JAPAN:  Top Tips for Bilingualism

JAPAN: Top Tips for Bilingualism

Like an increasing number of families in Japan, my children are being raised in a bilingual environment. We started this saga back in the days before the Internet took over the world, and I had to actually buy and read books to fill my mind with anxiety-inducing conflicting opinions. Now I can meet my anxiety quotient with a few clicks each day, much more efficient.

I found then, and now, that there is a lot of information geared towards young children and parents who still have their hair, having not yet ripped it all out in frustration when confronted by relatives or educators who don’t understand bilingualism, or worse, are prejudiced against it.

My kids are now 9 and 11, in 3rd and 6th grade at local Japanese schools. All of their education has been in Japanese. Our home life is basically in English, though the kids speak Japanese with Dad. He just isn’t around as much due to long working hours.

Some friends and I started an English school that focuses on literacy for already bilingual kids. We meet three times a month on Saturday. This is their only “formal” English training. Everything else has been left to me.

Which is every bit as hard as it sounds.

I thought I would share with you today my top tips for raising bilingual kids without losing your sanity. Please bear in mind that mine are 9 and 11 years old. I would love to hear top tips for teenagers, so please share your ideas on the comments!

1) Input input input. I have an unwritten rule that all media in the house should be in the minority language. (In our case, that’s English.) But we all know how much kids love rules…so I make sure to have a plethora of attractive English options, while keeping the Japanese options limited to network TV.

2) Encourage siblings to speak the minority language to each other. I know that this one is hard. Siblings have their own relationship with each other separate from their parents, and we don’t want to be up in there and intruding. Some things like school or homework, is just be easier to discussed in the majority language and I try not to get too worried about that.

Having games, puzzles, something they can do together that uses the minority language is one way to encourage them to use it with each other without having to get in their face about it. “Operation,” for example, is funnier in English. Mad Libs or other word puzzles are great! They keep talking about it, in the same language, for quite a while afterwards.

3)Read- We all know that reading to your children is important, but perhaps even more so for bilingual children. Even when you think your kids should be reading to themselves, keep reading to them. This will help emphasize good grammar structure (sometimes strange patterns can get kind of fossilized within a family.) Also through reading you can expose your children to situations they would ‘t normally have a chance to encounter, and all the vocabulary that comes with that.

4) Identify vocabulary holes. Bilingual people often have greater vocabulary in one language about a particular topic than the other. My children probably don’t know words like “ladle” or “whisk” in Japanese because they aren’t exposed to those terms outside of the home. Conversely, there are lots of words related to school life that they will not learn in English unless I make an effort to imagine where those holes will be and prevent them. I find often that when talking to each other, they fill that space with the Japanese word This phenomenon is called code-switching.

5)Don’t panic over code switching. According to most experts, code switching isn’t really a problem; But as a parent, it can be disconcerting! Personally, I repeat what the child has said with the correct English term, if there is one. I don’t usually make them repeat it in English or point out they have said something incorrect.

6) Use background music. I find that if the background music is in English, pretty soon everyone is speaking English!

7) Routine is your friend. Getting the children to do their English reading and writing was a huge battle in the beginning, but we built it into their morning routine. There are some days when we don’t get to it, and even more when not as much gets done as I would like, but because we have a routine in place and an expectation that it will get done, it’s easier to get back on track and stay there.

8) Keep a sense of humor. Raising kids is hard work, full stop. Adding another language to the mix adds another layer of difficulty. But it also adds another layer of cute mistakes and funny memories. Just now I asked my son to come back by a decent hour, and he exploded that he would come home an hour early. Um, that was “decent hour,” not “descent hour,” which is not even a thing.

Do you have any tips to add? Any insight into bilingual teens? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

Melanie Oda (Japan)

If you ask Melanie Oda where she is from, she will answer "Georgia." (Unless you ask her in Japanese. Then she will say "America.") It sounds nice, and it's a one-word answer, which is what most people expect. The truth is more complex. She moved around several small towns in the south growing up. Such is life when your father is a Southern Baptist preacher of the hellfire and brimstone variety. She came to Japan in 2000 as an assistant language teacher, and has never managed to leave. She currently resides in Yokohama, on the outskirts of Tokyo (but please don't tell anyone she described it that way! Citizens of Yokohama have a lot of pride). No one is more surprised to find her here, married to a Japanese man and with two bilingual children (aged four and seven), than herself. And possibly her mother. You can read more about her misadventures in Asia on her blog, HamakkoMommy.

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