Raising a bilingual child where one language isn’t your native tongue

By | January 11, 2014

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.

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13 thoughts on “Raising a bilingual child where one language isn’t your native tongue

  1. Misaki

    Hello.I’m Japanese and I live in Sapporo,Japan. I’m glad to know you study Japanese! I study English. I wonder study with you.

    I will look your blog again!

    1. locksleyu Post author

      Hi Misaki, nice to meet you! Thanks very much for the comment. I would be glad to help you with your English study, you can ask me questions anytime (:

      Also, if you ever seen in mistakes or things you want to add in my Japanese-related posts, please let me know.

  2. gaijinsunny

    My Sensei is doing a similar thing in the UK. Well she is Japanese but her husband is not, and she teachers her child Japanese. I think they send him to a Japanese school on Saturdays so he can pick up better. But from my own experience, my mum speaks Urdu and I only speak Urdu with my mum, I can speak broken Urdu (got my A at GCSE in it, coz mummy beat it in to me as a child for which I am ever grateful), but there are words I don’t know, limited vocab, and it’s a struggle to express myself clearly (mainly due to the vocab limitation). I can speak it without thinking too hard, internally, like it comes off the tongue without debate but I will often need a word that I don’t know in Urdu and have to stumble around it. Though I speak quite fluently with my mother. I also mix a few dialects in my speech, Punjabi and a bit of Hindi or others, mainly because that’s how I picked it up exposure wise.

    My Sensei says he sons language ability is not perfect either, he can speak but cant really express himself properly. I guess, what I’m saying is that if he stays in the US, where English will rule his thoughts, he won’t become fluent as his mother, unless maybe you guys go to Japan, or he does a few years there. I know people who did like high school in their “home countries” and they tend to be a lot better in their mothers tongue (kekeke). But after leaving the country and speaking English all the time except at home there language ability can deteriorate again. I guess, it’s all about exposure.

    1. locksleyu Post author

      Thanks for the comment. Does your sensei’s husband speak Japanese? If so, then he’s in the same situation as me. We are considering sending our son to a Japanese school some day, but I think he can learn a good deal just from speaking Japanese at home.

      I think what really matters is that the child is interested in Japanese (or whatever other language) so he or she has the motivation to keep learning even if there aren’t many native speakers nearby. If the child looses interest, no matter how much you try to force them, they will never become as fluent as you’d like.

      That’s great you can speak some Urdu. I don’t know much about Urdu but it sounds like a mysterious language to me (:

      Actually once I master Japanese I think Hindi will be the next language I learn. Would be cool to watch some Bollywood movies in their native language (:

      1. gaijinsunny

        Hehe, yeah I think he does, or is learning etc. I think you are right about the interest part, as a kid…I never had an interest in it…but I’m glad I was forced to learn as much as I have as it’s, just invaluable having a second language I can talk.

        Yeah it’s derived from Persian and shares the same alphabet as Arabic. I can by default read Arabic,but the pronunciation differs considerably. Most people that can speak Urdu can understand Hindi to some degree and vice versa, so I can understand Hindi. Urdu’s the official language of Pakistan.

        I can recommend you some Bollywood movies if you like, been avoiding them for a while but there arguably are some great films out there. Best of luck with your kid, I’m sure he will be just fine 🙂

  3. becomingatranslator

    I am an American. I live in the US and work as a Japanese interpreter (ergo, I have very high proficiency.) My husband speaks some Japanese. We don’t have kids yet, but both of us have committed to raising them bilingual when we do. We plan to get the type of Japanese resources that you mentioned and also send them to Saturday school (日本語補修校) when they are old enough. I know two Americans who both work as Japanese translators here and successfully raised bilingual kids, so I think its possible.

    If you haven’t read this Japan Times article yet, its something you might find interesting:

    1. locksleyu Post author

      Thanks for the comment and the great article on raising a English/Japanese bilingual child. Our son is only 2, but we need to start thinking about that sort of thing more.

      It’s good to know there are people out there who have successfully raised a child this way even though Japanese is not their first language. The two people you mentioned were translators, implying a high level of fluency. In my case, I’m quite satisfied with my reading ability (I can read standard adult-level books with no problem, though my reading speed hasn’t caught up to my English speed) but my conversation ability is a bit rough. Hopefully I can keep improving that as my child gets older.

      Let me ask you – how did you train your conversation ability to a fluent level? Did you live in Japan and if so for how long?

  4. Pingback: Shimajiro and Benesse’s distance learning program for kids | Self Taught Japanese

  5. mc

    My kids are being raised bilingual but since reaching daycare/school age, English has become their stronger language. Oddly enough the language I speak with them these days is primarily English (since it’s more natural/comfortable for both of us) despite the fact that their mother and I speak exclusively in Japanese between the two of us.

    1. locksleyu Post author

      Thanks for the comment! Not sure where you are living but if its a country where English is the main language it’s not too much of a surprise.

      In our case we are going to try to persistently speak Japanese (with occassional English) in the household regardless of the English influence he receives from outside. We’ll see how it turns out.

      If you speak them to Japanese do they answer back in English? If they can respond in Japanese but choose to not, maybe when they get older they will learn to respect Japanese and use it more around you (if that’s what you desire).

      1. mc

        I live in SE Michigan. Yes they’ll typically answer back in English even if I speak to them in Japanese. Unless I force it — pretend not to understand what they are saying unless they speak it in Japanese — that’s the way it goes. My four-year-old started Japanese pre-school so I’ve been doing that at least at the school. But he’ll argue with me in Japanese. It’s funny.
        > I want some water
        >> ここは日本の学校なので日本語で話さないと
        > なんで?あなたはアメリカ(sic)でしょう?
        >> アメリカ人だけど日本の学校で日本語しか話しません。
        > 水ください
        >> はい、どうぞ
        >> OK, let’s go
        > あっ、アメリカ(sic)で言ったでしょう
        >> Oops!

        1. locksleyu Post author

          Sounds pretty frustrating, although I guess at 4 years old children are pretty finicky (rebellious?) about many things.

          I don’t know much about your lifestyle so I can’t offer advice, except that I would try to take them to Japan to get them interested in the culture in person (if you aren’t doing so already), so that they learn to appreciate and respect the culture and language more.

          Unfortunately the price of tickets to Japan is super expensive…

          Our 2 year old loves しまじろう so I don’t see him quitting Japanese any time soon (:

  6. mc

    I’ll check back in 3 years and see how it’s going. 🙂


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