• Aya

Raising children whose first language is not the same as yours

“Are your children bilinguals?” "Do they speak Japanese as well?"


People ask me these questions often. Before answering this question and discuss raising children who speak more than one language in this post, let me share what I mean when I use the word “bilingual” and “bilingualism”. Because people perceive “bilingual” and/or “bilingualism” as different levels.


Linguistic Society of America (https://www.linguisticsociety.org/) defines bilingualism and multilingualism as below.


Definitions of Bilingualism and Multilingualism

When people hear the term bilingual many imagine an individual who speaks two languages perfectly. For them someone who is 'truly' bilingual is two native speakers in one. They imagine that such a person can speak, understand, read, and write in two languages at the highest levels. For others, the term bilingual means something quite different. When newly arrived immigrant children entering U.S. schools, for example, are described as 'bilingual children,' the term is often used as a euphemism for 'poor' and 'uneducated'. In this case, newly arrived immigrant children do not yet function in two languages. They are monolingual speakers of their first language and not bilingual at all. The term bilingual here is used to convey a very different set of meanings from what linguists intend.


Defining Multilingualism

The question of how to define bilingualism or multilingualism has engaged researchers for a very long time. Some researchers have favored a narrow definition of bilingualism and argued that only those individuals who are very close to two monolinguals in one should be considered bilingual.

More recently, however, researchers who study bilingual and multilingual communities around the world have argued for a broad definition that views bilingualism as a common human condition that makes it possible for an individual to function, at some level, in more than one language. The key to this very broad and inclusive definition of bilingualism is 'more than one'.

From the perspective of this framework, a bilingual individual is not necessarily an ambilingual (an individual with native competency in two languages) but a bilingual of a specific type who, along with other bilinguals of many different types, can be classified along a continuum. Some bilinguals possess very high levels of proficiency in both languages in the written and the oral modes. Others display varying proficiencies in comprehension and/or speaking skills depending on the immediate area of experience in which they are called upon to use their two languages.

According to this perspective, one admits into the company of bilinguals individuals who can, to whatever degree, comprehend or produce written or spoken utterances in more than one language. Thus, persons able to read in a second language (e.g. French) but unable to function in the spoken language are considered to be bilinguals of a certain type and placed at one end of the continuum. Such persons are said to have receptive competence in a second language and to be 'more bilingual' than monolinguals who have neither receptive nor productive abilities in a language other than their first. The judgment here is comparative: total monolingualism versus a minor degree of ability to comprehend a second language.



Based on the definition above, my children (10 and 8 years old) are bilinguals. Their first language(*1) is English which is used in the community, school, and with one of their parents, my husband. As they were born and grew up in Japan until they were 5 and 3, they spoke Japanese better until our relocation. They still maintain Japanese, and they speak Japanese fluently when we visit there and/or they meet someone who can speak only Japanese. However, their Japanese vocabularies are probably less than peer group level and reading & writing skills are very limited.


It also happens if I talk to them in Japanese, they answer me back in English. It means that they understand what I say in Japanese, but it is easier for them to think and verbalize in English.


It is very normal for children to lose/weaken a language that they used to use perfectly after living in a different country/environment for a while. I understand that. However, I sometimes feel sad about the fact (or imaging a situation) that we won’t be able to have a deep conversation with MY mother tongue, which has been and will be my first language, in the future. Currently, they can have conversations in both languages without much difficulties. And I believe it is because their intelligence level is not as mature as adults and can’t have deep/abstract conversation in any language yet. But soon, their mind will grow and think deeper and abstractly, and would like to have deep conversations. I know it’s not a big deal which language to use, however, I wish I could use my first language for those situations. Because I know I can articulate my mind and opinions better in Japanese.


Currently, we send our kids to a Japanese school on Saturdays to maintain their language skills. And it is the reason why they can maintain the language even though Japanese is not their first language anymore. However, it limits our weekend activity options and it requires a good amount of work everyday. So we are thinking to stop sending them there in a few years when they graduate from elementary school level program.


Even though they are bilinguals, they don’t use two languages at the same level. And it is very difficult to raise children who can speak, understand, read, and write two or more languages at the highest levels. And it would be too much to hope that they keep their Japanese skills as their highest possible levels.


So I hope they decide to study Japanese again in high school and/or college. And we hope they appreciate the little gift they received (and earned) from childhood.


I would love to hear stories from parents who are raising and have raised bilingual child/children! Also, I am interested to hear stories from people who are thinking about raising child/children in bilingual/multilingual situations.



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*1 “First Language”: Dictionaries define “first language” as “the language you learn from your parents as you are growing up” (Cambridge Dictionary), “Someone's first language is the language that they learned first and speak best; used especially when someone speaks more than one language.” (Collins English Dictionary), and “the language that you first learn as a child” (Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English). Even though my children learned Japanese first, it is not their first language anymore. Their English is better than Japanese, so I define English as their first language.

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