While non-Japanese parents may believe they are bestowing an educational gift on their children by enrolling them in the local school system, the hard work and rewards can also result in unintended challenges for both parent and child. Whether your children are already in the local system or you are weighing up your future schooling options, here are 10 issues for parents to keep in mind.
1. Language brings culture
Though many parents may feel excited about raising multilingual children, cultural and social learning is also an important facet of the local learning environment. The foundation of schooling is a nation’s investing in its future and its next generation of engaged citizens. This means local schools imbue children with national and local values and beliefs, which impact upon a child’s identity, relationships and sense of belonging.
For example, Japanese schools are not the racially, ethnically or socioeconomically diverse environments that many English-speaking schools in the West are. Children who are different can stand out and, in some instances, suffer from ijime, or bullying — a problem well documented by Japan’s Ministry of Education.
2. It’s all compromise and sacrifice
Something’s gotta give. By this, I mean that when learning multiple languages either simultaneously or sequentially, a child may have a larger total number of vocabulary words but may only have 80 percent of the vocabulary of his or her peer group in a single language. Similarly, to maintain grade level in multiple languages in reading, writing, speaking and listening, there will likely be less available time for other extracurricular activities.
There are only 24 hours in a day, and it has been suggested that a child needs 20-30 percent of his or her waking time exposed to a language to maintain fluency. And, it must be noted that Japanese and English are very different languages in terms of pronunciation, alphabets and grammar. Unlike learning Spanish as a native English speaker, there is little overlap and reinforcement between the two languages.
3. What are your expectations?
While your child’s peers go home and continue to strengthen their Japanese by speaking it with their family, your child may fall behind without similar support. It is advisable to have realistic and supportable expectations for language fluency and acculturation for each language and culture.
For example, do you hope they continue through university in Japanese, or do you hope they at some point switch to be educated in their mother tongue, and how will that be supported?
4. Know your own limits
Related to point 3, your child’s success may depend on your availability and financial investment. If multiple languages are to be maintained, a tutor or after-school juku may be necessary, as teaching your own child can be an emotionally charged venture.
Do you have the time and knowledge of Japanese to keep up-to-date with the regular notices home and back-and-forth notes between parent and teacher in the renrakuchō daily diary and planner? If not, it may be necessary to have a support system in place. A good bilingual parent friend with a child in your child’s class, or hiring a freelance bilingual college student, can be of invaluable help.
5. All children are different
It’s a cliche, but every child truly is different, and while some children seem to have barely a hiccup balancing multiple languages and cultures, others do not fare as well. And though on the surface they may seem the same, individual experiences can be unique.
One child may be in a very social classroom and have lots of friends and increased opportunities to interact while another may be shy or stick with the other foreign-language speakers. Further, the homeroom teacher may or may not have experience working with non-native speakers, which may impact upon the learning — and learning expectations — of your child.
For example, some Japanese teachers may hold foreign children to a lesser standard, reasoning that if the child is behind, it’s OK, or at least understandable. Some schools and districts also have foreign-language assistance programs, where the foreign student can meet with a special language teacher daily, or a teacher will accompany him/her to class several hours per week for support.
6. Brace yourself for the different
Be prepared for surprises both good and bad, because the system will likely be different from the one you are familiar with. Everything from the written and unwritten school rules to the subjects and how they are taught, not to mention the facilities, may contrast with your own experiences growing up.
Even the school calendar, daily schedules with start and end times, holidays, and birthday cut-offs may be new. Summer vacations are shorter than in the West, and trips to the homeland may be short. And, don’t forget that kids walk to school on their own starting at age 6 in Japan, which can be a scary prospect for some foreign parents.
7. You are entering a community
For both you and your children, your community will be the parents, students, teachers and administrators of the school. If the school is where you end up making friends, you too may embark on a parallel socialization experience to that of your children, but your children may do this at a different and oftentimes faster rate than you. Likely, if you have chosen to enroll your children into this system and live more locally, you are OK with this. But sometimes, you may need to work a little harder to find a friend who can relate to you on a more familiar level.
8. Home dynamics
Depending on the various members of your household, the workings of each player can tip the balance. For example, while you may speak English to your children (and they to each other), as their Japanese improves, it risks becoming their secret language if you do not understand it. And, as the children get older, the mother-tongue influence diminishes as the children spend less time at home and more at school and after-school activities.
Between parents, if one parent is taking on the brunt of more heavily loaded schooling responsibilities, he or she may grow resentful toward the other. And, lastly, if the school culture is different from that of the home, parents will need to create a balance that works for all members of the household.
9. Know what learning is going on
The Japanese school system is centralized and quite fixed compared to most Western schools, which means that there is a standardized curriculum that you may or may not agree with. The teacher instructs a classroom of around 35 students from the front of the room and there is little individual instruction or debate. School chores, like serving lunch and cleaning the classroom, are the norm, and students are expected to finish their school-prepared meals in elementary school.
Parent involvement at the PTA level is often an unspoken requirement of all mothers for each child for the duration of the academic year. Starting in grade four, many students begin attending juku to prepare for middle-school entrance examinations, which means a majority of their more challenging academic learning is happening outside of the classroom. This can change the classroom dynamic, especially if your child cannot keep up.
10. The need to supplement
If you would like your child to attend a university in an English-speaking country as a native speaker one day, how are you keeping up with their English? In the U.S. system, typically, reading and writing with more critical thinking become more intense starting in upper elementary school, so speaking it in the home is not enough. At the same time, to keep up with Japanese peers who speak Japanese at home, along with the tutor, are your child’s extra-curricular activities in Japanese? But keep in mind that written and spoken Japanese are very different in their word choices.
Ultimately, the most intimidating thing for parents is that you can’t go back. Though hotly debated and researched among numerous scholars, it is generally accepted that it gets increasingly difficult to reach native-level language fluency as we age. And though there is not a set cut-off date, there has been research indicating that the window for your child to speak with a native accent begins to close at 6 and has closed completely by the onset of puberty. That said, factors like time commitment and motivation may overcome such challenges.
As with language acquisition, a child’s cultural values are also established and reinforced in their formative years. Just like you may never be able to speak like a native if you learn the language past age 10, for example, you may also never be able to create a fully Western child with Western ideals if they have been in the local system until a similar age — unless the parents are aware of this dynamic and work to counterbalance it.
Like the truism that there is no manual for your child, there is also no set of instructions on how to best support your foreign child in the local school system, but I hope this list helps. What’s more, every family is different. With those known unknowns in mind, the best advice may be to make a day-by-day assessment and rejigger accordingly.
Teru Clavel is an education consultant, researcher and writer. She is the mother of three children who have attended local schools in the U.S., Hong Kong, China and Japan. Learning Curve covers issues related to education in Japan. Your comments and story ideas: firstname.lastname@example.org