Understanding Bilingualism 3: Bilingual Child-Raising Possibilities in Japan - Papers & Essays



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Understanding Bilingualism 3: Bilingual Child-Raising Possibilities in Japan


This article focuses on bilingual child-raising strategies and educational alternatives, with particular reference to Japan. Language acquisition is discussed, distinguishing which of the four skills should come first. This sheds light on when children should start being exposed to two languages. While there are numerous educational alternatives for children in Japan, the best approach to bilingual child-raising differs according to the family situation. Thus, representative scenarios and child-raising strategies are presented with a view to their effectiveness for bilingual acquisition.

Key words:
bilingualism, Japan, child-raising, scenarios, alternatives

Understanding Bilingualism
1: What it Means to Be Bicultural
2: Bilingualism Concepts and Viewpoints
3: Bilingual Child-Raising Possibilities in Japan (This paper)

This article focuses on approaches to bilingual child-raising and second language educational alternatives for children in Japan, with a view to their effectiveness in terms of language acquisition.

Raising children bilingually is a primary focus of bilingualism interest groups in academic organizations such as the Japan Association for Language Teaching 1 and the Japan Association of College English Teachers 2. Much has been published in Japanese as well as English about bilingual child-raising, as can be seen in bookstores, libraries, research databases, or with keyword searches on the Web. This article cannot therefore be comprehensive but aims to highlight some strategic considerations for parents or students in Japan. When introducing the field of bilingualism to students at Osaka Jogakuin College, their future possibilities are raised. Students discover a surprising number of educational alternatives for children in Japan, and that the best approach to bilingual child-raising differs according to the situation of the family.

Bilingualism research findings and principles, rather than common-sense beliefs, can also help parents avoid common misconceptions. Having realistic expectations can avoid later disappointments. For example, if bilingual proficiency is visualized as an ideal like simultaneous interpretation, the goal of studying a foreign language becomes too remote, disconnected from the individual's present capacity and purposes for learning, thereby cutting off the wellsprings of motivation. In second or foreign language (L2) acquisition, the four skills of listening, speaking, reading and writing are never balanced and seldom all reach a native level, but such an ideal balance is never actually necessary. In reality, L2 learning is a process of becoming bilingual to some extent, to the extent that the individual needs for communication or further life goals.

There is a useful distinction in applied linguistics between learning a language, consciously or deliberately, and acquiring a language, by absorbing it naturally. Native languages are clearly acquired , while further languages involve learning and possibly also acquisition outside of the classroom. That is, in a second , as distinct from foreign, language situation, the surrounding society uses mostly the target language. Study abroad programs, for instance, are designed to take students out of an EFL environment like that of Japan and place them in an ESL environment with constant opportunities for L2 input and interaction.

However, in the discipline of second language acquisition (SLA) research, "second" is not divided from "foreign" language and generically refers to "any language that is learned subsequent to the mother tongue." SLA is the study of "L2 acquisition" (Ellis, 1997, p.3). The distinction between learning and acquisition may represent a complicating factor in SLA research, but in language acquisition involving children, the distinction can provide guidance for child-raising. Children are ready to acquire languages before they can decidedly learn them, and they acquire items of language before they can demonstrate what they have acquired.

In this light, which of the four skills is most important for language acquisition: speaking, listening, reading, or writing? Hint: consider how infants acquire their native languages (note that babies can acquire more than one native language from birth, which is called simultaneous bilingualism, as opposed to learning other languages after their first one is developed, which is called sequential or successive bilingualism). Infants acquire a language by listening to it, for about a year before they start speaking it fluently, then later they can learn to read and write. These facts indicate which skill is most important and in what order the skills are naturally acquired.

Furthermore, parents (and teachers) tend to be too anxious for children or learners to speak, in order to confirm what they have acquired, when actually listening is the main way they develop linguistic structures in the brain, although the process is unseen. Patience may be required, but humans generally have the ability to acquire any number of languages, given regular and sufficient input and interaction in each language. If children or students do not speak much but understand much of a language, then they are still a type of bilingual, not passive but rather receptive or receiving bilinguals. If they are placed in their second language environment, they may need only a few weeks to start speaking fluently. So speaking is not really the problem in language acquisition, nor does speech tell researchers all the language that a person has acquired. Still the misconception is built into common language usage when people ask if children or students speak English or another language.

Listening is generally most essential, but to activate the acquired language, opportunities are needed to interact in some way in an L2 environment. For example, an English environment can be simulated in a Japanese family home, but small children in particular need to interact in some physical or multisensory way with the L2 representations. Research shows that just watching videos is ineffective in language acquisition for small children (Fujii, 2007, pp. 9-10). They need living interlocutors such as their family members or other children from whom to acquire and experiment with language patterns. This author therefore advises clients of Benesse Corporation's Worldwide Kids English 3 to use English with their children, such as during a regular 'international time' period, utilizing special toys, props and clothing along with English materials to simulate such an environment. For the kind of simple language used naturally with children, their English pronunciation is probably fine. As the phrase mother tongue suggests, if parents or caretakers use the L2 regularly with children, to that extent it can become their second native language.

Bilingual Child-raising Scenarios

In Japan, single people face a number of possibilities with regard to marriage and having children that will shape their future lives. Only a few representative scenarios of parenting can be discussed in this space. Where both parents are native speakers of Japanese and the community language is also predominantly Japanese, other languages have seemed remote, but families may suddenly be moved abroad by companies and then feel an acute need to get up to speed in an international language such as English. In Japan the pull of the mainstream language is strong on all children, but some Japanese couples have been able to raise children bilingually, by spending considerable time abroad or by agreeing to systematic English use with their children.

Five percent of marriages in Japan are international, although in cases such as farmers needing brides from Asia, the foreign partner is sometimes assimilated to the Japanese culture and language. It is crucial for the partners to consult, decide and agree on a bilingual method or policy, valuing the two cultures and languages equally, if they wish their children to grow up bilingually. Many parents around the world with different native languages choose the one-parent (or one-person), one-language (OPOL) approach and find it effective to consistently speak only their native language to their children (Baker, 2007, pp. 13-14).

However, if the main caregiver in Japan uses Japanese and the foreign parent works full-time, then it is difficult for the children to get enough input and interaction in their second native language. On the other hand, if the main caregiver uses the second language, then it is easier to achieve a balance, because the child receives enough Japanese language from the surrounding community, mass media, and school. The language used between the parents is also a factor, amounting to much of the input that children hear. For balanced input, instead of the one-parent one-language approach, there is the home-language, community-language approach. Recognizing the pull of the majority language of the society, both parents would use the minority language at home as much as possible. In the case of a Japanese couple, they might speak half or more English at home. Yet if the same couple were living abroad, the home-language, community-language approach would advise that they both speak Japanese to the children at home. This approach of using whichever is the minority language at home would also apply to international marriages, for example both parents using English at home in Japan, or both using Japanese if they move abroad.

Another approach is not to be so consistent or systematic in using the minority language if certain approaches seem to disturb family relationships. If that results in less balanced input, then for a long time children may be receptive bilinguals who comprehend but do not voluntarily speak the second language much. There would still be the possible remedy of spending time abroad, especially with relatives of the foreign partner, to provide opportunities to motivate children toward interaction in the second language.

Bilinguals themselves often mix the two languages creatively, which their children might also do. It may seem like a language problem to monolingual and monocultural observers of the children, but creative "code-switching" (Fotos, 2001) is considered a natural way to communicate in many bilingual or multilingual groups and societies.

A commitment by parents is needed so that children receive rich input and opportunities to interact sufficiently in both languages. For example, reading bedtime stories to children from picture books is considered effective in various ways. A Japanese parent could read English books aloud to children any time, but a native speaker of English who works full-time could make up for imbalances by developing a nightly reading routine. The bilingualism literature also points to biliteracy, being able to read in both languages, as cognitively important and characteristic of strong forms of bilingual education (Baker, 2006, p. 194). 4

Educational Alternatives

Besides the language approach selected by the parents, there are many educational options available to parents wishing to raise their children to be bilingual. The most basic choices surround the medium of instruction of schools or other places where children go for education. That is, in the case of Japan, are lessons conducted in Japanese, in another language, or in two languages (bilingual education)? Local public schools, which children often prefer due to their need for friends nearby, are monolingual and strongly socialize children into Japanese culture. So-called "half" (which has mostly positive connotations in Japanese) children in such schools may go through a phase where they do not want to be seen as different from their peers, so they may reject being seen with their foreign parent in public, or disavow the second language, but that stage should pass when they become secure in their social life or unique bicultural identity. In the case of English or other languages perceived as valuable in Japan, the "half" children find that they can be lazy about one major school subject and still have an advantage in high school and university entrance examinations.

Other basic alternatives are private schools that offer more English instruction, bilingual or international schools 5, if the parents live near a main city and can afford the tuition. An international school may be nearly monolingual in English, however, so Japanese literacy in particular might require supplementary lessons. Only a few bilingual schools practice a strong form of bilingual education such as immersion, defined as teaching at least half of the time in the second language (Bostwick, 2005).

A long-term issue in alternative education is accreditation, that is, whether schools at the next level will recognize a child's previous educational attainment, or whether the diploma is recognized as a credential for a certain job or further study. Certain standards of achievement in international schools are recognized by universities, for example, where schools offer an International Baccalaureate 6 curriculum.

Other programs or weaker forms of bilingual education can be enriching nevertheless by adding some of a second language to a child's linguistic repertoire at no expense to the first language. Children can easily maintain a native level in a majority language of the society while being exposed to other languages for many hours every week. The question is just the extent to which they become bilingual. Normally, the only native languages that suffer attrition are those of children of immigrants or minorities who find that their home language is neither supported nor valued in a country that prefers to assimilate such children into the mainstream society. In bilingualism the analysis changes on many levels depending on whether the native language of the child is a minority or majority language in the society. People who acquire the majority language and international languages that are valued in the society where they live are nearly assured to gain wholly positive benefits linguistically and cognitively (additive bilingualism).

Besides the long-term approaches outlined above, there are many ad-hoc alternatives that parents in Japan can consider for their children at various stages:
- International pre-schools - recently such schools have arisen in some cities in Japan, offering native speakers of English to take care of small children before they enter elementary school, providing a context in daily life to acquire English naturally.
- Home schooling - very little known in Japan but often considered by Western parents, it could provide an alternative for the large number of students who refuse to attend school, despite compulsory education, due to bullying or other social problems. It can take various forms:
- Parents develop their own curriculum, adopt or develop educational materials, and teach their children at home, whether out of choice or difficult circumstances.
- Distance education - there are many options from reputable institutions:
- Correspondence education - parents subscribe to a program and receive materials by post, either to supplement regular education or to provide a whole curriculum as an alternative to local schooling that seems unsatisfactory because of the medium of instruction or other reasons.
- Online education - correspondence education through the Internet, which can be found easily with Web searches. Educational institutions that are accredited in the offline world are more likely to have valid accreditation for their online programs as well.
- Boarding schools - parents who can afford to send children to a different region for schooling may be willing to be separated from their children if no satisfactory alternatives seem to be available within commuting range.
- Summer camps - during vacations children could enjoy being immersed in English through enjoyable physical activities providing rich contextual support for L2 acquisition. Summer camps in natural surroundings, which are numerous in the U.S., can be found online with a keyword search on "summer camp" plus the state of one's choice.
- Saturday schools or playgroups - parents informally organize with other families in a similar situation, usually where they wish their children to have more exposure to English in order to counterbalance the community language of Japanese. They might hire an English native speaking teacher on Saturdays or outside of school hours, or try to have their smaller children play in groups with other children who understand English.
- Traveling or living abroad - exposes children to a wider variety of experiences and the fact that other languages are used outside of Japan. Note that small children both acquire and forget languages quickly until around age six (Childs, 2004), and children later may not remember their travels in their first few years. The experience may still be immeasurably enriching, but in terms of language acquisition, input in the L2 would need to be sustained after returning to Japan.

This article has summarized some issues in child language acquisition, bilingual child-raising approaches, and educational alternatives available to parents in Japan. Small children acquire and forget languages quickly, then from school age they gradually learn more deliberately and remember longer. The consensus of bilingualism research findings worldwide is generally that the earlier children start a second language, the better. If they hear two languages from parents from birth, both can be native languages, to the extent that the children have regular input and opportunities to interact in both languages. If an L2 is learned later, or if the two languages are not nearly balanced, then their exposure to the weaker language should be increased. Ultimately, insofar as the second language is actually needed or desired by the individual, the acquired language can be activated in speaking or writing, and incorporated into their cultural identity.

In child-raising, benefits were shown to derive from both one-person, one-language consistency and the home-language, community-language approach to achieving a balance. Parents and children have to feel comfortable with the approach to maintain a happy family life. If parents agree on the goal of bilingualism and follow through on their approach, it may be different from other families yet natural and effective in their own family. Parents can also draw from the many educational alternatives outlined above to ensure a rich learning environment for their children. The best approach is that which is most effective for bilingual acquisition in the situation of the family. With a consensus between the parents about their long-term priorities and their approach to child-raising, the children can reach their bilingual and bicultural potential according to their own character, needs and aspirations.


1 JALT (Japan Association for Language Teaching: http://www.jalt.org); JALT Bilingualism Special Interest Group: http://www.bsig.org.

2 JACET (Japan Association of College English Teachers: http://www.jacet.org); Bilingualism and Bilingual Education research group): http://www.jacet.org/sig.

3 Benesse Corporation's Worldwide Kids English: http://www.benesse.co.jp/wk/.

4 The first edition of Baker's book was translated into Japanese by Oka Hideo in 1999 interestingly as , literally bilingual education and second language acquisition. Cf. Baker (2006) below.

5 International schools in Japan are listed at: http://www.tokyowithkids.com/fyi/international_schools.html

6 International Baccalaureate (IB) organization: http://www.ibo.org/


Baker, C. (2007). A parents' and teachers' guide to bilingualism, 3rd ed. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Baker, C. (2006). Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 4th ed. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Bostwick, M. (2005). What is Immersion? Retrieved January 16, 2010, from http://www.bi-lingual.com/School/WhatIsImmersion.htm

Childs, M. (2004, July 20). Kids learn and forget quickly. Daily Yomiuri.

Ellis, R. (1997). Second language acquisition. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Fotos, S. (2001). Codeswitching by Japan's unrecognized bilinguals: Japanese university students' use of their native language as a learning strategy. In M.G. Noguchi & S. Fotos (Eds.), Studies in Japanese Bilingualism, pp. 329-354. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Fujii, C.L. (2007). In the literature. Bilingual Japan, 16 (2), 9-10.

Steve McCarty

Steve McCarty is a Professor at Osaka Jogakuin College and University in Japan. He is also President of the World Association for Online Education (WAOE). He was born in Boston and studied Asia at the University of Hawaii, specializing in Japan in graduate school. He teaches content-based EFL courses such as topic discussion, research paper writing, intercultural communication, language acquisition, and bilingualism. He regularly lectures to foreign officials on "Japanese People and Society" for the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). He also advises Worldwide Kids English for Benesse Corporation in Tokyo. He and his Japanese wife have raised two happy sons.

See his homepage of online publications in English/Japanese
-English would link to http://waoe.org/steve/epublist.html
-Japanese would link to http://waoe.org/steve/jpublist.htm