It’s hard to believe the time has passed so quickly, but I’ve now lived in Japan for 16 years. During this time I’ve encountered more than a few native English-speaking parents, with children attending Japanese schools, who struggle to communicate with their children in their mother tongue. This same difficulty, of course, is faced by parents around the world, in a wide range of minority languages. (See What to Do When Your Bilingual Child Won’t Speak Your Language.)
Here in Japan, a certain tipping point is often passed once the child enters a school setting. As Japanese then develops quickly, and grows dominant, it soon serves as the lingua franca for parent and child. The parent may still strive to speak in English, and encourage an English response, but the child’s English ability becomes largely passive and he naturally tends to rely on his stronger language, Japanese, for most communication.
There’s nothing wrong with this, of course—I’m not making a value judgment. On the contrary, because I’ve seen the concerns of many parents up close, as a teacher—and because I’m now a father running myself ragged to support the English side of my own kids—I have real empathy for every family braving the significant challenge of raising a bilingual child.
That’s a big reason I began this blog, to be of some help.
At the same time, I want to share why, personally, communicating with my children in my mother tongue is so important to me.
A flurry of big questions
Let me tell you what happened on Monday afternoon.
Lulu, as you may recall, loves to dance and she’s been taking a dance class (jazz/contemporary dance) for over a year now. I’m the designated driver, and during the 20-minute drive to the arts center where the class is held, I try to engage her in some discussion about the things on her 8-year-old mind.
On Monday, though, I was surprised—and frankly, flummoxed—by a flurry of questions that included:
- How did the world begin?
- How did humans get here?
- What if humans die, like dinosaurs?
- What happens after we’re dead?
Now, remember, I had only 20 minutes to explain the entire universe—and I’m hardly a scientist or philosopher in the first place—but I waded right in and did what I could to share some of my deepest thoughts in words that she might hopefully grasp.
I’m not sure how successful I was (in fact, I told her that grownups are often just as bewildered by these big questions as children are), but the point I want to make is this:
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.
Both the present and the future
It’s true, of course, that a child’s language ability remains quite “plastic” and weaker skill in the minority language can readily “catch up” to the majority language if a change of circumstance results in greater need and exposure. So it’s certainly possible for a child to activate a passive ability and ultimately achieve a high level of second language proficiency in the future.
For me, though, this is only half the equation. My motivation for running myself ragged is about the future, yes—because I believe, as I’ve mentioned in Something More Precious Than Wealth, that English will be of huge benefit to the rest of their lives—and yet it’s equally about the present in this vital respect:
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.
Both are important to me—both the present and the future—and account for my overwhelming desire to do my very best, every day, to nurture the English side of their bilingual ability.
If both are important to you, too, keep giving it your best. I’m rooting for you.