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Sep 032015
 

Question

Dear Rita and all other Family Languages Coaches,

I am Shoko, Japanese, and a mother of a son who is 26 months old. My husband is also Japanese and we reside in Japan. I have lived in the States when I was 6-10 years old, and also again when I was 22-25 years old and got my Masters degree there. My husband has only lived in Japan and he doesn’t speak English.

My husband and I talk in Japanese, and when my son is around we talk to him in Japanese. When I am the only one talking with him, then I try talking to him in English as much as possible but recently I have the tendency to switch back to Japanese or say the same thing in both languages as he is starting to understand Japanese more. He goes to a Japanese preschool where he is learning new Japanese words every day.

I thought about putting him to an international kindergarten but the tuition is extremely expensive so I had to give up on that idea. I still keep in touch with my American friends who has children and we go visit there every 18 months or so for a couple of weeks. Our last visit was last Christmas when he hardly spoke any language. I will be going to the States with him again next year for couple of weeks.

I have being collecting a bunch of “English education stuff” during my visit. I have been trying to make him watch TV shows / movies only in English (Barney’s, Curious George, Stuart Little, Disney etc) and he seems to like it a lot. Also before we go to bed I read about 10 children books in English. When I talk to him in English, he basically says Yeah or No, whereas in Japanese he can say up to 5 words. He does include some English words in his Japanese sentences – but I am not too worried reading the blogs here.

My husband is not against my idea at all, but I doubt he will talk to him in English as he is a shy person to begin with. My mother who can speak very basic English sees my son everyday but speaks to him in Japanese, but sometimes uses English phrases like “very good” or “good boy”. She is not against my idea either.

Since I live in Japan I like to fit in the culture and speak Japanese in public. But when I visit the States I have no problem speaking English only and people ask me where in CA I am from because I guess I have a Californian accent.

I really want to try hard for my son to obtain English (and possibly more), but here are my questions:
It is hard for me to do “one parent one language” or ” Minority language at home” or “one place one language” strategy- basically sticking to one language at any situation.

1) Is it Ok to repeat the same thing in English right after I say a phrase in Japanese or vice versa? i.e. “Kore abunai. This is dangerous.” Or will this get him mixed up? (I heard this is good for adults.)

2) Also, does this have to be consistent? Can I switch to speaking English only at times and vice versa?

3) He tries to tell me in Japanese although he knows the same word in English. i.e. Me: “What is this color?” Son: “Midori.” Me: “Yes it’s green.” Son: “No! Midori!” What should I do in this case? I just let it out for now.

4) Is it better for my husband / my parents to try to speak to him in English although their pronunciations are not very good? I would say my English is in the middle of confident and adequate communicational fluency level.

5) My husband is at a passive understanding level. I want my son to be at a confident or a native fluency level. What should I focus on first to achieve this goal?

I will be so happy if you can help me. In the meantime, I will enjoy reading your book. I must also add telling you how thrilled I was to receive a book from you with a handwritten message, Rita! Thank you!

Sincerely, Shoko

Answer

Dear Shoko,

Thank you so much for your lovely comments – I hope my book has been useful to you!

First of all, your son is still very young, so please do not place too much pressure or expectations on him. Right now, the most important thing is to make him feel comfortable around the English language. Try to nurture a want for the language by doing things he likes in English – create positive associations with the language.

Your son’s majority language is Japanese and this is what he will be his strongest language. How well and whether he wants to speak English in the future is dependent on how much exposure he gets to it and whether he feels a need to speak it.

It is great that both your husband and your parents support the idea, as you will need this emotional support to continue with your quest to teach your son English. You mention that you try to use English when you are alone with him, but tend to slip back into Japanese. I would recommend that you go through the exercise of determining your own reasons behind your decision which I write about in my book. Answer the four questions I suggest and write down your answers. Also read my post on considerations with regards to passing on a non-native language to your child. Once you are clear about your own motivations, it will be easier for yourself to stick to speaking English with him as much as possible.

Now to your questions:

1) Is it Ok to repeat the same thing in English right after I say a phrase in Japanese or vice versa? i.e. “Kore abunai. – This is dangerous.” Or will this get him mixed up?

– It is fine to use two languages. Children do not get confused by the use of several languages and you will not mix him up. Yes, he might mix a bit of English and Japanese when he starts to talk more, but this is something that all bilingual children do. To make it a bit clearer, you might want to consider a way to separate the two languages. Choose an English-speaking person who your son knows and likes and use this person to refer to when you say the English part. Until your son understands the concept of a ‘language’ it is easier for him to identify a language with a person.

2) Also, does this have to be consistent? Can I switch to speaking English only at times and vice versa?

– No, you don’t have to do this all the time. However, the amount of exposure will be in relation to how much he learns.

3) He tries to tell me in Japanese although he knows the same word in English. i.e. Me: “What is this color?” Son: “Midori.” Me: “Yes it’s green.” Son: “No! Midori!” What should I do in this case? I just let it out for now.

– Confirm that he is saying it correctly in Japanese, and then, if he is open to it, mention the word in English again. However, do not make it a “power struggle” of languages.

4) Is it better for my husband / my parents to try to speak to him in English although their pronunciations are not very good? I would say my English is in the middle of confident and adequate communicational fluency level.

– I would leave this decision up to your husband and parents. By using a few English words at least now and then they are showing a positive attitude towards bilingualism. As I see your situation, you will however have to be the main source of exposure.

5) My husband is at a passive understanding level. I want my son to be at a confident or a native fluency level. What should I focus on first to achieve this goal?

– The more fluent you want your son to be, the more exposure he will need to English. DVDs and videos are great, but will not be enough to ensure a high fluency level. For a native-like fluency you will need to make sure he gets plenty of contact with native English-speakers, either through visits or a nanny or someone else he spends time with.

I wish you luck with teaching your son English – please, do keep in mind, that even if he were not to become fluent in English as a child, you are giving him a major head start for learning it later in life!

All the best!
Rita

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  8 Responses to “Q&A: Is saying something in two languages a good way to teach an additional language?”

  1. Dear Rita,

    Thank you so much for your thoughtful reply!
    I have increased his amount of exposure to English after I read your reply and I feel… Great!

    I also booked a flight to the States in three months time – and staying there for a month at my best friend’s house who can only speak English. (She has five children too!)

    I will try to visit the States for a month every year so that my son can get enough exposure from the native speakers.

    I have some additional questions –

    1) While I read English books or watch English DVDs with my son, he asks me in Japanese what had happened. I assume he is capturing what is going on in general but wants to reassure it in Japanese.
    For now, I explain it to him in Japanese. Then he wants me to explain it again. So I explain it in English. Then he says, “No railway!”
    (I was explaining something about Thomas and Friends and he didn’t like when I said railway instead of senro, which means railway in Japanese)
    As you said in above, should I mention it in English again only if he is open to it?
    But what should I do if he is not?

    2) Even if I am talking to him only in English, I tend to switch back to Japanese (or English and Japanese) when I say something important just because I know that he will understand much better. Is this not too good?

    3) If there is a word / phrase he doesn’t even know in Japanese and if I am talking to him in English, should I teach the word / phrase to him only in English or should I start teaching him in both languages?
    He goes to a Japanese kindergarten and according to what I heard from his teacher his teacher had trouble understanding him when he said a certain word /phrase in English and he was a little frustrated.

    Thank you for your help Rita, your latest blog helped me a lot too!

    I have also lend your book to a friend of mine who is struggling like me.
    I hope it helps her too!

    Best,
    Shoko

    • Dear Shoko,

      thank you for your kind comments and I hope that my book can also help your friend!
      I am on my way to London to the Expat Show shortly, so won’t have time to reply today, unfortunately, but I promise to get back to you next week!

      Kind regards,
      Rita

  2. Dear Rita,

    Thank you!
    I will look forward to your reply but first of all, best wishes in London! Wish I was there too!

    Best Regards,
    Shoko

    • Dear Shoko,

      Thank you for your best wishes – we had a very successful two days in London and I was fortunate to meet many of my readers as well!

      Going back to your question – I would like to reiterate that your son is still very young and that it is important that you do not put too much pressure on him. Make the English learning fun for him, so that he gets a positive association with the language and will keep on wanting to learn more.

      1) When he states a word in Japanese, like ‘senro’, confirm that he is using the right word: “yes, very good, daddy [or some other reference person] says ‘senro’ “ and continue with “and [name of the person/character you have chosen as the English language reference] says ‘railway’.” This way there will be a separation between the languages in a way that your son understands. While he can distinguish the two languages, he does not yet understand the concepts of ‘Japanese’ and ‘English’.

      2) Because your son will grow up in a dominantly Japanese environment, Japanese will be his strongest language and this is the language he will most likely also want to speak with you, especially if he is used to you switching to Japanese. Children are very pragmatic and will use the language they find easiest. Could you perhaps reserve a certain activity, time of the day or an area in your house where you consistently stick to English? This will signal to your son “when we do this/at this time/in this place we speak English”.

      3) I don’t think there is a simple answer to this. It depends on what the word is and whether your son is likely to need it in both languages. Go with what feels right. With regards to the kindergarten teacher’s comment, many children at his tender age (monolinguals included!) use words that other than family members do not understand. I would not make a big deal of it, and I hope that the teachers are professional enough to find other ways of communicating with him. My younger daughter waited until she was three before she started saying anything that others could understand (until that she understood three languages and answered in her own), and she went on to become a fluent bilingual.

      Kind regards,
      Rita

  3. Dear Rita,

    Thank you again for your very helpful advises.
    It was nice of you that you reiterated that he is still young – only 2 and a half. I have been enjoying watching english DVDs with him and singing along together. I also have been sticking only to English when I am only with him but with a smile on my face, giving no pressure on him 🙂 Also when we our out in a mall or at a restaurant or even with my friends, I figured I shouldn’t be worried by what other’s think, and starting talking the way you suggested – distinguishing the two languages. Then something changed in him and guess what, he is more open to English now! He is definitely speaking more English. Replying to me in English (even the things I taught him months ago! Like your younger daughter!) , repeating my words in English.
    I am still surprised that these changes could happen so quickly!

    He is now very excited for the one month trip to States in December. He will be in an English environment there so I am the one who is more excited about it!

    Thank you so so much Rita! If I didn’t find your blog / book, this has never happened.
    Please let me update after we come back from the States!

    Shoko

  4. Dear Rita,

    Hi again, I wanted to give you an update on our one-month trip to the States.

    The biggest change is that before he didn’t like me speaking in English, but know he doesn’t mind.
    When I am alone with him, I talk mainly in English. He understands almost everything I say, but when I ask him a question in English that requires more than a yes-or-no answer, he is stuck.
    Then he figured out a way to answer… He starts out with English “ummmm” and says the sentence is Japanese and add a consonant “t” sound and the end of each Japanese sentence..

    Me: “What are you doing?”
    Son: “Ummm, Ima senro tsukutteru-t.” (I am making train tracks now-t.)

    Also for example when he wants me to carry him while we were talking in English, he said “Dakk!”
    Now, the correct word in Japanese is “Dakko.”

    Have you heard of this? This only happens when we are talking in English. (As you know Japanese words have no consonants at the end so he is definitely realizing the difference of two languages – adding a consonant to a Japanese word and leaving out the vowel in a Japanese word)
    I am not too stressed out about it but wanted to hear your opinion as he is doing it all the time. 🙂
    Of course after that I am correcting him and make him repeat it (and he repeats me without hesitation).

    He will start going to kindergarten for 5 hours a day from this April. Does this mean that I would have to increase the amount of his English exposure?

    Best Regards,
    Shoko

    • Hi Shoko

      I am happy to hear that your trip to the States made such a big difference. Now when your son accepts that you speak English it will be so much easier for you! With regards to the structure mixing, like you say, I would not worry. Sounds like something typical a bilingual child would do until both languages are strong enough.

      If you want to keep up with the English when he goes to kindergarten, then yes, you would probably have to arrange even more English exposure for him.

      Best of luck!
      Rita

      • Hi Rita
        Thank you for your reply!
        OK, I will not worry too much about it:)
        Hopefully we can go to the US once a year to maintain his English as his exposure will not be enough in Japan.
        I will keep you updated 🙂
        I am always reading your blogs, which makes me motivated!
        Thank you so much for all the precious comments through your experiences.

        All the best!
        Shoko

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