Raising Bilingual Children in Japan: Tactics Every Family Can Use

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Raising Bilingual Children in japan: tactics every family can use

Raising Bilingual Children in Japan: Tactics Every Family Can Use

So now that you've figured out your family's needs, goals and abilities when it comes to bilingualism and learning another language, what's next?
Marsha Rosenberg, a speech pathologist who's worked with children in Tokyo for forty years, told us that there is no one way to learn a language. Because every family's starting point and desired results are different, so too will be everyone's action plan. There are, however, a few tactics all families can consider no matter what the specifics of their language situation.
And remember: many of CareFinder's babysitters are trained language educators and many more are native-level speakers! They're wonderful resources to give your child consistent exposure to and practice with conversational language.
Absolutely No Screen Time
Let's start with what you shouldn't be doing. While apps and software are popular approaches to language learning for adults (think DuoLingo and Rosetta Stone), Marsha is adamant that parents don't try the same for their children.
"Kids do not learn through technology," she says. "Language is communication and communication is between people."
She's against any type of screen time before age two and very little after that, as it could actually create developmental issues. So, if you hoped watching Peppa Pig or Rilakkuma would help your child learn, Marsha says no such luck. Put that tablet down!
Send Your Children to Local Schools
Marsha sent her children to Japanese grade schools to reinforce the language and, provided your family has long-term plans for Japan, highly recommends it. Many of the local schools, especially in wards with large international populations like Minato-ku, have resources to help students whose first language isn't Japanese.
All three of Marsha's children, now adults, are bilingual (and her grandchildren are, as well). Additionally, spending their days surrounded by Japanese customs at school reinforced their language learning, as culture and communication are closely intertwined.
This is not to say putting your kid in classes taught in a foreign language isn't without its hurdles. That's why it's important to understand what your family's goals are. If you don't plan on staying in Japan for more than a few years, it may be best to send your child to a school where they can learn in their native language instead.
Find Fun Opportunities to Learn
Children, especially young ones, won't learn by sitting in a classroom, enduring rote lessons on grammar and conjugation. For one, this isn't most kids' idea of a good time and therefore language learning becomes a dreaded chore. Secondly, it's not an approach that actually teaches useful conversation.
"Language has to be meaningful," Marsha says. Reciting verb tenses isn't really a task packed with meaning.
Finding activities your children are already interested in - soccer, karate, dance, music, arts and crafts - in a second language makes for a covert lesson under the guise of having fun. Your kid is just excited to make homemade slime with his babysitter; he doesn't realize that he's learning another language as she gives him directions in French.
Any activity with a tangible outcome from language - seeing and doing what's been discussed or asked - will be much more helpful in teaching your child that language. And any activity that he enjoys doing is much more likely to be repeated, reinforcing the knowledge.
This approach makes sense for everyone, especially those families who don't plan to stay in one place long but still want their children to learn some of the language while there.
Evaluate, Then Evaluate Again
No matter how your family approaches learning new languages, according to Marsha it is very important to consistently evaluate where everything stands. This not only means the progression of the language, but also your child's emotional well-being. If becoming bilingual is taking a negative toll, the methods you're using or the goals you've set may be worth revisiting.
For very young children who are learning multiple first languages, you want to ensure that they are strong enough in at least one of them to reach proficiency. Remember, each language requires 30 percent of your child's waking hours. If you can't dedicate at least that much time to at least one language, you could ultimately be harming her development rather than helping it. Marsha notes that developmental milestones in speech for babies and toddlers are easily found online, so be sure to keep tabs on your bilingual tot's progress.
For older children, who might be tested on their language skills for entrance into high school or college, quantifiable evaluation may be more appropriate. Marsha recommends searching for teachers or other professionals with experience in the type of environment your child is aiming for. For instance, a former international school teacher would have the best insight into what an international school would look for, language-wise. They can not only help to evaluate where your child is now, but also provide specific insights into what else may be needed.


Raising bilingual children may seem daunting. It can be complex and it will take time and effort, but it is also incredibly rewarding for you and your child! Speaking another language or two creates a bigger world for your kids, filled with opportunities to meet people and share experiences they'd otherwise miss out on.

We hope sharing Marsha's advice makes the journey to bilingualism an easier one for your family!

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