This article continues a series of guest posts at Bilingual Monkeys called “Bilingual Travelers.” What sort of impact does travel to a location where the minority language is spoken widely have on a child’s bilingual development and bicultural upbringing? In this series we join other families as they make trips to destinations around the world and report back on their experiences.
If you’d like to contribute an article to the “Bilingual Travelers” series—or the series Thank You Letter From a Bilingual Child—please contact me to express your interest in guest posting at Bilingual Monkeys.
Making a home in Japan
My son, Oliver, was born in a suburb of Hiroshima, Japan in the fall of 2013 while I was still busy wrapping up my masters degree at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. When my partner, Yuco, and I got married earlier that year, the plan had always been to start our lives together in Vancouver, a kind of symbolic halfway point between her hometown in Japan and mine in North Carolina in the southeastern United States. But with my son’s birth, plans changed. I found work at a small English conversation school in the Japanese community where Yuco and I had first met, and we traded the adventure of Vancouver for the stability of my partner’s hometown, where we could rely on her family for childcare as we all got down to the details of a bilingual marriage and bilingual parenthood.
A bilingual family (but mostly Japanese)
The three of us—my son, my partner, and I—speak Japanese and English, but mostly Japanese. I had studied Japanese at university before moving to Japan initially in 2008. I was a terrible student then, but I am determined to acquire a reading knowledge of the language of my favorite Japanese novelist, Haruki Murakami. I still cling to my average Japanese ability as a point of personal pride in a country where I see so many native English speakers get by with only the most basic Japanese. However, I have begun to see that my stubbornness about using Japanese in all aspects of my daily social life (for the benefit of my own learning) has unfortunately given me some communication habits that have been tough to break.
This stubbornness has also made my responsibility as my son’s primary English language teacher all the more challenging. For instance, when someone speaks to me in Japanese, I tend to respond in Japanese. It has taken a good amount of conscious effort to get out of that habit—to inject the proper amount of self-awareness that allows me to code-switch appropriately, especially if I am working with a student or speaking with my son.
New outlook on bilingualism
Over the past several months of following the Bilingual Monkeys blog, I have become more and more convinced by Adam’s formulation that: Exposure + Need = Bilingual Success. But because of my work schedule, and also partly because I am not always the most talkative person, I have struggled to make time for an appropriate amount of English talk, books, and play. Of course, my partner, while she is more comfortable using Japanese, supports our son’s English in various ways, like by reading to him in English at bedtime. But since we both work full time, my 2-year-old son spends a significant amount of time at a preschool or with his Japanese aunt and grandmother, in the absence of our minority language.
Though making daily efforts in English continues to be tough, one major blessing has been how outgoing our son is. In part, I believe it was his early attendance at the preschool (he has been enrolled since he was only 4 months old). And in part, his social nature is a result of the number of cousins he interacts with on a regular basis—my son is the youngest of seven boys and girls all under age 7 in our extended family! So, despite his parents’ shortcomings, our son seems destined to be a communicator. If only there were a way to introduce some extra need to speak English into the equation.
My sister’s wedding and English-speaking relatives
A major opportunity to boost my son’s English ability came to us when my sister announced early last year that she was getting married. My sister was in contact with us from the beginning of the wedding planning process with multiple options for dates and locations in a very exciting email exchange. Not only did we have to come, our son was going to be in the wedding party as a ring-bearer!
Admittedly, it was a little difficult to imagine how we would pull this off since, when these plans were being made, my son had only barely started walking. But missing this important event in my little sister’s life was never really an option. My father ended up giving my mother a surprise round-trip ticket to Japan for her birthday, timed so that we could all take the same flight from Japan to the United States. But it would still just take some time before my worries over traveling overseas with a toddler and the stress of buying expensive plane tickets and getting a week off from work gave way to excitement over giving my son the best chance yet to meet his English-speaking family.
Focus on family or on language?
But a year ago I was far less attuned to Oliver’s linguistic needs, and much more concerned about making sure he felt emotionally connected to his family in America—if not just making sure he was properly fed and bathed and diaper changed. Luckily, the time and energy I have put into scheduling videophone calls has had the added bonus of English exposure, but truthfully, so much of the childrearing I was doing prior to my sister’s wedding had been free of any underlying bilingualism motivation.
Naturally, the time I was spending with my son was invaluable to me for ten thousand other reasons. However, strictly speaking, I wasn’t planning this trip with my son’s English language learning in mind. Though, in reflecting back on it, it is difficult for me to think of a better way to motivate my son to begin using English more. I have no doubt that this trip paid off by giving my boy’s brain a week-long zap of fresh new experiences, full of love and the smiling faces (and English-speaking voices!) of people he had mostly only ever known as moving pictures on a laptop screen.
Flying to America
The plane trip from Hiroshima to Greenville, South Carolina was blessedly uneventful and smooth as far as my son was concerned. There was minimal fuss despite some delays and the hassle of security checkpoints and wrestling baggage that goes with international travel. The audio on the in-flight movie system just wasn’t working, which was a disappointment. My son still didn’t really understand what headphones were for anyway—he would take them off immediately and begin to chew on them.
In any case, the other passengers were generous in their tolerance of my son’s running up and down the aisles before he ate and settled down for a long sleep between Tokyo and Newark. However, the in-flight meal did not agree with his stomach, so our landing in New Jersey ended with an explosively messy diaper, which needed changing while the plane was still taxiing to the terminal.
Nicknames for grandparents
Needless to say, the four of us—Oliver, me, Yuco, and my mother—were all relieved to have our feet on the ground again. We had a pleasant car ride home from the airport chatting with my father about plans for the wedding rehearsal dinner and an early Thanksgiving dinner at my grandmother’s house including turkey on the following day. It was late at night by the time we got back to my parents’ house, so the timing was just about right for a rest. My son was ecstatic to finally meet his grandfather (amerika jiichan in Japanese or America Granddaddy). But there was some discussion about the awkwardness of having to refer to grandparents by their country of origin. My son’s grandparents’ nicknames are still not completely settled yet. It has been interesting trying to balance my desire for clarity of recognition with my parents’ desire for specific English language nicknames.
Oh well. The next day we would be meeting a whole bunch of new relatives with far less complicated naming schemes. My son’s great grandmother could retain the same nickname I use for her, and my sister and her fiancée could just be called by their first names. Easy.
Whirlwind visit to my hometown
Everything went very smoothly from a parenting perspective during our week in North Carolina and South Carolina. It was a whirlwind trip full of endless familiar faces. So many people who knew my son from photos on the web were keen to squeeze him and ask a million questions. Many people were very curious about his language use, which was a good excuse to prod him to produce an “I love you” or a “hello”—two of the few English expressions I knew he could say reliably.
Mostly my son just seemed to appreciate the attention. But outgoing as always, something seemed to click in terms of his willingness to produce words without being prompted towards the end of this trip. His words were still likelier to be Japanese than English, but he would repeat words like hikouki (the Japanese word for airplane) until they got a response from someone nearby. And since this trip basically amounted to a week-long string of family parties, there was no shortage of people for Oliver to engage in this very primitive yet charming form of “conversation.”
Priceless English interactions
The best interactions I observed my son having—the ones that made me proudest of him—were those he had with the other children he met. His co-ring-bearer and my cousin’s daughter were the two closest to my son’s age. They had several hours of time to play together over the course of a couple of days. There was minimal fussing, plenty of sharing, and an uncanny kindness abounded. It was as if the children were aware that some sort of special occasion was going on. Actually, I am certain they were aware that something was up just on the basis of the fancy clothes. In addition to all that, the funky art gallery where the wedding reception was held had this incredible, fun playroom that had been converted from a closet underneath a staircase. So the younger children could spend a lot of time inside minimally supervised. Any time I peeked in there I observed maximum fun being had.
It always feels great to give my son some freedom and see him make the most of it—making new friends, having a good time, smiling. But reflecting back on our trip and all the new environments and situations my son found himself in, I would guess that the few hours he spent at that wedding reception in the playroom with his cousins and other relatives were probably among the most formative. Add to that the experiences he had of hanging out with his great grandmother and of flying on a bunch of different airplanes, and you can begin to understand the magnitude and scope of the changes in worldview that must have taken place for my son on such a short trip.
Big changes in language use
My son, who had only just turned 2 years old two weeks before we left, had begun using all kinds of language by the time we got back to Japan. He was much keener to repeat words; his vocabulary seemed to have doubled (to maybe 30 words in English and Japanese); he was babbling much more fluently and abundantly; he could count to ten in English and Japanese and he would initiate “conversations” with much greater urgency and persistence.
It was an eye-opener for me, in so far as his language ability had always only been a sort of background concern for me up to that point. But to the degree that this trip to the United States seemed to give him (or at least coincide with him having) a boost in language ability, I have been much more aware of his progress as a bilingual child in the weeks since we have returned.
Great excuse to buy books!
I spent about a fifth of my shopping budget at a couple of bookstores in my hometown—primarily on high-quality used picture storybooks. A few titles I can recommend are: hello airplane! by Bill Cotter; Richard Scarry’s Cars and Trucks and Things That Go; and Kitten’s First Full Moon by Kevin Henkes, a book that won The Caldecott Medal. These are without a doubt our best souvenirs!
So, even though this trip was short and was mainly about maintaining vital connections with family I rarely get to see, it ended up being a new beginning for my relationship with bilingualism. It made my son’s learning English all the more plausible. Plus it was a great excuse to buy books. And without a doubt, it gave my son the opportunity to learn some English on the trip—if nothing else I know he picked up the word “airplane”!
Read more posts in this series…