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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