How To Raise a Bilingual Child

Anthony turns three years old tomorrow. He's been talking up a storm for quite some time, but he's behind other kids his age. It's not something we're concerned about because, if he's got, say, 70% of the language skills as his peers, he's really got 140% of the skills (70% English + 70% Japanese). I know of other kids who have three or four languages — a kid's brain is just amazing.

I've also heard many stories of kids raised in two-language households where the kid eventually refuses to speak one of the languages (usually the father's). This can create huge issues if said Father can't speak the other language, and I know of an extreme case where such a dad lost completely the ability to converse with his son. This extreme case involved a man who was as bad a husband as he was a father, but highlights how bad things can become. Like being a good spouse and a good parent, mutilingualness needs constant attention.

(Actually, things can become even worse. I know of a guy who was raised in Canada by Japanese parents, and in the end neither his English nor Japanese are really native-level fluent. 50 years later, still living in Canada, he still speaks in what would be called “broken English”.)

Our situation

I got mail from a friend today asking how we're approaching Anthony's bilingual development. It's something Fumie and I have certainly thought a lot about, but like everything else with raising a kid, well, there's no manual.

Here's our situation: I'm a native English speaker, and my Japanese is “okay” for daily life, but I'm by no means self-sufficient in Japanese. Fumie is a native Japanese speaker, and her English is very good. Since her English is better than my Japanese, our daily communication tends to be mostly in English, although Japanese tends to get mixed in throughout the day.

We lived in America until Anthony was 1.5 years old, and as such we both tended to use Japanese with him, since we knew he'd get English everywhere else. His first words and sentences were all Japanese. We'd moved to Japan by the time that had happened, but I'd forgotten to switch to English. His blossoming speech all being Japanese got me to switch to using English with him mostly.

We then spent three months of the summer (while he was about 2.5 years old) in America, so by the time that was done, he'd lost almost all his Japanese and his English was progressing well. Now, several months in Japan later, his Japanese seems to be about on par with his English, which has only gotten better.

Our approach

Anthony lives in Japan, spends three days a week at (an all-Japanese) playcare, and will go to Japanese schools. We could send him to an international school (education in English, on a U.S. calendar and with a U.S. curriculum), but then he'd forever be a foreigner in his own country. So, we'll send him to Japanese schools, and as such, I have no worry that his Japanese will be anything other than absolutely native. Therefore, it's his English that we'll need to work on if we want him to be bilingual.

I realize that if I don't keep his English progressing at a native level as he gets older, I'll lose the ability to have native-fluent interaction with him. (The other option, of course, is that I raise my Japanese to a native-level fluency, but with my brain that's never going to happen.)

One way to help his English would be for Fumie to use English with him, but frankly, I discourage that. It's more important for her to have a native-level relationship with him than it is for him to be bilingual, especially at this tender age. Still, for some things it seems easier to use English, so she tends to mix languages, as I do (but I do it to a lesser extent).

These days, the bulk of my conversations with Anthony are in English. If he uses Japanese to me, I generally repeat it in Japanese and then English and then Japanese again. That seems sufficient for him to learn both. It's just amazing. (By the way, he has no clue what “English” and “Japanese” are; we talk in terms of “Daddy words” and “Mommy words”, as alluded to in a previous post about his language development.)

Surprisingly, he's already pretty good at understanding what language to use in what situation. I'd heard not to expect such an understanding for many years, but he seems to instinctively know what language someone will understand. For example, the other day I was speaking to someone in Japanese, and then as we left told Anthony in English “Say 'thank you' to the lady”, and he did so, but in Japanese: “arigatou”.

Over the years here in Japan, his Japanese will grow naturally. I'll continue to use normal English with him, and along with month-long trips to America in the summer, I expect his English to be just fine. Time will tell if this simple approach is really sufficient.

My friend's situation

The friend who sent the email asking about all this is a German guy who lives in Germany, with a Korean wife and two girls, 1.5 and 4 years old. (Alone in the house with three girls, God bless him ) They originally met at work in Korea, and communicated in English. Now, Mom can communicate in German.

Dad works outside the house, and so the two kids spend all day with Mom, speaking Korean. The kids' use of Korean is simple enough now that Dad can understand, and the kids seem to use both languages. But this is about the limit of Dad's Korean, and he's afraid that when they surpass him, as they soon will, he'll be missing a lot.

Of course, that will certainly happen to him as far as Korean is concerned. Unless Mom and Dad are truly gifted linguistically, at their age and with the pressures of an adult's daily life, there is little chance that they will be able to acheive native-level fluency in the other's language. Thus, the only hope that they can both have native-level relationships with their kids is for the kids to have native-level skills in both languages. This is similar to my situation.

The big difference between our situations is that for him, the two strongest language influences (Mom's language, and the language of the school) are different. I think this makes his situation much easier.

So, here's my gut feeling about it: the kids live in Germany and will presumably go through the German school system, so there seems to be little worry that they'll eventually be native-level fluent in German. The worry I would have for the long term would be for their Korean. However, in the short term (until they get into the school system), they're spending most of their day in Korean, so I'd worry about their German.

My gut-reaction recommendation is to get them into a German daycare / preschool for two or three days a week. Besides giving Mom a needed rest, it'll help ensure that they get a lot of German during these early years. They'll still spend most of their time with Mom in Korean, so their Korean should not suffer. A kid's brain just soaks it up without giving it a second thought (so to speak).

I'd also recommend that Mom uses mostly Korean and Dad uses mostly German, since those are the languages closest to their heart, and that's how you should communicate with your own kids. I wouldn't force things too much, but would generally stick to the appropriate language. As it is now with Anthony, I generally reply in English even if he happens to say something to me in Japanese. (He doesn't know everything equally well in both languages, so he often simply doesn't know how to say something in English until I teach him.)

Once the kids start going to school, their Korean will need special support. Occasional trips back to see the grandparents in Korea would be wonderful, especially the longer they can be (it might take two weeks just to get settled in, linguistically). And if they had Korean-language playdates from time to time, that would be good, too.

As I said, there's no manual

For all I know, my advice to my friend is as woefully misguided as the path Fumie and I are taking ourselves. If you've got experience with this, I'd love to hear about it....

Continued here...

All 10 comments so far, oldest first...

Hi Jeff,

Happy belated B-day to Anthony! Anything fun happen on his big day?

Say, I sent an e-card to an old email addy (whoops). Any chance you could please send me your current one? Thanks!

— comment by Alan on October 25th, 2005 at 3:32am JST (18 years, 4 months ago) comment permalink

Fascinating. I too hope to have a bilingual kid some day.

— comment by Claytonain on October 25th, 2005 at 5:04pm JST (18 years, 4 months ago) comment permalink

Hi Jeff,

It can be interesting raising a bilingual child. My wife and I have taken great pains to ensure my two sons know Japanese even though they’re being raised almost entirely in the US. My wife pretty much speaks Japanese only with them, and I do my best (my Japanese is passable for getting by, but by no means fluent). My older son went to a Japanese pre-school for two years.

My 5-year old son is fluent in Japanese, and may even be more advanced than the average native speaker his age. He went to kindergarten in Japan for two months last year and generally impressed the adults there. Coming back to the US to enter kindergarten here, he was evaluated for ESL and it was decided he needed no special classes to improve his English (this disappointed my wife slightly — she thought it might be an indication he hadn’t learned Japanese as well as he could have). He also attends a Japanese school on Saturday from 9:30 to 2:30. I notice odd little gaps in his English at times, but he has no real trouble. I should add the caveat that he is quite bright, and I suspect if he had been raised only in English his English would be better.

We have a number of American-Japanese couples as friends, and have noticed their children generally speak fair to middling Japanese and fluent English, despite usually having Japanese mothers.

My 2.5 year old son speaks only Japanese so far (except for the requisite 2-year old English — “No” and “This is mine!”). However, we intend to follow the same model of aggressively teaching him Japanese and letting his English come through the school system.

In short, I agree with most of what you’ve suggested, though I don’t know about the assertion that you need to “worry” about language where one lives in the early years (in the Korean-German case, the German). The only real downside for us so far is my parents tend to lament their grandson not knowing English right away.

Oh, I’d also say a bilingual child often starts speaking a bit later (say, 6 to 8 months might be typical) than other children, and that usually it’s nothing to be concerned about.

Oh, and incidentally — if you’re the same Jeff Friedl who wrote “Mastering Regular Expressions”. . . I’m sure you hear it all the time, but very nice work. . .

— comment by Sam on January 31st, 2006 at 7:10am JST (18 years, 1 month ago) comment permalink


I enjoyed reading your blog – interesting thoughts! I’m British and now live in Japan with my wife and 2 year old daughter. We have a policy (90% successful!) of only speaking English at home. My wife has a very good command of English. She has even mentioned that at times she finds it easier to speak English to our daughter than Japanese. I understand your comments about having a ‘native level relationship’ but I don’t feel my wife is missing any opportunities. Luckily her parents live nearby and are able to look after our daughter during the day. When we visit their house to collect our daughter the spoken language is mainly Japanese. I believe it’s equally important to create a realistic environment for speaking the language. One house, one language seems to be more natural than one house 2 languages. Generally, we try and use whichever language is the dominant one.

— comment by Dan on February 21st, 2006 at 5:37pm JST (18 years ago) comment permalink

I really enjoyed reading this blog entry–I’m doing some informal research on Japanese bilingual children. I’m from Japan, but I moved to the US with my family when I was about 6, and went through the American school system, but I also attended Japanese school (nihonjingakkkou) from kindergarten till 12th grade, so I’m kind of in the opposite position that your son will be in. My English has been up to par with my classmates since I can remember (and I’m now attending a college in California) except for some idioms and cultural differences that I still have trouble with. As for my Japanese, I don’t think I know quite as much kanji as a high school student in Japan, but I think I would at least be able to get by for any job purposes in Japan.

Recently though, my friend’s cousin visited from Japan, and her mother is American, so she’s haafu, but I noticed that her English wasn’t perfect, and I could detect traces of a Japanese accent. She also said that she had trouble understanding most movies outside of things like Disney and Harry Potter. Of course, she is a native English speaker, but because her schooling was entirely in Japanese, her English and Japanese are far from completely balanced. However, she IS attending Sophia University (Jouchi daigaku), which is an international maybe her English will improve there? I’m not sure..but I do know people at my college here who are Japanese citizens that attended international school who have perfect English, and they can also read and write Japanese on a higher level than I can. I think this might be another way that your son can become a fully balanced bilingual, as long as he pursues Japanese classes designed for native speakers, which I know they have at places like the American School in Japan. I guess this might be a different situation than the one you are in because Japanese won’t be spoken exclusively at home, but it seems like he’s already at a high level.

Another option that I just remembered is that I know someone here who attended Japanese school until finishing middle school and then completed high school at an international school. I haven’t heard her speak in English much, but she seems to be very proficient at both languages, especially Japanese. Anyway, just some other ideas to throw out there for you. Feel free to email me if you have any questions about growing up bilingual or anything. Gambatte!

— comment by Ken on March 23rd, 2006 at 5:59pm JST (17 years, 11 months ago) comment permalink

Dear Jeffrey,

Thank you for sharing your experience and approach in raising your child in a multilingual family. My husband is Turkish and I’m a Malaysian, and we are now staying in Istanbul. We are expecting our first child soon and from time to time I do wonder what could be the best approach for our child to master both languages. We are thinking Turkish & English since we are staying in Istanbul and most people can speak English in Malaysia (and worldwide in general). And we also converse in English most of the time at home since my Turkish is so-so.

I‘m doing some research now and that’s how I found your blog. Now I do have some ideas and I found comments from the other visitors helpful too. However, I will still continue with my research to find out what methods other parents are using. I guess it is also important to continuously evaluate the child’s reception to the current’s approach/method being used.

If you know of any good sites / blogs / books on this topic, I would really appreciate if you could email me. Thanks for your help and all the best.

p.s. By the way, I studied at Oita University and stayed in Oita, Japan for 4 years (91-95). Kyoto is a beautiful place and you are lucky to have settled there. I do miss Japan sometimes. (especially the food….yummy!).

— comment by Maliza on June 13th, 2006 at 7:25pm JST (17 years, 9 months ago) comment permalink

What an interesting blog! I, too, am raising bilingual children. It’s a rewarding — and challenging — experience.

You might be interested in the website I recently created:

Many families have shared their successes and challenges and it has helped us learn a lot, too.

I’ll be interested in your feedback.

Best wishes.

— comment by ES on June 15th, 2006 at 12:32pm JST (17 years, 9 months ago) comment permalink

Hi Jeffrey,
I came across your interesting blog when surfing the net how to raise kids bilingual. I am Japanese, however, grew up in Germany most of my life. I am fluent in Japanese, German and English and I intend to teach my son (just gave birth to him end of Nov 2006) Japanese. However, I am very nervous that I won’t be able to accomplish this…My husband is American who only speaks Japanese a little and I am very comfortable speaking in English and don’t have any Japanese friends here…I even have a little fear of making Japanese friends because I feel like I am too Westernized and different (I only lived in Japan when I was little for 7 years…)
Do you think I have to stay home and quit work to spend most of my time with my son in Japanese? I wanted to continue working and I asked my mother who still lives in Germany to help me out by coming over to the US but she rejected…I have a part time nanny but she only speaks Spanish and I am afraid three languages will be too complicated for him someday. –I live in Northern VA and getting a Japanese speaking nanny is a very difficult task–
Or do you think I am worrying too much?
Sorry, I am kind of blabbing here but hope you can give me some advice.
I have a feeling I am over-concerned about this at an early stage but I am pretty depressed over this because I really want him to learn Japanese.

Many thanks in advance.

— comment by Megumi on January 1st, 2007 at 7:44am JST (17 years, 2 months ago) comment permalink

Hi. I just found your blog, my son just turned a year old and we will be teaching him Korean and Mandarin. Well Mandarin will be interesting since neither one of us speaks the language but my husband is of Chinese descent — he will be taking classes this fall. This message is for Megumi actually and anyone else in a similar situation— not sure if you will see this message but I quit work specifically because I wanted my baby to learn my ethnic language and I’m hardly fluent. However I can read so that’s what I’ve been doing…later on I do want to teach him Spanish (I know French) b/c it’s a useful language. Don’t be depressed about this b/c it will all work out, just keep trying. Language is access to identity and whatever effort you make will help your child understand his or her place in the world. That’s all we can do, the rest is up to them.

— comment by HCG on June 14th, 2007 at 6:04pm JST (16 years, 9 months ago) comment permalink

Hi. Thanks for your story. It was very helpful.
I’m a native Korean speaker and my husband’s a native English speaker .We live in Canada and have a 15months old son. My husband is around him only for the weekends due to his job and I speak to my son exclusively in Korean at home.
Now, I have a question. I read books to him a lot and 90% of the books we have are written in English. I’ ve tried to read books written in Korean but it’s just so much easier and cheaper to get English books!
Is it o.k. for me to use both Korean and English? I only use English when I read books to my son. My son might be confused?

It’s perfectly fine to speak in any language you can with your own kid… I know someone who was raised in a household where each day of the week was a different language (e.g. Sundays was French, Mondays was Russian, etc.). Kids are amazing. If you live in an English-speaking area, you probably don’t have to give his English development much thought… if he doesn’t get it at home, he’ll get it the moment he starts school. (Growing up in Minnesota in the 1930s, my dad spoke German at home and didn’t learn English until he started school.) It’s the non-local language that you have to give more attention to, and it sounds as if you’re doing just that. Reading to your son in any language is more important, I think, than reading less in only a specific language. I realize now that Anthony is 5 that I didn’t read enough to him, so didn’t foster a love of storytelling, and now he has little interest in learning to read himself, in either language. Not sure how to handle this one myself…. —Jeffrey

— comment by J.Lee on April 10th, 2008 at 11:35am JST (15 years, 11 months ago) comment permalink
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