Raising a Bilingual Child

I have been living in Japan since 2004, and while I am not comfortable saying I am fluent in Japanese, I do consider myself highly conversational. I should honestly study more. Not just exist in a Japanese environment, but legitimately study. But life is busy and time is short. But it is on my list of things I need to spend more time on. But that isn’t the point of this preamble.

The point is that my Japanese is good enough that ever since my wife and I  became friends, started dating, got married, our common language, and then our home language, has been Japanese. So, when we were expecting our first child, I had a decision to make. What language should I use with my child.

Fortunately, my wife made this decision very easy for me. I talked with her about different advice I’d gotten from other parents as well as friends who grew up in multicultural families. The predominant advice was “Speak to him in English. Do your best to ensure that he can exist in two languages. You will need to be his reason to want to speak English.”

I mentioned that I wasn’t sure about what to do. And, she looked me and essentially said that she knew it would be important to me for our child to be able to communicate in my native language was well and she wanted to support that. I feel I should bring up that English is not her strong suit. It has not needed to be one of her skill sets. I mean, of course, her English is still worlds better than the average American’s Japanese. (America is my home country, by the way.) But her reassurance that I can encourage my son to speak a language that she is not always comfortable in has meant the world to me. And that she does her best to support him in English when he wants to be playful with her int hat language as well… She is wonderful.

Now my son is almost four. Japanese is naturally his dominant language. But everyday we speak in English. It has been the only language we’ve used to communicate for a while now. In the past I would occasionally use Japanese if it were something that he needed to understand but couldn’t yet grasp in English. Now he understands enough where that isn’t necessary.

It is amazing watching him flow back and forth between the two languages. He tries so hard to speak it with me. And when he can’t, he’ll switch to Japanese, and I will try to clue him into the correct English with how I answer his question. Sometimes he picks it up. Sometimes not. But there is always next time.

I’m lucky that he still is not embarrassed by using English in public, or that his dad is obviously not Japanese. I’ve heard from some other parents that tends to happen early in  elementary school, and that sometimes it doesn’t happen at all. Right now our little talks, and then playing together in the living room, are some of the brightest spots of my day.

And in less than a month my wife should give birth to a little girl. The whole family is excited. The decision to speak to her in just English was a lot easier. I’ve seen good results. But I know, the first time I see my son and daughter speaking English together by choice, I’m going to cry. Just thinking about it, I get emotional.

But, there is a downside. Remember how I said I am highly conversational in Japanese? I think I’m getting worse. My home time was my place for uninterrupted living in a Japanese language environment since I work as an English teacher so my workday also uses a lot of English. So, without that pure Japanese time I do feel my skill atrophying. Thus the renewed feeling of needing to study.

But, honestly, if my Japanese needing more polish is the price I have to pay for raising bilingual children, I will gladly pay that price.

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2 thoughts on “Raising a Bilingual Child

  1. As a wife to an Indian, I’m starving hard to learn his mother tongue of Malayalam. We both agree to speak to our children in our respective native languages. I’m sure it’s different as you’re in a Japanese dominant area, I consider for my child the odds are we will end up in an English dominant area so we will have to make an extra effort to teach Malayalam to our kids.
    As a side note, though Arjun speaks English at near native levels, we are trying to speak only in Malayalam at home. Since I’ve only been learning for a year and a half, it can get very frustrating and easy to slip into English. Any tips for helping improve learning and facilitate acquisition?

    I love that you teach in Japan. I was in Korea for 2 years and now in the UAE 🙂

    1. I’m on a train and have tried accessing your site, but each time I get to the same part of a post and it crashes! I’m very excited to read the more of your site when I get home!

      One of the hardest hurdles for me in learning Japanese was just accepting that I cannot speak with the same style or finesse that I have in English. That sounds so obvious, but I kept getting hung up in the struggle of not saying what I could say, but wanting to translate my English.

      Having the desire to speak, and someone to practice with is huge. As is finding what you like and what works for you.

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