Raising a Bilingual Son: A Japanese Mother’s Reflection
Daniel points to a newly discovered pimple on my chin and asks in Japanese: “Itai? (Does it hurt?)” When I nod, face frowning in exaggerated agony, he shakes his tiny palm and chants, “Itaino, itaino, tondeike!” He then repeats the same thing in English: “Pain, pain, go away!” Munching on an okonomiyaki (Japanese pancake) at the dinner table, Dan-Dan (Daniel’s nickname in Japanese) excitedly tells me about an oni (goblin) that came to visit his preschool during the annual “bean-throwing ceremony.” He then turns to his father and describes the oni in English. Growing up in a household where two languages are spoken interchangeably, my two-and-half-year-old shifts effortlessly between his two mother tongues.
Raising a bilingual child seemed a natural choice to me-a Japanese national married to an American. My love of words has resulted in numerous publications in both my native and adopted countries. An adolescent commuting to a school in the port town of Kobe, I looked admiringly at a group of blue-eyed students from an American school on my morning commuter train. They were chattering in an exotically charming language that captivated me. I chose to major in English, and at twenty, studied as an exchange student in Montana, where I met my husband. I eventually settled in the Pacific Northwest, attended law school, and drafted judicial opinions in English while working for a federal judge.
Looking back, I marvel at how much richer and fuller my life has become because I speak a second language. Knowing two languages makes me feel like I have two worlds inside me. I relish traveling back and forth between them. How could I not share this joy with my child? While pregnant, I began to read to Daniel in Japanese. Shortly before his second birthday, we enrolled him in a Japanese preschool.
“You’re raising your son bilingual?” people, including perfect strangers who see me talking in Japanese while pushing the stroller, curiously ask. “That’s great,” they say. “We Americans do so poorly with foreign languages,” some lament halfheartedly. But no matter how people seem to applaud my effort on the surface, I am keenly aware of this reality: even in today’s increasingly multiethnic society, parents who are committed to raising their children bilingual comprise a small minority.
In earlier days, American society disdained non-English-speaking aliens, and newly arrived immigrants zealously pursued English as a way of assimilation; in their quest, many voluntarily abandoned the opportunity to pass their native tongue on to their children. Surprisingly, a similar attitude remains common even today. Though many other countries embrace bilingualism as an intellectual and economic asset, the U.S. still has a long way to go; as exemplified by the English-as-the-Official-Language movement, some critics even perceive bilingualism as a threat to national unity.
Many Japanese-Caucasian couples I know refuse to teach their children Japanese because they expect their half-Oriental children to be truly “American.” Some voice their fear that introduction of a foreign language at an early age will impede their children’s acquisition of English-and ultimately hurt their chance to “succeed” in America. Some go on to criticize people like my husband and me as if we were unnecessarily confusing our young children by exposing them to multiple languages.
But our deep commitment to teaching Daniel Japanese in no way means that we are willing to sacrifice his English proficiency. In fact, we are just as steadfastly committed to nurture his overall linguistic skills. We read numerous books to him, in both Japanese and English, and frequent the library. Also importantly, I haven’t observed any confusion in my son’s language development; on the contrary, I constantly revel in his ability to sort out the differences between Japanese and English automatically and process the information accordingly. I don’t understand why some people tend to overlook the many benefits of bilingualism. Experts point out, for instance, that bilingualism can produce cognitive advantages; some have also found that bilingual children academically outperform their monolingual counterparts.
I especially treasure my bedtime ritual of singing and reading with Daniel. The other night, I sang with him “Amefuri” (“Rainy Day”), a song I had learned in my first-grade music class by Mrs. Obata: on a rainy afternoon, a boy is overjoyed because his mother comes to pick him up after school, carrying an umbrella for him. (In Japan, where elementary school children walk home by themselves, a mother appearing at school is viewed as a special event.) “Let it rain, let it rain,” he sings, as he and his mother make their way home. Singing this childhood favorite suddenly brought me back the sights and smells of my first grade classroom at Kinrakuji Elementary School, replete with Mrs. Obata in her purple suit and many other familiar faces.
Speaking and singing Japanese with Daniel, I often find myself “going home”-sometimes to Kure, a small navy town where my grandmother lived and its beach where my cousins and I collected seashells; sometimes to Osaka, a city with skyscrapers and neon signs, where I shopped. I feel as if I were pulling out long-forgotten black-and-white photos from an album and adding colors to them. Revisiting my childhood landscape, I am also giving my son a valuable gift –a tool that will enrich his life, with more people to befriend, more books to enjoy, more territory to explore.