Raising Bilingual Children

April 12, 2013 | Hayley

We recently asked some of the Language Insight community to share their experiences of either being raised bilingual or bringing up their children to speak two languages. This week’s post comes from Kozue Macmichael, who was born in Japan and moved to Canada in 2001.

After studying English as a Second Language in Hawaii and later at Ricks College in Idaho, Kozue met her husband while working as a missionary in Hokkaido, Japan in 1999. She later returned to the US to study at Utah State University before marrying her husband in Canada in 2001.

Kozue was awarded Canadian Citizenship in 2008 and now lives there with her husband and five children. In her spare time she studies linguistics.

I’m a mom of five children and married to a Canadian and I moved to Canada in 2001. My husband had lived in Japan for two years, so he speaks Japanese too.

I met my husband in 1999 when we were both volunteer workers. Later I moved to the US to study at Utah State University, while he attended Queen’s University across the border in Ontario, Canada. Before too long we had got engaged and I got my Canadian citizenship in 2008.

I have two boys and three girls who are aged ten, eight, six, four, and one. I will refer to them as K-kun, T-kun, L-chan, A-chan, and M-chan here (-kun is used for boys and -chan is used for girls. It’s Mr. and Miss for children in Japanese.)

My experience of raising my children bilingually hasn’t always been a successful one. In fact, until very recently, I had felt that I had failed in this task and believed I could have done much better. However, I’ve picked up the pace again, and as soon as I started to look out for bilingual communities, I found this Language Insight blog. I would like to share my experiences here and hope it might encourage other parents and provide other bilingual, bicultural friends and families with some insights.

When our first son K-kun was born in 2002, I was confident that I could raise a bilingual child. We lived in communities where there were many Japanese families with young children. I spoke to K-kun in Japanese, read him Japanese books, and we watched Japanese DVDs together. We had gotten Japanese channels on TV too. Things were going well.

Right before our second son T-kun was born, my husband got a job in his childhood hometown and we moved back to live close to his family. My first son was two-and-a-half years old, and he wasn’t speaking much in English or Japanese. Unlike previous cities we lived in, I suddenly found myself alone surrounded by English-speaking families, who I felt compared and measured my parenting skills by how well my son spoke English.

I really regret the decision to listen to suggestions to stop speaking to my son in Japanese. When T-kun was growing up, I wasn’t as consistent as I would have liked to teach him Japanese. My priority was to fit into the new culture and improve my English skills. Although I continue to celebrate major Japanese holidays in Canada, I chose to only speak English at home. I regret this now.

Around the time K-kun entered Junior Kindergarten (age four), I took him to a speech pathologist, where he had a couple of sessions. The therapist concluded him not speaking was a normal developmental stage, and I was too worried too early. Once he started talking, he was as bright as others in his class.

K-kun has been back to visit his grandparents three times so far in the last ten years. He may not speak Japanese fluently (yet), but when I accidentally talk to him in Japanese, he answers it in English as if he understand what I said in Japanese perfectly. In the last three years he has chosen to do his oral presentation at school on topics about Japan. He is also more confident when he talks with his grandparents on Skype.

T-kun was three when we took a trip to see his grandparents in Japan, and he is looking forward to going back. T-kun was into Pokémon a couple years ago, so I used Pokémon character names to teach him Katakana (one of the three Japanese writing systems). I have always volunteered at my children’s schools when they are learning different cultures around the world.

L-chan’s age makes it easy to teach her. She is old enough to try to copy Japanese letters, and she likes to draw. As a mother, I’m happy that I have a girl who is interested in the same things as me. For example, L-chan is good company when I’m folding Origami. She does a better job than the boys. As she gets older, I see us cooking Japanese meals together. She calls me “Okaasan” (mom) and says, “Daisuki!” (I love you!) in Japanese.

A-chan is preschool age, and she is quick to memorize Japanese songs. Our recent success story was when my friend shared the activities of her bilingual kids at their Japanese immersion school. A-chan wanted to watch the video again and again. Her little friend has become her Japanese teacher.

My youngest, M-chan, is going to be the lucky one. She has been spoken to in Japanese, and is starting to respond in Japanese. It was after she was born I started addressing my kids with –kun and –chan after their names. It reminds me to speak Japanese more often.

During the past eight years, it has been constant adjustment to find what works for my family as my kids grow quickly. Although I once struggled with the guilt of not doing enough to teach my kids Japanese, now I look back and can say that I have done my best (with the ability I had) to teach them both languages and cultures. The biggest change in my language learning (and teaching my kids Japanese) happened after the Earthquake disaster in Japan two years ago. Everyone was looking for reliable information, and I frantically searched Japanese news articles and tried to translate them to English. I realised having a proficiency in conversational English isn’t enough. I wanted to improve my English/Japanese translating skills in order to make information flow as fast and as accurately as possible, especially during the disaster. I wanted to give my kids the ability to communicate clearly with my family and friends and people who they will meet in the future.

Other things that helped me to be more excited about teaching my kids Japanese include my experience when I tackled learning Hindi last summer. The process of learning a brand new language was very overwhelming and frustrating at times. From that experience, I understand what my kids are going through when they are expected to learn a language which is not commonly used in the community. It’s also fun for kids to have a taste of being a teacher. I didn’t learn French growing up as many Canadian parents have, so my kids love to share what they learned in French class at school with me. My kids correct my pronunciation sometimes. K-kun reads my blogs and corrects any typos and mistakes that I make. (He also encourages me by saying “your English is fine, mom.”)

Today, I am able to keep in touch with other bilingual Japanese families I have got to know in Canada through the internet. Technology means I can get more and more resources to help me teach my kids Japanese without living there and being immersed in the language. That’s the big difference from ten years ago, when I was a young mother. I am now more experienced and a little more confident.

I’m going to continue to read more resources about bilingualism and bicultural families and have fun and enjoy learning how to be a better parent. Language Insight’s blog is very informative, and I’m glad that I came across it the other day. I hope you have enjoyed my story.

Kozue writes two blogs: Kozue’s Show and Tell, in which she shares stories from her childhood in Japan and her current family life in Canada, and Kozue in the Sault. The first is available in English and the second in Japanese.

If you would like to write a post for the Language Insight blog, leave us a comment below.