I’ve been meaning to post more about the bilingualism presentation I attended at the JALT conference in Tokyo the other weekend, but am only just getting around to it. Apologies to those of you who have been waiting.
The presentation was a panel discussion with three women (Canadian, Indian, American) who are all married to Japanese men and raising children bilingually and bi-culturally here in Japan. The focus of the discussion was teenaged bilinguals, so not necessarily applicable to our situation now, but something we’ll be dealing with later on. I didn’t come away from the presentation with any miracle techniques on how to raise children bilingually, but rather with the realization that Chieko and I are by no means alone in our efforts. I don’t know why I felt a sense of isolation before, after all we have friends and colleagues who are trying to raise their children with tow languages and cultures. I suppose I just haven’t talked to anyone who is further down the line than us or our friends, who all have young children.
So I’ll just cover a couple of the points that I found more surprising or interesting.
First, all three women said their children’s English improved when they entered junior high school. I’m not alone in regarding Japanese English education as deeply flawed, so this was curious. However, the rote practice of writing alphabet letters and vocabulary over and over and over again, coupled with the grammar-intensive approach to language teaching, was the missing link for these kids. According to their mothers, the kids all had great, fluent speaking skills, but lacked in reading/writing until they got into junior high school.
Other issues they faced that were interesting: being self-conscious of having natural pronunciation compared to the kantakana-ized pronunciation that a lot of teachers/students use when speaking English here; issues of having better English skills than the the teacher in many cases; obviously, getting some heat from classmates and bullied to some extent, but nothing too heinous, and their English skill became an asset, something cool, as they moved into high school.
Another thing that was surprising to me was how much the women recommended having kids take the Eiken/Step test. I wasn’t crazy about this idea since it feeds into the whole test-taking culture in Japan, but their logic made sense to me on two levels. First, it gives the kids a challenge that they don’t normally face in their school English classes. Second, when they apply to high schools, having a high English score can go a long way into getting accepted into a better private or public school even if their other grades are lacking. So that’s something to consider.
Although Chieko and I haven’t talked about it much at these early stages, I want to ensure that our kids spend a good chunk of time in the States both for their English and to learn about that half of their heritage. To this end, the Canadian woman takes her family back to Canada for a month or so during the summer every year. The Indian woman sent her daughter to Australia for a summer, so home stays are also a good option. I can’t recall how often the American woman takes her kids home.
Regarding family dynamics, the American woman’s family was the only one of the three in which both parents spoke consistent English to the kids.
In our house, we both speak English to Ray nearly all the time. He gets Japanese all day at daycare. Granted he’s only two, but so far Ray is as bilingual as a two year old could be. He speaks English to both Chieko and I in the house, but seems to realize that Japanese is spoken outside the house. We pump him full of English books, DVDs, daily Skype sessions with grandparents in America. It’s going swimmingly so far, but we’ll see what happens when he realizes he has free will and a self-esteem complex!
What was most interesting for me was to hear how other people are going about raising bilingual kids. If anyone is interested in reading some case studies you can find a bunch HERE. There are some other interesting-looking resources there as well.
I’m curious to hear what other people are doing towards raising kids bilingually. What language do you speak at home? Do your kids willfully speak English? What language to siblings speak to each other? How much contact do they have with other native English speakers?
Chieko’s parents came to visit
us Ray this weekend, and yesterday morning Chieko’s dad and I took a drive to see a waterfall, and then up a mountain to get a nice view out over the water to the west and the mountains in every other direction. A few mediocre pictures. Winter’s on its way.
Time for bed here. Good night.