This post comes at request for a reader who, like me, is raising a child who’s both Japanese and Western. About a year ago, I wrote a post on the subject of raising bilingual children, and recently I was looking back on how things have changed so it’s a good subject to review. Since that time, some things have changed, some have not.
Our daughter, “Baby” is now three and a half years old and no longer a baby (*sniff*). Her language skills in general are pretty sharp, but as was the case previously, she is more comfortable with Japanese because she’s with mom so much of the time, and my wife’s friends are all Japanese housewives too. We even decided to keep her in a nice Japanese preschool in the area. She is very comfortable in this environment and has little friends to play with and likes her teachers too.
The problem has always been in an English-speaking environment, she gets very shy and self-conscious. For example, around my mother, who’s gregarious and not one to shy from conversation, Baby would get shy at first. If they played together long enough, Baby would get more confident and try out English more, or she would just talk to my mother in Japanese which was cute but not helpful. She was less open to my other relatives though, and still shy around total strangers.
However, around three years old things began to change. I think Baby started to understand that there is more than one language in the world, and as a result, she could compartmentalize one language (Japanese) versus another (English). This means she figured out to speak Japanese to Japanese speakers, and English to English speakers. At first, she assumed all Asian-looking people spoke Japanese, but as we have Korean friends, this didn’t work, and she got better at switching between the two. She knows now that my mother understands English, and is more open now to use English with her, and as the relationship deepened, she is less shy around my mother as well. I remember her showing toys to “grammy” on her last visit to our house.
When teaching the alphabet (or Japanese Kana), this was hit or miss. She grasped Japanese Kana quickly because the one-sound, one-syllable, one-letter style of Kana makes it easy to learn and put words together, but English is harder because you have to put letters together in combination to create a single sound. It’s more ambiguous and less clear-cut. Again, due to the stronger Japanese influence, she picked up Japanese faster as well, and can now sound out words in Japanese kana pretty well, while she can only read a few English words (e.g. ‘red’, ‘princess’).
I was concerned about all this for a long time because we live in the US, where English is obviously predominant, until I talked with a co-worker from India. He and his wife hail from Bengal, and when he came to the US, his kids were raised to speak Bengali only for the first few years, and my co-worker told me that by 5, their kids picked up English very quickly and adjusted in school fine. Another co-worker from India told me how he and his brothers grew up in different schools as young children. My co-worker learned only one language at first, while his brothers learned a few different languages (English, Marathi, Hindi), and so the brothers ended up speaking a strange mixed up language only they could understand, while my co-worker learned subsequent languages just fine without getting the mixed up. The brothers had to go through some speech therapy to correct this, while my co-worker did not.
The lesson from both examples was that learning one language first as a young child seems like the smartest approach for the first few years, and then additional languages can be incorporated when the child is old enough to know how to compartmentalize languages in separate “buckets”, usually around toddler age if not older. In our case, we didn’t try to force English too much, and so far Baby has managed well, but now that she’s becoming more mature and sociable, her English is rapidly catching up to her Japanese. I teach her English of course, but I try not to force the issue too often.
Still, not knowing English can be frustrating for Baby who sometimes gets upset now when she doesn’t understand something in English, and doesn’t want to speak it. I believe that as time goes on, she should get more comfortable with English and be less self-conscious about it, but I have to be careful to not push her either, otherwise she might resist and resent English somehow. Her interest in Disney Princesses and such provides good motivation as she likes to sing along with the songs even though she doesn’t understand the words. Hearing her sing Aladdin’s “A Whole New World” is entertaining.
But as stated before, her interest in Japanese and Japanese music (e.g. boy bands like “Arashi”) is still there, and the best we can do until school starts is to let her explore both.
So, that’s where we’re at now, about a year after my last post. Raising children is never easy, especially when two-cultures and two-languages are involved, but I am happy to report that Baby is doing well overall, and is a happy, bright little girl, and I am happy with the way our little Family is turning out. I miss little “baby” girl, but I am happy to see her grown up into a little girl.