A Battle of Languages-- Raising Bilingual ChildrensteemCreated with Sketch.

in parenting •  last year

Raising bilingual children isn’t a straightforward one-two-three process.

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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.

The image used in this post was taken by me.


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.

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Very interesting to read these challenges.
I am from Belgium (Dutch speaking part) and my fiancé is Polish and we will be parents for the first time in March. And we have the goal to raise our child bilingual (Dutch & Polish), while living in the French-speaking part of Belgium.
Our first focus will be not to speak English anymore, while we learn the child the first two languages. French will follow in school and English will come in its life as well at some point.
It is running a lot on my mind how we will manage this as my fiancé and I will also have to teach our languages to each other as well at the same time.

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Wow! I can't believe you found this post. I thought it was buried in the past:).

From my experience, time spent talking with your child in your native language is the most important thing, and also providing your child with time and experiences where he/she has to use that language. I'm finding, as my son gets bigger, time abroad or with other English speakers is very important.

I've heard about people assigning each day or two a different language and having that work, but that's not something I've been able to try in my house. I think if you and your wife speak to your child in your native language, and speak to each other in English in front of your child, he/she will naturally learn those three languages and then French from his/her outside environment.

Just talk, talk, talk and don't worry about whether your child is getting confused or not. He/she will figure it out.

Seems like getting a lot of English cartoons and kid's shows could help. Video entertainment is one of the areas where the english language tends to dominate.

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You're right about that. I have a lot of DVDs and YouTube videos that I show my kids and have my wife show them when I'm not around. They have had a tremendous impact on my son's vocabulary and listening skills. Actually using the language, though, is really the only way to become an active speaker. My son struggles with what he wants to say in English now because his Japanese ability his surpassing his English ability. This can become a problem for kids because they realize they're language skills are lacking and become self-conscious about it, which, depending on their environment, can silence them. If I can get kids speaking English together, I think they will both greatly benefit from it. I suspect that as my daughter begins speaking more, this will help my son to reassign her as an English speaker. I'm not sure though.

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It's about exposure levels. If you are concerned about an imbalance, try to for example bring videos and games into their environment that balance more towards whichever language you want to help them develop more in.

Also, maybe consider changing how the education process is going to go. Homeschooling you can control the language exposure and you can eliminate the nonsense of teasing from language difficulties. Your son focusing on Japanese is clearly the result of shame from his lesser english, and the predominance of Japanese in his time spent in kindergarten.

I assert and I will say this until the cows come home. Socialisation should not be forced on people. Period. Education in groups should be as consensual and voluntary as any social activity should be. Otherwise there will be torment. It's intentional in the design of State regulated education, to teach conformity. Nothing to do with learning.

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Exposure definitely is the key, and right now the only opportunity for my son to speak English, for the most part, is with me. Of course, I have my children skype with my family weekly and we get together with other international families when we can, but when it comes to speaking opportunities, my children face an imbalance. You're right that homeschooling would help. If I can find a way to work from home, that would be an option for me. Unfortunately, right now it isn't. I disagree with the shame part of your comment. I concede that it very well could be a possibility and a factor, but I think my son is A) working with the language tools that he has, and B) fighting to have more time with me. I think he views his sister, and her language acquisition as a bit of a threat. This is something that I am trying to find a solution to as well. My son also knows that I speak and understand Japanese, so he has me marked as a mixed speaker and can sometimes be lazy about which language he uses in front of me. Thanks for your thoughts.

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I agree with @blocktrades. My girls went to Japanese preschool and now are in a tri-lingual public school. (English, Spanish, Mandarin). If the desired language is not spoken at home, the teachers at both Japanese and now elementary school recommend movies, cartoons, etc... as a supplement. We do Mandarin movie nights at school once a month. I look for Chinese children programming on youtube to help the kids. We take if for granted but English is one of the most hardest languages to learn because of all the weird rules and pronunciation. Cheers.

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Wow! They have tri-lingual public schools now. I didn't know that. That's great! Do your daughters speak Mandarin at school with their friends? Having a language partner, I think, is also very important. Thanks for the advice. It's greatly appreciated!

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It's trilingual it is mostly focused on the Mandarin track in the earlier grades. It's like 50% Mandarin, 30% English, and 20% Spanish. They focus the majority on Mandarin because it is more difficult to learn than Spanish. They slowly increase the Spanish percentage every year as they go. They speak only Mandarin/Spanish to their respected teachers as it is required. When at home we are responsible for speaking and reading English books to make sure they are getting enough. I tried to learn Mandarin with them when they first started in Kindergarten but I couldn't keep up. It is crazy how fast they learn when at an early age. Your daughter will be fine because you are certainly a good father and on top of it. A learning partner is a real good idea. Thanks for the great post. Cheers.

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That sounds like a pretty incredible school. It's really interesting how you are exposing your daughters to so much culture and language. I'd like to hear about how they absorb all of that culture and language and use it in their everyday lives.

And thanks for the vote of confidence.

@boxcarblue I think I know how you feel and I feel for you as most of my student's parents went through such phase. The ones I saw succeed in making their kids bilingual - btw they're Koreans, are those who live abroad.
Both parents speak English or at least tried.
They watch English videos, listen to English songs, sing a long , too - read English - in other words - they breathe the language.
Most of those who stayed in their country progressed but slower than those who went abroad be it in the Philippines, America, Canada, Australia, UK or New Zealand - they all progressed because they got exposed to people who speak it. It's also amazing that they even acquired the accents.
As for having your lil' boy on your side - you'll have to go through papa first. He has to see you both doing it - not a shrink but been watching Jojo the Nanny's back then that's what seem to work.
Your kids are still young - they have a bigger chance of learning the language. I wish you good luck. It's tough being a parent, I hope you get all the support you need to achieve your goal of making your kids bilingual.
Many studies say that kids at the age of 3 to 6 can learn 6 languages if they get the proper guidance and exposure. Your girl is just 1 and a half - let her sit in front of Charlie and Lola or My name is Ginger or The Wild Thornberries the whole day and - surely she'd speak English when she could. I hope you find the easy way and I wish your kids all the best.

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@englishtchrivy: Thank you for the best wishes. I have seen a lot of children from mixed marriages in Japan grow up to be only passive bilinguals, and that is a fate I would like my children to avoid. Raising active bilingual children is a lot of work, especially when you are the only main native speaker in their life. Many people have recommended using TV and video to supplement their English exposure. I will continue to do so. Thanks again:)

Your are so thoughtful father. My nephew have never spoken in English with native speakers. He didn't studied in English. He is 5 years old. When I met him last month, I was surprised with his English skill. The parents said he likes to watch English vedios and cartoons. I think he accepted the English sound easily because he's only 5 years old. Additionally, he likes to listen and speaks in English. He has a sister, 7 years old. She just doesn't want to hear something in English. when I tried to speak in English with a joke, she disappeared faster than a wind to her room. I think their personality is able to affect the choice of language either. I think you don't need to worry too much. Nice to see a good father :)

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Thank you for your comment. It is reassuring to hear that children can become active speakers without much outside encouragement. I think you are right about personality, that plays a large role as well.

Nice, I follow you.
This reply is for you.

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Thank you. I'm a big fan of Muddy Waters. This lesson brought back a lot of memories.