“My children are bilingual.” How many parents would love to be able to say that — and believe it!

I recently met with a journalist friend in Australia. He is an Anglo Australian; his wife, Greek. I asked him how the family was.

“My wife’s in Greece right now with the two children. The boy’s turning 6 and is totally bilingual. We want the same for our daughter, who’s just 1 year old.” (My friend, by the way, does not speak Greek.)

Having brought up four children who are fluent in English and Japanese, I’ve been right through the bilingual-upbringing school of hard knocks . . . and paid my dues on this one. I don’t say “paid my dues” lightly. Producing children who are bilingual takes hard work and, depending on how far apart your two countries are, a lot of money.

Now, I am sure that my friend’s little boy is actually bilingual. But being bilingual at age 6 is far different from having that great attribute at 16.

For a toddler or very young child, their home is generally their entire world. A child craves security and love, and communicates through gesture and sound to get them. They want — and need — to know the boundaries of behavior: What they should do?; What they can get away with?; When will food be served and what it will be? Is a bath really necessary? Can they watch what they want to on TV? When is bedtime? In other words, communication with those who provide the essentials of a young child’s needs and wants — its parents — is vital to its existence.

So, a child with, say, an Australian father and a Greek mother will likely find it most effective to speak English to him and Greek to her. The child’s accent will be perfect; the use of words, learned from its parents, will be spot on. Voila, the deliverance of a bilingual child.

Happiness and wellbeing

Up to a point, that is. What defines that point? Well, it’s when the child goes out into the world — to school.

In school, a child’s happiness and wellbeing depends in part on how they cope with relationships with their peers. Pleasing, or displeasing, their teachers is also a key factor. Sure, parents are still there to ferry you from place to place, to feed and protect you — but their love is always there to rely on (or should be). If they try to stop you doing something you desperately want to do, a few coy words in English or Greek, for example, may help you get your way.

Not so with peers and teachers. Unlike your parents, their interests do not coincide with yours. You need subtle language skills, with a larger vocabulary than you use in the home, to get along with them. In the case of my journalist friend, that vocabulary is English. His son’s Greek is bound to remain in the realm of the 6-year-old: fluent 6-year-old’s Greek.

Parents who do not share a native language will immediately recognize this gap. So, what can they do about closing it, to guide their children toward fluency in two languages?

First of all, frequent visits to the country of the parent who is not living in their own country are necessary. These should really be annual visits of up to a month, if possible. My wife and I, neither of us Japanese, did this over the years when we were living in Japan. We were putting our children through the Japanese school system; and even though we are both native speakers of English, our children’s command of the language was far from standard. Their better language, by far, was that of their outside world, namely, Japanese.

However, on annual trips to Australia we often managed to put the children in a local school. We were grateful to the public schools there that took them in for such short periods, and our children’s English-language ability jumped markedly at these times. They became the possessors of two different and distinct worlds, never, I believe, confusing the two.

But it still wasn’t enough. In the early 1990s, we left Japan for nearly three years in order to give our children a good grounding in English. At that time, their Japanese-language ability suffered. But subsequently returning to Japan and its schools solved that problem.

International schools

Another alternative is the international school. Years ago, these schools in Japan generally neglected Japanese-language education. Now, they have raised their game, and the Japanese-language lessons in some of them that I have seen are impressive. Lucky kids.

But many people not attached to companies that pay educational expenses for the children of employees posted overseas will not be able to afford these schools. I was a case in point, although not being a company man allowed us to move back and forth more easily. Which brings me to the next point: It takes a huge commitment in time to make your children bilingual.

It’s not only the frequent, prolonged trips “back home.” The parent who is the non-native is obliged to read to the children in his or her native language; to watch DVDs with them; to ensure that the children themselves learn to read well in that language. The main point is that the child’s vocabulary has to go well beyond bed, bath and breakfast.

Unfortunately, it is the rare child who, when little, will see the advantage of knowing another language. Their friends may not regard that skill as being something to envy. What good will Greek be to a kid in an Australian school? Or, if you are a Russian married to a Japanese in Japan, will your children be praised and complimented because they speak Russian? I doubt it, and it may even be an embarrassment to a child. Telling a 9-year-old child of Japanese-German parentage that knowing German will stand them in good stead in society or business hardly outweighs comments made about ethnicity and language to that child in the playground.

My children are grown and now enjoying the benefits of knowing two languages intimately. It wasn’t easy getting them there, but, I can tell you this: Yatta kai ga atta (It was worth it).

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