2002年10月17日 木曜日

Raising Three Bilingual Children

by Mizuko Ito

Biculturalism, Family and Relationships

A posting by Penny Kinnear in the chanpon member discussion boards in a thread about raising bilingual, bicultural children:

This has been a topic close to my own heart for many years. When our first child was born, my husband and I were concerned that she have both of her cultures and her languages, but we didn't have a clue as to how that might be accomplished.

We lived in a "danchi" at that point and I felt strongly that my speaking with her in English only served to add to the already heavy burden of having a foreign mother. As an aside, my husband was tutoring junior high kids in English at that point and one of the students was a young woman with the most beautiful head of auburn hair. I was so jealous. But, she hated it because she was continually harassed, accused of not being Japanese, of being haafu and worse. She wasn't, it was a natural occurance.

Anyway, my daughter had a predominantly Japanese first two years so that when we moved to Madison, Wi she spoke the English that she knew with a Japanese accent that my parents found enchanting. At the end of two years, she had forgotten her Japanese, in spite of the fact that her father continued to speak to her in Japanese, and switched into English. We moved back to Japan and in with my in-laws when she was 4 and a half, so she got reverse immersion. She also attended a local yochien. She started to NIS in kindergarten and then got a heavy dose of both English and Japanese. She always felt inadequate in Japanese, a little behind, which would have made sense since she was starting over at age 4. However, she also switched into Japanese as a language of preference except for her academic work.

After graduating from NIS she moved to the States to attend high school and live with her aunt and uncle. She maintained her Japanese with the help of a Japanese student attending the same school living with her aunt and uncle who sort of adopted her (and helped her get a "fix" when the craving for tsukemono or misoshiru got to be too much). Anyway, she has ended up bilingual and biliterate, through her own efforts and with the help of a school that promoted both languages. It was not easy for her, but she appreciates the result.

My two younger children had a very different pattern. They are "toshigo". I was working full time and continued to do so after they were born and my maternity leave ended. They went into private care for a year and then hoikuen until ages 5 and 6 respectively. Therefore, they had a totally Japanese language input, except for what they got from me.

There is a 9 year gap between my daughter and these two, so by that time we had figured out some strategies. I was consistent, speaking only English to the boys (we called them chibitachi, inappropriate now since they are 6'2" and 6'5"), playing English language kids song tapes, storytelling tapes. They still remember the Limelighters, Burl Ives and Bananas in Pajamas (I was multicultural in English, using Australian along with the American). They would recite, with feeling and appropriate accent the Brer Rabbit stories as told by storytellers and Winnie the Pooh from the video. I restated every question and comment they made in English on our long drives from the hoikuen to home (it was only about 11km, but through Tsukiji and across the Sumidagawa at that point could and often did take over an hour in the evening rush hour traffic) and then responded in English.

But, I never heard them actually use English until they were 4 and 5 years old and I took them to visit their American relatives, including cousins who were close to the same age. So, at least to that point, hearing the language had given them enough to develop their language and surprisingly their pronunciation.

They both started attending NIS, Ataka in grade 1 and Ryo in Kindergarten and went straight through. Interestingly, they both started using English between themselves within 6 months of starting at NIS, although, the dominant language among all three kids continued to be Japanese and then chanpon as the boys became more and more bilingual. I continued to ply the kids with English videos, tapes, reading to them in English and only speaking with them in English because once they left school, their world was Japanese. Although they were comfortable with monolingual English speakers, their circle of friends was primarily bilingual, kids like themselves. At that point in time about 1/3 of the enrollment in their classes was also mixed, raised as bilinguals.

I worked at using English, finding tapes and books. I did not try and teach the kids to read or do any academic work. Partly this was because I was working full time and frankly did not have the energy. I also felt pretty strongly that they needed me as a mother and not as another teacher. (I was teaching kindergarten at that point and had far too many students who had no childhood, only adult directed activities, so I had some pretty strong feelings about what was an appropriate role for me.) I don't think their language skills would have been as strong without the support of NIS. The only reason they were able to attend was because I was working there. I paid for the first three years of my daughter's time there by basically turning over about half of my salary every month.

I have friends who did not send their kids to an international school. Some of them have monolingual Japanese speaking children, some have dominiant Japanese/ESL English proficiency and there are also some who are pretty even bilinguals. Everyone does it differently, because family dynamics and just place are all different. There are two things that stand out, it is hard work for both parents and kids; and there is little danger of becoming a semilingual unless there are serious language learning problems.

Anyway, that's how we did it. All three kids are bilingual and biliterate and in spite of the whinging and fights over homework and kanji tests at the time, they are happy about it.

Good Luck but you can do it! One thing I have noticed is that families now are much more sophisticated and knowledgable about raising children bilingually than we were. You already have a head start.

Otherwise, just enjoy.


Penny�fs thesis on chanpon identity youth is available on chanpon.org. Click here to download.

Join the chanpon community to access the member discussion boards.

Posted by Mizuko Ito at 2002年10月17日 02:09

1- jane

My parents faced the same dilemma with my sister and me. They decided when I was five to move to California, thinking that two bicultural girls might have more opportunities there than in Japan. I remember struggling to learn to read English, being stuck in the "slow" classes because of my language inablity, and being frustrated at not being able to communicate with my teachers. For some reason, though, I had very few problems talking and relating to other children.

California - specifically, the San Francisco Bay Area - was indeed a great place to grow up. There were lots of others like me and unlike me - mixed cultures and races and ethnicities. Going to school at U.C. Berkeley, I was explosed to a lot of different results of culture-mixing. I don't know what my life would have been like if my family had stayed in Japan.

But although my parents made me go to Japanese language school on Saturdays, I was never as good at Japanese as a friend of mine, Akiko, who had been born in the States, and who, until she was 17, had never even been to Japan. Her parents, however, dedicated a great deal of time and resources to making sure she spoke, read, and wrote Japanese. She left to go to Japanese high school (a private school, I believe) for her senior year, which was sad for all of her friends. But I admired her language abilities.

I had to make up for my lackings in college and graduate school, slowly and painstakingly learning to read and write Japanese. I am still far from fluent. I can speak and understand it fairly well, as it was often spoken at home, and when we went to visit relatives in and around Tokyo. But it's been a challenge to adhere to my program of maintaining an active biligual and bicultural life.

And then I wonder, if I have children, what is the cultural legacy I will leave them? I look forward to discovering it some day!

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