Raising bilingual children isn’t a straightforward one-two-three process.
You encounter a lot of ups and downs and uncertainties along the way. The two languages that you raise your children with will compete in their heads. At any given point, and for a myriad of reasons, your children could decide to stop speaking one of the languages you are raising them to speak.
As a parent who is trying to raise my children to be actively bilingual, I am constantly on the lookout for signs that my children are giving up on my native language.
Maybe I am being too sensitive about this. Sometimes I think, Maybe I don’t need to worry about this as much as I do, but then I wonder, Can you ever be too vigilant? If your children choose not to use one of the languages you are teaching them, their chance of becoming an active bilingual greatly decreases.
For me, maintaining and building my children’s level of English is a constant battle, and lately, I feel like I’ve been losing that battle.
My son is almost four and can speak English quite well. My daughter is only one and a half and is just coming into language now. I worry that she won’t learn English the way that my son has because I can’t spend as much time with her as I did with my son, who is my first child, when he was a baby. As a result, I have been trying to get my son to speak to my daughter only in English. It seems to me, though, that he is reluctant to do so.
Depending on the time of day, the toys they are playing with, and the way they are playing, my son will speak English to my daughter, but more and more it seems like, lately, his initial choice is to speak to her in Japanese. This is the language that naturally flows out of his mouth. After spending all day in a Japanese nursery school and speaking to his peers only in Japanese, I can see how my son would mark his sister as someone he should speak Japanese to. This is what we do, adults and, especially, children, we mark people as certain language speakers, and we approach them in a way that matches the category we have placed them in.
How then, can I find a way to change my son’s assessment of my daughter?
How can I communicate to him my desire for him to speak only in English to his sister in a way that will motivate him and, yet, won’t pressure him to the point where he feels like speaking English is a punishment? I have been thinking about this quite a bit lately, and the other night, I thought I had come up with a solution.
I tried talking to my son like this. I said, Look, buddy. I need your help. I want your sister to learn how to speak English just like you, but I can’t teach her all by myself. Let’s all be on the same team, okay? It’ll be you, me, and your sister, and we’ll be on the English speaking team. How does that sound?
He giggled and got excited. Okay, he said.
I was happy. I thought I had done it. And then, less than an hour later, my son got mad at my daughter and started yelling at her in Japanese. Heeyyy, I said soothingly, What’s going on? I thought we were on the same team. Why don’t you tell your sister not to do that in English?
To which he replied, No. I don’t want to be on the same team as her. She’s on mommy’s team. I’m on daddy’s team.
And just like that, the idea I thought was so clever unraveled before my eyes. Even worse, I may have solidified my son's distinction of the language divide in our house.
And the battle continues…
For now, I will keep doing what I have been doing: spending as much time with both of my children as I can, speaking English to my son and daughter as much as I can, asking my son to repeat the Japanese he has said to my daughter in English as much as I can, and looking for English-speaking playmates that my children can play with.
If you would like to continue reading about my attempts and struggles to raise my children to be near native English speakers while living in Japan, please consider following me at @boxcarblue. To read more about me and the techniques I have used so far to raise active bilingual children, please refer to the following posts: Will my children speak the same language I do? Part 1, and Part 2. As always, thank you for your support.