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Bilingual Education (English & Japanese), Part I: The First Years

While most of the world's population is bilingual or multi-lingual, for people living in a predominantly monolingual society - as is the case in most areas of Japan and the United States - the unnecessary and conscious decision to use a minority language in daily life can be a cause for concern and even consternation among a child's caregivers. "Won't the child be confused?" "Won't the majority language suffer?" Sometimes doubts are phrased not as questions, but as accusations: "They'll never learn either language perfectly!" or even "Bilinguals have split personalities."

Aside from situations where the language limitations of family members or the environment requires a child in a monolingual society to learn another language (for example, growing up in a Spanish-speaking family living in the U.S.; being born and raised in Japan with a father who speaks only English, etc.), the decision to raise a child as a bilingual is usually a conscious one made by the parents. Reasons for the decision vary greatly, from social or economic benefits (real or imagined), to an academic "edge" in school, from the practicalities of communication with distant relatives, to the child's own sense of identity. However, if parents have considered their actions so closely, they generally have a scheme in mind to bring their plan to fruition and produce a bilingual offspring.

Working with young people from a range of international experiences had shown me how closely language is linked to identity, sense of belonging to a place, and the flexibility of the individual. Also from my students I had gained some inkling of the stresses caused by being Japanese and yet not "looking Japanese", a stress that any child of mine (a white American of European descent) would likely face here in Kyoto. So, in the months leading up to K's birth, I began to research bilingual child-rearing - and early communication in general - with all the fervor of a soon-to-be parent.

And like most new parents, I found that for all my research efforts I was still utterly clueless when the moment of truth arrived. I will never forget how hard it was - and how bewildering that necessity of effort - to talk to my child in English. My language of daily life for over a decade had been Japanese, but more than that Japanese was my language of domesticity, the language of the home my husband and I had made together, the language in which we exchanged terms of endearment. Even having been back in the States for a month did not remedy the matter. It took every ounce of effort I had to address K in English instead of Japanese those first few days of her life.

My first systematic efforts at two-way communication with K were through Baby Signs, a concept that was developed in 1982 by Drs. Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn whereby hand or facial gestures are used to communicate along with the spoken word. The idea is that children can then communicate more actively and with more accuracy earlier, before the mouth and tongue can be coordinated to make the sounds necessary to communicate the same idea.

I must confess here that my motives in doing this were two-fold: out of practically for our daughter, K, and out of curiosity for myself. In anticipating our move back to Japan (after my early childhood care leave of twelve months was over, at K's first birthday), I hoped that some rudimentary communication tools might help K communicate her needs and desires ("eat", "more", "finished" are some of the first signs she used) and also express herself as a way of relieving inevitable stress the move would cause by talking about her world. (When she first learned the sign for dog, she would make it at the first sighting, often as far as two blocks away, and I would have to search for the animal as she signed over and over, eyes fixed on a tiny point in the distance.)

Acredolo and Goodwyn stress that verbal communication must accompany baby signs so that children understand that there is a sound that carries the same meaning. Knowing that living with a Japanese monolingual husband in a rural area would effectively make me the only two-way English exposure in K's daily life once we were back in Japan, the pressure to communicate with her in English was keen. While I noticed a lot of mothers and fathers pushing baby strollers while talking on cell phones, I seemed to be one of the few to keep up a constant monologue about the things K and I saw on our walks, stopping frequently to look at flowers or a flag on someone's house and talk about them with the accompanying signs. Numerous studies have long pointed out that communication directed at a child is significantly more meaningful than just exposing the child to the sounds of the language, as if it were background music. However, those cell-phone chatting parents also knew their children would be growing up in the United States, an English luxury we did not have.

As K's first birthday approached, she still had not made any signs. Acredolo and Goodwyn found that babies usually start signing at about twelve months. Beginning to feel discouraged, I considered stopping sign use, but rereading some sections inspired me to try another few weeks. About the same time as she began walking (also shortly after her birthday), K made the sign for flower on one of our walks. And in the three or four days that followed there was suddenly flag, dog, bird, and abstract concepts like more and finish. It was like an avalanche. She even recognized signs that I had not realized I taught her, like gesturing washing hands for "wait a minute... I'll be right back" while I wash my hands, something I did routinely when I would disappear into the bathroom after changing her diaper. This gesture, made across a crowded restaurant, would calm her while I was at the salad bar.

Very quickly after that, she began to use utterances, though only a word or two at a time.

After a slightly extended stay thanks to summer vacation, we were on our way back to Japan for her first time when K was thirteen months old. She had heard Japanese in our home State-side between her father and myself, and at the occasional trip to the Japanese supermarket, but as we stayed with her grandparents in Shiga and then settled into our own home and she started nursery school, the Japanese language surrounded her and English was reduced to two hours in the morning and a similarly short span in the evening with me. Could she distinguish between English and Japanese? Would she mix the languages?

The clearest sign came quickly, at fifteen months. I woke up one morning, groggy and surrounded by boxes in the house we had just bought. K was sitting next to me, already awake, looking at a book I had been reading the night before. On the inside back cover was a picture of the author, an elegant-looking woman of mature years.

"Grandma," said K, pointing to the picture. And then, without looking up, "Obaachan," the word for grandmother in Japanese.

I was instantly awake and went into a lengthy explanation about how she was absolutely right, and how I said, "Grandma," while her father said, "Obaachan." Of course, she had no interest in these academics, and abandoning my book grabbed one of her own and thrust it at me to be read.

As K's powers of communication increased, I felt a desperate need to fill up all our time together with English, talking through meals, singing in the car, talking our way through the grocery store. Her English remained significantly more developed than her Japanese after age two, even though by that point she had spent equal amounts of time in the U.S. and Japan and the later half being in Japan would suggest the opposite outcome. This unexpected situation was more likely due to the lack of sophisticated Japanese communication at nursery school than anything on my part. Her oral English skills seemed average for her age.

As she began using full sentences and even stringing those together, I found a good way to encourage her to talk more. Using a method I describe as "kurukuru kaiwa" - a spiraling conversation - inspired by Patricia Stacey's The Boy Who Loved Windows (about raising her son who had autistic-like tendencies), I would try to create a spiral of questions and answers in my conversations with K. Imagine a game in which the objective is to get your partner to talk as much as possible without letting the conversation end.

The method worked very well. We would go from one subject to another without much concern, as long as we continued talking. Although I never had to work anywhere nearly as hard as Stacey did with her son, I did make a conscious effort to listen carefully to what K said, making eye contact whenever possible, and continue asking follow up questions to feed the conversation.

Then something distressing happened. K began to stutter. At first, it was limited, and as it is a common part of speech development, I was not overly concern. I consulted her teachers who reassured me that the problem was not significant at nursery school and told me not to worry. However, it went from bad to worse, and then to the point where she herself felt such frustration at not being able to get a word out that she would become very upset. Like any parent, I put on a calm face in front of her and reassured her that stuttering was something that happened to everyone sometimes, that she should just relax and take a deep breath and then take her time and try again.

Of course, inside I was panicking. Visions of speech therapist consultations haunted me. Had I ruined my child with the quest to help her become bilingual?

Fortunately, there were reams of information on the Internet. A brilliant list of essential points got printed out and posted on the refrigerator door for easy reference. For us, the key points were to slow down the pace of conversations and not ask so many questions. Clearly, my desperate attempt to fit in as much English as possible into the few hours we had together everyday was in clear violation of the first point. The "spiral conversation" - which by design involved a constant barrage of questions - was also making the problem worse. Very specific advice suggested finishing questions with "...I wonder," as in, "What did you do at nursery school today, I wonder," allowing her to choose whether to answer or not.

At first, I was unsure whether she could respond to such subtleties of language. Yet as one might suspect, the intonation of a question verses a statement was unmistakable, and I found that she did or did not answer as the mood suited her. Surprisingly quickly, the stuttering tapered off and disappeared.

It is essential to understand that it was not the bilingual situation, but the way in which I went about enriching her life with the minority language, English, that was the cause of these difficulties. As of this writing, K will turn four in a few weeks and is much more fluent in both English and Japanese than I ever would have imagined. She uses both language when talking in her sleep and often "translates" between her father and myself. Negative comments are fewer, though were her minority language anything other than English, people would probably be less supportive and more critical.

For her part, K seems to enjoy making observations about the languages and occasionally "teaching" words or phrases. This morning she suddenly turned to me and said, "Mommy, 'meat' in Japanese is 'o-niku'." For all her understanding, the awareness that she speaks Kansai dialect instead of standard Japanese is probably a long way off.

Acredolo, Linda, Susan Goodwyn, and Douglas Abrams. Baby Signs: How to Talk with Your Baby Before Your Baby Can Talk. Chicago: McGraw-Hill, 2002. (Also available in Japanese as Baby Signs-Hanasenai Akachan to Hanasu Houhou.)

Baker, Colin. A Parents' and Teachers' Guide to Bilingualism. 2nd ed. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters Ltd, 2000.

Kandolf, Cindy. "Myths about Bilingualism." The Bilingual Families Web Page. (April 6, 2007).

Stacey, Patricia. The Boy Who Loved Windows. Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 2003.

Tokuhama-Espinosa, Tracey. Raising Multilingual Children: Foreign Language Acquisition and Children. Westport, Connecticut: Bergin and Garvey, 2001.

Sarah Ogawa

Sarah Wittenbrink Ogawa first came to Japan in high school as a short-term exchange student. After spending her junior year of college at Doshisha University, she returned to graduate from Smith College in Massachusetts. She moved back to Japan in 1992, where she has worked at a number of schools and in television. She is a faculty member at Doshisha International High School in Kyoto, where she lives with her Japanese husband and their two children. She has done graduate work in both science and the humanities, and holds a Master's Degree from the University of California.
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