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Help Your Children Learn Japanese (even if you don't speak it)
In the United States, parents of young children have recently noticed an interesting phenomenon: their American children are speaking with British accents. It turns out that Peppa Pig, a popular cartoon character from the United Kingdom, is not only teaching young viewers about recycling, numbers and conflict resolution. She’s also inspiring them to speak the way she and her other animal friends do.
Anyone who’s accidentally let slip a bad word in front of a child knows how quickly they learn to repeat it. It’s frequently said that children are like sponges; they’ll retain what they hear and their growing brains are uniquely primed to soak up new information. Curse words and out-of-place accents aside, it’s a wonderful time for parents to encourage and nurture learning, as well as to model the behaviors they want their children to emulate.
But what happens when your child’s affinity for mimicry and ability to absorb information means they’re quickly learning a language that you don’t know? How do you help them when you don’t understand what they’re saying?
“Nihongo ga wakarimasen”
Many foreigners who move to Japan do not speak or read advanced levels of the language and, for many, it’s not necessary that they do. A growing number of international transplants forging their own communities, coupled with a Japanese population often eager to put their English skills to use or ease any confusing or awkward situation, means it’s possible to live and work here without ever having to know more than the basics.
School-aged children, however, will get an unavoidable crash-course. Whether they attend a public school, where classes are taught primarily in Japanese with special supports in place for non-native speakers, or an international school where lessons on Japanese language and culture begin early, it is likely a grade school student will be able to converse in Japanese well before their parents know how to ask a grocery store employee where the sugar is.
It’s fair to assume that parents want their children to get the most out of their education and will do what they can to support them as they learn. In a world that is becoming increasingly globalized, being bilingual (or multilingual) is highly desirable for future job prospects, as well as having many other cognitive benefits.
So, what’s a parent to do when their child needs help outside of the classroom on a subject they themselves know very little about?
One of the most basic ways to help your child practice the language without knowing it yourself is through flashcards.
Hiragana, katakana and important vocabulary words can be easily studied with flashcard exercises (and are often taught this way in classes). With the English or Romaji answers readily available, you’re not on the hook for knowing whether your child’s responses are correct. Running through flashcards a few nights a week or during breakfast before school is a simple way to get involved.
You can find relatively inexpensive flashcard kits online or at bookstores likes Tsutaya, but another way to kick the learning up a notch is to have your child hand-write their own. Studies show that writing concepts down helps us to remember them better than just hearing them will. “Do-it-yourself” flashcards are especially helpful when it comes to learning Japanese characters, as each stroke has a specific order. Colorful index cards and assorted markers can be found at any drugstore or grocery.
Immersing yourself and your family in Japanese culture is one of the most fun ways to play an active role in your child’s education.Taking trips to local parks, museums or even shopping centers can be wonderful, low-stakes opportunities to help your child hone their language skills. They can assist you with grocery shopping by reading food labels (or asking where the sugar is) or explain to you what the announcer is saying at a Sumo tournament.
Outside of a classroom setting and without the formality of a traditional lesson, the pressure isn’t on to translate perfectly or ask a grammatically correct question. In addition to learning more about your neighborhood and spending time with your family, these activities help boost your child’s confidence and showcase the real-life applications for the things they’re learning.
Just as you might with a child who’s struggling with calculus when you personally never made it further than algebra, you can also consider a tutor. A quick online search yields many options - private lessons, small group classes, intensive summer courses, Skype sessions. Depending on which approach works best for you, prices can vary from a few thousand yen an hour to more than 200,000 yen for a six-week program.
This is a relatively expensive option, but it does provide additional opportunity for your child to hear and speak Japanese correctly in a structured setting. Having conversations while learning is critical in the process. You wouldn’t try to learn the guitar by only studying the music and never touching the instrument.
There are even some companies that offer parent/child courses. While it may be possible for you to operate in daily life without knowing much Japanese, one of the very best ways you can reinforce to your child the importance of learning is by doing it, too.
Take Advantage of Opportunities
CareFinder has many babysitters of diverse backgrounds that speak native or fluent Japanese. Your next night out on the town or afternoon errand run could easily be a great opportunity to further enhance your child’s skills. Just like immersing yourself in local activities and culture, having your child spend time with native and fluent speakers in a casual setting provides a low-stakes venue for practice.
No matter your own level of proficiency in Japanese, there are many resources available to help you as your children soak up the language. The most important thing is to take advantage of them!