Sometimes I face this argument: Your children can always learn the minority language later. Why focus so much on fostering this language now?
Strictly speaking, this is true: children can indeed learn a second (or additional) language at an older age, given suitable circumstances.
But this argument also surprises me because it misses the two main motives driving my daily efforts, the two deepest aims underlying my entire bilingual journey:
1. I want to communicate well with my kids in my mother tongue for the full duration of our relationship.
As I explain in Why Communicating in English with My Kids is So Important to Me: “My Japanese isn’t bad, but it simply wouldn’t be possible to convey who I am to my children—my true self, both the soulful and the silly—in any other language but English. … Because English is at the heart of who I am, being able to communicate with my children in my mother tongue also benefits our bond throughout their childhood.” (At the same time, I understand that the circumstances and aims of other parents make using a non-native language with their kids the appropriate choice. So this isn’t a value judgment—I’m only saying that, for me, communication in the mother tongue is key.)
2. I want my kids to be able to communicate well with my parents—their paternal grandparents—and other family members who don’t speak the majority language.
This, I assume, is a pretty universal goal: there may naturally be differences regarding use of the mother tongue and non-native languages, but those parents who don’t want their children to be able to communicate well with grandparents and other family members in the language these relatives speak are surely the exception.
And it’s this second goal that I’d like to look at more closely in this post.
Frustration and sadness
Before I had kids of my own, I was well aware of children who were unable to communicate effectively with one side of their family due to a lack of active ability in the minority language. And I saw the frustration and sadness that often followed from this situation. As a result, I became even more quietly determined to do all that I could to foster this active language ability.
The hard truth is, when grandchildren and grandparents are unable to communicate well in a shared language, it becomes more difficult for them to form close bonds. I’m not saying that a loving relationship can’t develop in such circumstances, of course it can, but all things being equal, it’s naturally more challenging without a common tongue.
And when this is the case, often compounded by the fact that these grandchildren and grandparents live in different parts of the world and seldom see one another in person, forming fulfilling ties between the two sides can become a struggle.
Making reasonable efforts
I’ll be the first to admit that the great distance between my kids and my parents—and the fact that we’re rarely able to travel to see them in person—has been an ongoing source of regret. However, given that the circumstances themselves can’t really be altered without making pretty radical changes to our lives, I’ve tried to do what I realistically can to overcome this situation and enable them to develop strong ties just the same. Would their bonds be closer if their proximity to each other was closer? Undoubtedly. But sometimes we must be satisfied with whatever reasonable efforts we can make under difficult conditions that we cannot or choose not to change.
In our case, these efforts include:
1. Daily efforts to nurture active ability in the minority language
Without these proactive efforts (described throughout my blog and my forum), and the development of active ability in English, much of the other activities we pursue to bridge the distance between Japan and the United States wouldn’t really be possible. It’s this language proficiency which opens up the many opportunities for interaction.
2. Regular interaction between my kids and my parents in various forms
Our main activities for promoting closer ties involve providing my parents (and other family members) with regular glimpses of our experiences through photos and video clips; chatting via Skype every few weeks; and exchanging handwritten letters. These are pretty standard efforts, of course, but you’ll find full details on how we’ve carried them out—along with creative variations—at the following posts:
Our time is limited
Finally, I think it’s also important to hold firmly in mind that our time for building bonds and memories with grandparents is limited. My own parents, for example, are now both in their 80s. Although it’s true, both sides have felt heartache over the long-distance lives we lead, I’m still happy that my children have been able to develop a meaningful relationship with their grandparents through regular contact in the minority language and the occasional in-person visit. The situation may be much less than ideal, but we’ve done what we can under these circumstances and have managed to maintain efforts that not only impact the present in positive ways, they create fond, lasting memories for the future.
Creative Solutions to Challenges Raising Bilingual Children (which features a powerful story about my father)
To read a lovely guest post by Annie Dye about promoting relationships with grandparents, see…