16 Tips for Raising a Bilingual Child in Japan

Raising a child with good bilingual ability can be a big challenge when the child attends a Japanese school and your opportunities to travel abroad are limited. Good Japanese ability in such circumstances is a given, but what about English? If you want your child to develop good English ability, too, what steps will lead to your goal?

Here are 16 tips to help increase the odds of success.

1. Start early

If you’re proactive from the start, you’ll have a much better chance of nurturing a good balance of Japanese and English. From birth to age 6 or 7 is a critical time for two reasons: 1) this is the period young brains are most primed for language, and 2) after the child begins attending elementary school, it grows more difficult to “rebalance” the two languages. In other words, the investment of time and energy up front will make it easier to foster the balance you seek, and then maintain that balance throughout childhood. Playing “catch up” with English is much harder!

2. Prioritize it

Making this a priority goes hand in hand with being proactive. If the development of your child’s English ability isn’t one of your family’s highest priorities, chances are Japanese will quickly come to be dominant and English will be relegated to a more passive role. Don’t underestimate how quickly this can happen once the child enters the world and spends the majority of his hours bathed in Japanese. Make English a priority from the get-go and you’ll stand a far greater chance of long-term success.

3. Set a goal

Set a clear goal for your child’s English ability. Will you be content with oral fluency, and less concerned with reading and writing? Or is English literacy important to you, too, and you’d like to see her read and write at the level of a child in an English-speaking country? Whatever your goal is, articulate it, and make sure that your efforts match the goal you seek. Good reading and writing are attainable, but this goal will require a diligent commitment from both you and your child.

4. Get informed

By informing yourself on the subject of children and bilingualism, you’ll be better able to support the development of your child’s English ability. Turn to helpful books, online resources, and other parents to broaden your knowledge and ideas. JALT’s special interest group on bilingualism publishes a regular newsletter and various booklets on bilingual issues, particularly concerning children. Another useful resource is the site Education in Japan, which also maintains an active email list.

5. Adopt a strategy

How will you use English and Japanese within your family? Every family is different, of course, but many families have found (including my own) that the strategy of “one parent-one language” provides a firm foundation for the two languages to grow in a balanced way. But whatever approach you choose, the important thing is making sure that the child has a sufficient amount of daily English exposure and that the family sticks consistently to its strategy — unless a conscious decision is made to alter that approach.

6. Read aloud every day

Reading aloud to your child in English, for at least 15 minutes each day, is the single most important practice you can keep when it comes to nurturing your child’s English ability. It may seem too simple, but reading aloud regularly has an enormous impact on a child’s language development as well as his interest in books and literacy. If you don’t read aloud — preferably from day one and continuing for as long as you possibly can — it will be far more difficult for your child to develop good English ability.

7. Build a home library

You can’t read aloud to your child regularly if you don’t have suitable books at hand, including chapter books that come in series of 5 or 15 or even 25+ books. The costs can add up quickly, I know, but in the long run, books are a small investment, really, when the eventual payoff in good English ability is so great. Cut back in other areas of your budget, if you must, but don’t scrimp when it comes to putting children’s books in your home.

8. Visit the public library

If you live in a good-sized city, chances are the children’s library in town has a selection of picture books in English. Here in Hiroshima, the children’s library (in the same building as the Children’s Museum) has a fairly large collection of English books that can be borrowed for free, five at a time. (I use two library cards and bring home ten books.) Although the selection will naturally be limited, no matter where you live, taking regular advantage of your local library may help to increase the amount of reading material available to you.

9. Use background music

Making use of background music is an easy and effective way to consistently add to the English exposure your child receives. This is no substitute for your active involvement, of course, but background music can be one more beneficial component of your overall efforts. Just put a CD player and suitable CDs in the child’s main play space and play this music regularly.

10. Play English games

Games are another resource to gather for your home. Children love to play games, and there are a lot of great English games that are fun to play and effective in promoting English exposure. For a more harmonious home, I would recommend balancing the usual “competitive games” (which can leave kids in tears) with “cooperative games” (where the players work as a team). For good competitive games, try Gamewright; terrific cooperative games are available from Family Pastimes.

11. Make your home “English-rich”

Beyond books, music, and games, make your home as rich in English exposure as you can. At the same time, try to inhibit, wherever possible, the prevailing influence of Japanese. For example, when it comes to electronic toys, a device in English (like the Leapster Learning Game System) would be a far more productive choice than a gadget in Japanese (like a Nintendo DS). In the same way, emphasize English TV shows and DVDs over Japanese programs.

12. Engage in storytelling

Tell your children true stories from your childhood — kids love to hear about the (mis)adventures of their parents when they were young. You can also invent fantastical “made-up memories” from your past or your children’s early years. (Kids like telling “made-up memories,” too.) The point is, storytelling—whether fact or fiction — can help expand and enrich the conversations you have with your children, and are especially suited for mealtimes.

13. Give written homework

If fostering good reading and writing ability is important to you, it’s best to establish a habit of homework early. If you begin giving small daily doses of English homework at the age of 3 or 4—starting, for example, with simple dot-to-dot books of the alphabet and numbers—this can set a positive pattern for the rest of their childhood. Make daily homework like teeth-brushing—an expected habit—and it can be maintained far more easily than if you try to impose it later on. As with children’s literature, you must make efforts to seek out suitable materials on a regular basis.

14. Employ “captive reading”

To encourage literacy development and reading practice, you can take advantage of something I call “captive reading”: the natural tendency to read any words that fall under our gaze. Put posters of the alphabet and common words on the wall; label things in the house; include notes in your child’s lunchbox; put up a small whiteboard in the bathroom and write little messages and riddles on it; later on, post short stories in the bathroom, too, like fairy tales and fables.

15. Convey the value of English

It’s important to talk up the value of English for your child’s future, but it won’t really sink in deeply until she experiences that value directly through interactions with other English speakers. Play dates with English-speaking children in your community is one possibility, of course, but another — and one that we’ve found quite powerful — is to serve as a homestay family for a visitor from overseas. Check with your local YMCA or other international organizations in town to explore this opportunity.

16. Keep a journal

This final tip isn’t strictly about bilingual development, but I think it’s worth sharing. If you aren’t keeping a journal on your kids, you might want to start. It’s a small investment of your time, really — just make a short entry in a notebook or text file every few weeks— but for your children, these observations of their language milestones, their early traits and interests, and their notable activities and experiences will one day be a priceless peek into the childhood that they will have largely forgotten.

Adam Beck is the blogger of Bilingual Monkeys, a site of “ideas and inspiration for raising bilingual kids (without going bananas).” A former teacher at Hiroshima International School, and now a writer for the Hiroshima Peace Media Center, Adam is the father of two bilingual children.

7 thoughts on “16 Tips for Raising a Bilingual Child in Japan

  • November 5, 2012 at 10:25 am
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    The ideal way would be to have the kids go to an “international” school in Japan. Education in English and Japanese with neighborhood friends. Many of the kids speak Japanese even amongst international school friends at school. (This I find to be a slight problem. Especially if you’re sending the kids to an expensive international school to become fluent in English)

    One of the dangers of sending the kids to a local Japanese school is that it may become “mendokusai” to talk to Dad in English. Eventually the child starts to avoid talking to the English speaking parent.

    I myself consider myself as being bilingual and grew with bilingual friends. I also have seen many “shippai” at raising bilinguals. Such as, able to speak both fluently but cannot read or write either.

    My older son was born in Hawaii so we spoke in Japanese at home because we figured he would learn English at school. then, when he just turned 5 years old, we decided to return to Japan. My son went to a Japanese elementry school. It figured it was too late to change my “at home” language so I stuck to Japanese, sent him to an international school for 4th and 5th grade and back to Japanese school system from 6th. He is now going to a college in Japan and majoring in English. A strong base in one language (in my son’s case Japanese) and preparing an option for the child to learn the second is also one way to go.

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  • November 6, 2012 at 8:51 am
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    Thanks for your helpful comments, Frank and Joe. I’m always eager to hear about successful experiences and useful resources when it comes to raising bilingual kids. By learning about what others have found effective for their families, we might adopt or adapt those approaches and materials for our own situation.

    If others out there have ideas to share, please leave a comment! We’d all be grateful!

    Cheers,

    Adam
    Bilingual Monkeys
    http://bilingualmonkeys.com

    Reply
  • November 6, 2012 at 7:05 pm
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    This is really interesting. Thanks for sharing. We were going to go with the one parent one language approach, but have changed to English in the home, in part due to reading this book (which has nothing to due with bilingual kids, just kids in general). One of the many interesting things in it was a chapter on language acquirement, which says that kids learn much more quickly hearing the same words spoken even a few times by different people than the same word said many times by one. Interesting read
    http://www.nurtureshock.com/

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    • November 6, 2012 at 7:52 pm
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      Liam, thanks for reminding me of “NurtureShock.” It’s a book I’ve been wanting to read and I just ordered it from amazon. (I enjoyed Po Bronson’s book “What Should I Do with My Life?” a few years back.)

      All the best,

      Adam
      Bilingual Monkeys
      http://bilingualmonkeys.com

      Reply
  • November 14, 2012 at 10:06 am
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    It’d be great to have insights from a trilingual family (english as the third language). Maybe for a future article?

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  • November 22, 2012 at 11:08 am
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    Another point that can be added is “Contact with the extended English (foreign language) speaking family.” We had yearly trips back to the my parent’s home (until they were full price airfare!) We also had weekly talks with them using the computer camera via Skype. They shared pictures or some talents they had done. This contact kept my 3 kids English in check. I speak English with my husband (at the beginning this was hard since his ability was very low), though over the years is is a more mixed language. The kids have grown up really liking English. They felt this contact made them more current about events on the world. For example, because Disney made DVDs available first in the USA then months later in Japan, my parents always sent the English version right away and the kids appreciated it more and felt special seeing and understanding them. Sometimes I heard them bragging to their friends about it. As they got older, they found Facebook and connected with their friends abroad. They learned the writing naturally and still make grammar and spelling mistakes. All in all, their English is now native like for speaking and listening, the reading and writing are fast catching up as the opportunities to use is become more frequent. My kids are 26, 23 and 20, they went to Japanese schools and did very bad in their English classes!

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