Rear Bilingual Children

If you speak a foreign language, you would naturally like your children to learn it, too. However, look around you, and you will find that only a few children actually become fluent in their parents’ language, and fewer still can read or write it.

We reared a Japanese/English bilingual daughter in the United States. To help you formulate a plan for your own family, I will describe the strategy we used.

Generally, language proficiency depends on the language environment,

  1. At home
  2. At school
  3. In the surrounding social environment

If your child is not exposed to a language in at least two of these environments, it is unlikely that the language will stick.

Our Situation

Early on, my wife and I decided that our children would speak Japanese. Since the two of us already spoke to each other in Japanese, all we had to do was include the rest of the family, and our child could learn Japanese for free. Not quite. As every parent who has attempted this knows, getting your child to learn your language is not free. A sustained, time-consuming effort is required.

We seemed to have succeeded. Our 14 year old daughter speaks both Japanese and English without an accent. She translates manga for her friends at school and on the internet. She just finished reading the Japanese translation of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. At last she is in flight, applying Japanese for her own purposes and building new skills according to her own priorities.

(Update at age 16) I was disappointed in how all this study does not change high school prerequisites for college admissions.  With over 2000 hours of rigorous classroom instruction and the maximum score of five on the Japanese Advanced Placement Exam, our daughter is well on her way to a Bachelor of Arts in Japanese language.  Yet this counts for nothing toward the two years of high school foreign language that the University of California requires.  It’s nice that she’s learning Spanish, but she’s done her time.  There is more to life than foreign language.

Insert Your Language Here

Our experience was with Japanese, one of the most complex languages in the world. The written language is fiendishly difficult. Mastering Japanese requires a level of dedication and sacrifice that may not be required with other languages. We Japanese speakers relish our maniacal intensity and stoic suffering.

Still, I believe that most of what we did applies to any foreign language. For the sake of convenience I use “Japanese” and “Japan” in the following text, merely because it is awkward to repeatedly write “your language” and “the region where your language is spoken”. Please just replace “Japanese” and “Japan” with the name of your language and region.

Set a Clear and Worthwhile Goal

You are embarking on a project, and every project needs a clear, measurable goal. Based on my own experience, I propose a goal like this: the child should be able to apply the language for his own purposes, thereby enabling him to build new skills on his own. This is in fact the goal of all education.

In order to be motivated, all participants must see the goal as worthwhile. This is especially true of your child, who holds veto power over the project. You must sell the language to your child. “You will learn 3000 Chinese characters” will not motivate your young child. Going fishing on Uncle’s boat and understanding a favorite TV show will get much more attention. Many of the recommendations that follow are in fact oriented toward convincing your child to embrace Japanese as an obvious and integral part of his life.

The Most Important Factor

The entire family must be dedicated to helping the child learn. The parents must put forth a strong effort. You and your child will have to sacrifice other valuable experiences for the sake of language study, but that’s the way it goes. Tradeoffs are a part of life.

My original casual attitude, “Hey, it’s free so why not teach the kids Japanese?” was entirely optimistic. In reality, the fact that we parents spoke Japanese provided the foundation for success, but only if we resolved to make a sustained effort.

The Preschool Years

The years from birth to kindergarten are very important for language learning. Further, your child’s schedule is simple, so you have the flexibility to provide experiences that would not fit into a busy student’s life.

  • Even before the child is born, you and your spouse should carry on your relationship entirely in Japanese. Unfortunately this means that if both parents do not speak fluent Japanese, success is much less likely.  I am sorry that many couples will find this point discouraging, but this is what I have observed.
  • Speak Japanese to your baby from birth. One day old is too late. Not for the baby, but for you. You must establish an unbroken pattern of speaking only Japanese to your child.
  • Take your child to Japan annually to visit family. Cousins are instant friends, grandparents are delightful, and the conduit for all this fun is the Japanese language. During the preschool years, you are not restricted by a school schedule so you can go when the weather is good and the airfare is cheap.
  • In many languages it is common to drop, say, the subject of a sentence. Avoid abbreviations and speak in full sentences.
  • The one redeeming feature of television is its ability to teach language, so only allow your child to watch Japanese TV.  This will expose your child to a variety of speakers with different accents, plus it gives your child something in common with children in Japan.
  • Join a play group where the children speak Japanese. When our daughter was young, Japanese mothers and their preschool children gathered at a park every day. This was fabulous for the mothers as well as the children.
  • Get dual citizenship for your child. I have known several people who do not have the privilege of living where they feel most comfortable because their parents did not bother to just file some forms. Don’t do this to your kid.

The School Years

Once school starts, your son or daughter will have other things to learn. Having conversed mostly in Japanese, your child’s English may not be very good. Our daughter attended an English as a Second Language (ESL) class, and she had an accent in English until about fifth grade.

It will be difficult for you to watch your U.S. born child struggle with English if you are self-conscious about your own English skills.  Do not worry.  Remember how I thought that learning Japanese would be free for my child?  I got it backwards–the English is free.  In an English speaking country, nothing can stop your child from speaking English like a native. The danger is that he will lose his Japanese. You maintain your focus on Japanese.

  • To the extent that school schedule and your child’s changing tastes allow, continue the preschool activities listed above
  • Be prepared to sacrifice other activities for language study. For example, Japanese school plus team sports can easily be too much.
  • Even on brief trips to Japan, Japanese citizens who live in a foreign country are allowed to attend public school (体験入学). This is a wonderful opportunity to make Japanese friends and learn bad words. Many other countries have similar programs.
  • Stay calm
  • School officials may suggest that you accellerate your child’s progress with English by speaking English at home. They will prey upon your insecurity about your own English ability, and your doubt about whether your child can assimilate into American life.  Don’t believe them. Teaching English is their job. Your job is to teach Japanese.
  • Your child should study some Japanese, even just a little, every day
  • Send your child to language school. Be ready for the financial burden. Language school is more important if you want your child to read and write Chinese or Japanese. Learning kanji (漢字) is a huge burden that not every child can bear. You may have to back off on this goal.
  • Feel free to discuss English homework in English

Your Child Responds in English

Often the parent-child conversation style devolves into the parent speaking Japanese, and the child responding in English. A couple years of this, and the child merely understands Japanese, but cannot speak it. From what I have seen, it is virtually impossible to recover from this situation.

Both my wife and I resolved that this would never be permitted, but to our surprise, it never happened. Since it never happened, I can only guess what we did to avoid it:

  • My wife never acknowledges English from our daughter, or even me.  In our family, conversations go nowhere unless they are in proper Japanese. Exceptions are quotes from English speakers or texts, and the occasional English word.  Like anything in child rearing, consistency is paramount. You get only one chance to refuse: the first time.
  • The trips to Japan linked Japanese language to pleasant experiences, and exposed our child to a world where Japanese is a natural and obvious part of everyone’s life, not just something Mom, Dad and their stodgy friends do.
  • Our daughter is an only child, so we parents control the language spoken at home.  I do know several sets of siblings who speak English to each other, yet are fluent in their parents’ language.  So don’t get too militant about controlling the language your children speak among themselves.
  • Or it might be something else listed above

Conclusion

Like anything worthwhile, rearing a bilingual child is not easy, nor is it cheap. Success is not assured. Still, if you have the desire to try, by all means do. The worst you can do is give your child a head start on learning your language if he becomes interested later. Go for it!

This post is dedicated to my daughter Julie, who actually did all the work.


This article was originally published by John McGehee, Voom, Inc. under the CC BY 3.0 license. Changes have been made.