Growing Up with Two Languages

Since learning that Yuriko is pregnant, I have been reading books about child rearing. Obviously, it’s true that there’s a lot of stuff you can’t learn from books, or indeed from any source other than personal experience, but there is still quite a lot that you can learn from reading. So, recently I read Growing Up with Two Languages, the topic of which should be clear from the title. Yuriko and I both want to raise Yudetamago speaking both English and Japanese, for several reasons. The most important is making sure that our child can communicate with my parents; since we anticipate being in Japan for at least the next few years, learning Japanese should not be a problem.

This is the second book I’ve read on this topic, and so far both agree that One Parent – One Language is a good way to go. Indeed, they both agree that parents should talk to their children in their native language, so that the parent can be fully comfortable when explaining things. So we’re going to do that.

This book put a strong emphasis on the need to provide substantial input in both languages. In other words, I have to spend lots of time talking to our child, reading stories, and singing lullabies. Oh, the burden! It also emphasises the work involved; children might be very good at learning languages, but learning two is still harder than learning one. Thus, it is, apparently, very common for the languages to be at different levels of competence. In particular, the majority language (Japanese, in this case) tends to be stronger than the minority language (which will be English). Finding other children who speak the minority language is recommended, because a monolingual playgroup is a good context for learning to use the language like a child. I’ll have to look into that; fortunately, English speakers are not unheard of around Tokyo.

Actually, in a lot of ways it looks like we have almost the ideal combination. The minority language (English) has a very high status in the majority culture. That is, almost all Japanese people want to be able to speak English. The ease with which I can sell my services as an English teacher is evidence for this, but the use of English in adverts also reveals it. No-one is going to suggest that it is bad for our child to learn English, and it’s quite likely that some parents will want to get English lessons for their child through ours. Materials in the minority language are easily available, and other minority language speakers live in the local area.

One thing that this book emphasised was the importance of having two cultures as well as two languages. Visits to countries where the minority language is the sole or main language are highly recommended. Thus, it looks like we might have to plan for somewhat extended visits to the grandparents, aunts, and uncles. Fortunately, the grandparents have not been indicating that this would be a serious problem. Obviously, that only becomes necessary when the child can talk, so we do have a bit of time to work out details.

This book avoided the term “bilingual”, due to lack of clarity over its meaning. By the standards that are sometimes applied, a large number of people do not even count as monolingual: they cannot converse fluently about any arbitrary subject in their native language. On the other hand, on other definitions anyone who can say “hello” and “goodbye” in a foreign language counts. I count on just about all definitions, but I don’t sound like a Japanese native. (Yet.) Still, I think it’s a useful shorthand.

Overall, this was a very useful book. It made the process sound rather more work than the last one I read, and it will probably be even more work than that. On the other hand, it also made it sound very definitely worth doing. So we’ll just have to try our best.







One response to “Growing Up with Two Languages”

  1. Sheila avatar

    I have known lots of people brought up in English and Welsh (with either as the main language), and it works well. One point that I have noticed is that it is important for learning in a language to continue past the time when the child starts schooling in the other. This is so their facility in the written and spoken language more or less keeps up so they can express themselves in a way suited to their age and level of education in both.

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