You speak Japanese. You have a child. Wouldn’t it be great if your child spoke Japanese too? With all the amazing life benefits that come to a bilingual child, it’s less of a “should I” and more of a “how do I?” And you don’t need to be a native, or married to a native in order to do it. You just need to find the right approach, stick with it, and shower language love towards your little one.
Hold on Adam… what are you doing writing about a topic you have no experience with?
I don’t talk about my personal life much on Jalup, but since this is a topic that I’m so heavily invested in right now, I thought it might be useful to some people to share my research and new experience. Especially since this is a major “Japanese learning” topic that I’ve never touched upon. In other words, I have a late announcement: I am the proud parent of an 8-month old baby who showers me with cuteness in exchange for 24 hour/day service.
One of the biggest initial discussions between my wife (Yuki) and I was how to make this little samurai a Japanese & English bilingual warrior. Way before the baby was born, introducing Japanese to him was always going to be a given. Yuki is native Japanese. I’m a Japanese/English bilingual. But “how” is a more complicated question then you’d think and we had to choose from one of the major methods out there.
Option #1: One Parent, One Language (OPOL)
This has been the gold standard for bilingual children for the longest time, and appears as the apparent, obvious choice to many people. It’s a simple formula:
- Native Japanese parent speaks only Japanese to the child
- Native English parent speaks only English to the child
- Baby bilingual win!
While this is the more popular choice, and families have been quite successful with it, we have chosen against it. For us, there were a few considerations that led us down a different path.
- One parent may have more contact with the baby. This is definitely not always the situation, and the split might be 55/45, 60/40, 70/30, etc. But there is going to be imbalance based on the family situation, and it likely won’t be a perfectly even split.
- When both parents are bilinguals in each other’s language, it feels weird to only use half of your language ability. Both languages become a part of you. Your personality and the way you interact with the world is different depending on the language. Shutting that part of you off from your child (and your spouse when in front of your child) can feel strange.
While the above was relevant, the biggest factor in our decision was:
- Your child is going to become a native speaker of country they live in, regardless of what you do. The real effort is going to be making your child fluent in the other, minority language.
This brought us to option 2.
Option #2: Minority Language at Home (MLAH)
This option has probably been around even longer than option 1, but has gained well-deserved popularity in recent years. This was originally the default choice when both partners are immigrants (from the same country) but has now vastly expanded to bilingual couples. It’s a simple formula:
- Both parents speak the minority language (the non-native language of the country) while at home.
- Both parents speak the majority language (the native language of the country) outside the home and in the community.
- Baby bilingual win!
Since Yuki, the baby and I live in the U.S., this means creating a Japanese speaking home, and English outside world. This creates maximum Japanese exposure from both of us in the early years, and it avoids the problems we had with OPOL. However, it comes with a big negative and incorrect public misconception about it that still persists to this day, despite plenty of research and evidence to the contrary.
The baby won’t speak English well and will have major developmental delays!Relatives, teachers, people unfamiliar with how baby bilinguals form
This fear isn’t to be taken lightly. No parent wants their child to feel like a foreigner isolated in their own home country. There might be a lot to back up why MLAH works… but what if it doesn’t? That’s a substantial risk to place on your baby, and enough to scare away people from trying. Yuki and I were concerned as well, and we’ve heard plenty of worried feedback. But we did our reading, talked with other families who loved MLAH, and we were convinced that it was for us.
Your child will speak the majority language no matter what you do, because the second you drop your kid off for the first day of daycare or preschool, they will get a barrage of English from that day, and every day going forward. The major part of every day becomes English only. Once they start making friends who only speak English (which they will), it’s an English speaking frenzy.
The worry stems from the initial transition and can unnerve even the strongest of parents. The child has heard and spoken only Japanese 95% of the time for the first few years of life. They can’t understand or produce a single word of English. Dropping your child at daycare or preschool for the first time is like dropping them off in a foreign country. Except they have an extreme advantage that no adult could ever have.
- It is an absolute necessity for them in every moment.
- They are fully immersed, in every sense of the word.
- The rewards are instant – they get to enjoy their world.
- They are toddlers and quick learners.
- They are toddlers, and their English probably wouldn’t have been that great at this point anyway.
- Different toddlers develop language abilities at different rates, completely unrelated to being bilingual or not.
While the adjustment period varies based on the child and environment, most toddlers go from knowing nothing in the majority language, to a full equal with their peers within 6 to 12 months.
For those still doubtful, you don’t even have to be a toddler to achieve this effect. There are children who immigrate from their home country to a foreign country when they are slightly older (5, 6, 7, 8 years old) and still benefit from the exact same effects, becoming native in the majority language.
The real fear isn’t the baby not speaking English, it’s them not speaking Japanese, despite all that early double exposure to the language for the first several years. Just because MLAH is used with an initial exposure edge over OPOL, doesn’t mean that child is a pure bilingual for life. The bilingual parent struggle starts once the child goes to school and the following thought process develops in the child.
- All my friends speak English.
- Only my boring and uncool parents speak Japanese.
- I want to speak English
Every adult Japanese learner at one point faces the frustrating dilemma of “I speak to them in Japanese and they respond in English!” Now imagine that is your child refusing to respond in Japanese. The best advice I’ve heard is that the minority language must be more than just something their parents speak. It needs to mean something to the child, whether through culture they love, anime they want to watch, or people besides mom and dad they want to speak to.
Other lingering concerns:
- What if we move to Japan? While Yuki and I have been living in the U.S. together now for the past 7 years, there is always the chance we might move to Japan in the future. If this happens, we’d have to change things up significantly depending on the age of the baby.
- Yuki’s English suffers. We used to speak a lot more English at home, but now only speak English to each other outside, or when the baby is not around or asleep.
- Strange language/accent: I’m not personally concerned with this, as my Japanese ability/accent are pretty solid, but it is a worry from bilingual couples where one partner is only at an intermediate+ level. What I’ve heard from people in this experience is that it really isn’t an issue, because a lot of the exposure to Japanese will eventually come from TV, movies, and other native Japanese speakers.
Option #3+: Place, Time, School, Other
While this article focuses mainly on the two most popular methods, their are plenty of other methods to try. Some of them I’ve seen are:
- Location based: a complex extension of MLAH. You choose specific places where the child will speak the minority language. This could be as broad as “grandmother’s house” or as narrow as “the living room.”
- Time based: Different days, different languages.
- School based: Send them to a language school for people who use the minority language.
No right choice – only the choice that works for you
While our family situation called for MLAH, this is what we decided will work for us. This post is obviously bias towards this method and talks about it the most. I’m sure OPOL (or other) families can give a lot more convincing arguments for their choice. For example, in the early years before baby meets the community, OPOL allows for more access to relatives and prevents non-bilingual grandparents from feeling left out.
What’s your experience?
I know that there are a ton of bilingual raised people on this site, as well as new (and old) parents who have/are raising their children to be bilingual. What method did you choose or was chosen on you as a child. How did it work out?
Founder of Jalup. iOS Software Engineer. Former attorney, translator, and interpreter. Still watching 月曜から夜ふかし weekly since 2013.