If you’ve been following this blog, you know that my two children attend our local Japanese elementary school. Lulu, 10, is now in fourth grade, and Roy, 7, is in second grade. Because of their schooling, they receive substantially less exposure in English than they do in Japanese.
In previous posts—Do Your Bilingual Children Go to School in the Majority Language? and Help! My Bilingual Children Are Losing Their Ability in the Minority Language!, I discuss the potential “danger” of this “second stage” of the bilingual journey, when the child begins formal schooling and this spike in exposure to the majority language shifts the balance of power: the majority language grows dominant at the expense of the minority language, which may turn more passive.
In fact, because of this possibility, in these articles I stress the importance of visiting the school and seeing what the child is experiencing with your own eyes in order to grasp the hard reality of this intensive exposure to the majority language, day after day. By recognizing clearly what you’re up against, you can better match your motivation to the size of the challenge, enabling you to be more effective in supporting the child’s minority side.
Because I face this challenge myself, I now make a point of visiting the school whenever I have the chance so I can experience this harsh, but helpful, “reality check.” (And, of course, to cheer on my kids in their classes!)
Well, we’ve just begun the summer break in Japan, but there was another “parents’ day” not long ago and I went to school to observe my children once again.
Lulu’s fourth grade teacher
Let me back up for a moment and tell you that last year my wife and I were disappointed in the teacher that Lulu had for third grade. Actually, she had two teachers. The first one was wonderful—but she left on maternity leave midway through the school year. And her replacement—a young man fresh out of college—was pretty awful, I’m afraid, even making allowances for his lack of experience.
In fact, because fourth grade is a pivotal year when it comes to academic development, my wife and I were concerned that Lulu’s class might be saddled with this same guy again. (The teachers at the school don’t necessarily change classes from year to year, so it’s possible to have the same teacher for two or more years.)
But happily, when the new school year began this past April (in Japan, the school year runs from April to March), we learned that Lulu had someone different: a woman with years of experience and a reputation for being a really fine teacher.
My daughter’s dictionary
But, why, as I stood there to the side of her classroom at the recent “parents’ day,” watching her teach Japanese proverbs with such authority and skill, did I feel some strange and unexpected misgivings? Wasn’t she exactly the sort of teacher I had hoped would be assigned to Lulu’s fourth grade class? How could I feel anything less than thrilled?
As I wrestled with this confusion, the teacher asked the students to take out their dictionaries. Lulu set a large white dictionary on her desk—though we bought it two years ago, it still looked practically brand new. Then the girl seated next to her produced a dictionary that was so swollen with post-it notes—a thick forest of little pink, yellow, and blue slips of paper—that it was literally impossible to see the pages from the side.
My eyes boggled. I looked around the room and saw that many of Lulu’s classmates had also stuffed their dictionaries with post-it notes. And, naturally, I couldn’t help thinking, with some concern: Why does my daughter’s dictionary have no post-it notes at all?
Their larger bilingual development
I then thought of my wife: a good mother, and helpful with the children’s homework, but never a diligent student herself during her school days, and never a teacher. Was this holding them back academically? Should I be stepping in to help more with their Japanese studies?
I looked back at Lulu, leafing through her Japanese dictionary. And suddenly it struck me, everything now making odd, ironic sense: The truth is, I don’t want them to do well in school.
Okay, that’s not entirely true. I do want them to do well, just not too well. (For the record, they’re both doing fine.) At least at this stage of the process, when I feel it’s still important to emphasize their development in English, I’m afraid that any greater stress on Japanese would undermine this aim. In other words, for the sake of their larger bilingual development, I think a more positive outcome is possible by momentarily keeping the majority language from advancing too strongly.
For the time being, then, I’m actually quite content with Lulu’s post-it-free dictionary. Once they get a bit older, and their English is even stronger, perhaps I’ll push their Japanese studies more. At that point, with stable, high-level ability in both languages, I suspect their Japanese can then help stretch, rather than suppress, their English.
P.S. For more on the “second stage” of the bilingual journey, when a child begins schooling in the majority language, see Watch Out for the Tough “Second Stage” of Bilingual Development.