I love how when I meet new people in Japan many of them love to say, “Oh wow, you’re kids have it so lucky; they’re gonna grow up speaking English.” As if teaching children a second language was as obvious as learning to walk. It’s not that simple, people.
To put it into perspective for you, would you say to a composer, “Oh how wonderful! All of your children will be gifted musicians then, right?” That would be ludicrous! Yes, language is acquired “naturally,” as they say, but there can be many factors that prevent your kids from embracing multilingualism. Should the composer be upset if his children don’t turn out to be the next Beethoven? I should certainly hope not!
Here are some things to keep in mind when teaching your own kids English in Japan:
Japan provides a giant hurdle to jump across for all children who dare to be different. In a society that prides itself on “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down” you will find many instances of frustration trying to teach diversity to your kids. The stories that I see most often are either children decide to function entirely in Japanese or entirely in the other language. That’s part of the reason why you see all of these bi-cultural Japanese kids who only speak Japanese–most of the time they were severely bullied. Children who manage to gain a good understanding of both languages have the mental strength to say, “I am who I am.” and their parents gladly respond, “Yes, you are who you are.” Japanese culture has a way of putting people in a box! Break free!
You can’t expect a newborn baby to fly let alone walk, so why do so many parents place such high expectations for language learning on kids? Better for children to learn a little of the language and have fun, then to learn a lot and be miserable. In the case of English and Japanese, the two languages are so far removed from one another that even after years of study, adults still have a difficult time switching back and forth. Celebrate the small accomplishments (even if mispronounced) and don’t spend all your time nitpicking at mistakes.
Don’t Fake It
For those of us who have taught English as a second language to children, we know that there are times you can have a bad day but still make it through and have a good time with the kids. Unfortunately, with your own kids, they are there 24/7 to watch and learn. If you are not sincere in your love of your own language or your ability to teach it, your own children will find you out very quickly. Honesty is a gift that transcends language and is one of the most precious gifts you can give to your child.
It’s What’s on the Inside That Counts
I have met plenty of “perfect” multilinguals in my lifetime. After having a few extremely unpleasant conversations with some of them that are filled with rude, haughty comments that make your skin crawl, I have this to say: please teach your children how to love first! Your children will remember the things that are important to you. Please don’t make perfection in language one of those things. Language should be fun! I would much rather speak to an “unperfect” multilingual with manners than a “perfect” multilingual who sneers.
All in all, It can be a tough ride teaching kids language in Japan, but just keep doing your best and remember: Que sera, sera! What will be, will be!