Raising a bilingual child in Japan | Way of life

You could say that my son is bilingual.

Although he is only six weeks old, his bilingualism is equivalent to people talking to him in two languages ​​while he screams and poops.

Let’s say he is on the road to bilingualism.

Since arriving in Japan in 2006, I have known dozens of couples raising their children to speak two languages. (Or even three in some cases. An English-speaking friend of mine is married to a Korean speaker, for example, and they are sending their daughter to a Japanese kindergarten. I also know a Japanese mother who is fluent in German, so she l raises four children between these two languages ​​alongside her English-speaking husband.)

I also interviewed a few people about bilingualism.

Shameless plug here – I co-host a podcast about raising a mixed-race child in Japan. I discussed the subject there with a few guests who have bilingual children themselves. If you want to know more, search for “The J-Pops: Attempting Parenting in Japan” on your podcast app and give it a try.

All that to say, I’ve pestered a lot of people about what it’s like to raise bilingual kids, and thought today I’d share some of what I learned.

First of all, is a bilingual education a source of confusion for the child?

Think of language proficiency as the ability to play a musical instrument. As experienced English speakers, we have ideas in our heads and we use English as a tool to express them. An experienced guitarist could similarly come up with an idea for a melody and use a guitar as a tool to communicate it to the world.

Now imagine that the guitarist could also play the piano. Seems pretty normal. No one would say, “Did you take guitar lessons and piano lessons as a kid?” What a confused childhood you must have had.

Of course, there may be times when a child puts an English word where a Japanese word should go and vice versa. Fortunately, the stakes are not that high.

Both monolingual and bilingual children spend a few years gesturing, babbling, and talking in fun phrases, and this level of language is sufficient to meet their basic needs. Language errors do not hold a young child back, regardless of their language.

Still, the thought of doubling up on the vocabulary and grammar a child needs can seem like a daunting task for them. The reason it seems difficult, however, is that we put ourselves in our children’s shoes, forgetting that they are sponges and we are not.

By all accounts, “confusion” doesn’t play too big a role when it comes to bilingualism. All young children will babble for a few years; bilingual kids just do it with a wider range of words.

Second question: Should each parent only speak their native language to the child, giving the child 50/50 exposure?

It is not the languages ​​spoken between the parents that need balance, it is the languages ​​that the child encounters inside and outside the home.

My son’s interactions with the outside world over the next few years – from daycare to visiting local family members to playing with other children at the park – will all be conducted in Japanese.

If my wife also spoke Japanese to him at home, his exposure to English would start to look rather paltry. Moreover, he would begin to realize that Japanese meets his needs everywhere.

For a second mother tongue to flourish, it really needs priority at home. Living in Japan, there will be plenty of opportunities to communicate in Japanese. It is our foreign English that will have to be reinforced in the house.

Finally, what are the interesting effects, good and bad, of bilingualism?

On the one hand, you can find research that suggests an increase in the intellectual capacity of bilingual people.

The idea is that bilingualism exercises the mind in ways we monoglots can only dream of.

Imagine having instant mental mastery over two very different grammars, two entirely different writing systems, two sets of pronunciation sounds, etc.

Your brain should have established the circuitry to handle all of this from an early age, pushing the mind’s abilities a step further than we all have.

The brain may be able to use this extra mental circuit outside of language, enhancing entirely different thought processes.

On the negative side, bilingualism can make you stand out, and Japan is a country where society wants you to blend in.

Imagine a class full of 7-year-old Japanese children during an English lesson. A difficult question arises and all the children turn to look at the only bilingual boy.

A friend of mine told me that his two bilingual daughters would speak English together at the park and other children would whisper about them in Japanese. “Are they foreigners?

So there is a lot to do to raise a bilingual child.

They will learn languages ​​like no one’s business, but it takes a concerted effort at home. It will likely change their mental prowess for the better, but with a few social bumps along the way.

As for my wife and I, we will continue to take the English as a second language course at home. This is paying off I think because so far our child seems to be crying in a language I understand.

Justin Whittinghill is originally from Owensboro and works as an assistant professor of English at the Kanazawa Institute of Technology in Kanazawa, Ishikawa, Japan. His column airs the last Saturday of the month in Lifestyle. He can be contacted at [email protected]

Justin Whittinghill is originally from Owensboro and works as an assistant professor of English at the Kanazawa Institute of Technology in Kanazawa, Ishikawa, Japan. His column airs the last Saturday of the month in Lifestyle. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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