Issues | THE FOREIGN ELEMENT

Parents in Japan use YouTube to teach bilingual baby talk that's good for any age

by Patrick St. Michel

Contributing Writer

Aishah Levine wasn’t keen on YouTube until she had her first child in 2015. “I realized when you have a baby, there’s a lot of downtime where you are just sitting with them. For hours at a time,” she says. “You can only read so much. So, I thought I’d see what was on YouTube.”

What started as a resource to solve new-parent challenges inspired Levine to launch her own YouTube channel, Bilingual Baby, at the end of 2015. In her videos, she highlights life with her two children, Alex and Olivia, complete with subtitles in English and Japanese. Uploads routinely push pass 100,000 views, and has led to Levine’s family being profiled in numerous domestic media outlets.

Home schooling: Aishah Levine uses her YouTube channel to upload slice-of-life videos about Japan that also serve as language lessons. | COURTESY OF AISHAH LEVINE
Home schooling: Aishah Levine uses her YouTube channel to upload slice-of-life videos about Japan that also serve as language lessons. | COURTESY OF AISHAH LEVINE

Levine says Bilingual Baby is primarily an eikaiwa (English conversation) channel — “I should have put that in the title, it’s the biggest regret I have” — that makes picking up new vocabulary fun. Yet it’s also one of a handful of spaces on the streaming platform offering advice on how to raise bilingual children, while sharing images of what an international family in Japan looks like, a sight that remains rare in mainstream media here.

Levine’s objective took shape after coming to Japan in 2002 as part of the JET Programme in the prefecture of Kyoto.

“I was working at a city hall and I realized how shy businesspeople were. Stuff we all notice being in Japan … it’s like, what is your opinion, what do you think? Silence,” she says. Improving English education became an interest for her and, with Bilingual Baby, she saw a chance.

One of her earliest clips is a trip to a home center with her husband, Taka, and son, Alex. She recorded an impromptu video focused on the words “push” and “pull,” complete with confused customers pivoting away in the background. This mini-lesson model defines Bilingual Baby’s early output.

“If an adult sees me teaching an 8-month-old baby how to talk, they’ll likely think, ‘I can do that. I can certainly keep up with a baby,'” she says.

Levine didn’t want her channel to pump out day-in-the-life videos at first. When she experimented with a vlogging style, however, her views shot up.

“People like to see how actual language is spoken,” she says. “They were learning so much outside of what I had introduced.”

She realized the new format could still help with the channel’s overall objective, so she switched styles and has documented topics like a peaceful day out in Japan and trips to McDonald’s in America.

“When I started, I wrote down all the things I wanted to do,” she says, pulling out a piece of paper from a yellow legal pad that features something resembling a graph with many interconnecting lines. “I’m sure it’s here … here,” she points to a part on the graph, “we wanted to showcase what a real international family is like, the struggles and the good stuff.”

Picking up language

“When I came to Japan and met my husband, I didn’t know many other international couples,” says Lian McGillycuddy, who operates the YouTube channel Fuji Family. The Shizuoka-based McGillycuddy came across Bilingual Baby along with other parenting-oriented channels by seeking out advice on how her now-1-year-old son, Sean, could grow up learning two languages. The reason she started her channel in March 2019, however, was a bit more practical.

“It thought it might be nice to make videos for my parents in Ireland to watch Sean, and see him traveling around and going to Disneyland,” she says. His Japanese grandparents are also big fans of the channel, and they pick up English at roughly the same pace Sean does, helping to bring them closer together.

Soon, McGillycuddy found other families and Japanese viewers were watching.

“If I could, I wanted to share my experience as a mother, and if someone watching the videos could get something from that, it would be good,” she says.

So far, viewers have favored videos introducing elements of Irish culture (such as celebrating St. Patrick’s Day in Tokyo) or offering easy-to-follow English opportunities in familiar settings.

“We had lots of comments from high schoolers, saying they learned new English words from our videos,” she says. “They didn’t feel like it was studying because it was fun, like a laid-back trip to Disneyland.”

Linguistic dynamo: Tiara Harris says her son, Alex, is picking up Japanese quickly, a feat that has impressed viewers of her YouTube channel, Chocolate Sushi Roll. | COURTESY OF TIARA HARRIS
Linguistic dynamo: Tiara Harris says her son, Alex, is picking up Japanese quickly, a feat that has impressed viewers of her YouTube channel, Chocolate Sushi Roll. | COURTESY OF TIARA HARRIS

Not all YouTube channels focused on raising bilingual kids in Japan require a Japanese parent, however. Tiara Harris gave birth to her first child while living on an army base in Okinawa, and her son, Jason, had the chance to attend a local nursery school.

“He just started picking up the Japanese, of course. That’s what babies do,” the American-born Harris says. “When I noticed that, I was like, ‘Wow, I need to start learning so that he doesn’t lose this.’ To him, English and Japanese are his first languages.”

Despite bouncing around the United States after their stint in Okinawa for about four years, Harris arrived back in Japan last fall, and is now based out of Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture. With one more child in tow, she launched Chocolate Sushi Roll, which eschews vlog content in favor of uploads offering a mix of activities parents can do with their children to help with their bilingual studies, along with parent motivation videos.

“Anytime I post a video of Jason speaking Japanese, people will inbox me asking, ‘How did you do that? I want my child to be bilingual!’ Instead of always typing out the same response, it’s easier just to make a YouTube channel.”

So far, Harris says her main audience comes from other monolingual English speakers hoping to introduce a new language to their children. One demographic that hasn’t tuned in yet are Japanese viewers.

“And that’s on me, because I know that I need to do my videos in Japanese and English,” she says. “Because my friends at the nursery school, they are my ideal audience. They want to teach their kids English but they aren’t doing it because they’re just worried about the bigger picture.”

To help show them it’s possible, Harris plans on introducing a third language — Spanish — into the rotation.

“When we moved to Japan, a little bit of my hard work gets discredited because people will say, ‘Oh, you live in Japan so obviously your kids can speak Japanese now.’ But no, I laid this foundation while we were living in America. By learning Spanish in Japan, I feel like if people do it with us, they can get that inspiration that they can do it as well.”

From screen to real life

Levine is also trying to connect with her Japanese viewers in new ways. The Bilingual Baby channel has already inspired a fan community — dubbed the “BB Family” — that has met together in real life on two occasions thus far. In the next few weeks, she plans to release a bilingual book, “My Moon, Your Moon,” which she co-wrote with Nick Ashley and is illustrated by Yoshiko Sugita. Levine says she hopes her book will be seen as an interactive educational tool as well as demonstrate the importance of reading as a bonding experience.

McGillycuddy also hopes to host meet-ups sometime in the future, but for now views Fuji Family as just a bit of fun.

“We did a trip to Disneyland for Halloween, and it was very hot. It was a little too hot for Sean, so we decided to only do one day and go back home,” she says. “Our subscribers were really looking forward to it, but they understood that the most important thing is family and Sean.”

By the river: Lian McGillycuddy heads out with her son for a walk by the water. | COURTESY OF LIAN MCGILLYCUDDY
By the river: Lian McGillycuddy heads out with her son for a walk by the water. | COURTESY OF LIAN MCGILLYCUDDY

Not every parent would feel comfortable putting their child on YouTube. Levine says she thinks about her children’s privacy constantly.

“I’ve always been a person who looks at (reality TV stars) the Kardashians and thinks … they are all doing well, but they had no choice in the matter. I’m not sure how I feel about putting my child in a situation they didn’t get to choose. That is something I’m very conflicted about.” Levine adds that she limits how long the camera is out, and never prompts her son to perform.

“The only way we can balance it is by reminding ourselves that it’s for a better cause,” she says. “We aren’t doing it to make money or become famous as YouTubers, we are doing it to convey a message to inspire people.”

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