I believe that having a child is one of the most rewarding things you can do in life, and for parents where two or more languages are spoken fluently there is always the option of raising the child on more than one language. There are many different approaches to this, but what’s clear is that any child exposed to enough of a certain language from a very young age will likely become fluent in that tongue, at least to the extent it is used within daily life. This is true even if the only speakers of the second language are the child’s parents, as long as they dedicate their time to make sure there is enough exposure of the language.
Some day I’d like to write in detail on the various advantages of being bilingual, and the challenges of raising a bilingual child. But in this article I want to focus on raising a bilingual child where one of the parents isn’t completely fluent in one of the languages being taught. This may be a pretty rare situation, but it happens to be one I experience daily, and maybe there are some other parents out there going through a similar experience. Although I can somehow manage a conversation in Japanese, I am definitely not what I would consider truly ‘fluent’ by my own personal definition, which amounts to being able to convert whats in my mind into language smoothly, without undue struggle or internal debate.
My son is only two years old, and just beginning to say words in both English and Japanese. At this age, things are actually manageable since I try to speak in simple sentences, so figuring out how to say those in Japanese is within my ability. Just as a teacher of any subject learns from his or her pupils, I get a lot out of this myself. For example, I get an opportunity to read things in Japanese I otherwise wouldn’t have, such as books about education and children’s picture books. When speaking I discover important phrases I don’t know how to say properly, or realize my understanding isn’t as complete as Id like. Another perk is that I don’t have to be nervous about saying something wrong. It’s not that I ignore grammar rules and just speak randomly, but rather than I can try to speak freely without being self-conscious.
Sometimes I have an urge to just switch to English so I can convey myself clearly, but I usually force myself to stay speaking in Japanese, resulting in this language used around 80% of the time. Because of the small amount of Japanese speakers in South Florida (and hence in our daily life), I want to give my son as much exposure to Japanese as possible. English will naturally come to him just from attending school daily. Overusing English around him would clearly be もったいない, an expression which translates to something like “a waste”.
Of course things are made much easier by the fact my wife speaks fluent Japanese, so she can correct my mistakes and give my son a wider range of expressions and words to absorb. I think it would be extremely difficult to raise our son bilingual if both us were learning Japanese as a second language.
My son was very fortunate to be born in an age where multi-language resources are easily available. Some of the same things I would use in my own studying (like Japanese videos on YouTube), he takes advantage of himself. And there also surprisingly many iPad/iPhone games out there which have Japanese support.
Speaking to him every day in a language I am still learning myself seems a bit strange at times, but it motivates me to continually refine my Japanese both for him and myself. I’m sure in just a handful of years his ability will overtake mine, and I’ll become the pupil.
I’d be curious to hear from anyone else who is raising a child or children in a language that is not their native tongue.