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Raising Bilingual Children in Japan: Tips from a Speech Pathologist
For many international families living in Japan, raising a bilingual child creates anxiety. Uncertainty around methods, resources, progress or milestones concerns many parents whose children are learning a new language outside of the home, living in a bilingual household or may even be struggling with losing their native language as they learn a second one.
We spoke with Marsha Rosenberg, a preeminent speech language pathologist who has worked in Tokyo for 40 years, at the American School in Japan and now her own practice, about language learning and bilingualism in hopes of a step-by-step, fool-proof plan.
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.
Bad news? There’s no one way to teach your child a second language.
Good news? There’s no one way to teach your child a second language!
If you (like us!) were looking for a clear-cut prescription for becoming a bilingual superstar, you’re out of luck. Every child and every family is unique in its needs, goals and abilities and how they will incorporate language learning into their lives will depend on these things.
However, Marsha did help us feel better by discussing the importance and process of determining what exactly those needs, goals and abilities are. Once these are nailed down, the path to bilingualism for your family is much easier to navigate.
How long will your family be in Japan? Do you have a three-year contract with plans to relocate at its conclusion or are you putting down roots in Tokyo?
If you will only be in Japan for a short period of time, does your child really need to become bilingual, or would social fluency (which Marsha says takes an average of three years) suffice? Conversely, if you do plan on staying here long-term, what are your child’s prospects if they don’t speak, read and write the native language at a high level?
Regardless of necessity, learning a second language is a good idea for your child. But the degree to which it’s necessary for your circumstances will help you determine next steps in your family’s approach to learning.
Once you’ve figured out the baseline of what you and your children need to accomplish, decide what you want to accomplish.
While it may not be a requisite for daily living, being bilingual can open up many doors, both academically and professionally. Bilingualism is also shown to contribute to increased empathy, less cognitive decline as we age, higher resilience and better overall learning ability. Clearly, beyond immediate need, there are benefits to learning another language. What do you want for your children’s future and how does language fit into that?
Consider your family’s circumstances, as well. Is it multicultural? How will your children communicate with cousins, aunts, uncles or grandparents that don’t speak their native language? Maybe the ability to FaceTime occasionally with Grandpa is enough, or maybe you envision a more tight-knit relationship with extended family.
Whether a second culture is part of your child’s genetic makeup or just a matter of residence, according to Marsha, language is a deeply important factor in understanding a culture (and vice versa). We’ve written before on the importance of making the most of your time living abroad; it is easy to insulate ourselves (especially in Tokyo) and only interact with and experience the familiar, if that’s what we want. Your preferences for social and cultural interaction will also help guide the language needs of your family.
We all know people who appear to seamlessly pick up new languages, even as adults. Some individuals just possess more innate ability to learn language than others.
While a relevant factor, your child’s own inherent aptitude should not weigh too heavily on you. It may take a bit longer, but anyone can learn a new language - at any age! Marsha says that generally the only limitation in becoming bilingual later in life is an issue with accents. Older learners will have a more difficult time sounding like a native speaker than those who become fluent before age six or seven.
Natural skills aside, what should be a consideration is your child’s grasp on their primary language. In order to be successful in school (and life in general), a proficiency in at least one language is critical. If your child is struggling with reading and writing in their native English, for instance, introducing Japanese can be an additional hurdle to fully learning the language they'll need to get by. If you’re a bilingual household and have a baby, it’s important that the use of language between you and your partner be enough that proficiency in at least one of them is possible, as well.
Whatever the outcome to any of the above considerations, Marsha’s primary point was not that it will determine whether your child can become bilingual, but how. And though Marsha tells us there isn’t one specific way to learn another language, she did share some tactics every family can employ! Stay tuned...