Thursday, January 24, 2008

Answer to the Language Question

A couple of people in their comments were asking about what language we use in our family/household.

We use English. Masa and I met in the U.S. and so our first language was English. Well, first spoken language was English. We communicated heavily in body language that first year. . . (insert happy happy sigh of remembered bliss). But I felt then, that as he was studying in the U.S. to improve his English, I should use only English with him.

How I got trapped into using only English? Well, by the time I made my way to Japan after graduating from university his English level had surpassed my Japanese language ability to such an extent that I stupidly let our relationship continue in all English. Why do I say stupidly? Because well, look at me. I live in Japan but I'm not fluent in Japanese! I have a Japanese spouse but have had no conversation partner in Japanese!

Masa just flat out says that it is too "weird" to use Japanese with me and he also gets really easily frustrated with my level of Japanese. I guess it would be something like walking into a session of the Senate and telling all the Senators, "Okay, just for fun, let's all speak like first graders today, Okay?"

Now, when we had our first child we were in the U.S. for the first two months of her life. Then we were in Queensland, Australia for the next two years. Ironically, Reno heard a lot of Japanese during those two years, but not from Masa. My best friend in Australia was a Japanese woman whose husband worked at the same company as my husband. Her husband was also Japanese. While my friend and I spoke a mix of English/Japanese with each other she made a point of speaking only in Japanese to Reno--for which I was very grateful. Especially when we were living in an English speaking country I wanted Reno to hear and learn Japanese as well as English. My friend lived in the apartment across the hall from ours and so Reno actually spent more time per week exposed to her than she did exposed to her own Daddy.

When we moved to Osaka I realized rather quickly, "uh-oh." cause Daddy was still speaking all English with his baby girl who was a toddler by then. But we popped Reno into Japanese day care and hoped for the best scenario that so many people told us would come effortlessly--that she would be bilingual before we knew it.

It is much too long of a story to get into here but no, Reno did not fall into the "she's already talking in complicated sentences--chattering away in Japanese and English alternatively!" category of bi cultural children in Japan. Her first language, her native language is English. She is now fluent in Japanese as well.

Her little sister, Saki, appears to have stronger linguistic gifts/abilities and has been aware of the two languages (Japanese & English) since she was first speaking. Reno didn't quite catch on to the "two languages=one object=two different words=same object" concept until she was in elementary school! Saki has been able to smile sweetly at the Japanese obaasan (old lady)in the park and gurgle "wan wan!" (Japanese noise for a dog barking, a baby word for dog) and then beam back at me and chirp "doggie!"

Of course she has all the advantages that a younger sibling gets. We made mistakes; we have tried to rectify them. For instance, my second child will start elementary school here having already learned all her hiragana and katakana and if I have my way all her ichinensei kanji (first year kanji) as well! Like most of the other Japanese children. With Reno, I didn't know that the ichinensei year (first grade year) is supposed to basically just be a "review and boost their confidence year". So she went in hiragana-less, katakana-clueless and kanji--what the f*@k and her ichinensei year turned into a "stamp all the self-confidence out of this kid" kind of year. We are still recouping from that experience.

And since Saki's birth and Reno's first very difficult years in elementary school Masa now makes an effort to speak to the girls in Japanese. He still tends to use English with them when we are all together as a family, but if I am out of the conversation--say I am in the kitchen or at the computer--he speaks to them in his native language. They will automatically use Japanese with him if I am not present.

Why do I have this "speak in English" effect on my offspring and mate? Well, I have offered to play clueless Jane and have them all speak in Japanese around me (in fact I have begged for them to do this.) but now, not only does Masa feel "weird" speaking to me in Japanese but my kids think it feels "weird" too. I'm the English mama.

When I am particularly irritated with my children I will scold them harshly in Japanese. . . maybe that has something to do with their aversion to my speaking in Japanese but the little smart Alec's know that they can back talk in English and no one around us knows what we're/they're saying. So when I bark out, "Mou, shinai de to yutta deshou? Nani o kangaetteru no?" (Hey, I said cut it out. What are you thinking?) they not only get to hear my best guttural mean-Japanese-mommy imitation but they know that everyone around us KNOWS that they are being scolded. Shame can work wonders in a crowded public space.

For Masa's part he has confessed that it is simply too difficult to flip flop languages. He can't talk to me in English and switch to Japanese for the kids and flop back into English for me all at the same dinner table at the same time.

Plus he just honestly HATES helping me with the language. Honestly. If I ask him, "how do you say book case in Japanese?" (for example, you know a common noun? a common household object?) He will often look thoughtful for a second and then look at me and with a completely sincere and focused face say, "we haven't got a word for that in Japanese." Of course I used to call him on it. Now I just sigh and mutter nasty words under my breath and colorful little curses and linguistic hexes--you know, like "May you end up living in an Arabic country, unable to communicate and illiterate."

Although to be fair--he is now working hard with Reno on her fourth grade kanji and kokugo (reading/writing). They write a diary back and forth to each other. He also recently has been supportive of my efforts to learn Japanese by bringing home an English to Japanese, Japanese to English, Japanese to Japanese and English to English electronic dictionary for me. And when I went out and purchased a bunch of kanji software for the DSlite he just commented that it was good that I was getting into studying kanji again.

As of recent, he has even been known to answer specific pointed questions regarding Japanese usage and grammar.

To recap briefly, our home language, our dominant family language is English. When I am with the girls I use only English with them. We watch predominantly English language channels on Cable and I prefer to watch most of our rental DVDs in English. However, Reno and Saki both have a few Japanese anime shows that they watch that are, of course, in Japanese. On weekends they enjoy the dreaded Japanese variety shows (hell for the typical foreigner) with their Daddy. Daddy does try to speak Japanese with them but when we are all together we tend to all use English. While the road to being bilingual has been difficult for my first born, it so far seems to be paved and smooth from my second born. Whether or not this is just inherent in their make ups or a quirk of birth order I can't say for sure. Although I would tend to think it a bit of both.

One thing I have never experienced, that I know other foreign English speaking mothers and fathers here have at times, is neither of my children have ever asked me to NOT speak in English to them in public. In fact, the only language they ever beg me NOT to speak to them in in public is Japanese! Neither of my daughters has ever gone on a language strike, refusing to speak one language or the other.

You know what I am really curious about these days? I wander what kind of guy my Masa is in Japanese. Because I know that my personality changes a bit when I am speaking Japanese versus English. Hard to explain but it's like I turn from one pane of glass to another and look out on the same landscape with the same world view but everything slightly tinged in a different hue. The longer I know him now the curiouser and curiouser I am becoming about what kind of guy he would seem to me were we to communicate only in Japanese with one another.

How about those of you out there who are also involved in an international relationship? What language do you and your significant other communicate in?


Lulu said...

Yay, I am so glad you wrote about this!!!

I have met a lot of billingual kids here in Japan...most of them speak Japanese better than they do English but I have met a couple that are the opposite (Both cases that I can think of the mother was the native English speaker)...Reading about some of the struggles Reno had makes me realize that I would definitely have to work on making sure my children know there hiragana and katakana and kanji before school starts.

I speak to Shun in Japanese 90% of the time! Although when we first met it was about 98% of the time so I am gradually introducing more English. It is weird for me to speak to him in English though to tell you the truth...Because I feel like I have to tone down the way I speak so that he understands. We have talked about this and he understands my basic english well enough so if we had kids I would speak to him in English and he would respond in Japanese and we would speak to the kids in our native languages. And we would continue to speak in Japanese when it is just the two of us!

I guess though you really don`t know what is going to happen until you are are in the situation! All kids are different!

How do you go about teaching your children to read in English? I have had a lot of practise with this in school and one of our student who started at the kindergarten 18 months ago and has now begun to read...I have known him for most of those 18 months and I can`t beleive he is going so well. It makes me so proud!

Great post! I am sure Sarah and Nay will love it too!

illahee said...

we speak only english in our house, well, maybe the odd japanese word thrown in from time to time. i do encourage my kids to say, 'konnichiwa' to neighbors or what not. yoshi's english is far better than my japanese, and he also speaks english with the kids. that may change in the future, they are so young now.

coarse gold girl said...

illahee brings up a REALLY important point: no matter what language you speak in the home--zulu, spanish, french, English--don't forget to teach your children aisatsu! (Japanese greetings and set phrases of politeness--thank you, please, etc. Japanese has specialized little phrases for doing things like entering someone's house "ojamashimasu", leaving your own home, "ittekimasu" etc.) Don't worry. There are a billion baby/picture books out there that focus solely on aisatsu training for the young. But remember that course you took on Japanese culture in college? The one where they made a big deal out of saying, "aisatsu are the grease on the wheels of society and harmony in Japan" and it sounded hoaky? It was true.

My eldest is shy (post in the making on this topic, shy children) and for her, saying aisatsu has been a serious struggle. NOT saying aisatsu has had disasterous results with teachers, with class mates, with neighbors, with people we barely know!

rules of aisatsu are very basic:
1. you greet anyone you see on a regular basis--do they live in your neighborhood? you greet them. do they go to your school? you greet them.

2. It is good if the younger person greets the older person first. Even is the difference in age is only one grade in school. But very significant for say a teenager greeting the neighborhood obaachyan. Teen should greet first.

while shy is cute in girls here at times, it is not cute enough to get you forgiven for not doing aisatsu.


Confidence said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Tigermama said...

We are similar to you except my dh speaks mostly Japanese to the kids. I insisted that he do so from the very beginning because I knew we wouldn`t be living in Japan forever.

I read somewhere that it is really really hard to change to the second language when you started communicating using the first (i.e. you and dh started with English, like me and my dh, and so it`s rare to switch to speaking Japanese).

I also think that our children have the most optimal situation as far as language acquisition goes because their home life is mostly English but their outside life is mostly Japanese. They get the best of both worlds. If the home life and the outside life is all in Japanese, than it would be much harder to acquire native-level English.

The following quote made me laugh out loud because my dh never helps me out with Japanese either and he is about to experience this fate;

"May you end up living in an Arabic country, unable to communicate and illiterate."

Sorry so long!

Sarah@mommyinjapan said...

Chikara and I met when he was in his 3rd year at university in the States. When he started school his English was awful but he was good at making friends and trying to converse with people so his English slowly improved. Once we started seeing each other, his English became way better than all of his friends (they were jealous!). From that point on we always communicated in English.

When Emi was born I really wanted Chikara to speak to her in Japanese but he didn't know how! He is an only child and he didn't know what parents say to their babies so he would always copy me and therefore we only spoke English with her for the first few months. Before we moved to Japan, Emi, at 8 months old, was already saying "mama" and "dada" but once we moved, she went silent. At first I was nervous but then I realized that she was just listening to the new language. After she turned one, she suddenly started talking up a storm in both languages, basically copying whatever we were saying to her.

At that point, Chikara and I still only spoke English to each other and in our home we only spoke English, but like Tigermama, everywhere else we went, we only heard Japanese. This helped my Japanese improve and we noticed that once the girls each turned 3 that they started to differentiate between English and Japanese and spoke exclusively one or the other without mixing. Until they went to preschool, English was definitely the strongest but now they are just as fluent in both languages.

My new challenge will be to keep their English reading and writing at the same level as their same-age American cousins. My goal is that once they graduate from high school, they could go to a university in the country of their choice. My girls hold Canadian and American citizenships so they could conceivably go to university in any commonwealth country (England, Australia, etc.). I think my biggest worry is that I'll forget to do all of this with Natsuki!

Now, almost seven years after moving to Japan, we speak mainly English in our house but some conversations are just easier in Japanese. We feel that for now we've found a nice balance.

Christelle said...

Wow, hot topic Laura. Ok, I'm going to be the odd man out (so to speak) in this cluster of comments. Yohei can't speak much English, so we've always spoken Japanese together. My Japanese is not perfect, but it's fluent enough and Yohei is an excellent communicator (in that he often translates what his grandparents say to me using comprehensible Japanese). When we go to Canada, his English skills improve so quickly and being in Canada he is less inhibited. Once back in Japan, he has trouble again, even speaking with my friends who speak English. He is also quite shy and introverted but it's amazing how much he changes in Canada. This is why I think it is imperative that we move to Canada for at least a few years.

And in June, our first little addition to our family will be arriving (yay!). I'm pretty sure Yohei will speak Japanese to her (we think she's a she), even if we are in Canada. Ironically, I'm worried about myself. I tend to speak to our pets in Japanese!! I already catch myself talking to her in my stomach in Japanese! I figure I'll likely mix both languages. In Canada though, I know I'd use English (I always speak it more with Yohei even after returning from a trip home- it's like my brain switches gears).

I'm not worried about our daughter's language acquisition. I know she'll get both. If we live in Japan, I don't plan on pushing her like I find parents do here- Yohei will probably help her with homework rather than sending her off to a cram school. I don't think test scores are the be all and end all and vow not to let her feel bad if hers aren't in the top ranking (what a ridiculous system that ranking system here is). I hope she'll go to university in Canada, where entrance exams don't exist. If possible, I'd love for her to learn French as well.

The one thing I do worry about is my child making fun of my Japanese or her father's English in the future. Also, I worry about the "language strike" that Laura referred to- English in Japan and Japanese in English. I also worry most about being able to keep up her Japanese skills if we live in Canada more than keeping up her English skills in Japan. (Guess that's because I believe kanji way more difficult than English writing).
Hmm, I seem to have written a book here. Sorry for going on so long! (Language learning is a topic very close to my trilingual heart!)

Sara said...

Yay thanks so much everyone for the input on your family situations. Even though having children is still a little ways of for me and R its a great reference.

We met here in Japan, and like Lulu and Christelle our method of communication is pretty much 99% Nihongo although when I am sad or angry I will just speak English and hope that he gets what is going on. I know that when we have kids I will def. try do 100% English with them, I guess R will do Japanese? The thing is, R and my communication is all Japanese, so I wonder if that will affect things more. He has no desire to move anywhere than Japan, but has expressed interest that if our children were interested in going to the US for university he would be ok with it.

Its really great to hear that even though everyone has different situations and strategies your kids are proficient in both Japanese and English.

Great post!

Nay said...

Hi Laura,

Naoki and I have spoken so much about this topic, and I am constantly thinking about it in my head. When Naoki and I first met we spoke only English (with the help of a dictionary!!). But now, with my Japanese improving so much, I have noticed that Naoki is using less and less english with me, and more and more Japanese with me.

So I am a little worried about this, because we have always said that once we have children we will speak english at home, and use Japanese whilst visiting people or shopping etc etc. But with the rate things are going, I can't see Naoki using english very much at all at home. I constantly have to remind him to speak english, and even then 5 minutes later, he is back to speaking Japanese. He still argrees with me that we should only speak English at home. I just think we have gotten into a routine of speaking Japanese too much!! This could also be because we haven't been living together since last February, so Naoki has been in an all Japanese environment for nearly 1 year...

Though if we do speak only english at home, I am also worried that our kids will be disadvantaged when it is time to go to school. I don't want them to have a disadvantage at school, just because their mother isn't Japanese...

Hearing your own experience on this matter, and reading the comments from everyone else has been really helpful!!

Kim said...

Interestingly enough, this is the topic I have been thinking of doing some research about recently. Our baby girl is 19 months old and speaking words of both English and Japanese. My husband and I speak mostly Japanese with each other. I speak English with our daughter, and he mostly speaks English with her too. She gets Japanese in our church and neighborhood.

A few people have "warned" me that it is tough on a kid to learn two languages, and they need to have one down pat (whatever that means) by the time they are three for their success in elementary school.

So far we have been winging it, but I'd be interested in hearing about any books or resources anyone has used in raising bilingual kids.

Claire said...

As far as our kids are concerned, I feel undeservedly lucky in that bilingualism has never been a problem. We do the "one parent, one language" thing with them - I only ever talk to them in English (and make sure they answer me in English too, helping them with words if necessary) whereas DH only talks to them in Japanese. As DH is hardly ever here, that means they've had an almost entirely English home environment, but as they both went to Japanese daycare from the age of 1 they got the other language there. They and I switch back and forth when DH is around, talking to him in Japanese and each other in English - it can get a bit confusing at the breakfast table occasionally, but generally it works pretty unconsciously. The only time I ever use English with DH is when I'm mad - he knows that's the danger sign, when I get so cross I can't express myself sufficiently in Japanese (usually because I don't know enough swear words ...)

Sherry said...

My husband and I have always spoken English to each other and probably always will, or at least I will always speak English to him. LOL!

With our first child he always spoke English to her too. When she entered kindergarten last year it was very hard for a couple of months because she had no Japanese ability at all. It didn't take long for her to pick it up and now, almost a year later, she is just as fluent as all the other kids in her class.

My son is only 20 months old and doesn't really speak except for the occassional word here and there. I speak to him in English. His father, having learned a lesson this year, speaks to him in Japanese mostly, English sometimes though. His sister mixes it up and speaks to him in both. It seems to depend on if she has just gotten home from school and is still in Japanese mode or if she has been with me a while and gotten back into English mode.

Being still young neither of my kids has told me not to speak English in front of others, but if/when they do I plan to just ignore them. Yes, it may embarrass them, but I don't care. All kids are embarrassed by their parents in some ways. If speaking English is the worst thing I do to embarrass them they should consider themselves lucky. I have a whole box full of naked baby pictures just waiting to show their boyfriends and girlfriends. LOL!

azumarisan said...

Hubby and i usually speak Japanese with each other, though i did get sick of it as i was trying to improve my conversational Japanese, so i made thursday a "japanese only day", no english, only speaking in Japanese. That lasted a total of two weeks and somehow we slipped back into english. Now that we have NHK on satellite though i find i can get what i need from TV, and the fact that Japanese programs have everything written on the screen also helps my kanji levels which have gotten better.

My husband is slowly losing his Japanese, and he finds it hard to speak to me as i'm not a native speaker. Although, if i do try to talk to him in Japanese he will oblige. And, if i ask him what a word is in Japanese he does tell me, so that at least is helpful.

We have discussed when we have kids and i told him he is in charge of the Japanese language and I of the English language so hopefully our kid can get a dose of both languages at the same time. We have two Japanese schools here in perth, so we are planning to send our kids to weekend Japanese school on saturdays and regular english school during the week. However, i'm in charge of Japanese holidays and culture because hubby is from Hokkaido and completely Japanese culture-less. I know more about Japans culture and holidays than he does!

I completely sympathise with you though Laura and know exactly where you are coming from. :)

L. said...

My husband and I did not speak each other's languages well at all when we met -- I was spending my junior year in Kyoto.

Years later, we are still both the laziest people on earth, so he speaks Japanese to me, and I answer in English. The kids speak English to me, and Japanese to him.

The most interesting thing was that our two older kids were born in LA, and we moved back to Tokyo when our older son was almost four and our daughter was almost two. He learned to talk early, and his first language was English -- he quickly picked up Japanese at his hoikuen. Our daughter wasn't talking yet when she started at the hoikuen, so her first spoken language was Japanese, and she spoke English as a secondary, lagging language. So we had two kids, from the same parents, born less than two years apart and living together since birth, who had two different primary languages. That was kind of amazing, but it all evened out later.

Jessica said...

I'm in China, not Japan, but my husband and I speak Chinese with each other almost exclusively. My husband's English is pretty much useless for adult conversation, although he does still remember a bit of what he picked up in high school (not bad considering he's 35 now). I don't meet too many Chinese people here in China whose English is better than my Chinese, and I think most people instinctively communicate in the stronger language. This was certainly the case when I met my husband, and he, much like you, has begged me to teach him more English, but I, like your husband, find it very hard to switch to English with him when it is so much easier and more effective to go with Chinese.

Our son is now three months old, so obviously he's not communicating quite yet, but to my dismay I've found myself speaking much more Chinese to him than I do English. I have to constantly remind myself to switch languages, which is definitely tedious and sometimes feels almost unnatural. Since Chinese has been our home language for the duration of our relationship, bringing English into the house is definitely taking more effort than I had expected it to on my part.

Nay said...

Hey Laura,

I just was reading over your blog entry again, and this might be a stupid question, but how do you go about getting english channels on the TV??

coarse gold girl said...


You have to subscribe to cable or you have to get skyperfect T.V. (the preferred method which my household "can't afford"--SOB. so when we moved up North we lost the DISNEY CHANNEL as it is not part of the local cable T.V. package.)


southofreality said...

Get your husband to use speak Japanese to you while you use English to speak to him. After all, listening is the most important conversational skill, isn't it? After awhile, your Japanese understanding (as well as your understanding of who your husband truly is) will increase dramatically. From there, you will be able to start speaking Japanese a lot more since your understanding of grammar and vocabulary will be on a much higher level.
Don't forget the self-study?

southofreality said...

I guess the comment about understanding 'who your husband truly is' came out wrong. Stupid of me. I meant that you'll hear his true, native voice. Anyway, sorry for the miswording.

Midori said...

D and I always speak in Japanese. When we met my Japanese was WAY better than his English so it seemed the natural way to go. When we lived in Japan I worried about Joey not getting enough English but I think that deep down I knew we would end up living in the UK so didn't stress too much about it. I am now worried in reverse that with his Dad out of the picture most of the time, he won't pick up enough Japanese to remain bi-lingual so now need to find a way to remedy that. He is definitely more receptive to my attempts to communicate with him in Japanese since "the visit" but it does feel wrong when I speak Japanese to him. I also worry about him picking up my weird Japanese!! Although, that said, he would pick up Kagoshima ben from his Dad/ baa-baa so maybe my version of Japanese is better! LOL!