Why Our Kids Aren’t Bilingual–Yet
It comes up all the time. “Your husband is Japanese? And are you raising your children bilingual? What a gift that is.” And I say no, actually, we speak English at home.
It’s a litmus test. There are always a few whose eyebrows lift, who can’t quite hide their disapproval. They are the ones who see children as résumés-in-formation, childhood as a race toward the acquisition of as many skills as possible. How can we willfully deprive our daughter and son of fluency in another language? We are hobbling them at the starting line.
For a lot of reasons, some of them unique to our family, some not, Yoji and I disagree.
When Yoji was three his father took a three-year assignment in his company’s Seattle office. It was a career-building opportunity, and something of a lark-instead of a cramped apartment in a dismal high-rise on the outskirts of Tokyo, they had a house with a yard in a leafy neighborhood and season tickets to the Seahawks. Three years was a manageable length of time to be away, and Yoji and his brother would return to Japan with broader minds and unaccented English.
But three years was extended, and extended again. At home everything was in Japanese, but Yoji and his brother were now speaking to each other in English. They went to Japanese school on Saturdays with other expat children trying to keep up with the Japanese national curriculum. After a while, they had been there longer than anyone else. Those Saturdays were torture: Yoji missed every Little League game for the sake of a distant homeland he didn’t think of as home. When his parents announced their imminent return to Tokyo at last, Yoji refused to go. He was sixteen.
Yes, Yoji speaks Japanese. But it’s the kitchen-table kind, limited to the informal vocabulary of the home. Out in the world, at school or playing with the neighbor kids until dinner, he grew up in English. It’s the language he was educated in, the language he thinks and dreams in. I remember the first time I saw him speaking Japanese, one Sunday in college, on the phone to his parents in Tokyo. His voice deepened, his body stiffened. He looked and sounded like someone else.
We lived in Tokyo for the first three years of our marriage, and I can get around in Japanese, but I can’t parent in it. If our children were going to be bilingual it had to come from Yoji. When our first child arrived, shortly after our return to New York, it was obvious how impossible that would be. Forget for a moment the holes in his vocabulary-he could learn the words for diaper, drool, pacifier. Falling in love with your baby daughter is euphoric, overwhelming, and intimate. Yoji would curl up with Clare and rock her to sleep, murmuring in her ear. Murmuring in English.
When we moved to Tokyo, two months after our wedding, I dove in head-first, enrolling in language school five mornings a week. We were living with Yoji’s parents just outside central Tokyo, and I boarded a rush-hour subway every morning, the only foreign face in a sardine-can of Japanese commuters. I made the rounds of museums and historic sites, read all the Japanese fiction I could find in translation, and prided myself on avoiding the etiquette traps most visitors fall into. No one was going to brand me an obnoxious Amerika-jin. I exulted the day an acquaintance asked me-the Jewish girl from Manhattan-if I was part Japanese.
Before I met Yoji, my ignorance of Japan was total. I’d studied French from third grade through college, but as an academic discipline, not a way of life. I could read Balzac, but I’d never tried to set up housekeeping in a French city, and my conversation was hampered by my preoccupation with grammatical perfection.
I studied Japanese with an intensity I’d never felt before. Japan is a gratifying place to be a language learner: no one expects you to be able to say a word, so anything you say is received with extravagant praise: “Nihongo jozu desu ne! You’re so good at Japanese!” Grammar didn’t matter, communication did. And the payoff-a nod of comprehension, an appreciative chuckle-was so much more satisfying than a teacher’s approval. So what if the guy behind the counter looked confused when I asked for cucumber (kyuuri) instead of curry (karei)-he wasn’t giving me a grade. My father-in-law tracked my progress with delight, keeping character dictionaries by the dinner table to help him illustrate the answers to my questions. When family came to visit he trotted me out like a singing dog: Look! The foreign daughter-in-law-who speaks Japanese! I didn’t mind. I was pretty proud of myself, too.
Meanwhile, Yoji was having much less fun. His American investment bank thought of him as a Japanese hire-he had the name, the passport, and the language skills. He found himself in an uncomfortable cultural limbo. He looked Japanese, and his speech was unaccented, but he said the wrong thing, or spoke with an inappropriate degree of courtesy. He grinned too widely, made eye contact too boldly. He lacked the instinctive sense of hierarchy that is the choreographer of Japanese social interaction: his bows were hopeless. Japanese colleagues didn’t know what to make of him. He began introducing himself, in English, as an American.
So when it comes to raising 9-year-old Clare and her little brother David speaking Japanese, Yoji balks. Language is a barrier between himself and his own parents-neither their English nor his Japanese is sophisticated enough for deep conversation. In the background of Yoji’s joyful engagement with our growing children runs a bittersweet awareness of the cultural and linguistic gulf that his parents allowed to open within their family. The idea that language might come between him and his own children is anathema. When he comes home in the evening and they hurtle towards him, the last thing he wants to do as they all topple to the floor together is insist that they tell him about their day in Japanese. Moreover, he remembers-wincingly-the way he came to loathe studying Japanese as a child. He will never let Japanese become something his children hate.
But if there’s a spark, we’re happy to fan the flames. Our apartment is full of Things Japanese: vintage photos of Yoji’s family, souvenirs from visits to Tokyo, stashes of dried seaweed and pickled plums. Clare has a chart of hiragana, the Japanese syllabary, on her wall. David watches Tonari no Totoro, the Miyazaki anime classic. Yoji and I once used Japanese when we didn’t want them to understand something; now that strategy is more likely to intrigue them than to go over their heads. After one trip to Tokyo, Clare requested-and got-Japanese lessons.
Yoji’s older brother, who was sent back to Japan for high school and ended up there permanently, has a daughter just Clare’s age. When we visit Tokyo, the two girls are inseparable, though they share no language. As they grow, they will want to know each other, and that will be the most powerful incentive of all.
Do I ever doubt our decision? Sure. Several of Clare’s and David’s school friends have parents who came to the U.S. recently, and speak their own tongue at home as a matter of course. When I see those kids flipping effortlessly between English with their classmates and a different language with their parents, I think of all the hours I’ve spent agonizing over French grammar or Japanese characters and turn apple-green with envy. But our situation is different, I remind myself. We are not an expatriate family, not even, truly, an international one. Yoji chose America over Japan when he was sixteen, consciously and deliberately, and has never looked back.
Maybe we’re just lazy. In this consummately multicultural city, many families have taken the extraordinary step of choosing a second language for their toddlers that neither parent speaks fluently. They enroll their children in foreign-language preschools, hire babysitters who are native speakers, and invest tremendous energy in keeping up with their children’s other language. I marvel at their dedication, but I wonder how long those children will remain truly bilingual once enrolled in mainstream elementary schools, their second language buried by the avalanche of new experiences they’ll have in English, and not reinforced consistently at home. Those little minds absorb quickly, but they forget quickly too.
Because after all, you can’t achieve true fluency in any language without cultural fluency. Immersion is the buzzword, but as with any high dive, you have to have an urgent reason to take the plunge. I was determined to be a daughter-in-law in Japan, not a tourist. That was my reason. All those years of French taught me how to study language, but fate didn’t lead me to fall in love with a Frenchman. At 24 I started from scratch with the language I needed.
We will wait to see where our children’s passions lie, because if there’s one thing our separate experiences have both taught, it’s that passion is the force that drives true fluency, and it can take its time showing up. Tokyo and Kyoto are full of foreigners with excellent Japanese who chased an interest in martial arts or Zen practice all the way to Japan, and stayed. Several of our friends have picked up Spanish since college-their work as pediatricians or public defenders requires it. They use language in the most practical way, daily, and they don’t obsess about their accents. And that is how we want Clare and David to see language: not as a feather in their caps, but as a tool in their hands. Their grammar may be imperfect, their accents a bit rough, but tools aren’t meant to be pretty, and if you use them constantly they grow smoother and smoother.
So no, Clare and David don’t speak Japanese. We will never insist that they learn it. We will, however, do everything in our power to see that they grow into confident, curious people, full of the boldness it takes to dive into another culture and come up swimming.
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