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My Experience of Raising Bilingual Children in Japan

I came to Japan in 1964 to work in general practice among the foreign residents of Osaka and Kobe, and have lived in Kobe since then. I cannot claim to be a pediatrician, but my practice has included many children. My only qualification for writing this article is that my Japanese wife and I have raised six daughters, all born in Kobe, and all now fluent in English and Japanese. I offer the following comments on 'bilingual education' from my own personal experience, in the hope that they may be of interest to CRN readers.

I should start by explaining that all our daughters have followed the same linguistic course. They all began, naturally, by speaking their mother's language. On reaching school age, they all went first to English-language international schools in Kobe, and later, at about 12 years, to a boarding school in England. Thus all their formal education was in English, with the exception of a little extra coaching in mathematics (in Japanese) to help them to pass the entrance examination to the English school.

At this stage, on beginning their school life in England, they were all still more comfortable with Japanese, and needed extra coaching in English for the first year. However, they soon caught up, and quickly became truly bilingual. When they were in England, they spoke English; when they were in Japan, they spoke Japanese. At home, in the family, they spoke a mixture - either many English words in a framework of Japanese, or many Japanese words in a framework of English. My wife and I never forced them to stick to one language - indeed, we ourselves often used a mixture, depending on the context - and it was always noticeable that there were, for them, two domains of language: the mother's, which was preferred for things which children usually tell their mother first (troubles, especially physical) and the father's, which covered most of the social aspects of life and the sort of things one learns at school. This division has continued and is still present to some extent: a conversation which begins in English can revert to Japanese under the stress of emotion of any kind. This applies especially to their conversations with each other, in which English has now become the normal language of choice but with many reversions to Japanese. I think one can generalize this and say that it is always harder to express emotions such as anger, fear, joy and sorrow in a language which one has had to learn than in one which has been picked up in early childhood.

After my daughters left school, they went their different ways - some to university in England, some in Japan - and this naturally had an effect on their adult language. Those who have made their lives in England use English a little more than those who have come back to Japan - but only a little. They all know that they are truly bilingual. As for the so-called 'problems' faced by bilingual children, I cannot say that I have noticed any, unless an occasional hesitation in the choice of a word can be called a problem. It seems to me that the advantages of having two languages in daily use greatly outweigh the difficulties. Naturally mistakes are sometimes made, and this can give rise to laughter - but this can happen to any child, whether they speak two languages or only one. I am sometimes asked 'But which language do they think in?'. I find this a hard question to answer, and it has led me to conclude that very often one does not think in any language, but rather one has an idea and then has to find words to express it, just as when one has a set of tools and chooses those which are best fitted for the purpose. Two languages, two sets of tools - so much the better! I know that this view is not shared by everyone, and I should be interested to hear the comments of those whose experience differs from mine.
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