Bilingual Kids and the New Family Rule

Living overseas for two and a half years now, in a culture that speaks a different language to the place we came from, our children have overtime become bilingual speakers of English and Japanese. Having studied some linguistics at University I personally find it amazing, interesting and enjoyable to watch these three little people become bilingual in their unique ways.

Heidi is competent in both English and Japanese, and having started Japanese school this year after 2 years at Japanese Kindergarten, her reading and writing skills are catching up.

Pippa mixes languages a lot. She was only just over 2 when we came, so has spent more than half of her life here in Japan. She will commonly mix English and Japanese at least once in many sentences, and we occasionally have to help her to find the right way to express herself in English.

Annie, who was born here and is almost 2, well she still speaks mostly in single words although can convey a broader meaning. Tonight she said to me, “Rain, Daddy, car, umbrella” which I knew to mean “I went in the car with Daddy and bought an umbrella.” It did take me a while to work out that “bala’ meant umbrella but once I had worked it out I knew exactly what she wanted to say. She also uses a lot of Japanese words, though English is still dominant. It’s hard to say she’s bilingual in some ways, because her speech is still in its very early days. But I’m sure she is at a typical stage of a bilingual toddler! Because the vowel sounds are much simpler in Japanese, and the common pattern of consonent-vowel sounds in Japanese often means that Japanese words are easier to say compared to English words. Tonight I was reading a book with her and tried to teach her to say “Octopus” but then also added “Tako” which is Japanese. I’m sure you can guess which one she was able to say better!

It’s a joy to see their amazing little kid-brains soak in language and somewhat effortlessly acquire a skill which requires SO much effort when you begin as an adult. Paul and I are constantly amazed.

And yet practically, we have a new rule in our house;”No Japanese at meal times!” Recently, particularly as Pippa’s Japanese has mostly caught up with Heidi’s, the two ‘big’ girls spend a lot of time speaking in Japanese together. I mean, it makes sense. They play at school and kinder with Japanese friends, so most of their playtime in the week is spent in a Japanese environment and context, and so their play language, so to speak, is Japanese. So there is a lot of playing in Japanese, SO much singing in Japanese, and also just a little arguing in Japanese. Thankfully because kids speak in a simple way with simple words, I am still very able to follow their conversations and interact with them in Japanese. But we realised we need a time to really encourage English conversation.

Pippa in particular has made quite a habit of mixing languages, which can reduce your vocabulary in both, due to filling in the gaps with the other language that you do know the right word in. While I’m in no way concerned about her language ability, and it is somewhat cute when she does it, it is helpful to have a few times each day – mostly breakfast and dinner when we are all home and eating together – to prevent mixing, and encouraging growing our English skills.

When we first moved to Japan and the kids, particularly Heidi who went straight into Japanese kinder with no Japanese, it was hard to imagine that they would be able to learn to speak Japanese. And yet, we listened to all of those who came before us, and relied on what we knew about the brain and language acquisition in children, and now some two and a bit years later, we find ourselves at a completely different spot saying “Stop speaking Japanese!” Even if it is just for a few, quieter moments in the day.

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