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Immersion tactics come with risks and benefits

by Mami Maruko and Magdalena Osumi

Staff Writers

Some parents opt to immerse their children at a young age in a multilingual environment, hoping they will become not only bilingual but also have new avenues of opportunity open up.

While being in a foreign educational setting has merits for kids, how to teach them their mother tongue and dealing with identity issues are some of the challenges they could face, parents say.

Tokyo residents Yusuke and Maho Sasada, both 43, decided to put their children into an international school instead of a local elementary school. The family, which now lives in Kodaira, spent four years in New Jersey, where Yusuke was assigned by his shipping firm. Their three children, Mayu, 10, Taichi, 8, and Fuyu, 6, became fluent in English while attending local schools. Today, the two eldest children attend Tokyo West International School in Hachioji, while the youngest attends Kunitachi Kids International, a kindergarten in Tachikawa.

“While we were in the United States, the children’s English writing ability improved tremendously, so we thought it was a pity that they would have had to give up developing this ability if they were sent to local Japanese schools,” Maho Sasada said.

“I also liked the way children said their opinions freely in the classroom at schools in the U.S., which was a nice environment that I wanted my children to continue to be in.”

In fact, in his third-grade class at Tokyo West, Taichi is one of 15 Japanese in the class of 19. But being an international school, the classes are all taught in English, except for the daily Japanese lessons given by a Japanese teacher. Otherwise, the pupils are only allowed to speak English in class.

The Sasadas said they feel the advantages outnumber the disadvantages, even though they have to spend a fortune. International schools are often more expensive than local or even private Japanese schools.

“No matter what kind of choice my children make in the future — whether they go to a Japanese university or to an American one — I think it’s good for them to have attained basic English ability while they are still young,” Maho Sasada said.

Foreign language acquisition at an early age is also what many non-Japanese parents in Japan take into account when making educational decisions for their children. Some venture into sending their kids to local public schools, in the belief this will be the best way for them to learn Japanese language and culture and have more options in the future.

British-born Elizabeth Hollanders, 48, and her Australian husband, Hamish, 46, live in Tokyo and send their 7-year-old son, Finn, to an elementary school in the city of Higashikurume, where he is in second grade. Finn’s 6-year-old sister, Maya, attends a local kindergarten.

“I thought that while they are young they could learn Japanese and become bilingual hopefully, which was one of the biggest reasons to come here,” said Elizabeth, who teaches English at a university.

The family came from an island near Tasmania in 2010, so their children were practically raised in Japan and all their friends are Japanese. They have already acquired language skills proficient enough to do well in class, Elizabeth said.

Both the Sasadas and Hollanders said that while they are happy about their children acquiring foreign language skills and experiencing a different culture in a bilingual environment, they are careful not to let the children forget their mother tongue.

Hollanders, herself a trained elementary school teacher, said the couple had to find their own way to help the kids maintain their English skills. So far, to nurture a love of books and reading, the couple have been reading out stories or using online reading programs with their kids.

Practicing reading at home has not always been successful, however, and Hollanders said she is careful not to let the children feel English is a burden.

“At the end of the day Finn is tired and doesn’t want to do more work,” she said. “I also didn’t want to make reading English a chore and something he would start to hate.”

Once her contract ends in March, however, the Hollanders are scheduled to return to Australia. Before their kids start attending school there, their mother said she plans to home school them for the first year “as I don’t want them to be at the bottom when they go back into school.”

“If we were going to stay longer, probably I would find some Australian parent group to enable them to interact with other English-speaking children,” Elizabeth said.

“I think that they haven’t really missed anything,” she added. “It was probably the best time for such an experience, because they were young and don’t have the same inhibitions as we have, as we get older.”

The Sasadas meanwhile have been keen on giving their eldest daughter, Mayu, an opportunity to study Japanese via a correspondence course. This has become part of her preparation for entering the junior high school in Kodaira after graduating from Tokyo West in two years.

This idea came from her parents, who thought that putting her into a new environment — a bigger school with more students — would give their daughter a richer experience. Mayu agreed.

But beyond language issues, one of the biggest challenges of putting children in a bilingual environment could be what to do when they face identity issues, the parents say.

Asked whether bullying or other problems bother her, Maho Sasada replied, “not so much,” as she thinks the children should learn how to deal with such issues by themselves — if such situations should arise in the future.

Bullying was in fact one of the worries the Hollanders had when they enrolled their children in a Japanese school. “It has never been a problem,” Elizabeth Hollanders said.

Instead, she has noticed that they are starting to face identity issues.

“There have been a couple of times when Finn’s with all Japanese kids, and I can feel he doesn’t want me to be there,” Elizabeth said, adding that the children, immersed in Japanese culture, exhibit behavior suggesting they don’t want to stand out. She admitted that such issues were the last things she and her husband had considered.

“Maya has recently started asking questions such as: ‘Do you think I’m looking more Japanese now?’ and insisted my hair is black as she colored my hair that way on a picture drawn for me.

“I think Maya wants to be the same as the other children,” she said.