Raising Bilingual Children: Things Get Harder!

It’s been a long time since I’ve actually written something here. I haven’t actually blogged in months. I have of course continued to make regular content for my YouTube channels and have used this site mainly as the hub for my new passion in life, my podcast. The Just Japan Podcast has become something I have really grown to love. I thought though, if I do write here from time to time, it would of course make the folks who enjoy my written work a little happier and maybe, just maybe, bring a few new listeners to the podcast.

I’ve written before about raising bilingual children. Why? I’ve done it because it’s a major part of my life. Actually, it’s pretty much the main focus of my life. I work in Kobe, Japan as an international schoolteacher and the majority of my students are English Second Language learners. I also have two young children who myself, a Canadian and my Japanese wife are raising to be bilingual.

Recently though, things have become more challenging than they were in the past. I’ve mentioned in previous posts that of course, since we are in Japan, my son’s majority language is Japanese. We work hard to keep his minority language, English evolving, but of course we simply can’t keep up with Japanese because he is, for the most part, immersed in a Japanese world (Japan will tend to do that to ya!)

My son is now 3 years old, pushing 4 and started kindergarten last month. In Japan 3-year kindergarten is quite popular and we decided it would be good for my son to get started now. Most of his friends have already begun kindergarten and if we kept him home for another year he basically wouldn’t have anyone to play with during the day. Now he is attending a private Japanese kindergarten in Kobe.

My kids
My kids

I was recently accepted into a Canadian Graduate school (I’ll be doing the program online and part-time) and once finished, am looking at a career in educational software development back in Canada. That being the case, we want my son to soak up as much Japanese culture and language as possible. We of course also want him to continue growing in his minority language as well.

As his Japanese language (majority language) grows he of course wants to share more and more about his experiences at school. He can express himself a lot more in Japanese than English (his English is very good), so he wants to speak only in Japanese when he gets home. He’s also been becoming defiant from time to time about this.

The approach we have been taking is that Daddy (me of course) doesn’t understand Japanese so my son must speak English around me. I do of course speak some Japanese and for the most part understand what my son is saying. I however never speak Japanese around him because I want him to use English with me. We have used the approach of saying, “Speak English so Daddy knows what’s happening in your day.” In the past this worked very well and my son would simply switch to English. Recently though, he simply says, “NO!” (not always, just sometimes)

Last month he even told my wife that it’s more fun to talk to her in Japanese than talk to me (his Dad). That hurt a lot. That actually made me extremely sad. I realize that he can express himself in his majority language than his minority language, it sucked when he said, in front of me, that it wasn’t fun to talk to me.

We of course made it very clear to him that he wasn’t being nice to say that, but I didn’t get angry. I was sad, but held back the emotion of anger. I can’t “blame” him for feeling more comfortable using Japanese while in Japan!

What I have been doing though recently is thinking about using English more. I make sure that every morning before my son goes to school he watches some English TV. I also make sure that when I am with him I really speak to him more. When we have time together I speak to him with a lot more thought. I ask him many more questions about his day and thoughts and listen a lot more than I used to.

I have heard that to help his minority language grow he needs to be exposed to at least 25 hours of English a week. That is a challenge, especially since some weeks I work 6 days, but it’s simply something we have to achieve.

Wish us luck!

My daughter still only speaks baby-talk!

 

 

If you have any ideas to help us improve my son’s minority language or any questions, leave them in the comments below.

 

You can find me any time on Twitter: @jlandkev

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10 comments

  1. I imagine you are currently doing the very best you can under the circumstances. I suspect our Japanese proficiency is similar and I’m familiar with what you are describing. My daughter is now 13 years old and though we were once very close she’s lost all interest in English as well as her second (minority) culture in the USA. Her English is passable though she’d gladly skip it if she could. One factor which I found weighty was the influence of her peers who saw her English ability (and her connection to me) as something to point out and even use as a point of bullying which from around grade four caused my daughter to withdraw still more from English and her foreign heritage and background. Things are a little (but only a little) better in junior high school though sadly the mold and pattern are set and I doubt our girl will even learn well or even appreciate her bilingual heritage until she is an adult and perhaps it’s too late. Some families succeed at this worthy task though sadly ours has not. That said, Japanese is firmly our girl’s first language and soon she will be returning to life in the United States where we hope she will once more gain (perhaps through brute force experience) English, though hopefully not too much at the expense of Japanese. Good luck, Kevin! 🙂

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  2. One of the lessons I learned from a bilingual family that worked for them when this exact thing was happening was the all English day. In their case the mother was the minority language and father majority. This was Spanish/English with English also being the minority language. They chose Sunday as it was the family day together and the whole family had to speak English when speaking to one another.

    Of course while in Spain and doing things they also spoke to others in Spanish, but would turn to one another and only speak English. The father commented that he began to see his English improving with forced use as well. The first day they introduced it to their some who was also 3-4 they called it some silly name. They really made it a silly and fun day, laughing when the dad would struggle with an English phrasing and such and the next weekend their son asked “are we having English day tomorrow?” as they were putting him to bed.

    Might try something like this as Mai’s English is great and she can pull off a whole day as well. Just my suggestion.–Mary Whipple

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  3. I was a bilingual kid (im 31 now) but it was different from your situation. I was born in Québec from a french speaking mother and an english speaking father. My dad was not really present in my life but my grand-parents on his side were so I started learning english at age 3 or 4. When we started getting english classes in school in grade 4, I had a huge advantage over the other kids. By age 12 I could converse in english and by age 18 I was fully bilingual. My mom didnt make me practice but did make me listen to english tv. I learned my english with sesame street, fresh prince and TGIF programming!

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  4. My son goes to a kindergarten that has some English speaking children, and I’ve noticed that when the bilingual children play together, they will speak a combination of Japanese and English.
    The conversations between my wife and I are all in English, and I think that helps, too. My wife speaks only Japanese to him, and I only speak English to him. At five, he now switches languages between parents with ease. His English, of course, is not as good as his Japanese, but I no longer worry as he’s getting better and better all the time.
    Besides what I’ve mentioned, he’s watched a lot of educational programs in Japanese and English. He also watches cartoons, and movies in English, which I think he prefers.
    When I put him to bed, unless it’s late, I’ll read a book to him in English. Sometimes, I’ll have him read to me.
    Well, that’s my experience. Any language they speak, I’m sure your little ones speak, I’m sure they’ll turn out to be beautiful people.

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  5. While I don’t have kids, I can understand why you’re trying hard to ensure that your son can speak English. I suppose it’s because I was raised… sort of billingual? I say sort of because while I can understand Spanish, I never picked up on speaking it fluently. My parents say it’s because when I we (my sis and I) were kids, we were both against it because “we’re in America and in America you speak English!” So while my parents did speak some Spanish to us, it was mostly Spanglish. Now that my sis and I are adults, we’re disappointed that we don’t speak Spanish fluently. It becomes especially annoying when around other Hispanics who question how we’re Hispanic but don’t speak any Spanish, like there’s something very wrong with us. It’s SO annoying! I even took a couple Spanish courses in college to try and improve my speaking, but while it was an easy A (I can understand and read it just fine) for me, I still can’t speak it fluently!

    I guess my point is don’t give up, even if your son fights you! Haha! Languages are too precious and being able to communicate in various ways is amazing.

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  6. I know this is a really difficult situation. It’s actually a topic I’m very interested in, but as I have no experience myself, I can’t really give you any good advice.

    Do you have any friends who raise their kids in Japan, trying to bring them up being bilingual?

    Ganbatte!!! 🙂

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  7. I’m totally late to the party on this entry but it’s a topic I find intriguing as well now that I am “sort of” living it. We’re two Americans living in Japan who speak English at home but our daughter goes to Japanese kindergarten and has only Japanese friends (by default – Kumamoto’s foreign population is pretty low 🙂 ). I studied bilingualism a little bit when I did my masters in teaching foreign language but never thought it would apply to us specifically. One thing I know that really kickstarted her Japanese before we got her into school full-time was listening to music in the language you want to reinforce. There is something about music and memory that really enhances language learning (maybe the recall ability, or the learning in “chunks”) and she was singing lots of Japanese kids songs before she ever really started speaking at school. Maybe finding some fun and catchy English music to play for your son would make him more enthusiastic about using English in general. Or maybe, as this entry is half a year old now, you’ve already come out the other side of this issue! If not, good luck!

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