Raising Bilingual Children: Why I Never Speak Japanese at Home

While dealing with a brief cause of “blogger’s block”, I asked some folks on Facebook what I should write about. I was asked to write about raising a bilingual child. I have written about this before, but honestly, this is an expansive topic that constantly evolves, as my son gets older.

I was asked, “Do you speak English to your kids at home or only Japanese (something I’m not really capable of)?  An interesting question and one that I’m sure there are many varying opinions on.

I’m definitely not going to judge other parents and the way they see fit to raise their kids, but I’m going to share what I do at home and my opinions on the topic. I also feel that what we (my wife and I) are doing is working well so my opinions are quite strong.

First of all, my wife and I have spent a great deal of time seriously discussing our children’s language development. We want both our son and daughter to be fluent in both Japanese and English. We want them to sound as close as it is possible to native speakers in both languages. I think a mistake many parents in our situation make is not talking about their kid’s language future. Often, a Japanese parent and their international spouse aren’t on the same page so to speak and have different expectations.

My son is growing up in Japan and right now his first language or L1 is Japanese. That makes sense since he is immersed in Japanese language throughout the day. English is his second language. My son is an ESL learner. If we were raising him in Canada the tables of course would be turned. English would be his L1 and Japanese his L2 (second language). My wife and I realize that no matter where we live, we will struggle to some degree to make sure our kids have a high level of fluency in both languages.

There are several things we do to help his English abilities grow. My wife, who speaks English fluently, often communicates with my son in English. Also, English DVDs work well. My son has learned a great deal of English (very natural sounding) by watching shows such as Dora the Explorer, Caillou, Arthur, Word Girl, Go Diego Go, Sesame Street, Curious George, Bob the Builder, etc. He watches English language DVDs every morning.

Some of the English language DVDs my kids watch.
Some of the English language DVDs my kids watch.

I realize this method isn’t perfect, but since there are no native English speakers around him throughout the day (I’m at work), it’s the only opportunity for him to hear natural English. Many other international couples we’ve met in Japan tell us the same thing. Basically, you have to work with what you have!

I am a trained K-6 teacher (University of Ottawa) and with many years of experience teaching in canada and at international schools have built up my own story-book library. I read to my son often (probably not as often as I should) in English. I also let him look at all of my books whenever he wants.

Like with students I taught at international schools, I use very natural English with him. No “ESL talk.” Many people who come to places like Japan and Korea to teach English start to slow down and simplify their language when speaking to students and locals. They start to sound like cavemen! Simple vocabulary, short sentences, dropping articles, etc. This doesn’t help language learners at all! Any native English speaking parent who is raising kids in a country like Japan or Korea should speak to their children naturally and fluently.

I speak to my son as if he were a little boy growing up in Canada. I never slow things down or simplify. I do this because I know he will, if not at first, eventually understand everything I say.

As I mentioned before, I choose not to speak Japanese in my house. My wife has also asked me not to use Japanese as well. I study Japanese and it’s good to know so I can understand my son when he uses Japanese, but if he speaks to me in Japanese, I only reply in English.

The way I look at it is that my son only has a few hours a day to interact with a native English speaker, his father. We want him to speak the language fluently so if I were to speak Japanese, it would deny him a very special opportunity. Not just the chance to hear real English in use, but more importantly, to be able to interact with another person using real English (when I say “real” I mean natural and colloquial English).

I worked at an International school during my first five years in Japan. That is one of the reasons my Japanese is fairly poor. Now, I am teaching in Japanese public schools and using Japanese daily. My Japanese has of course improved and a few months ago I noticed my son was starting to speak to me in Japanese sometimes. I talked to my wife about it and she told be that although I was unaware I was doing it, since I had started studying more and working in an immersive Japanese environment, I was using Japanese at home. I assume my son then thought it natural to use Japanese with me as well.

The moment I became aware of this, I immediately stop using it in my house. I have to be conscious of my language usage. Once I completely stopped, within a few days my son was back to only using English with me.

I have had other international couples voice regret to me in the past because they only used Japanese in the house and by the time their kids were in kindergarten or elementary school had very poor English skills. They spoke English with a Japanese or “katakana” accent. In some cases the children had a complete aversion to English and refused to speak it.

Again, this is my opinion and the opinion of some others, but I think what my wife and I are doing is working well. Last month I traveled to Canada alone with my 3-year-old son and spent almost two weeks there. Everyone was impressed with my son’s communication abilities. He was able to effortlessly interact with his grandparents, cousins, and other people. He was able to play with Canadian children and have a great time. While fully immersed in English I watched his language explode and grow in a positive way. His fluency went through the roof!

Some parents who are trying to raise a bilingual child in Japan may choose to use a variety of methods. That is their prerogative of course. All parents and families have different goals and expectations for their families. Some international couples may want their child to only speak one language. Some may not think about it very much until its too late. For my family though, Daddy sticking to English at home and Mommy using a mixture of the two languages (so my kids know she is capable of doing so) seems to work best.

Thanks for reading and if you have an opinion, please leave a comment.

You can follow me on Twitter: @jlandkev

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5 comments

  1. I think you have nailed something important here. If he needs to use English he will. If not, he won’t. With you only using English there is a need there. I think this is a great post and definitely one for couples who have children in an international marriage .

    My question would be would it be detrimental to try to add a third language like French, Chinese or Korean to the mix?? Say for example you are also fluent in French. Would it benefit your son to learn French as well or would that third language add too much confusion and lead to a rejection of all but the L1 language?

    What steps did you take to “imprint” the L2? I mean did you just jump into the total immersion from infancy and let it build up naturally?? Or did you introduce it in any prepared form??

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  2. You are doing the right thing by consistently using English. Children are very pragmatic in their choice of language and will speak what comes easiest to them, unless there is a compelling reason not to. By always sticking to English you create this reason. Research has also shown that minority language parents who speak both the minority and the majority language to their children are less likely to be successful in passing on the minority language to their children. The children may understand, but not actively use the minority language, i.e. get a so called passive understanding of it.

    With regards to Josh’s question about a third language – I wouldn’t add another language to the mix until you feel that your son has a good grasp of English.

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  3. Interesting article. Way back in the mists of prehistory, when I was taking my linguistics courses in college, we learned that the most effective method for raising a bilingual child is for one parent to speak one language exclusively while the other parent speaks the other language just as exclusively. In this way, the child makes a clear language/parent association that allows him or her to keep the languages separate in his/her head instead of conflating the languages into a mushy pidgin, as often happens in families where parents switch back and forth, willy-nilly, between languages. Only English with Daddy; only Japanese with Mommy.

    Of course, the above is mere generalization. You have to go with whatever method works best for your family, and from what you describe, your current method seems to be cultivating, in your son, a high level of fluency in both languages. So—kudos.

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    • While the ‘one-parent, one-language’ approach may appear to be the natural to progress, I think this is perfectly feasible in a European country with access to other languages through media and/or a community of foreign speaking residents.

      In Japan however, this doesn’t work too well. The blanket coverage of the majority language eventually exceeds any input of the minority language. Thus, by the time children reach around three years old, it’s very hard to reign it back in.

      For me the best approach is the ‘one language at home, one outside’ approach, therefore giving you blanket coverage of the minority language in a controlled environment. Relationship problems can arise from this however, as well the fact that once a child hits about 7 or 8, there vocabulary and interest points tend to be superior to the non-native speaker!

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  4. Thanks for the read! I can second motovique’s approach.

    My wife and I are becoming new parents and will be going through an inverse situation. My wife was raised in America to parents who do not know English, only Japanese. (You can get away with it in the Sushi business) She went to normal “English” school Monday-Friday and Japanese school on Saturday. To this day she maintains Japanese school friends and American school friends. Teachers in both schools thought she was lagging in her development, until as the previous poster said she was seven and everything finally clicked. She maintained a Japanese accent until she moved out to Minnesota, where she has developed a beautiful Tokyo/Northern Minnesota dialect. It has now been 15 years since she lived at home and spoke Japanese daily, but maintains her fluency with daily phone calls to the parents, probably 10 hrs/week on the phone.

    While I can speak Japanese, we have decided not to taint our child’s ears with my poor Japanese.

    So here’s to hoping the one parent one language thing works as well!

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