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Raising a Bilingual Child in Japan

If you and your partner are living in Japan and considering having children or already have children, there’s no doubt that you have questions on raising a bilingual child in Japan. I certainly do. Even with my experience as a kindergarten teacher, I struggle because the classroom is a much different setting than home.

As a parent to a three year old, everything I’ve done up to now is completely trial and error. I suspect it’s the same with many families across Japan. And, because all children and families are different, I think it’s safe to say that there’s no right way, except that consistency is key.

Here’s how my experience “raising a bilingual child in Japan” has gone so far, along with a few thoughts as an early childhood educator.

Our Backstory

Me

I’m from the US and have been in Japan for about 15 years. I feel pretty confident about my Japanese language skills, though being around children for almost 10 years has really affected my speech! It’s rare for me to have conversations with adults, especially since all of my work with Japanese clients is 90% online.

Husband

Japanese who lived in the US for 10+ years. English language study didn’t really start until enrolling in an intensive ESL program and grad school in the US.

Daughter

Went to Japanese daycare 2-3 days a week from 10 months old, and went to Japanese daycare 5 days a week from 14 months old. Her 2 year old nursery class had English lesson time with a non-native speaker teacher and several native Japanese assistants. Currently homeschooled since April 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Our Bilingual Approach 

“One Language at Home, One Language Outside”

At first, we tried “English at home, Japanese outside,” but I found it to be rather difficult and incredibly impractical.

I’m supposed to tell my daughter she can’t watch Shimajiro or Shinkalion  or Pokemon because it’s in Japanese? Pokemon is now on its 8th generation, and the Evangelion x Shinkalion episode remains the greatest crossover attempt in animated history. It’s neat that we can bond over shows that kind of set me up on the weeberific path to Japan. 

By saying, “English only in the house,” I only end up restricting our entertainment options. Not just streaming options, but print media as well.

I grew up in the US and don’t have any childhood nostalgia over Japanese children’s books like Inai Inai Baa and Nenai Ko Dare Da. But, my daughter knows them from her time at Japanese daycare. Growing up in Japan, I want her to be familiar with those classic Japanese books. I also want her to be familiar with books from my childhood like Harry the Dirty Dog, Corduroy, and Goodnight Moon.

Overall, our current strategy is “English first,” or English as the priority language when speaking and watching TV/movies. But, I definitely don’t want to make speaking Japanese at home a “bad” thing.

However, this may change in 2-3 years depending on whether my daughter will attend a Japanese elementary school or international school.

“One Parent, One Language”

Personally, I think it’s so unreasonable and unfair to expect my child to speak only Japanese to her dad and English to me.

Why?

Think about it. 

If the goal is to raise a bilingual child, doesn’t it make sense to show them that being bilingual is possible? 

What’s the point of pretending you don’t speak Japanese or your spouse pretending they don’t speak English/your native language?

With that said, I do feel that the “one parent, one language” method works if one parent is indeed monolingual. But, the parent with multiple language abilities shouldn’t hold back. 

To me, “one parent, one language” seems like a lot of work involving rules and exceptions.

For example, If I meet my neighbors while out with my girl: am I supposed to pretend that I can’t understand Japanese?

When raising a bilingual child, isn’t it more effective to show your child that’s important to know when to use their language skills in context?

I don’t want to reinforce the stereotype that anyone with a foreign appearance is unable to speak Japanese. That only people who are Japanese or have Japanese heritage are capable of understanding Japanese. That’s ridiculous. Let’s try to put an end to these microagressions.

I’m not here to flex on my Japanese ability because Lord knows I need improvement. But, as a teacher, I make it a point that learning a new language is hard. What I’m asking them to do, to use English between 10 am and 2 pm, 5 days a week, is not easy. But, it’s important to try because trying is the most important part of language learning!

As an aside… This is the same reason why one of my favorite Spanish professors in college was an American white lady. She was a true source of inspiration that fluency is possible with practice! (Oh, by the way, I majored in Spanish Language and Literature in college. It’s a long story, but one day I’ll tell y’all about it) 

So, what works when it comes to raising bilingual children in Japan?

As a reminder, my child is only three years old. So, I’m basically relying on what I’ve picked up in the classroom. The vast majority of my students are from households where Japanese is the primary/only language spoken.

In my 10 years teaching Japanese kids 3-6 years old, here are the patterns that I’ve recognized. 

I want to stress that at this age, language ability is still developing, and kids’ personalities are developing as well. So, I really try not to compare my daughter’s  abilities to those of a child with a similar age/background. 

I’ve noticed that Japanese kids raised in a monolingual household pick up English faster when parent(s) already have familiarity with English and/or use English in a professional setting.

Rarely do the Japanese parents who speak English speak to each other in English. However, they opt to send their children to international kindergartens or private Japanese kindergarten with English programs. These kids might also go to Kumon or an English conversation school and they often go to summer/winter camps. And, family travel abroad is a big thing. 

For Japanese kids whose parents don’t speak English…

There’s a very delicate line between wanting your child to have better educational opportunities and projection. These parents are all about creating opportunities for their child to be immersed in an English-only environment at a young age. 

Sometimes the parents’ efforts are overzealous, though. You end up with a child who can understand/speak English, but by the time first grade rolls around they’re kind of sick of it. 

Again, I want to stress that I’m not an expert. Well, for grad school I researched Japanese language acquisition (in mixed race adolescents). But, what I’m doing with my Kaiju is purely experimental, mixed in with learning from my students’ parents.

Of course, I’d love for my daughter to have proficiency in both Japanese and English so she can communicate with family in the US and Japan. Still, I accept that there’s only so much that I can do. She’ll have to do the actual work, but I’ll need to make sure that she’s not overwhelmed.

I think what’s important to keep in mind is that raising a bilingual child in Japan comes down to environment.

There are many ways you can create immersion opportunities for your child. International schools, international family playgroups, visits to a parent’s home country, streaming media, books, etc are the most popular options.

With that said, monolingual households and/or parents with a “rare” native language will definitely have difficulty in these areas. But I don’t think it is impossible. 

As parents, I think it’s important to remember to make language learning fun and interesting. In the early ages, kids pick up vocabulary very easily. I think that process should be natural, though it can take time.

Storytime!

We have a dog, and one of my daughter’s very first words was wan wan, which is Japanese baby talk for “dog.” Cool, right? Except to her, “wan wan” only meant black Shiba. If I pointed to a poodle or Golden Retriever or even a brown Shiba on our walk and said “Mite! Wan wan,” it didn’t make sense to her. 

With time, wan wan became inu. Eventually, she learned to accept all Shiba colors and all dog breeds as inu.

Then, once she learned the English word, “dog,” something clicked. She immediately accepted all breeds as “dog” when having conversations in English.

It’s fascinating how little minds pick up languages and make connections!

At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, my daughter only spoke in Japanese. But, she could understand English and speak in English when prompted (many, many, many times).

Now, after 6 months of homeschooling (and lots of streaming), she’s very confident in speaking in English. She enjoys storytime and movie time in English. But, sometimes she even requests to watch her favorite Disney and Netflix shows and movies in Japanese! She’ll watch Tangled or Frozen in English and immediately ask to watch it again in Japanese.

I do worry at times that she’s not getting enough Japanese input.  Maybe there aren’t enough opportunities to use Japanese at home aside from lesson time. But, when the situation improves, I’d like her to go to a Japanese kindergarten. 

With that said, my daughter has 2-2.5 years left of kindergarten. I’ll have to soon start thinking about elementary school. Will I send her to an international school, a private Japanese school, or a public Japanese school? 

Primary and secondary education is definitely something to consider when raising a bilingual child in Japan. It’s definitely a decision I can’t make in haste, and I’ve started listing my priorities and researching institutions.

For now, all I can do provide opportunities for my daughter to become familiar and comfortable with using both languages. In an upcoming post, I will share my thoughts on elementary schools and international schools in Japan.

What is your approach to raising a bilingual child in Japan? What is your outlook on your child’s education in Japan?

Raising a Bilingual Child in Japan

 

 

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