortable to speak English and correct (in a caring way) the mistakes they make.

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Kortik said...

Hey Kevin, I have two children and my wife is Japanese, and we live in the US. I'm also Armenian who was raised in Russia. My children speak four languages. The most important thing is to keep speaking in you native language at all time with them. My wife speaks Japanese to them and I speak Russia and Armenian, my parents speak Armenian to them and they learn alphabet and how to write. We do not speak English to them at home, but I'm not worried at all about that they are perfectly fine speaking English outside home environment. My kids also attend a Japanese language immersion school where the first half of the day is in Japanese and the remaining rest is in English. My children are 9 and 6 and so far they can communicate I four languages.
Just keep doing what you're doing and your children will be fine.

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