This is a very broad topic that many people are interested in. The number of multi-cultural families in Japan is on the rise, but around the world, more and more families are finding themselves in multi-language environments.
There, of course, many challenges when raising children to speak more than one language. There are many challenges and of course every family situation and dynamic is very different. Often there almost seem to be no right or wrong with the techniques parents use because every family is so different. What works well for one family may not work well or even be possible for another one.
Another thing that we have noticed is that no matter what you do, one language will always be dominant over another. This factor alone can sometimes cause anxiety in a parent.
In this post, I’ll share a little bit about my family’s bilingual journey. If later requested I may write more on the topic in a detailed way.
Our story in a nutshell:
I am Canadian and a native English speaker. My wife is Japanese and a native Japanese speaker. Our children are 7 and 4 years old. We currently live in Beijing, China where my children attend a large English language international school. We are in China, but live in a gated community and are essentially in an English bubble.
We moved to Beijing last August (2017) for work, but before that lived in Kobe, Japan where both of my children were born and raised.
Our Japan-experience was very different than the one we find ourselves in now. I taught at an international school, but that school only gave faculty a half-price discount on tuition so we couldn’t even afford to send our children there (standard for most international schools is to give free tuition for staff children). Since international schools weren’t an option we decided to send both of our kids to Japanese kindergarten. We still had to pay, but we could afford it.
We lived in a neighborhood in Kobe where you saw foreigners around, but all of our friends and our children’s friends were Japanese and no one could speak English. We were in Japan and my children were fully immersed in Japanese all day.
Obviously, their first language was Japanese. They only used English when home with me.
When I was home, our household basically became an English one. It wasn’t a big rule we had, it just seemed to work that way. When I was at home we tended to watch more English TV and my wife spoke to me and the kids in English. I also never used Japanese at home.
I honestly don’t speak Japanese very well. My comprehension is high and I can communicate somewhat, but I made a very active choice to never speak Japanese at home or to my kids. I knew that the only opportunity they had to interact with a native English speaker was with their father so I wanted to make that happen as much as possible.
I have heard of other families being in a situation where the non-Japanese parent spoke Japanese very fluently and often used it at home. Eventually, the children would simply refuse to use English with that non-Japanese parent because it was easier for them to use Japanese and they knew their parent understood them. They essentially got lazy. I met more than one frustrated parent in that situation.
In the pre-Netflix days in Japan, we had very limited access to English TV so we bought an all-region DVD player and would order lots of Nickelodeon DVDs and lots of PBS Kids stuff from Amazon. My son also loved Thomas the Tank Engine and luckily there was loads of that on YouTube. They watched a lot of English TV. Not an ideal way to learn, but since I got home from work every night around 6:30pm and they went to bed around 8:00pm, they didn’t have much English time. TV worked, however. They learned a lot from it.
Sadly, we weren’t in a financial situation to take our kids back to Canada each year for holiday. Many of my friends and colleagues who were in a better financial situation were able to take their kids back to America or Canada for weeks at a time. Their kids had amazing immersive opportunities which often shot their English levels high above those of my kids.
I have to admit I was often jealous and a little resentful of my friends who could afford to do that. I also admit that I had many days filled with anxiety because their Japanese was so far ahead of their English.
We left Japan because my current teaching job has now put us in the financial position to be able to visit Japan in the winter and both Japan and Canada in the summers.
When my daughter began speaking we were surprised to see how quickly she picked up both languages.
She had the benefit of having an older, chatter-box of a brother to learn from and at that point, Netflix had come to Japan. Both she and her brother were now exposed to more English TV and movies than before.
I have also heard from many sources that girls tend to develop linguistically faster than boys at a young age. Although I am not a linguist, as someone who taught Early Years and Kindergarten for many years, the anecdotal evidence would seem to prove that true in most cases.
When we left Japan in August of 2017, both of my children could communicate in English, but not extremely well.
When we arrived in Beijing, there were many native speaking kids living in our building. My children struggled to play and communicate with them the first few months here. After half a year in an English school that is no longer a problem. Most of their friends are native English speakers and my daughter’s dominant language has now actually flipped to English.
Now that bilingual parent battle has taken an interesting twist. Both kids attend English school and take Mandarin class daily. Now we must think about their Japanese.
My son works hard every day using a Japanese educational program called Kodomo Challenge, made by the company Benesse. He is studying kanji and reading. My resourceful wife has connected with members of the local Japanese community (there is a big one) and found a mother-tongue Japanese class at Western Academy of Beijing. My son goes there on Saturdays to study Japanese.
My daughter is too young to take that class, but we plan to sign her up for some Japanese classes at the famous Japanese cram school, Kumon. There is a branch nearby. It is MUCH more expensive than in Japan, but we feel it is something we need to do so she can improve here Japanese.
My wife has also found a Japanese Karate school nearby and is thinking of signing the kids up for classes. The Karate teachers are Japanese and teach using Japanese.
As you can see, when you are raising bilingual children, it is a constantly changing challenge.
Every family is in a different situation and they all face various challenges.
Our bilingual journey continues. Who knows where it will take us?
Kevin O’Shea is the host of the Just Japan Podcast. He is also the guy behind JustJapanStuff.com. Kevin is a Canadian IB/PYP educator who lives in Beijing, China with his family. Kevin called Kobe, Japan home for 10 years.
Follow him on Twitter: @madformaple