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Raising bilingual and biliterate children: My experience
Part 1
Bilingual Japan, (JALT Special Interest Group Newsletter)
April, 2002

Like all of you, one of the great joys of my life here in Japan is watching my children (photo) develop skills in two languages. My experience as a parent of bilingual children is largely similar to that of most Bilingual SIG members, with perhaps one small difference, which I will explain below. I am happy to have the opportunity to reflect back over my first five and a half years of parenthood and to share my thoughts with other members of this important SIG.

My son Sean is now seven and a half, but as I said, I have only been a mother for five and a half years. This is because my husband and I adopted Sean, through the public child welfare system in Japan, one month before his second birthday. I would like to focus here on Sean's development as a bilingual child; little brother Lukas (our birth child, now nearly five years old) will also figure into the story.

As far as my husband and I know, the first time Sean ever heard English was on the day we met him, at the orphanage where he spent most of his first two years. I sang a few children's songs to him in English on that day. I felt it was important to speak only in English to him from the beginning, since my (Japanese) husband and I both hoped he would be bilingual. This "English only with Mama" plan did not cause any communication problems whatsoever between us, even from the beginning.

Sean's Japanese language development at 1:11 seemed to be lagging a bit, compared to his non-institutionalized cohorts, but the caregivers at his orphanage told us this was typical: Children in the care of the state (while, from what we observed, do get excellent care), do not get the one-on-one intensive parent-child talk that most babies do. They told us not to worry, he would catch up, and they were right. It seemed that Sean was just bursting to speak, and he had our full attention!

My language development journal, which I kept for four years, shows that Sean (also sometimes called "Sho-chan" at that time) could say about 20 typical Japanese "baby" words when he came to live with us. After only ten days, however, he was starting to produce English words like "No!" "All-gone!" and "choo-choo," and could soon also follow simple commands in English: "Drink your milk," "Give me the purple one," and the like.

By the time his brother Lukas was born, when Sean was two and a half, he could count to ten in English smoothly and had worked up to sentences like "Lukas cry, many, many lights,"(describing the baby monitor), "Baby Lukas come out Mama tummy," and "Papa funny man!"

His Japanese also continued to develop. My notes indicate that his first sentences, at 2:0, soon after he came to us, were in Japanese: "Sho-chan ne-ne nai," (I'm not going to sleep) and "Mama no?" (Is it Mama's?). He gave me a pleasant surprise just two months after our first meeting by translating a word out loud for the first time: I said "Tomorrow, Sho-chan is going to..." Sean interrupted me with "Ashita?" (Tomorrow?) His vocabulary in Japanese was steadily growing, but did not keep pace with his English vocabulary, which galloped full speed ahead and has not slowed down since.

Today, at seven and a half, Sean's English is the stronger of his two languages. Although I am far from an unbiased observer, I can tell no difference between his English ability and that of his American cohorts when we make our annual one-month summer trip to my native North Carolina (USA). American friends in Japan often remark that both my sons show signs of my American southern accent, which pleases me no end!

According to his first-grade teacher at our local elementary school, Sean has no trouble expressing himself to either the teacher or his friends in Japanese. At home, however, he sometimes resorts to English when he cannot express complicated thoughts or relate detailed school experiences in Japanese. We have noticed a marked improvement in his Japanese speaking ability since he began first-grade, and are hopeful that this progress will continue. What he mostly seems to lack is vocabulary, and as he reads more and more in Japanese we expect this to improve. Over the years he has been read far more books--and watched more videos-- in English than in Japanese.

Sean attended Japanese day care from the time he joined our family. He also heard Japanese in our home, because my husband and I speak a mixture of the two languages when we communicate with each other. While Mitsunori and I are both bilingual and biliterate-- each having spent nearly 15 years in the other's country--we each have only one native language.

In the beginning, I urged my husband to speak exclusively in either English or Japanese with Sean and Lukas-- "one parent-one language" --but he has stubbornly continued his practice of speaking to our sons in whichever language is the most convenient at the moment. I would say of the two languages, well... he probably uses about 50 percent English and 50 percent Japanese, but it is hard to say when so many individual sentences are jumbled up with grammar and vocabulary from the two languages! The children seem to have no trouble drawing a clear separation between the two languages outside our home, however, and since this is the same mixed-up-- but highly effective-- way my husband and I communicate I really can't complain.

The only time I speak Japanese with my children is when there are non-English speaking Japanese people present-- their school friends or teachers, for example. Sean once asked me when he was quite young not to speak English in front of his daycare teacher, "because Hiroko-sensei doesn't understand what we are saying." That made perfect sense to me and I discontinued the practice for the most part.

So far, I have never heard my two sons speak Japanese, (or the mixed-up jumble of English/Japanese they speak with their father), together when they are alone-- in conversation or at play. They do play together in Japanese, of course, when their school friends are over at our house. I attribute this in large measure to the fact that they have played in English almost every week for the last five years in an English playgroup.

The Chayagasaka Playgroup, composed mostly of bilingual families like ours, (a few families are English monolingual), is an important part of our linguistic and social lives. I kept Sean out of day care every Wednesday to attend, from the time he came to live with us, and continue to do so with Lukas. The group has been going for perhaps fifteen years-- no one is quite sure exactly how long, and founding members have long ago left Nagoya--in the same meeting room, with the same weekly fee (500 yen), the same schedule of activities in the same order: movement and singing to a cassette tape, two story reading circles (one for smaller children, one for older), group singing, snack, game, and craft. I think the predictability of all aspects of the playgroup helps to make it a comfortable experience for both parents and children.

Attending parents, mostly mothers, take responsibility for activities on a rotating basis through a roster system. Families come and go, but there are usually about thirty families involved in the group at any given time. The children range in age from newborns to six. About half the mothers are Japanese, the rest are of other nationalities, including: U.S. Ireland, Australia, Hong Kong, India, Holland, England, Canada, etc. Our children sit on the knee of an English-speaking Santa at Christmas, wear Halloween costumes in October, and have a huge egg hunt in the woods at Easter.

One of the things that has impressed me most about the playgroup through the years is the absolute devotion the Japanese mothers have to maintaining a 100% English environment during those two hours; they never speak to each other in Japanese, even when engaged in one-on-one conversations with each other, nor do they speak to their children in Japanese. After playgroup is over we all convene to a nearby park for several hours of lunch and more play; many members drive one hour or more (myself included), but it is well-worth the effort because we get to spend the whole day together with our friends in a totally English environment. I believe, thanks to playgroup, that my sons view English as a "kids' language," too, not just a "language you speak with your mom and dad."

After Sean "graduated" from playgroup and entered the first grade, we began to attend a spin-off group for elementary school children begun by some of the playgroup parents. This is "English Club," and it is held two Saturdays a month. Thanks to this group, Sean has been able to continue many of the friendships he developed at playgroup in English. We occasionally hear the children communicating in Japanese at English Club, but no one makes a big issue of it. There is no formal instruction given in English reading and writing there, but every week some fun activities involving literacy skills, (word games and the like) are included along with a physical activity (jumping rope with chants is particularly popular), craft, and storytelling.

Sean also attends an English literacy class once a week, on Monday evenings after school. I and some other parents of bilingual children in the area began this class when Sean was four and a half. We searched for a long time to find an experienced elementary school teacher, (as opposed to an ESL teacher who only had experience teaching non-native English-speaking children), and finally succeeded in finding an excellent one. Pat has stayed with us for three years, and the nine children (three children only in each of three levels--classes are 45 minutes each) have a close relationship with her.

I had heard from experienced parents of biliterate children that it was best to start with English--with its more complicated writing system-- before the child learned hiragana, and so I made sure Sean was reading in English before he started learning to read Japanese. My husband began teaching hiragana to him at home six months before he entered first grade--at Sean's daycare there was no instruction in hiragana, telling time, or numbers, and we felt he should at least have a few basics, particularly since he would not be as strong verbally in Japanese as his classmates.

Now he is reading and writing in both languages at first grade level. Pat does not give homework, and because my husband is giving Sean extra homework in Japanese, (beyond what his teacher assigns), I do not want to overburden him with printed worksheets and the like in English. Sean and I just sit down for about fifteen minutes every night and he reads a first-grade level book, of his choosing, to me. I have accumulated a number of elementary school level books on trips to the U.S., and we also have some computer software designed for English-speaking elementary school students. I am hoping to get Sean enrolled for one month late this summer in a private school near my parents' home, where he would be a second-grader.

Being an adoptive parent in Japan, where adoption of non-blood related children is so little understood, has had its challenges, but having Sean as our son has blessed us in innumerable ways. Anyone interested in learning more about adoption in Japan may contact me at kanjiclinic@aol.com

Goto Part 2 of "Raising Bilinugal and Bilingual Chidren: My Experience
Go to the Kanji Clinic homepage

You might also be interested in these articles:
"A journey with two routes"
"The day we met Sho-chan"
"Sho-chan's send-off"