More on Raising a Bilingual Child

Over a year ago, I posted an entry on how to raise a bilingual child, describing the approach that Fumie and I are taking with Anthony.

These days, Anthony is quite fluent in both languages, at least as much as one would expect of a four year old. I make a point to quietly correct his grammar when I hear the same mistake over and over, such as the “I is” that he says a lot these days. I'm careful never to ram it down his throat, and he seems to pick up the changes, eventually, so I think we're on track.

My worry now is about his reading and ability to write. I need to spend much more time reading with him than I currently do, but it's difficult because I didn't read to him enough early on, and now it's not habit. He'd much rather play with his cars than read a book together, so my work is clearly cut out.

Anyway, I write about this because of a comment left today on that old post:

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.

I was writing a reply to Megumi when I realized that posting my reply might help others, and would allow others to chime in with their thoughts as well.

So, based on the little bit that Megumi wrote, along with my own limited experience and a lot of wild assumptions on my part, here's my reply to Megumi:

First, some preface material:

  1. Congratulations on the birth of your son. With him comes much love, as I'm sure you know, and much worry. Much more of both will come. It's every parent's job to worry, and if you think you worry now, wait until he starts dating. Try to pay attention to what's important, but at the same time, try not to worry too much.

    By the way, you might find my second ever post, essentials for a first-time parent of interest.

  2. Before considering teaching him Japanese, make sure you understand your own level. Japanese is a living language, and has changed since you lived in Japan (as indeed you have changed since you lived in Japan). Your Japanese likely sounds a bit old and strange to those in Japan now.... not that I have the skill to notice, but Japanese certainly would. Plus, having grown up in Germany, your culture is very different from the Japanese, even if your parents kept a “Japanese house.”

    Anyway, I don't say this to make you feel bad, but to encourage you to proactively embrace it and understand it, not to fear it. Your Japanese ability, whether good or bad, merely opens the door for friendship with those that speak only Japanese. In the end, whether you maintain that friendship will have little to do with your language ability, but you can use that ability to your advantage. For example, you can offer English/German lessons in exchange for pointers on how to modernize your Japanese, or in exchange for spending time with your son.

  3. Before considering your son's language development, make sure you're on the same page as your husband. A friend of mine and his wife, when they had a baby, really tried to do the best for her.... they potty trained her at 6 months, gave her only food that they prepared from scratch, and raised her speaking English, French, Japanese, and Chinese. And they divorced when she was 5. I see a correlation there — they concentrated so much on her that they neglected each-other, and in doing so they took away the thing that is most important for a child: loving parents. So whatever you choose to do, make sure your priorities are in order, and that you're on the same page as your spouse.

Now, about your son's language development. Since you live in America, he'll certainly learn English natively, even if you both never speak a word of English to him, so don't worry about that.

Don't worry about three languages — kids can handle a lot more than that. One of my high-school teachers grew up in a household where each day of the week was a different language (Monday was French, Tuesday was Russian, etc.). I had him for Spanish. He could converse in 20+ languages, and was studying Chinese when I graduated.

I know of a number of trilingual kids. As one example, a well-adjusted Vietnamese/American couple I know in America send their oldest to a Spanish-language school simply because they want her to have three languages.

Don't worry that your son's time spent with other languages will detract from his Japanese. The main thing for his Japanese is the amount of interaction he has in Japanese. Whether you quit work or not is a larger question than his language ability, but certainly, the more time spent with someone speaking Japanese, the better.

Whichever you choose, make an effort to speak only Japanese to him when you're alone. (If your husband doesn't understand Japanese, you'll probably generally want to stick to English when he's around, because your relationship with your husband is much more important than your son's language abilities.)

Make good use of Japanese-language videos and other materials. Fumie and I are very anti-TV for him (he never watches live TV at home), but I make liberal use of English-language DVDs for him, such as Dora, Caillou, Little Einsteins, etc. It really helps. Get a region-free DVD player, and order videos and things from Japan.

One I can strongly recommend is the Shimajiro “5 year program.” Fumie's folks got this for Anthony as a present, and it's really wonderful. Every month, a packet arrives with age-appropriate activities, and a short (20 minute) video. The lessons learned are all very basic — colors and shapes and animals for younger ages, and older ages learn why you should brush your teeth and how to use the potty. It's very well presented and I highly recommend it.

Once he gets older, the Japanese dubbed versions of animated kids movies can be good. The first movie Anthony ever saw was “Finding Nemo,” and he loved it. It wasn't until he was older that he started to understand that parts were scary, but in any case, it was and is still good for his English.

Another thing to consider once your son gets older are trips that will expose him to Japanese, whether to Japan itself or to your folk's place in Germany. It's not uncommon for a Japanese mom married to an American in America to take the kids to Japan for the whole summer, while the dad stays home, so you might consider that as an option as well.

Do make an effort try to find other Japanese parents that you can spend time with while the kids play together. Many Japanese wives in America — there because their Japanese husband has been assigned there for work, or because they married an American — face a lot of loneliness, so they tend to form “mama groups.” See if you can find one. Places to look for pointers include universities and corporate housing locations. If you're near DC, check in with the Japanese embassy to see if they have any information.

Well, these are just some thought, borne mostly from assumptions that your situation is exactly the same as mine.... only different. I didn't even address German here. If your husband speaks German, you might consider four languages for him (after adding Spanish from the nanny).

A child's ability to absorb multiple languages far exceeds his parent's ability to properly support all those languages, so limiting him to three or four languages is probably a smart idea, not for him, but for your own sanity.

All 10 comments so far, oldest first...

“My worry now is about his reading and ability to read.”

Isn’t your son a bit young to learn to read? Toys are more a priority at his age, aren’t they?

Anyway getting two languages is a godsend, and I wish you good luck with the endeavour.

— comment by dda on January 1st, 2007 at 9:01pm JST (17 years, 7 months ago) comment permalink

Has you child had any opportunity whatsoever to have seen that reading or being read to can be fun? Will he blog before he reads?

— comment by Tetsubin on January 1st, 2007 at 9:11pm JST (17 years, 7 months ago) comment permalink

Hello Megumi,

I also received a similar email, and I’m fine with receiving it, but thought I’d post some comments here. I don’t see any points where I disagree with Jeffrey, so consider all of that advice seconded.

My six year old son Kai knows Japanese and English pretty much as well as any six-year old of the respective culture. Probably his Japanese is slightly better, even though he was raised here.

Basically, we took the approach of starting exclusively with Japanese, and then phasing in English starting at around 3 and a half or so. It seems to have worked fairly well.

Mom used Japanese with him exclusively before he was 3, and still uses it with him most of the time. I use it with him somewhat (more so when he was younger). He’s visited Japan each summer since he was 2 for between 6 and 8 weeks. The past two summers, he’s gone to a local yochien that was happy to have him. He went to a Japanese day care in America for a couple of hours a day between 2 and 4 years of age, and currently goes to a Saturday Japanese school. He also has a significant number of Japanese and half-Japanese friends. Probably the most obvious gains in his ability have come with his trips to Japan. Still, I don’t know that any particular activity was more important than any other, so long as it gave him exposure to Japanese.

I’ve supported this completely, and Jeffrey’s certainly right about the need for both parents to be on the same page. I never had any worries about his learning English, and I was right; last year when he started kindergarten the ESL evaluator indicated he didn’t need any ESL classes. He could have, though, and it would not have concerned me if he had. In fact, if we’d decided to support three languages, it still wouldn’t have concerned me and the necessity of ESL classes would not have caused us to drop the third language.

My three and a half year old son Lui is following the same model, and currently really only speaks Japanese. He’s just started to pick up English. This causes my parents some concern, and my mother is still convinced he’s non-verbal.

Keep in mind that children are all different, and your son will be following his own linguistic path. It could potentially affect kindergarten or first grade for him, but probably not too severely. Be ready to be flexible in what you expect or your approach, but don’t abandon a strategy only because your son is following a different linguistic progression than other children.

Being hesitant to make Japanese friends is probably something you can ill afford, and is probably based off of worry more than anything. The bar for making friends with Japanese mothers (when you yourself have a reasonable grasp of Japanese and are also a mother) is not very high. Consider: the intra-company transferee mothers usually have a limited or nonexistent confidence speaking English, which means they’re often cut off from much of society. The wives of Americans are usually more confident in their English, but sometimes hesitate to befriend intra-company transferees because they know they might be leaving in 2-3 years. Also, a lot of them have done some sort of transition themselves, and may be worried about how “Japanese” they still are, and how much they themselves have been Westernized. Any differences you display may actually reassure them.

Jeffrey, I find Kai really enjoys the “Little Bear” books (Sendak-illustrated). It’s pretty much the first thing he’s wanted to read enough to read himself.

— comment by Sam on January 4th, 2007 at 6:59am JST (17 years, 7 months ago) comment permalink

Well, that’s me … Thomas.

My wife Taek-Ryun is Korean nationality and I am German Nationality.

Our first daughter Carina was born in Dec 2001 and our second daughter Hannah was born in June 2003.
At the time of the birth of Carina my wife and me just returned to Germany to settle our lifes. (I’ve been living and working in Korea for almost 3,5 years.) At this time we did communicate in English and my wife’s ability of the German language was very poor, of course.
We decided, that Carina will be taught in my wife’s native language (Korean) during daytime, when I am at the office. In the evening I will try as much as I can to talk to her in German (basically to both of them in German … to support Taek-Ryun as well in learning a foreign language). Intentionally we decided for Taek-Ryun not talk to Carina in German language, since at this time her knowledge was pretty poor … of course.

1.5 years later Hannah, our second daughter was born. We felt, we are on the right track, we continued that way … now for both of them.

At the time when Carina was almost 3 years old we noticed that Carina’s knowledge of the Korean language was maybe 90% and of the German language 10%. This was caused by the fact that I was in the office all day long and had to travel to/back from the office more than 2 hours. Which means I usually returned home when Carina was sleeping and I missed the chance to talk to her very often.

We felt, we made a wrong decision and are on the wrong way now. We decided to change our way of training/language education for Hannah because it is not too late. At this time my wife graduated several good and professional language institutes (Goethe Institut) and her knowledge of the German language became (and still is … though she does not believe me) very good. For Hannah we would like to grow her up with 50%/50% bilingual.
Now, today we have to revise our opinion again.

Carina, who was fluent in Korean and just a poor beginner in German language, got a very strong influence from the Kindergarten, her friends, the TV, etc that it turned very soon to the total opposite!! Nowadays she is really bilingual, is fluent in listening and talking in both languages, no matters who talks to her in whatever language.

Hannah of course is getting the same strong influence and almost forgot all her 50% knowledge of the Korean language. If she really wants and Mama forces her a lot, she can understand a bit of the Korean language. But German is her native language.

The kids never use the Korean language to talk to each other. Most of the time they are talking in German language to Mama, and Mama mostly responds in German as well.

Once in a year we go to Korea to visit my wife’s family. At this time the kids needs only a few days to adopt the Korean language again, the transition period is very short. Must be in their genes …

After coming back home to Germany it lasts for a few weeks … then it’s almost gone again.

(Well, I have to mention that my ability to talk in Korean language is very poor. It has never been an option to live bilingual in the family, I would be the loser all the time and sooner or later the kids would know this and will play with this fact.)

— comment by Thomas on January 11th, 2007 at 4:22am JST (17 years, 6 months ago) comment permalink

Hi Jeffrey,
I grew up bi-lingual (German and English). I can vouch that Taek-Ryun and Thomas’s daughters will consider German their language and fight the Korean all the way. My sister and I fought our parents with the German. But we learned it anyway. Just sort of made it into our heads, even though we did not return to Germany for a visit until we were 10 and 9 years old.

So in their case, the trips to Korea are pretty important. Eventually they will put Korean into a secondary position permanently, and be unable to communicate in depth in Korean, unless they choose to study it.

Bi-lingual is defined differently by different people. Some pe0ple make a “truely bilingual” classification that means that the ability is equal in all spheres of usage (speaking, reading and writing and both professionally and casually). In truth, most people with 2-4 languages use them at various levels of ability. For example I communicate in spoken German pretty well and can pick up forgotten vocabulary quickly. But my written German is poor, though I am able to write to a degree that can be deciphered. My parents gave up trying to get us to write well, after we hit the “tweenager” years. And by then they were pushing Spanish instead of German anyway, since we were growing up in the USA, and it was fairly certain that we were going to stay there.

The beauty of living in the US is that there are so many people who speak English imperfectly that people are quite patient with a foreign accent and creative ways of trying to get a point across. There is a high tolerance for butchered English. Japanese need not be afraid of appearing foolish when trying to use their school English in the USA.

Now that I’ve been in Japan for 15 years I really appreciate this flexibility in the USA. My own daughter sometimes tells me to please stop talking, because my “Japanese” is hurting her ears. My own parents both spoke English very well after moving to the USA. I have not been able to emulate them with my Japanese in my adopted new home.

About the videos, and other multi-media interaction … yes, it is very great, very useful, and so on. But in my own case with my daughter, who is almost too American after watching all the Disney and Pixar movies as well as too many taped TV shows, reading ended up taking a back seat. She was slow off the mark. Partly personality, but also partly more enticed by the easier entertainment I had provided her to keep her English going when she was full time in Japanese “hoikuen” (daycare). Something to watch out for. She is now 10, and is catching up on the reading, but I am afraid that she may never learn to love reading and a neat turn of words the way that I did. She’s also going through the usual denial stuff, about not wanting to learn her kanji, blah, blah.

Anyway, the multilingual experience will vary from family to family but there will be much in common. Forming friendships with other families that are multi-lingual is a big bonus in keeping the kids from rejecting the multilingual model. If other kids are also multi-lingual, it will make it acceptable to be different in “that way” at school. Traveling whenever finances allow is also a big boost to keeping the kids’ attititude positive. My daughter is quite clear on the fact that she’s better off with English in some of the countries we visit, then with the Japanese! And of course parents setting the example… (though my sister and I were not all that impressed that our parents spoke German to each other, we cared enough about being able to evesdrop that we managed to hang on to our German in spite of ourselves!)

Good luck everyone!

— comment by Cornelia on February 27th, 2007 at 7:00pm JST (17 years, 5 months ago) comment permalink

As I mentioned, I might be moving to Japan from Los Angeles. My girlfriend is Japanese and I think it would be perfect to raise a child during his/her formative years in Japan and attend a Japanese school. I am a Dual US/Italian Citizen, and I had a very similar concern, living in and being educated in Japan, I am sure my future child will have no problem with Japanese, my girlfriend has lived in Los Angeles for 18 years and speaks very good English, so I am sure that won’t be a problem, either. However I want my child to learn Italian too. While my girlfriend has recently been trying to learn Italian I am not sure how far she will get. Hopefully I can meet an Italian friend in Japan and expose my child to some Italiago! S/he will have 3 passports and hopefully speak the 3 languages. One nice thing about Japanese is that the way you need to twist your sounds is perfect for being able to pronounce Italian with a very minor accent. I am surprised how well my girlfriend can enunciate the words. For some reason the reverse isn’t quite true, native Italian speakers are not able to pronounce Japanese as effortlessly.

My other concern is which Citizenship my child will choose when s/he turns 18. Hopefully with Japan’s declining population the laws may relax on this issue. Hopefully s/he will be able to retain all 3 citizenships. I read where efforts are being made to allow Nikeijin more opportunities to reintegrate back to Japan. Hopefully similar efforts will be made for dual citizens.

Jeff have you thought about this issue for your child? It seems like such a hard choice to make if once is forced to choose. I could never part with either of my passports, both nationalities are such an important part of me.

— comment by Michael on July 16th, 2007 at 4:32pm JST (17 years ago) comment permalink

Hello again, I quite enjoyed reading this post and the one before it. I’m currently 18 and I recently moved back to Japan after living in the States for a good 12 years. I attended the normal american elementary to high school but at home I communicated in Japanese. I’m now fluent in English and Japanese but my reading and writing abilities in Japanese is quite poor. Kanji mainly.. Through the 12 years in the states, I attended a japanese Juku for a number of years, but I did not progress much and pretty much stayed at an elementary level. haha. Pretty sad really. Anyways, I got some Japanese from there since most of my friends from school were english speaking. So maybe a good idea for your son as he gets older is to attend an English tutor or juku or something like that. it’ll definitely help him with school and his later studies. For me, i had just enough japanese to pass my SATIIs like a japanese person should.. Well I had a friend who was able to speak japanese as well as her english, but she was also much smarter than me. haha. Well i’m not the Language type anyways.. Welp that was my experience anyways. good day.

— comment by Yoshi on September 12th, 2007 at 12:50pm JST (16 years, 10 months ago) comment permalink

Hi Jeffrey san and everyone,
I was really happy to have found your Website again after loosing it…I was again doing a search on bilingual and came across your site again!
Thank you Jeffrey and everyone so much for your wonderful comments and suggestions!
To give you an update:
Now my son Gen is 9 1/2 month old; the Spanish-speaking nanny didn’t work out so he started Montessori daycare at 3 months of age and I started working. I am less concerned about his language skills now because I believe we still have time. In a meanwhile, I keep talking to him in Japanese exclusively, read Japanese books to him & etc.
My husband doesn’t speak Japanese very well so he only speaks in English to Gen. I decided not to teach him German because it is too much stress on me thinking about it…I think it is something he can decide to learn if he wishes to do so later on. I don’t want to end up like the couple you mentioned who got divorced focusing too much on their child and not on each other. I think having a happy family and giving our child a loving environment are my goals.

Anyway, I have now bookmarked this site not to loose it!
Thank you guys and talk to you again!

— comment by Megumi on September 13th, 2007 at 11:27pm JST (16 years, 10 months ago) comment permalink

Hello Jeffrey, Hi everyone.
Don’t worry too much about Anthony’s language skills, everything will work out by itself as kids are resilient and can easily adopt. As a Chinese growing up in the Philippines, we are all multi-lingual, just be sure he is exposed to the right people speaking the right language. My parents are from Amoy, China. I grew up in the Philippines and is now living in Taiwan, some journey that is.
Well, since my Parents were from Amoy, China, I learned to speak the local dialect growing up at home. Most Chinese in the Philippine are from Fookien, China, so I learned to speak the Fookien dialect as well while interacting with other Chinese outside of the family circle. Our house maids and driver are Filipinos, so by instinct I learned Tagalog (Philippine national language) from them, it is an interesting mix of their own language and Spanish (being that they were under Spanish rule for more than eight centuries.) Going to school, I continue to learn Tagalog from classmates while learning English in our classes since the medium of teaching in the Philippines is English, also reinforced my English language from my American and Spanish friends (Spaniards in the Philippine are very good English speakers.) Chinese in the Philippine attend both the local school and our own Chinese schools, so I learn another language which is Mandarin (Chinese national language.) All-in-all, I speak three languages, two dialects, and then some Cantonese since I spent my vacations in Hong Kong during my growing up years, also Hawaiian as one of my classmate is learning that dialect and I was his practise partner.
Don’t worry about your son’s language skills, he will learn them by himself.
I enjoyed your photography as I’m a shutterbug even when I was just a child.
And so sorry for the late and very long comment.

— comment by James on September 11th, 2010 at 11:26am JST (13 years, 10 months ago) comment permalink

Wow, this is all so interesting!!! Thanks so much to all the commenters.

— comment by Anne on September 2nd, 2012 at 5:07pm JST (11 years, 11 months ago) comment permalink
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