English as a father tongue


You are living in Japan in a bicultural, bilingual relationship (meaning that you can deal with the dry-cleaning guy in Japanese). Little Tomu or Tommy, your first, has gone from goos and gurgles to words and even sentences. How cute! Kawaii! You, who have struggled so hard to master Nihongo (or at least understand the dry-cleaning guy when he comes to collect), are amazed, pleased and more than a bit envious that this pint-sized wonder is picking up the language so quickly. You want to help him along (or fear that he is going to overtake you), so when he prattles in Japanese to you, you prattle back.


That is the lesson I learned more than 15 years ago, when my son started talking. I wanted to raise him to be, as I was not, truly bilingual, but I thought I could do it pretty much the way I communicated in my marriage — a bit of English here, a bit of Nihongo there. But I soon learned to my dismay that, instead of my own brand of chanpon, the kid was replying to me in pure, if not quite fluent, Japanese — and nary a word of English could be heard. The reason was simple: I was outnumbered. His mother, grandmother, nursery school teachers and friends were speaking to him in Japanese and so, in a way, was I. What did he need English for?

I had allies — videos and books sent by his American grandmother, “Sesame Street” on the BS channel — but they were poor competition indeed for Momotaro and “Mama to Issho.” Seeing that I was losing the language battle, I made two decisions: first, stop speaking Japanese in the house, save when necessary (as with the dry-cleaning guy), and second, educate my son in the international school system.

The first decision wasn’t easy; I didn’t like the idea of reverting to the monolingualism of my early days in Japan. After years of study and countless moments of embarrassment and frustration, I was finally making a living using Japanese. I was afraid that, unless I kept polishing those hard-won language skills, even with my own family, they would quickly rust.

The second was a toughie as well. As a freelance writer and translator, I wasn’t getting the expat benefits that make an application to the American School in Japan a matter of course. I would have to grind out hundreds of pages annually just to pay the school bills.

But I’ve stuck with both choices and I can’t say that I’ve regretted them (save when the late-tuition notices arrive in the mailbox). I haven’t won the language battle — both of my children are stronger in Japanese than English and probably always will be — but I haven’t lost it either. My son doesn’t need subtitles to understand the humor in “American Beauty,” my daughter doesn’t need a translation to become absorbed in the magic of Harry Potter. I can joke with them and yell at them in the purest Midwesternese and know that I’m getting across (if not always through).

I also know that, if they choose to stay in Japan, their fluency in English will give them a leg up in the job wars.

Are there other paths to bilingualism that don’t require these sacrifices? Aren’t foreign mothers successfully raising bilingual kids in the Japanese school system, in marriages with monolingual Japanese husbands? I know they are, because I’ve met them. I also know that, for foreign fathers in similar circumstances, the odds against bilingualism are higher. One’s native language is a “mother tongue” for a reason — and no matter how much face time his foreign Dad spends with little Tomu, the kid is going to incline toward the language of his Japanese Mom. Dad needs to work twice as hard (or if he is sending Tomu to one of the pricier international academies on his own dime, work a 7/24 schedule) to even the balance.

Not fair? Maybe. Sho ga nai? Afraid so. Of course, there’s always that other alternative — the plane ride home. But I’ll save that one for another column.