JALT Bilingualism Presentation/Other Stuff

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.


8 thoughts on “JALT Bilingualism Presentation/Other Stuff

  1. I have a friend in Chile who speaks English at home to her elementary school aged kids. They typically use Spanish when talking, even when responding to their mother’s English, but understand English perfectly and she says they will sometimes use English ways of putting together sentences in Spanish, so it seems as though the use of English has shaped their way of thinking at least somewhat. I’m not sure that would happen in Japanese/English situations since the two languages are so different, but I’d be interested to see what does happen.

    1. thanks for the comment ana…i’m interested to see the evolution of ray’s english, especially once he gets a little older and into school with more kids yapping away in japanese…hopefully we’ll have him sufficiently indoctrinated to the point that english is his first language at home, but i have a feeling it won’t be that easy…

  2. Thanks, I really appreciate this. I’ve been wondering a lot about the Bilingual SIG.

    My husband tries to speak English but it’s only 60-40, whereas I speak only English to the kids. My 4-year old son is maybe a bit ahead of the curve for literacy skills in English but my 2-year old daughter’s spoken English is behind her Japanese, a lot. It would be best if we could take long holidays back home but I work in a regular company as does my husband so that’s not going to happen.

    Mostly our approach is just a lot of English like you, from apps, DVDs, hanging with other English speakers, and all that. Also we are read, read, reading all the time. My blog is basically a public way to force myself to read to my kids.

    I’ve been asked to post on our afterschooling plans which I might do a series of posts on in the New Year.

  3. thanks jen…the SIG seems like a good resource, and i’m thinking of joining to recieve the quarterly journal that you get with a membership…i’m afraid to ask my boss if my expansive vacation time is going to be slashed once i become a full time faculty member…that could put a severe kink in my plans to take ray and his brother-to-be back to states for weeks at a time…i’ll look forward to reading your posts about afterschooling…

  4. I know one family here where the Mom is a lawyer and the Dad a professor. They have several (4?) kids. One was Molli’s good friend in school. She is Indian and they spend several months there every year. I think that might be hard on the kids as they get older. Molli might know more. I know I resented spending summers with my family in Canada, rather than going to camp and hanging out with my friends like the other kids. But that doesn’t mean it was a bad thing in the big picture.
    I tried to speak French to Amelia when she was a baby. My French wasn’t quite good enough for me to be comfortable–no experience with babies in French. I decided she was slow in talking at all because of it, so gave it up before she was a year old.
    Good luck!

  5. I have built my School around constant ranking and evaluating. The TOEIC and Eiken are pillars of the School. The “Education Mothers” love me as their kids speak better and test better than their children’s peers….which is my job 🙂

  6. i think testing is fine, even necessary, as long as the test score isn’t the be all and end all, the only purpose for studying…then you end up just memorizing shit and not really internalizing anything…but i’m sure you know all this 😉 i do like the fact that the eiken has a speaking portion of the test that requires test takers to actually produce the language…

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