Dear Dr. Gupta,
How do you suggest a parent work with, while protecting, her children from the strong pressures to conform to making English dominant in one’s head, in the context of the U.S. and Japan? U.S. bilingualism is short lived. Japanese bilingualism is even shorter. I have struggled with this all my life.
I was born as a youngest of three to Japanese parents and moved to Singapore and was put in the British school system for 4 years, then half a year of Japanese school, which I loved, in Singapore. At 8 when we returned, I was placed in a public school and I refused to speak English all together. At age 14, I left Japan for boarding school in the U.S and lost all Japanese contexts without my family around. First was a struggle adjusting to the American accent. But now I can pass for being a native in the U.S. or in Japan. This as a working adult, I have found to be quite rare. I know many envy without knowing any of my internal battles.
I am having now my own simultaneous bilingual experiment with my children, who 4.5 and 2.5. My kid’s dominant language is currently Japanese largely due to time spent with our current au pair from Japan. The battle when it comes to my own children is to spare them from experiencing what I went through, if I can help it. If this is not realistic, I would like their internal battle to remain one that is shared by members of our family. Perhaps the acquisition of languages does not come without cost but I have found from experience that children learn another language only out of pure necessity. Within the two contexts I belonged to, there was virtually no benefit to knowing both languages at any given moment. The fact that I had experience in both just meant that I was incomplete in both contexts. I felt too unique to be understood. I was too lonely and my brain seemed split. I blamed my English ability and differences that I inevitably possessed in the Japanese context—all I wanted was to belong in my home culture. But then as years passed in one culture, the question was then… where is my home?
It’s like one’s own brain is a battlefield of one imperialistic culture striving for dominance over the other. On top of what you mention here about U.S. tendencies, the particular tendency in Japanese culture to demand its people to conform to one’s context has made Japanese/English bilingualism even shorter lived than most other languages in the U.S. in my opinion. I remember when I used to agonize over the decision of what language to use at a given moment when I chose to write in my diary. My loyalty seemed always in question. I imagine what a biracial/bicultural child might feel for loyalty, having to choose between parents if there wasn’t unquestionable language/cultural dominance already.
What language do you choose to think in? Which culture do you choose for your context, your friends? And why? If you don’t spend time in it, you don’t know what you are missing, and what you will be going to miss. Perhaps I would have been happier had I chosen a life of an academic, but I was not focused enough, drawn away to art, music and kept my interests dispersed to other non-lingual things to find any relief from this battle. Still, I like people. I like to communicate in language. I want my kids to like and want to communicate to others. I want them to feel they belong. In order to protect my kids from at least half the misery I experienced as a child, I have come to the idea of schooling them at home. I want them to have a mind that is less lonely, less unique, shared, understood and ‘dominated’ by the context of a supportive family. I am curious to know what you think of all this.
Remember that the experience our children have is never the same as the experience we had. The problems they experience, their successes, their sorrows, will be different from ours— and this is as it should be. We cannot control their lives and we cannot and should not protect them from a full human life which includes all sorts of experiences, good and bad. They will not necessarily feel what you felt.
You are a very successful adult bilingual, yet you look on your experience negatively. It may be that you need to focus on your success and congratulate yourself. Your children might develop good skills in English and Japanese too, or they might not. They might find it hard or easy. It’s impossible to predict. They might find math easy or difficult too. Or music. Or learning to ride a bike or to swim. They might find it easy or hard to develop friendships or resolve problems. What matters in the long term is health and a capacity for happiness, not how many languages you speak, or how well you speak them.
Being exposed to more than one language is a good thing on the whole, but is not the only thing in life. So I would suggest that you do your best to keep them exposed to both languages, but not at the expense of other experiences. You might have to face the fact that at some stage English will become dominant. They may even reject Japanese. Children have a lot to learn and languages are only one of the things to think about.
I do agree with you that “children learn another language only out of pure necessity.” The problem with Japanese/English bilingualism is that there are not many communities that support both languages. Children who grow up with, for example, Hindi/English bilingualism in India or Yoruba/English bilingualism in Nigeria do not experience the two-culture conflict that you describe. That is because they live in a community where this kind of bilingualism is common, within a single culture. You probably saw this kind of bilingualism among Singaporeans when you lived in Singapore.
So what you need to do is to provide the children with a necessity for speaking both languages, by doing something to engineer the need for both. The Japanese au pair was a brilliant idea. There is no reason why you can’t keep that up even as the children get older. You don’t mention the children’s father—who else is in your household ? Do they speak Japanese? What about your friendship networks? Is there plenty of support in your social network for Japanese—because if you stay in the USA, it is Japanese that will be at risk. The more people that you can expose them to who are bilingual in English and Japanese, the better, especially if there are children. You don’t say where you are—are you in a place where there are enough people of Japanese origin or ancestry to support community organisations? Is there a Japanese school? Religious organisations you would be able to join? How often can you get to Japan on holiday?
To homeschool children is a big decision, and not one to take lightly. Couldn’t this lead to children feeling more different from others? What syllabus would you follow? Where would their friends come from? What experiences would they miss out on? What experiences would YOU miss out on? How would your relationship with your children be affected by your having to be teacher as well as mother?
I would advise you to get in touch with other bilingual parents, and especially ones with Japanese as one of the languages. Seek out bilingual people in your own area, and online. Some of the places to start are Mumsnet and Multilingual Living. InCultureParent will also be launching a community section in the next few months where parents can connect. Explore your own feelings and think about strategies.