Identity issues can complicate a child’s path to becoming bilingual

by Kris Kosaka

Special To The Japan Times

The pursuit of bilingualism can be something akin to the quest for the Holy Grail for parents living in Japan. It’s also near-universal, affecting expatriates here for an extended period, multilingual families where the parents come from different cultural backgrounds, or Japanese nationals eager to start their child on learning a new language. One thing that is easy to overlook, though, is the importance of nurturing identity on this quest.

Carol Inugai is the language and learning manager for the International Baccalaureate Organization. She worked for more than 25 years as an educator in Japan before taking on her current role at the organization. She is very well informed on the subject of language acquisition, but it’s her role as mother to a bilingual child that reinforces the research on a personal level.

“Language plays an intricate role in the development of a child’s identity as he or she navigates the complexities of various group memberships,” Inugai tells The Japan Times. “All multicultural children must eventually reconcile how to create an integrated identity by harmonizing their ‘other’ identities within the established group.”

While many parents may see formalized language study as the key to biculturalism, it is sometimes necessary to put it aside when issues of identity arise.

Take one typical case in Japan: Peter, Maki and their son, Leo. (For privacy, the family has requested we not print their real names.) Peter is British and Maki is Japanese. Both parents, determined to ensure Leo’s bilingual development, meticulously researched their linguistic options while Maki was pregnant and formulated a strategy many bicultural families employ: Peter, whose Japanese was limited, would speak to Leo only in English and support his son’s English literacy skills, while Maki (although she was fluent in English) would speak to Leo only in Japanese.

Taking his role as minority-language parent seriously, Maki says Peter created engaging home lessons, stocked up on books, music and movies, and worked hard to establish an early, consistent routine of English study built around a need for communication between father and son.

Things went well throughout elementary school and Leo was praised for his language development — not just at school, but also when he visited the extended family in England. He read books in both languages and was a happy, energetic boy. Peter and Maki heaped praise on their son, and congratulated themselves as well.

Then adolescence arrived. Leo lost his motivation to study English. He began to answer his father in Japanese. When repeatedly confronted on this issue, he retreated into silence and negotiated essentials only with his mother. Everything else seemed to be going well: he spent time with classmates online and at school, especially those who shared his interests in soccer and photography. School reports, too, indicated firm academic achievement and social adjustment with his peers. But Leo refused to study or speak English throughout middle school and into high school.

What had gone wrong with the plan for bilingualism? Peter was angry and hurt by his son’s actions and Maki says she became distraught. While their reactions are understandable, Leo’s case illustrates exactly how planning for language acquisition must include consideration of identity development and socialization.

Inugai cautions that identity cannot be cajoled or drilled like language study can, and that reconciliation “can be particularly difficult in Japanese society, with its emphasis on inclusion.” She believes Leo’s Japanese identity needed to be affirmed before he could accept English language study.

“Unfortunately, Leo had been the victim of mild bullying at school for his English ability, and he naturally wanted to align himself more firmly within the group of his Japanese classmates,” Inugai says. “Because his parents resisted his need to assert a Japanese identity, Leo retreated even more deeply into hostility against English.”

Identity can be positively affirmed by both parents and educators. Adam Clark works as a counselor at Yokohama International School and is the father of two bilingual children. He says that while the needs of children struggling with identity issues will change over time, one consistent goal is to support these children as they develop the ability to move comfortably across cultural boundaries.

“As parents we can do a lot for our children by providing them with meaningful experiences deep within the various cultures of their lives,” Clark says. “Consistent time spent within specific cultural settings can help children master the skills needed to move effectively within cultures and also help them to integrate the requirements of that culture into a coherent view of themselves. Specific cultural settings need not be ‘cultural events’. Sports programs, the arts or really any area of interest that the child has can be a great resource.”

Mike Bostwick, director of English immersion at Katoh Gakuen in the city of Numazu, Shizuoka Prefecture, believes teachers play an important role in affirming identity.

“Increasing numbers of children are becoming transnational, with the ability to use multiple languages and identities that transcend traditional ideas of belonging,” he says. “Our role as educators is to assist and support children in developing their bilingual and multicultural abilities as they become transnational citizens — full members of their own country and of the international community. Ultimately, we feel these are ‘gifts’ that should be available to all children.”

The bicultural community is quite creative when it comes to bestowing such gifts on its children. Anecdotes I heard in the researching of this topic included a father in Fujisawa who takes his boys home to England every summer to attend the same local school he attended as a child — emphasizing socialization rather than formal language study. One Fukuoka mother sends her children to an international school, but their music studies are within the local community and the family joined a local church. Parents in Yokohama decided to home-school their daughter in English while she attended Japanese school part-time. However, this changed when the daughter requested she attend a Japanese junior high school full time “like everyone else.” In return, the daughter promised her parents she would study for the English proficiency exams to create the possibility for further tertiary level study in English.

While families and educators pursue the grail of language acquisition, they must be prepared — and patient — as children or students navigate the individual quest of incorporating different cultures into a unified multicultural identity. It may mean allowing one language to temporarily “drop” — but it doesn’t mean your child will never develop fluent language skills.

Citing the work of professor Jim Cummins and other noted researchers, Inugai believes that “language is paramount for children to become socialized and develop a sense of belonging within cultural settings. At a certain stage in acquisition, language becomes a part of identity, and identity should be allowed to emerge according to the child.”

Learning Curve is a forum for the teaching community to discuss issues related to language learning and lifestyle. Send comments on this topic and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp.

  • Firas Kraïem

    I’ve always thought the whole “biculturalism” thing was oversold, but now I see it can even be harmful…

  • Robert Chandler

    There are so many factors with this. The school environment, the home environment, the kids personality, exposure to an alternate culture outside of their standard schooling (being abroad, foreign groups). My own suggestion for this would have been using all English at home. Establishing a norm of English at home and Japanese at school. If the kid starts to rebel tell him he doesn’t have to speak English at school. But bullying is always a worry in Japan for multiracial/multicultural kids.

    • dd

      Well said. The sample is too small considering the headline. This is just one situation and it’s difficult to draw much of a trend from that.

  • Jason G. Karlin

    The problem is not Leo’s parents failure to affirm his Japanese identity; the problem is a school environment that bullies children for their difference, making them ashamed of their diversity. Blaming the parents is just plain wrong! If you want to raise your bicultural/multiracial children in Japan, then you need to find a public school that celebrates diversity and has a zero tolerance policy for all forms of discrimination.

    • Steve Novosel

      It says mild bullying – I imagine that is more on the level of teasing than anything super serious. Kids are always going to get teased when they are different than their classmates.

      • My2Yen

        Kids in ANY Junior High are going to be teased. Are the children ready for it? If not, they get teased more heavily!

        Junior High School Students and early High School students are just trying to get through the day without embarrassing themselves in front of their peers The best way to do that in Japan is by trying to blend in and not to stand out. My child didn’t want to make good nor bad grades in Jr. High. Just average….

    • Robert Chandler

      Hard to pick public schools. That requires moving as school are zoned based on where a kids lives. Leaving expressive private schools as the only other option and home schooling which I am not even sure is legal in Japan (and almost surely not wanted by your child).

  • Sam Gilman

    Parents intent on bilingualism in their children have to remember that their children are not ideological projects. Tying bilingualism to some kind of “international” or “double” identity is dangerous. It’s really up to the children to work out for themselves who they are and how to make sense of their different upbringing, not up to the parents. I hear too many western parents expressing various forms of overt and implicit concern that their children may grow up “too Japanese”. There’s a real danger that people end up encouraging their kids to devalue a very important part of themselves.

    What about allowing the children to have a proper sense of place and where they are from? That’s not incompatible with being bilingual, or having a foreign parent.

    I fully expect that at least one of my children will go through a phase of talking to me only in Japanese. I hear it happens frequently enough with other parents. That’s up to the kids who are working through their identity issues just like all of us had to do growing up.

  • Jay

    “I’ve always thought the whole “biculturalism” thing was oversold, but now I see it can even be harmful…”

    That’s ridiculous. It’s not the bilingualism that’s harmful, it’s the parents’ approach to raising their kids bilingually. There are plenty of people who grow up bilingually, that don’t have identity issues. And on the contrary, the research has shown that bilingualism improves mental ability in other areas, particularly maths. The only harm in bilingualism is that you understand what idiots are saying in two languages, instead of just one.

  • Mark Makino

    “full members of their own country and of the international community”
    Unfortunately there are some who define nationality and membership in a ethnicity exclusively, so that membership in one precludes membership in another.

  • budgie

    It might help i society didn’t constantly drum into them that being ‘haafu’ means you can’t be a ‘real’ Japanese; that bilingualism, however coveted, Doesn’t come with gaijin cooties.

    The post that sticks out is more often left to rot than hammered in.

  • rakiba

    It is completely normal for a multi-ethnic child to go through various phases of identity especially as a teen. This can be a phase or last a lifetime.

    The important thing is that the father gave the child an excellent foundation for native fluency which is available to the child if and when he wants to use his English skills.

    Also, bullying can’t be tolerated but teasing about difference will happen to all kids. One day the “pure” Japanese kids will feel bad that they are “only” Japanese. Some advertisement, TV show or study abroad experience will make them feel average. (perhaps they already do which fuels picking on the kid with extra abilities.)

    I can understand and relate to the parents concerns but really they are doing just fine. The kid will be fine. This is an understandable but privileged problem.

  • Rosie P

    This happened to me when I was a teen, but I am half Chinese and was living in the UK. I refused to speak Chinese to my mother for 7 years, although I used to be fluent. Now I’m still making up for it, and my Chinese will never be the way it was. This reaction is normal though- it has nothing to do with Japanese society, it’s all about being bi-cultural and being a teen! I was also mildly bullied for being Chinese, and I wanted to fit in so I rejected my Chinese half. Sounds stupid, but I convinced myself I was ‘full’ British until I hit a real identity crisis in my late teens and it wasn’t until I met others like me at University that I began to sort my head out. It’s a bit cheesy, but once you realise you’re not alone – that you’re not the only bicultural person with a messed up and confused identity, you realise that it doesn’t really matter. I’m very happy to see articles being written about the problems of being bicultural. Really would have appreciated it when I was younger.