Thursday 8 December 2011

Raising a bicultural child

Julie dropped me a line the other day asking about Ebi-kun's bilingual abilities, as I started writing the post in my head I thought this could turn into a whole book!

As I write this, Ebi-kun is 6years 4 months old and fluent in both English and Japanese, his reading and writing English level is above his actual age, especially his reading and I think his Japanese level is on a par with his peers. He goes to a Japanese kindergarten (yochien) and will go to a Japanese elementary school starting next April.
I will tell you what we do, this is our family choice and so far it has worked for us, each family is different as is each child, we all have different situations and abilities so I am not saying this is the right way, just our way.

Before we had Ebi-kun we already decided that it was important to raise him bilingually the reasons being that as he has a big part of his family in the UK, my Japanese is not very good and we think it will serve him well in the future. When I was pregnant and when Ebi-kun was a tiny baby I did a LOT of reading on the subject as well as taking the Montessori course. As we were in Japan, Japanese would be his community language, the language he hears as soon as he steps outside the house, so we decided to use English as the language in the home, luckily daddy-ebi's English is quite good, not fluent but a high level. From my research I found that children whose first language was the minority language tended to have a higher level of minority language in the long term, since Ebi-kun spent everyday with me, English was the language he heard the most and the language he developed slightly earlier than Japanese. OPOL (one parent one language) is another option in this situation.

When he first started talking, his Japanese grandparents were worried that he wouldn't be able to communicate with them, I think they had a number of concerns about the way we were raising our child but I think now they have a better understanding of what we were aiming for. When he was a toddler it was sometimes difficult for him at the park to join in with the other kids, he didn't know the TV charatcers they talked about or the songs so I started taking him to the little shien (community) centre where they sang songs and he got to play with other Japanese kids. Also, when he was about 2 months old I found an English playgroup and we would meet once a week, sing songs and play games, at the time, I didn't realise how important this group would be for our family.

Initially we didn't plan on sending Ebi-kun to yochien but by the time he was four most of his playmate in the park had started or were to about to start yochien and we realised that I couldn't teach him what he needed to know to be prepared for school.
Ebi-kun started yochien when he was four, by which time he was already reading chapter books in English and had a good grasp of hiragana and katakana. When he first started the sensei told us that he didn't understand everything, mainly vocab for everyday words but it didn't take him long to catch up. I know people who have had problems when the their kids joins kindy with the teachers thinking that kids can't handle two languages or that it is bad for them and maybe, for some kids, two languages is too much but on a whole I think that the bilingual journey should start as early as possible.

I titled this post, raising a bicultural child, that is because I believe that being fluent in two languages may make you bilingual but it certainly doesn't make you bicultural and just because you have parents from different cultures, that also doesn't automatically make you bicultural. I want Ebi-kun to be as comfortable in England as he is in Japan, for him to move easily from one culture to the other and I'm not just talking about language. Each culture has it's own nuances and the Japanese and British cultures couldn't be much further apart so it is important for him to spend time in the UK too. When we go we try and stay for a month, giving him time to settle into the place, to feel at home, maybe when he is older we will send him for a longer stay. We can't afford to go as often as I would like but we do get guests coming to stay with us bringing a little slice of UK culture to our home. Ebi-kun makes observations such as our guests preferring a shower in the morning to a bath before bedtime and the such like.

I would say, looking back that 90% of the time we use English within the family but daddy-ebi reads Japanese books to Ebi-kun and I read the English ones. We don't watch a great deal of TV, if he has time, Ebi-kun will watch a bit of the Japanese NHK programs before yochien and he watches Curious George, In English on a Saturday, when we watch films we tend to watch them in English. He is a complete book worm and equally happy reading Japanese or English books. I also enjoy listening to podcasts and so we often listen to them whilst we are having dinner together, they raise lots of interesting questions and discussions.

Going back to Montessori for a second, when I was learning about her methods, a couple of things that struck a chord. Firstly, following the child, I think that when I noticed that ebi-kun had started recognising letters, about 20 months old I made the effort to present him with materials which would help him with his new found interest and this got him on the track to early reading. The other thing was the importance of presentation, when ever I see that he is interested in something I try to come up with some activities that will interest him, sometimes these work really well and sometimes they fall flat. Sometimes it was the right activity but the wrong time, sometimes it was the right time but the wrong activity and then sometimes, that magic happens. Learning a language isn't all about nouns and verbs and strange spelling rules, it shouldn't be about sitting at a desk doing boring work books, it should be about jumping in head first and having fun, if something you tried with your child didn't work then try something else, better still, ask the child what they want to do and work around it. 

Another important thing when raising a bicultural child is to have a need. Ebi-kun knows that to talk to his family in the UK he needs to use English, he understands the importance of the language. We talk to my mom three or four times a week using video chat and to Di every couple of weeks or so. My mom often has Ebi-kuns cousins there so he gets to talk to them and they play games or sing songs but without all this, apart from talking to me, he wouldn't have much of a need to use English as a 6 year old growing up in Japan. This is where the playgroup plays a vital role too, it is important for us to spend time with our English speaking friends, not only for the cultured parties such as Christmas and Halloween but to spend time with children his own age speaking his languages. We do have a rule that at a playgroup event that everyone uses English only but when the children are playing you can hear them switching from one language to another. Having an English speaking community if both important for Ebi-kun and us, most of the children in the group are half Japanese and Western so they look a bit different whether it be the lighter hair or bigger eyes, in a country where they like to mold people to be the same, being different can be tough so for the kids to know that there are other kids here who are different too is an important thing to factor in. He also goes to football class on a Saturday which is in English and of course last year we had the Montessori farm, which was great for the kids.

One of the questions Julie asked was 'How does he know when to use which language' and well, I haven't a clue, he just does! I don't think he assumes that if you have an Asian face you speak Japanese maybe because we have friends in the playgroup that are Asian but their first language is English, he does seem to know when someone is struggling with a language so he will switch to the other language and when we met the artist in Hakone, who is Japanese but spoke to me first in English Ebi-kun seemed unsure whether to address him in English or Japanese, he started off in English but then switched to Japanese.

OK, I am going to stop here or I might just never stop. If you have any questions, pop them in the comments section and I will do a follow up post and if you have any questions for Ebi-kun about being bilingual/bicultural ask those too and I will conduct an interview with him!


  1. What a great post! I really believe that the bi-cultural and bilingual double goal is very important and try to work on that as much as possible. depending on the teacher I am finding there is a LOT of talk about tv and popular music at school (not just at recess but in class, too). They also go from singing folk songs to singing popular songs in music class so the gap between my Japanese and what is needed for school is greater than at kinder where going to the local play centre had me pretty much up to date. Between youtube and me printing out lyric shets for Meg we haven't had too many problems though- especially if Daddy-Ebi watches variety shows and knows the latest comedian's catch phrase- K only watches the news and current affairs so this is a little more difficult for us!

    I'm really impressed that Ebi-kun can see past the Asian = Japanese thing. We transit through Hong Kong on our way to Australia and Amy last time chattered away to all and sundry in Japanese. She was really astounded when one woman told her that they speak Chinese here. She learnt Hello and Thank You just going through customs and then was off prattling away with her two words of Chinese!

    On a selfish level- I'd love to know what workbooks if any you use with Ebi-kun for writing practice? We're using explode the code at the moment but I'm always on the look out for new ideas!

  2. Thanks Heather! We don't actually use any books, in fact we don't do any writing practice! When he writes something it has a purpose either a to do list, a letter, a story etc. I can feel another post coming on...

  3. This is a great post. Thanks for satisfying my curiosity!

  4. We are a Japanese/American family in Tokyo. My daughter is 3 and will start yochien in April, mainly because we want her to start speaking more Japanese. My husband, who is Japanese, speaks both to her but can be a bit lazy with the Japanese (he lived in US for 20 years before coming back to Japan). Did Ebi-kun ever go through phases of refusing to speak it or not wanting to? Our daughter will say "I don't want to speak Japanese. English. Only ANpanman speaks Japanese." She does sing along with NHK and will count with daddy or say onegaishimasu, but that is the extent of it. I am concerned for her when she goes to yochien.

  5. Spinky has three questions for Ebi-kun.

    a) What is your favourite book?
    b) What soccer position do you play?
    c) Shark vs. Train, who would win?

    1. Beast Quest
      Defense sometimes, forward sometimes, goalie sometimes!
      erm, no idea!

  6. Your post made me think how we take being bilingual for granted here. The educated class speaks at least two languages at home, and all English medium schools teach them from playschool onwards, adding a third at 3rd-4th class and at many places, a fourth later. The last language added is often exotic - Sanskrit, French or German. It is being bicultural that is more difficult.

    1. very true, I have friends who are bilingual but far from bicultural. It is hard to get both just right!


Thank you!
I love hearing from you and if you haven't joined us in Moms That Rock, come on over!

Pin It button on image hover