12 more tips for raising a bilingual child in Japan

HIROSHIMA —

Like my earlier article 16 Tips for Raising a Bilingual Child in Japan, these thoughts are suggestions for supporting the English side of a child attending a Japanese school—they’re not prescriptions. Because every family’s make-up, and circumstances, are naturally different, what works for one family may not work as well for another. The strategies that have proven effective for my family, and for other families I have known, might be useful for you, too — or not. The point is: What would be effective for you, for your unique situation, at this particular time? If raising a bilingual child with good English ability is important to you, then this is the question that should remain uppermost in your mind throughout the journey.

1. Don’t leave it to chance

Don’t let the whims of circumstance determine the outcome. You have to actively shape the situation, on an ongoing basis, so your child will receive sufficient English input to counterbalance the weight of Japanese exposure. Some take a more laissez-faire approach, saying that English can be picked up later, when the child is older. That may be true, of course, but this disregards the natural desire of many parents to interact with their children in their mother tongue throughout the childhood years. For me, it’s about both the present and the future.

2. Ignore the naysayers

Some people, even those who are otherwise well-educated, may warn that your child will become “confused” or suffer other hardships trying to learn two languages at once. Don’t let such comments deter you. At the same time, take people’s prescriptions with a grain of salt. There is no “one size fits all” when it comes to families raising bilingual children. In my case, I’m eager to hear about others’ successful experiences — because maybe I can adopt or adapt those strategies for my own family — but only I can really decide what’s appropriate for my particular situation.

3. Seize each day

A child’s bilingual development is a long-term process, but it’s a process that can only be advanced bit by bit, day by day, through regular habits and routines. Thus, the idea of “seizing each day” — taking action day in and day out — is at the very heart of this challenge. Strive to be mindful of your long-range goal and commit to doing your honest best, each day, to move forward another few small steps. Remember that Japanese will continue its relentless progress, so you must be as consistent as you can, as persistent as possible, when it comes to providing English support.

4. Make it fun

There’s no getting around the fact that raising a bilingual child is a lot of hard work for everyone involved, so it’s vital to make the experience enjoyable, too—to whatever degree you can. It’s an odd balance, but I think it’s important to be both very serious and very playful at the same time: serious about the process and yet playful when it comes to carrying that process out. Half of this is simply attitude, but the other half involves implementing activities (books, stories, riddles, games, etc.) that can nurture language development in a lighthearted way.

5. Clone yourself

When your children are small, and are especially in need of English exposure, it can be frustrating when you work long hours and are unable to spend as much time with them as you’d like. One way to address this lack of exposure to some degree—and, again, have fun in the process—is to create videos of yourself reading picture books, telling stories, singing songs, and talking to your children. I did this when my kids were younger and asked my wife to play these videos every day for about 30 minutes. The videos captivated them (and amazed them when I happened to be in the same room!), while adding many hours of English exposure over those years.

6. Give books as gifts

By making a practice of giving English books as gifts for birthdays, Christmas, and other special occasions—and encouraging family and friends to do the same for your kids — you achieve three important things: 1) You help foster their love of books and literacy; 2) You convey the idea that books are special and valued by their loved ones (including Santa); and 3) You continue growing your home library, which should be an ongoing effort.

7. Turn to chapter books

As soon as your children reach a suitable age and language level, I highly recommend reading aloud chapter books that come in a series to help get them hooked on books. Do this daily, for at least 15 minutes, and chapter books will quickly cast a spell and whet their appetite for literacy. (And if reading regularly in person is difficult, try “cloning yourself” on video and have your spouse play a chapter or two each day.) You can find a list of some good series for young children in the post How to Get Your Child Hooked on Books at the Bilingual Monkeys blog.

8. Find a pen-pal

For a child, there may be no better way to promote the written word than through a pen-pal relationship. My daughter has been exchanging letters with a girl in the United States for almost three years. They write to each other (with some support from the parents) about every other month and send presents for birthdays and for Christmas. Hopefully, we can maintain this connection for some time to come, but even so, the experience has already benefited her growing writing ability and her grasp of the value of English.

9. Fuel natural passions

Make an effort to fuel your child’s passions via English resources and opportunities. For example, my son currently loves Lego and super heroes so I plan to give him books on these subjects for Christmas. In this way, his natural passions and his English ability are being nurtured at the same time. As with books, you can probably find a good DVD on most any topic. If your child likes dinosaurs, for instance, the BBC has a marvelous series called “Walking with Dinosaurs,” including our personal favorite “Chased by Dinosaurs.” Depending on where you live, you might also have access to opportunities in English — like classes, clubs, or other activities—that connect to a child’s special interests.

10. Write a story serial

Last time I mentioned the idea of “captive reading,” in which suitable material for children with basic reading ability is posted in “captive locations,” particularly the bathroom, in order to promote reading practice. Toward this end, I’m now making use of “serial stories.” I write one page every other day or so (with a cliffhanger ending) for a running storyline that features us as the main characters. The roughly ten-part stories are very silly — I’m basically just typing out what pops into my head—but my kids find them funny and are continually pestering me to produce the next installment.

11. Use “carrots” and “sticks”

There are various views when it comes to giving rewards, but I’ve found that a reasonable use of “carrots” has provided an effective framework for nudging my children to read books and do daily homework. In our case, when they finish reading a book, they earn a little prize — something that genuinely excites them. My son, for instance, likes plastic Pokemon characters and this small reward has heightened his enthusiasm for reading. As for daily homework, it may sound funny, but they’re quite content with a piece of (sugarless) gum after their tasks are complete. And the only “stick” I seem to need (at least so far) is the reminder that they can watch no TV until all their work is finished.

12. Give time and attention

Our children will be little only once, and even then, for barely a blink. Whatever your circumstance, do all that you can to give time and attention to your kids while they’re small. Not only do they need the English exposure that you offer, they need, more than anything, your love. It isn’t always easy to stop in the middle of something when your child interrupts, or answer yet another curious question without irritation, but it’s worth making the effort — every time — in order to promote your child’s English ability and deepen the bond between you as parent and child.

Author Infomation

Adam Beck
Adam Beck
Adam Beck is the blogger of Bilingual Monkeys, a site of “ideas and inspiration for raising bilingual kids (without going bananas).” A former teacher at Hiroshima International School, and now a writer for the Hiroshima Peace Media Center, Adam is the father of two bilingual children.
Website: http://bilingualmonkeys.com
  • 5

    ukguyjp

    You offer a lot of useful suggestions.

    "Some people...may warn that your child will become “confused” or suffer other hardships trying to learn two languages at once."

    Yes, as you say, this is nonsense. In fact, bilingual kids, though they may fall behind in the beginning, outpace other kids not only in language learning but many other academic areas and cognitive functions later on. But that's a difficult message to get across in Japan, especially when most kids are focused on acquiring kanji and being indoctrinated into accepting Japanese culture as the prevailing ideology.

    Importance of reading is key, the work of Stephen Krashen has underlined this.

    Not necessarily true that "English can be picked up later, when the child is older" - depending on what you mean by "older.
    Linguistics research shows that the "critical period" of language learning takes place well before the late teens. I see this all the time in my university classes, where it's too late for the majority of students. They have had far too little meaningful engagement with English to acquire it properly, and few of them will have the chance to live abroad and acquire English relatively painlessly. It's the students from mixed-culture backgrounds, plus those with high motivation, who can really speak English.

    I think one main problem is the enculturation which actively hinders English acquisition. Katakana is not necessarily a useful tool, in fact it encourages fossilisation ("ke-ki", "ho-to"). Without exposure to natural English, Japanese students could talk to each other for decades and they still sound, well, just like Japanese students!

    In this regard there are lot of things the society as a whole could do, too. For instance 50% of NHK's children's programming should be in English only, with English (not Japanese) subtitles.

    Japan should also follow the example of asian neighbours like The Philippines and make English AND Japanese the official languages. The Philippines accomplished this in the period between 1898 and 1946, admittedly when it was was under U.S. sovereignty. But a similar turnaround could be accomplished in two generations if Japan was truly committed to bilingualism. ..which it demonstrably isn't.

  • 3

    Novenachama

    Our society is diverse, mobile and global. We cannot pretend to be living in a monolingual and mono-cultural vacuum. As modern communication technology connects people all over the world to each other, it emphasizes the need for us to better understand each other. More and more people find themselves in need of more than one language in order to communicate effectively. In fact statistics indicate more than half of the world's population is already bilingual. Knowing several languages has been an advantage. I have been able to use information in new ways and developed good listening skills including the ability to connect with other easily. Last of all I came to realize how it has helped with solutions to problems in my life. Hence I feel very fortunate and am extremely grateful to my parents who made it possible to have the gift of tongues.

  • 3

    Sensato

    I commend you for your hard work and dedication Adam! You are the model Japan-resident foreign parent.

    Anyway, here is my two cents.

    I have found that if a child (toddler/kindergartener) is in an environment where he/she sees only dad speaking English, that child will not likely come to recognize the language as a 'valid' one and consequently will tend not to speak the language much (but may still understand it fairly well). However, even a short time spent with English-speaking peers can cause the child's motivation to use English, and his ability/fluency, to very quickly gain momentum.

    Although not feasible for some, as an alternative to international school if that is not in a parent's budget I strongly recommend joining a group in Japan targeting the international community that offers plenty of children's activities. This can be in the form of an athletic/social club (Tokyo American Club, Yokohama Country & Athletic Club or the Kobe Club), a regular playgroup with like-minded parents, or a church/synagogue etc. catering to the the English-speaking community with a good and engaging Sunday school and youth group program (even if you are not particularly religious.

    This strategy -- and moving to a community in Japan with a fairly large international community -- did wonders for our child in terms of developing in him a positive bi-cultural identity and fueling his English-language fluency.

  • 2

    Ah_so

    Some people, even those who are otherwise well-educated, may warn that your child will become “confused” or suffer other hardships trying to learn two languages at once. Don’t let such comments deter you.

    I doubt that many readers of JT would think this for a second, but it appears to be a widely held belief in Japan that the human brain cannot cope with 2 languages at once and that children who try to will grow up liguistically deficient. I have never got to the bottom of how this myth originated in Japan, but it probably relates to some piece of pseudo scientific research in Japan's past, like blood group personalities. Unfortunately it is a dangerous myth that harms many who have a genuine chance of becoming bilingual - I know of a family with a young son posted to the UK who isolated him from English so that he did not get "confused" and could concentrate on learning Japanese.

    The other beneift is that children who grow up bilingual are better at acquiring further languages when they are older. The part of the brain that is used for language is wired to be more adaptable and to cope with more than one language. This helps even after the age at which we can pick up languages in a child-like manner i.e. 11+

  • 5

    Onniyama

    Great stuff Adam. My wife and I have raised our son to be bilingual. All your ideas are good but i think the key is simply finding the time to spend with your kids. Play with them and the motivation becomes intrinsic. They simply want to hang out and play with dad. I am able to speak Japanese but I have never spoken anything but English with my son. I dont think he even realizes I can speak Japanese at all. I have had fantastic results. Also, every time we visit Canada in the summer we make some dvds of kids shows that he enjoys. He watches them continuously. I guess I have been lucky in having had the time to spend with my son. I have read him books nearly every night before bed since the day he was born. Now that he is 7 he is starting to read them to me. I think it is also important to show genuine interest in what they are doing. In the end, I dont think it really matters what you do with your kids. Just spend time with them. It might be as simple as watching Count Floyd from SCTV on YouTube with them.

  • 0

    philly1

    Lots of great ideas in both columns, Adam. The key is the dedication and consistency with which you pursue the goal. Raising children who are double (I refuse to use the term hafu) is challenging. However, if those children can enter both of their cultural worlds on equal terms with others in the culture, they have a tremendous advantage.

    I think this is more easily understood in nations that are not as insular as Japan, Australia, Canada or the USA. Europeans often have conversational skills in 3 languages or more and don't question the advantages. But mono-lingual cultures often ask what good a second language is. Why is it necessary? (And don't bother to say that Canada is bilingual. It is, but not across the entire nation.)

    There is one recommendation I would hesitate to encourage, however. That is reading in the bathroom. In a one-bathroom home, the bathroom is not a reading room. Ask anyone hopping foot to foot and hollering, *Are you done in there or are you just reading? *

  • 1

    sakurala

    I was lucky enough to grow up in a house with a French speaking mother and English speaking father...however, my mother rarely took the time to speak French to me. In fact, it was almost exclusively used for when she was angry. So, I always thought French was a harsh sounding language. Please, if you have the oppurtunity to have 2 languages in your home, don't use one just to scare, frighten or punich your kids.

  • 0

    2020hindsights

    However, even a short time spent with English-speaking peers can cause the child's motivation to use English, and his ability/fluency, to very quickly gain momentum.

    This is true. My daughter spent some time while we are on holiday with kids her own age that only speak English. She now really wants to speak English better.

  • 2

    Hide Suzuki

    "Some people may warn that your child will become “confused” or suffer other hardships trying to learn two languages at once"

    I hear this a lot from Japanese friends and many people are against starting English classes at elementary school level because of this, it is completely non-sense as the author says.

    Almost all friends, TV shows, radios, teachers, and almost everyone else speaks Japanese 24/7 and somehow they think 2-3 hours of English classes a week will slow down their learning curve or more absurdly they won't learn Japanese !!!!

  • 0

    all4faj

    I would add don't let your own ego get in the way, As a Native english speaking parent with young children, I didn't have to speak Japanese all that well to have a greater knowledge in either language than them, but that soon changes and all that ends up happening is your children's Japanese improves at a much faster pace than yours and they don't learn English when you speak Japanese to them, I insisted their Mother speak to them in Japanese and I only ever spoke English to them, they knew that I spoke Japanese , because their Mother and I conversed in Japanese, however they would quite happily translate for me whenever we went to the shops or a restaurant, it made me happy that they were excited to spak both languages.

    Persistance is key and even a bit of tough love can be necessary, I always told them they had to speak both languages so that they could talk with both sides of the family, nothing more, nothing less.

  • 0

    Fon Fox Leesinsawadi

    Dear Writer,

    I am writing to thank you for the tips: pen-pal and hosting. I can see these will go together. My daughter is almost 5 and she interest in sending mail: stamp on the envelope as she always excites to draw picture and send card with short words and wrote her name and address herself and this will send to her cousin but she did not return her any, just a phone to say thanks in Thai.

    So, I am wondering if you could recommend me more about pen-pal: who, where to find, or you may have your own connection to your friend. My family lives in the central BKK,Thailand. Our house has been left the 3rd floor for kid's room own creation, there will be welcome our guests. We're all Thai, my husband is an architect and I am a housewife. Our kids go to Thai school nearby. would be great to have friend to write to, especially for "girl's talk" which will shortly come.

    Sincerely Yours FL

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