Raising bilingual and biliterate children: My experience
Part 2 (Part 1 is here.)
June, 2006

Four years have passed since I last reported at KanjiClinic.com on the bilingual development of my two sons. Sean is now eleven and a half, and Lukas is nine. My husband, who is Japanese, is currently on sabbatical at UCLA, and the four of us are enjoying a yearfs stay in Huntington Beach, California, with plans to return to live in Japan next January.

The boys have just finished up their first semester at a local Catholic school, where Sean was in the fifth grade and Lukas in the third. This was their first experience being year-round students in a non-Japanese school. They are looking forward to their first ever three-month American summer holiday (June-August).

Sean and Lukas also attend Japanese school from 9:00-3:30 on Saturdays in nearby Garden Grove. This Monbukagakusho (Japanese Ministry of Education)-sponsored K-12 school follows the Japanese school calendar, so Sean is now a sixth-grader there and Lukas a fourth-grader. The boys will only get the usual one-month summer vacation at the Japanese school, but come August we are planning to hop in our car and drive all the way across the continental United States, stopping at national parks and historical points of interest along the way.

In this report I would like to focus on my sonsf experiences in Japanese elementary school and their adjustment to their two schools here in California. I will also explain our plans for their educational future. First, a bit of background on their bilingual development:

Sean is our adopted child, and came from an orphanage to join our family just as he was about to turn two. From the first time I met Sean I spoke only English to him, and this seemed to cause no communication problems between us. He quickly picked up English while continuing to build on the limited Japanese he had acquired from his caregivers at the orphanage. (Read a detailed report on Seanfs bilingual development during the pre-school years).

I also spoke exclusively in English to our birth child, Lukas. I have lived in Japan for 20 years and my husband spent 10 years in the US before we met. My husband and I speak a mixture of Japanese and English with each other at home, and my husband has always spoken both languages with our sons. Now that we are living in an English linguistic environment, I feel the pressure has been lifted from me to speak only English with my children, and I am enjoying speaking both languages with them too. From the beginning, Sean and Lukas have spoken English as their sibling language, with some code-switching within sentences.

Sean and Lukas attended a local public hoikuen (day care center) from the time they were toddlers. At the age of six they entered our neighborhood Japanese elementary school, and remained in the public education system until we left Japan six months ago to come to California. At that time, Sean had nearly completed the fifth grade and Lukas the third.

Sean was a balanced bilingual when we left Japan. At home he tended to code-switch within English sentences (e.g., Then he nageta the ball to me and I was so bikkuri shita. gThen he threw the ball to me and I was so surprised;h We put some jama na rocks in the river. gWe put some rocks in the river to dam it uph), but he was capable of expressing himself entirely in English to monolingual speakers.

Throughout his five years in Japanese school, Sean thrived academically. He had many friends and a strong Japanese self-identity. Physically, he did not differ from his Japanese cohorts, and the fact that ga regular Japanese boyh had a given name written in katakana and a gaijin (foreign) mother was, for the most part, viewed as gkakko ii (cool)h by his classmates. Friends who came home with him after school were floored when they first heard Sean communicating with me in English: (Eeeeeh? Honto ni eigo dekiru no?! What, you can really speak English?!h).

Most of Seanfs teachers and friends in Japan were unaware that Sean was adopted. Many people in our neighborhood apparently assumed that Sean was my husbandfs birth child from a former marriage. Since adoption of children unrelated by blood is so uncommon in Japan--and generally negatively viewed--we decided not to discuss the details of Seanfs adoption openly with acquaintances in the community. This inability to be honest about how we became a family was stressful at times to all four of us.

Lukas, in contrast to his older brother, attracted a great deal of attention at school due to his appearance. It would be incorrect to say Lukas looks ghalf-Japanese,h since he is practically a clone of me, his Caucasian mother. He has light brown hair and eyes, fair-skin with freckles, and long, thin legs. When he entered the first grade, his teachers and classmates were amazed that a child with his appearance could speak Japanese gso well,h accepting it as perfectly natural that Lukas spoke English as a native language.

Lukas was not a victim of regular teasing at school, and his teachers made every effort to make him feel comfortable there. But the weight of often being referred to by other children as ggaijin (foreigner),h gamerikajin (American),h and even geigo-jin (English-language person)" weighed heavily on Lukas, as did his bewilderment at finding himself, a Japanese national and the child of a Japanese father, so physically different from virtually every other child in the school. (There was only one other non-Asian family in our school, from Brazil). Once, when a colleague of mine asked Lukas if he felt he was more Japanese (nihon-jin), or more American (amerika-jin), he replied that he was neither before making a humorous play on words: gBoku wa nin-jin da gI am a carrot.h Lukas did make a few friends at school but did not thrive socially and was an average student academically. While he rarely complained about going to school, he didnft seem to look forward to it, either.

Lukasf teachers reported that he had no communication problems in the classroom. He spoke Japanese with his Japanese relatives and friends like any other Japanese boy. But when we left Japan six months ago, English was clearly Lukasf favored and stronger language. He would often answer in English even when spoken to in Japanese at home, and when he had a choice would always initiate a conversation in English. I believe this had a lot to do with his self-identity and appearance, as well as his passion from an early age for reading books, particularly ones written in English.

Lukas began learning to read in English before he learned hiragana in first grade. From the age of five he was constantly reading English picture books, which had the effect of building his vocabulary in English. After entering school, Lukas also started reading Japanese books for pleasure. He frequently gave up his outdoor playing time at school to go to the library and read Japanese books, perhaps in part to escape the stress of trying to fit in socially with his classmates. Beginning at the age of seven he began to beg me to teach him how to use my word processor so he could compose his own stories in English, which he illustrated and distributed to friends and family members.

Sean, on the other hand, rarely read in English for pleasure during his five years in Japanese school. He continued to ask me to read to him nightly in English, as I had been doing since he was two, but he would not pick up an English book to read himself.
It became apparent when Sean began to learn to read Japanese that he could easily become a manga (comic book) addict. My husband was not keen on the content of manga targeted at elementary school boys, and limited manga in our house to those dealing with history or the lives of famous people. Sean devoured those. I had to nag him to do 30-minute homework assignments for his weekly English reading and writing tutorial, but he did his Japanese homework with a bit more enthusiasm. Sean is a competitive child and did not want to be outscored by his buddies on tests.

Both Sean and Lukas had been tutored in English reading and writing once a week since the age of five, in a small group setting with other bilingual children, by an elementary school teacher from our cityfs international school. From the time they were babies, we also attended a weekly English playgroup and then later, a bimonthly gEnglish Clubh for bilingual elementary school children. This allowed them to communicate in English at least several times a month in a relaxed atmosphere with other native speaker children.

After Lukas entered elementary school, my husband and I decided to get rid of our television. From the time they were babies the boys had been watching videos of movies in English, and occasionally in Japanese, but they had never shown much interest in watching Japanese television. By throwing away our television we wanted to encourage them to continue to spend their time playing outside, working on art projects, or otherwise figuring out creative ways to entertain themselves. We wanted them to develop a variety of hobbies as they grew older, instead of falling into the habit of planning their (and our) daily lives around television programs.

While our sons were allowed to play with gameboys and other game software when they went to their friendsf houses, to our surprise and relief neither boy expressed an interest in owning them, so setting limits on their use was never an issue for us as parents.

When Sean was in the second grade, and Lukas was in his last year of daycare, I arranged for them to attend a private school in my North Carolina hometown for one month during the summer vacation from Japanese school. The boys enjoyed this brief experience in American school so much that we did the same thing for two more summers. There was no ESL instruction available at the school, but with classes of no more than 15 students (and in some cases, only 8), their teachers were able to give each child a lot of individual attention. It was a thrill for me the first summer to hear their teachers remark that Sean and Lukas sounded like gregular American kids,h even though they had never lived in the United States.

Lukas was at the same level as his cohorts in reading and writing during these three short stints at American school (kindergarten-second grade). Sean, being older and a non-reader, was clearly behind. Spelling was a particular weakness, even basic words, as was composition, but again, his competitive spirit motivated him to do his best and he did make some headway in catching up.

My husband began his one-year sabbatical here in the Los Angeles area in January. We are Catholic, and opted to enroll Sean and Lukas in a K-12 Catholic school, as opposed to the local public elementary, which also has a good reputation. We felt our year in California would be a good opportunity for our boys to meet other Catholic children, something they had largely missed out on in Japan since our congregation in Nagoya is so small, and to learn more about our faith.

While classrooms in local public elementary schools are limited in size to 20 students, our sonsf school has 35 children in each classroom, similar to class size in Japanese elementary schools. There is one full-time teaching assistant in each classroom. Parents are required to spend 60 hours per year volunteering in a wide variety of school events. Students are required to wear uniforms. A hot lunch is not served so most children take a bagged lunch or their parents bring fast food to them at lunchtime. A strict academic and disciplinary policy is in place, but Sean and Lukasf classmates unanimously described their school as gfunh in welcome letters they sent to our boys before we left Japan. Sean and Lukas agree with that assessment now that they are students here themselves.

Tuition is relatively low compared to other private schools in the area, which means students from middle-class families can afford to attend. The school, with an enrollment of over 600 children, is culturally diverse, with many students being the children of Hispanic and Asian, particularly Vietnamese, immigrants. Many students remain in the school for ten years, from preschool through the eighth grade, and the school community is tight-knit but welcoming to newcomers. There is no ESL instruction available. Computer instruction begins in kindergarten, and children are taught how to be safe on the Internet. Sean and Lukas enjoy participating in the after school chess program.

Because of his positive summer experiences in American school, Sean was cautiously upbeat about our temporary move to California and the major changes it would entail in his life, including saying goodbye to Japanese school and his friends there. He knew the academic work here was going to be a struggle for him, but he looked forward to new friends and different kinds of school events.

Sean, who can make friends at the drop of a hat in either of his two languages, came home from his first day of school in California listing the names of a host of new buddies. His friends at school are keen on sports but also serious about their studies. Once again Seanfs desire gnot to lose to those guysh served him well: He worked hard at his studies and at the end of his first semester had an overall gBh grade point average. (His spelling is still atrocious). He was also selected by a vote of his classmates to receive the gKindest Student in the 5th Gradeh award at a school-wide assembly on the last day of school. I largely credit the group cooperation skills Sean learned at Japanese elementary school with his being the recipient of this award.

During his first month in the fifth grade here Sean tested at the 3.0-4.5 grade reading level. To my amazement, in the month before school ended he decided to tackle an 825-page Harry Potter book for his schoolfs Star Reader program, in which students earn extra credit points for reading books outside of class, and actually finished it. I canft imagine that he understood every word of the story but he did manage to pass a comprehension test so he must have at least gotten the gist.

I remembered how long it took me to learn to write in cursive when I was in grade school and was concerned that Sean and Lukas would not be able to write quickly enough when they first arrived, but I neednft have worried: After the rigors of taking notes in Japanese, with its multi-stroked kanji, developing speed in writing in cursive proved a relative breeze for both boys.

Lukas could hardly wait to arrive here in California and start his new school. He asked me repeatedly before we left Japan if there would be gmillions and zillionsh of English books in the library, and plenty of other kids gwho look like me,h because he loved to hear me answer affirmatively on both counts.

My younger son does not have a competitive bone in his body, and unlike his older brother, is totally unconcerned about grades. He rarely reports a test score to us, good or bad. Lukas made Afs and Bfs in everything except math in his first semester here, with straight Afs in all language arts classes (reading, composition, spelling, and handwriting). His standardized reading test showed he is reading at a 3.5-5.5 level. His weakness is study skills: He is disorganized about assignments and forgets to bring home the textbooks and papers he needs to do his homework. But Lukas has made friends at his new school and jumps out of the car with a smile on his face every morning. He goes to the library some days during recess and plays outside others.

Unlike Japanese teachers, American elementary school teachers expect parents to supervise complicated social studies and science projects, requiring research on the Internet, artwork, and typed final copies, at home. These have been somewhat stressful for the boys and me, but we have managed to turn all of them in on time. Lukasf teacher, to his delight, started a gTa-Ta TV Club,h (gta-tah is slang for ggoodbyeh) in which the many students who refrain from watching any television for a full month of school nights receive rewards.

Every Saturday morning we make the 20-minute drive to our childrenfs Japanese school, Asahi Gakuen. The school uses the facilities of a local high school. When we enter the parking lot, we see hundreds of Japanese children piling out of Japanese cars, bentoos in hand, their mothers decked out in Japanese fashions, everyone greeting each other in Japanese. Signs posted around the school are written only in Japanese. In short, every Saturday we feel we have somehow magically returned to Japan by car. Teachers at Asahi Gakuen require students, most of whom are bilingual at least to some extent, to communicate only in Japanese. (One does hear the occasional English curse word thrown into the older childrenfs Japanese conversations, however. I guess Japanese curse words just donft pack the same punch).

Over 500 children attend the Orange County campus of Asahi Gakuen, with other campuses scattered around neighboring Los Angeles County to serve the Japanese community there. Children who have attended school in Japan, or who pass a spoken interview test and have at least one Japanese-speaking parent at home, are eligible to attend Asahi Gakuen.

Beginning when their child becomes a fourth-grader, parents are required to choose between two curriculums: the gSakura (Cherry Blossom)h course and the gPoppyh course. The former, by far the more popular, is designed for children who are in the U.S. temporarily with plans to return to the Japanese school system in the future; the later is for children from families with no plans to live in Japan. The focus in the Poppy course is on the development of spoken Japanese skills, while Sakura seeks to develop the same literacy skills the children would be getting back in Japan. Sean and Lukas are in the Sakura course.

Four subjects--kokugo (Japanese language), sansuu (mathematics), shakkai (social studies), and rika (science)--are taught, utilizing the same textbooks as those used in Japan. Students can check out Japanese books from the library at the school. Many of the school events we became accustomed to at our elementary school in Nagoya are held at Asahi Gakuen, including a nyuugakushiki (entrance ceremony), undoukai (sports day), and sankanbi (open house for parents). Sean plays after-school soccer there, and the coach speaks Japanese with the players. Monthly tuition at Asahi Gakuen is approximately 300 dollars per child, with textbooks provided free of charge (but paid for by our Japanese taxes).

Children enrolled in the Sakura course receive approximately six hours of homework weekly, with a kanji test given every Saturday. This, combined with the homework Sean and Lukas receive at their other school (approximately 30-60 minutes per school day), makes for a heavy weekly homework load. Not only is there constant nagging on our part and grumbling from the children about Japanese homework, but a great deal of our family activity time is sacrificed to it. For these reasons, some parents I have spoken to at Asahi Gakuen, particularly those with no plans to return to Japan, say they have been tempted to take their children out of Japanese school. Some reach a compromise, such as allowing their children to copy the answers to homework from the answer sheets, or not worrying as much as they would back in Japan about grades. Despite homework headaches, my husband and I are determined to keep our boys in Japanese school during the year we are in California. We want to keep them at grade level, particularly in kokugo (reading and writing), so they can remain on track in developing literacy skills after they return to Japan.

We are hoping that our sonsf year in American school will serve as a springboard for the new educational path we have chosen for them in Japan: They will be applying for admission to Nagoya International School (NIS), where the language of instruction is English. We have decided on NIS for several reasons:

First, we would like for English to be the boysf gacademich language (i.e., the language in which they have the strongest reading, writing, and oral presentation skills). Both my husband and I have taught full-time for many years at Japanese universities, and have attended American universities at both the undergraduate and graduate level. This places us in the fortunate position of being able to compare the two university systems. In addition to acquiring knowledge about whatever fields interest them, our goals for our sons at university are to develop: 1) a self-directed and lifelong love for learning; and 2) the ability to clearly communicate their own ideas, both orally and in writing, to others. We believe these goals can be better met by attending a U.S. university, and that beginning an English education now will best prepare them to get the most out of the years they spend there.

Second, we would like to enable our children to become fully literate in Japanese so that they can be productive members of society should they decide to make Japan their home in the future. NIS offers a three-level Japanese program, which at its highest level meets the needs of children like ours who have attended Japanese elementary school and are on the road to mastering 2,000 kanji. Our sons will have a daily kokugo (Japanese for native speakers, as opposed to Japanese as a Second Language) class, which utilizes the same textbooks they would be using in Japanese school. (Sean was surprised to see his fifth-grade kokugo book on the desks of fifth-graders at NIS when we visited the school).While students are required to speak English in the classroom at NIS, there are no rules dictating language use outside the classroom. We imagine that Sean and Lukas will be speaking Japanese, in addition to English, with their bilingual friends at school, and we will continue to speak both languages within the family.

Finally, we want our children to be part of an educational community comprised of Japanese residents from a wide variety of cultures and viewpoints. We expect that NIS will not simply tolerate, but actually celebrate, diversity, and that it will be a place where Japanese children like Lukas (with a non-Japanese appearance) and Sean (an adopted child), can feel completely at home.

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

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