Raising bilingual children, one year later

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.

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About Doug

A Buddhist, father and Japanophile / Koreaphile.
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16 Responses to Raising bilingual children, one year later

  1. arunlikhati says:

    I wouldn’t jump to any hard-and-fast conclusions about language learning. I was raised speaking English at home, but two other languages with two different sets of relatives. My best friend, also Bengali, was raised speaking Bengali at home, while his sister grew up speaking both Bengali and English at home—they both now speak fluent Bengali and fluent Southern Californian English. Likewise, another friend of mine grew up speaking both Japanese and Vietnamese at home—she remains fluent in English, Japanese and Vietnamese, which she consistently uses with family and friends. The key issue, in my opinion, is the breadth of experience. So long as your daughter is raised in both Japanese and English speaking communities, I wouldn’t fear she might have difficulties retaining either. Of course, later in life, she might just choose to stick with one or the other. I have one cousin who decided to move to Japan, and it’s the only language she chooses to speak, unless forced to speak with us non-Japanese-speaking relatives.

  2. Tornadoes28 says:

    My 5 year old is completely fluent in Japanese. As is expected his English skills are a little behind. But I am not worried as once he really gets into going to English pre-school and kindergarten, his English will pick up rapidly. I think this way is the best if there is any chance that he will retain his Japanese speaking abilities as he gets older.

  3. Doug says:

    Hi guys,

    Arunlikhati: You’re right in that my experiences with them have been limited to only a few people. Obviously your mileage may vary. :) With that said, it does seem prudent to at least have a “primary” language, and kids can be exposed to other languages as reasonable so they can sort them out later. Like you said, exposure is the key, and not forcing it either. :-0 My wife once talked with a nice elderly Dutch lady here in the US who had tried to keep her kids talking Dutch at home, but they rebelled at some point and refuse to speak it, so she’s trying a more gentler approach with the grandkids now. Again, anecdotal evidence only.

    Tornadoes28: My thought exactly, hence I’ve let the primary language be Japanese for now, and even let her go to a Japanese preschool. We’re also planning summer trips to stay with teh grandparents when she gets older even though the weather is awful. Builds character. ;)

  4. Tornadoes28 says:

    Yes, both my children have also been going to a Japanese preschool which I think is a great idea both for language and culture. If they can retain their Japanese language abilities and would be great.

  5. Doug says:

    Amen to that. I really wish I had more multi-lingual experience growing up, rather than trying to learn it as an overworked, tired adult. ;-p I also regret some opportunities to study abroad in high school that I didn’t take up, due to very superfluous reasons. Ah well.

  6. Yazmin says:

    I was raised speaking Spanish until 4, at which point I was immersed in an English only day care as my mom moved to the states from Puerto Rico. I will have to admit that there was a lot of pointing to get what I needed back then, but my love of languages never wavered.

    In the process, my capabilities with Spanish fell behind those of English. Even now in my 30’s, I’m more self-conscious about speaking Spanish than English at any given time, assuming the other person may be having some difficulty with what I am saying or being embarrassed at my lack of general vocabulary. I would go as far to admit that when I was actively speaking them, my French and my Arabic skills were much better than that of my Spanish skills.

    It’s made me think one of the keys to truly ensuring that a child retains and feels comfortable switching between languages is regular exposure. We easily fell into English at home once we moved to the states and were it not for the necessity to speak to my grandmother during my summers in Puerto Rico, I may never have learned as much as I did. We’re expecting our 1st child this year as well and will be trying the 1 parent/1 language method ourselves.

  7. Doug says:

    Hi Yazmin and welcome to the JLR! Best wishes on your first child and thank you for the input. It’s good to get a wider audience on the subject beyond the East-Asian one, as I think it affects a lot of people/parents. :)

  8. C says:

    I applaud the fact that you are immersing your child in both languages. Too often have I see bi-racial parents raising their children on only one language, due to the ignorant notion that learning languages has to be compartmentalized. Not just bi-racial parents, more often so in the case of immigrants moving to another country. I know most of those kids will probably regret not being raised in a more multi-language environment, just as you are, I suppose :P Just like I am. There are at least another 2 languages I could probably be fluent in if only my parents speak them to me more often.

    That’s why I shoot my monolingual nephews furtive, pitiful glances while I try talking to their parents about uncompartmentalized language learning (the usual argument is that their English will suffer if they don’t speak English at home, even though they go to an international school or live in Australia or have an English dad) while I try to juggle between eating and feeling smug inside. Because, y’know, the whole Chinese culture revolves around eating on a round table while exchanging banters.

  9. Doug says:

    Ha ha ha, hello C and welcome to the JLR! I deserve no credit for this. We tried originally to teach 50-50 English and Japanese, but it became clear real quick (in related older post) that she was learning Japanese much faster by virtue of being around Mommy so much. My ham-fisted efforts teach English didn’t really work, especially after she stayed at the Grandparents house in Japan for a few months and really took off. I was worried for a time until talking with co-workers above, and realized that if I let things take theri course, she’d pick up both without too much stress. So, I talk to her in English, but I also try not to force the issue either. Due to her interest in English things now, that’s helping a lot too. :)

  10. Jonathan says:

    Another fascinating posting – so nice to get an insight into “Baby’s” language acquisition and all the cultural ramifications that come along with it. I’m especially intrigued by your observations about her grasp of writing systems … I was raised speaking English and Taiwanese at growing up. I of course learned English in school and only later in life did I start to gain some basic understanding of Mandarin Chinese characters. I can only wonder what it is like trying to acquire two writing systems at once. I certainly admire that you two are raising your daughter bilingually, from an early age.

  11. Doug says:

    Thanks Jonathan! I’d be curious to know how you learned Chinese characters and such, since Japanese has them too, and Baby will learn them one of these days. :)

  12. yojinbo says:

    Have you found that Japanese parenting techniques sometimes conflict with your own?

  13. Doug says:

    Hello yojinbo, and welcome to the JLR. In general, no, I haven’t. Japanese parents are inclined to share their bed with kids far longer than American parents do, but as I have realized from anecdotal evidence, everyone does this longer than American parents, so I guess American parents are the exception not the norm. ;p

    Apart from that no.

  14. Hi. I realise it’s a couple of years since you wrote this post but I just came across it. Am also in Japan with one child and Japanese spouse. I’m writing a blog about raising her bilingually. Would be very interested in hearing how things are going for your daughter now.
    Nick

  15. Doug 陀愚 says:

    Hello teachthesprog and welcome! I’ll try to post an update on my daughter’s bilingual skills hopefully soon.

  16. aussie in Japan says:

    have a three year old daughter and she speaks both English and Japanese well here in Japan. On the reading side I as an English speaking father read to her almost every day and this has made her interested in the stories. Kids don’t know what to say and I spend an enormous amount of time translating what she says in Japanese into English and then making her say it two or three times. It has given her more confidence as she knows that I am out there actively trying to help her. The praise from her relatives is also very important as it encourages her to practice for the day when she will have to talk to them face-to-face.
    TV has also been important as she has picked up a lot from watching TV and without any help uses it perfectly contextually- am often amazed.
    My wife by the way speaks 80-90% Japanese and her relatives also don’t use it. Makes you work hard but the rewards are worth it.

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