Tips to Raise Your Bicultural Kids in English and Japanese

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Bilingualism is all the rage right now and it would seem like every mother’s son is out there learning English as a second, third, or fourth language. (You get the idea.) Well, it can be easy to get caught up in the competition and forget that you are raising real human beings with their own dreams, aspirations, and ideas.

Here are some tips for moms out there who are hitting a rut with teaching English and Japanese to their kids.

A Little Here, a Little There

In Japanese there is a saying, “Even dust when piled will be a mountain.”

ちりも積もれば山となる(ちりもつもればやまとなる)

There’s no reason to expect your kids to get everything right in both languages from the get go. I talked to a mom one time who was embarrassed that her toddler son kept saying, “carps” and “sheeps.” She would get angry and then of course, the son wouldn’t want to learn English anymore. If anything, milestones like this should be praised! Once your child figures out that the “s” at the end means plural, you should be jumping for joy, not having a pity party.

Some might disagree, but with my kids, we use the OPAL(One Parent All Languages) Method. I’ve been actively teaching them both languages since they were little and now at 3 and 1 1/2, they can already communicate well in both languages. If you’re just starting out with toddlers, having a vocabulary list of all the important words and phrases for everyday life really helps! I.e. Change the diaper, clean the room, read the book, etc.  Sometimes if the phrases sound completely different in the English and Japanese, I will use both languages simultaneously multiple times to emphasize the difference. Otherwise, for the most part, I try to keep the languages separated. (Although this is easier said then done at times!)

  • How old are you? | いくつ?| ikutsu?
  • Clean up! | かたづけなさい!| katadukenasai!
  • おかえりなさい!| okaerinasai! | Welcome home!

Environment Plays a Big Role

Whether you like it or not, the people your child hangs out with are more than likely going to greatly affect their language preferences. When my oldest daughter first realized that grandma and grandpa only spoke Japanese, she did a 180 degree turn on me and went from preferring English to preferring Japanese almost overnight. This has since leveled out, but the point is not to get stressed out if you can’t control every aspect of input and output during the language acquisition process. Things can shift from one direction to the next very quickly depending on your child’s circumstances.

Don’t Force Your Kids to Be Someone They’re Not

I wish I could shout this from the rooftops! Envy is a huge problem over here in Japan. It drives people to do crazy things. Almost the entire cram school business over here is based upon just that: envy. Remember when people used to speak with the local, heavy accent? Remember when people had more connections to their community? The loss of community has never been so greatly felt in the language world–everybody wants to speak the same way. Turn off the TV, turn off the computer, and just let your kids have some fun being who they are. If everybody is the same, the world is a much more boring place!

Don’t Force Yourself to Be Someone You’re Not

Ah yes, in the attempt to create the perfect life for our children, there are times when we completely forget about ourselves, but that should not be. You don’t have to have the perfect accent–toddlers could care less. Don’t pretend to be better in a language than you really are. Kids are smart and they will find you out whether you realize it or not. I am always honest with my kids when I hit a roadblock in Japanese. “I don’t know what that is. Let me look it up in the dictionary.” If your kids wind up with a heavy accent, because you just can’t change your pronunciation, then so be it! I, for one, really, really love accents–including Japanese accents. Embrace who you are and you’ll have more fun!

むりをしないで。|muri wo shinaide | Don’t overdo it.

Kids Might Not Even Choose to Use the Languages You Are Teaching

The last point to consider for this post is this: kids grow up eventually! Even though you’re putting all this time and effort into learning two languages (or more), it’s possible that your kids won’t even use those languages at all! I heard an interesting story from a girl who grew up in Switzerland learning 3 languages, moved to Korea to learn Korean and then eventually got a Chinese boyfriend! You never know where life will take your kids, so just do the best you can!

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