An American friend recently asked me a difficult question: How do you bring up a bilingual child?
She and her Japanese husband now have a 2-year-old son, and they are keen for him ultimately to be fluent in Japanese and English.
Having brought up four children who are bilingual in English and Japanese, while living for decades in Japan with my British wife (it’s harder, I can tell you, when neither parent is Japanese), I have been around the block on this and, moreover, I’ve paid my dues. In fact, it’s not only metaphorical dues that I’ve paid; for you will soon see that bilingualism doesn’t come cheap.
This is a complex and multifaceted issue. A Chinese man, for instance, marries a Russian woman and they live in Japan. They are, like all parents, naturally eager for their children to speak their native languages, as well as to thrive in Japan. A Croatian woman lives as a single mother in Oslo. How does she get her child, who has become fluent in Norwegian, to speak Croatian?
I will limit this piece, for obvious reasons, to families in which one parent, let’s say the father, is Japanese and the mother is English-speaking, though the same principles may apply across the board.
In the very early years of the child’s life, the parents may very well be convinced that they are having success. The child will easily distinguish between languages and learn quickly to speak unaccented English with their mother and perfect Japanese with their father. The parents will rejoice, believing that they have licked the problem.
But hold on. A small child’s world revolves around the home and doing what it has to do (eat, sleep, play, go to the toilet) to survive, be happy and get what it wants. Language is the primary tool for accomplishing this, and the child will readily learn how to please both parents. Bilingualism up to age 6 is a cinch.
After that the child goes to school, and instantly realizes it is not so easy to get what it wants without more sophisticated skills than smiling, bawling and begging for something. The language used in the school will, as a matter of course, take precedence in the mind.
Let’s take the case of my American friend and her Japanese husband. Their son, once at school, will be seriously concerned with making a success there, both socially and academically. He will still speak with his mother in English about eating, bathing, sleeping, etc. But his English vocabulary will not grow at the same speed as his Japanese. He will need a nuanced knowledge of the latter to function comfortably with friends and teachers at school.
As a result, a language gap will open up and widen as the child advances at school. How does one close this gap?
Of course, the English-speaking parent should speak and read in English as much as possible to the child. Arranging play groups with other English-speaking children and meetings with relatives will help. But this will be no substitute for the circumstances at school, where the child is striving to succeed in what are, in reality, pretty harsh surroundings.
This is where the “dues” part comes in.
My wife and I took our four children back to Australia every year. With the benefit of hindsight, instead of flying on Qantas, I should have bought a small jet plane and hired a pilot. It would have been cheaper. When we could manage an extended stay, we put the children into local Australian schools to enhance their variety of linguistic experiences.
And yet . . . it wasn’t enough.
Because we had sent our children to Japanese schools, they still spoke Japanese among themselves, though they communicated with us in English. We finally decided to go back to Australia for three years, to give them a solid grounding in their “native” language.
The result was fluent English. But their Japanese — especially the written language — had suffered. We then returned to Japan; and the children had to face their time at Japanese middle and high schools with a major kanji handicap. Luckily, they caught up. (One thing that helped was putting them into Japanese Kumon tutoring classes while we were in Australia.)
The moral of the saga of bilingualism is that it takes a great deal of time (you won’t really be able to say your children are bilingual until they are in their high teens); monumental effort and perseverance on the part of both parents; and, regrettably, piles of money.
Of course it helps if there are grandparents or other relatives in the English-speaking country willing and able to take you and your children for long stays. It also helps if you have a house to go to in a district whose schools will take your children for a few weeks or months at a time.
I was lucky. As an author without a salaried job, I was able to leave Japan whenever the children were on school holidays. If one or both parents are tied to a job, then such to-ing and fro-ing may not be a viable option and separation at times may be necessary — and this can put a strain on a marriage as well.
This is why bilingualism is a complex issue. It involves much more than merely singing a lullaby. A host of issues are linked with the aspiration to have bilingual children: social, financial, emotional, marital.
In many cases, the parents will not succeed. The child of a Croatian mother in Oslo may conclude that, so long as he or she can communicate on a basic level with mum, there is no need to learn Croatian fluently, seeing as they are settled, presumably for good, in Norway. The child must be shown the absolute necessity of learning the “other” language. Mum really wanting her child to understand her native tongue and appreciate her country’s culture will not be sufficient reason for a child to take it on. Children have to perceive the necessity on their own terms; and those terms are defined by the language and culture of the country where they are living.
I am sure that there are many parents reading The Japan Times who fervently desire their children to become bilingual. Let me tell you, it’s worth all the effort. Well worth it. You will not only have bilingual children, they will be bicultural as well. This will give them extra tolerance when it comes to understanding other cultures they may encounter later. If that isn’t one of the main goals of education, I don’t know what is.
Bilingualism may be the greatest educational gift you can give your children. They will be grateful to you for that gift. So, ganbatte, ne. Or, in English: Hang in there!
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