raising bilingual Japanese-Canadian children

m. werneburg, 2011.07.30

Our home is bilingual. My wife and I met in Japan, but were able to form a relationship because of her English—not on the strength of my Japanese. Since the time of our oldest child's birth, Mari and the kids speak in Japanese and I speak with them in English.

Obviously, every parent wants to communicate with their child in their primary language. But on top of that, Mari and I made the conscious decision to retain both languages in hopes that the sprogs would develop real fluency in both languages.


We'd been warned, y'see. Too many of my Anglophone colleagues in Japan attempted to carry on conversation with their children in Japanese but had unwittingly marked their kids with English-sounding Japanese polluted with English or katakana words. One colleague was an American who'd been in Japan for many years, had spoken with his son in his foreigner's Japanese: he related that at sixteen his son was poor in both languages. One friend who was British and whose wife was German-Japanese was firm on how things had to be done: stick to English when dealing with the child, and let his mum take care of the Japanese. Another British/Kayak friend with a Japanese wife said that his daughter comprehended both family languages as well as the Chinese spoken by her nanny, but was well over a year behind in speaking when she was around four years old.

In Japanese, the simple katakana character set is used to represent "sounds and foreign words". There are, as with other languages, loan words in Japanese; these are adopted to the Japanese sound set via the katakana system, so that "door" becomes "doa" and "table" becomes "te-beru". Many foreigners mangle katakana words, unconsciously retaining the pronunciation "door" instead of adopting "doa".

My colleague's warning that kids that grow up around two+ languages seem to follow a slow learning curve in both languages bore out in our Kenny's case. While our son was at or ahead of the curve in many things (according to the charts), he was simply nowhere near the mark on language. He seemed to understand some things as we expected, but his speaking was limited to semi-coherent Japanese.

they boy's story

We moved from Japan to my native Canada at the end of 2010. The necessity of our departure had been slowly building for some time, with my small business unable to find funding and I being at the same time unable to find contract work thanks to the grinding financial crisis.

When we arrived in Canada, our son was a month shy of his third birthday. At that age, he'd only just started showing some interest in the activities at the day care. He'd been slow to adapt to his surrounds in class, and was very slow to speak with his classmates and teachers. That refusal to participate had been his defining characteristic in the class. Mari and I saw it for ourselves when we attended a "variety show" open house at the day care. He was on stage with his group, doing a school bus routine; when it was his turn to follow the routine, he instead turned his head away and said nothing.

That had finally started to change for the better. Then we moved.

Coming to Canada was clearly a challenge for him; now instead of only having to deal with Daddy in English, it was everybody except o-kaasan. He and my wife spent the first month in the country living with my mother, and Kenny delighted in attempting to speak with his grandma. He and I chatted on Skype sessions except on weekends when we all got together (and spoke English).

We moved into our own place at the beginning of February, and started into the new routine. We did not have a television for several years, and preferred instead to limit his viewing to select things either in Japanese or English. We both read to him in our native languages. Slowly over the first months in Canada, Kenny was speaking a lot of English words but the sentences needed some interpretation. There was a lot of Japanese grammar in there, and many words that sounded like Japanese-English mash-ups.

Over the course of the spring, Mari met some other Japanese mums in the city who lived close enough to see regularly. There weren't any Japanese speaking kids his age among them; everyone spoke English. Mari signed Kenny up for some activities and programs but once again, he refused to participate (in a supposed music-themed class, he'd spend the duration pretending to be a dinosaur each and every week). So the structured classes weren't for him. But Mari's new connections recommended a more casual drop-in location, and Kenny took to that immediately.

And then one day he seemed to figure out how to speak. Perhaps it was his age, but in the space of a few weeks in late Spring he began to develop much greater strength in both languages. I don't know if it was the advent of English-speaking friends in his life, but it was astonishing to watch.

When my wife and son first returned to Japan for a visit, my wife reported that everyone was impressed with the boy's ability to retain some Japanese language skills. But they also reported that he sounded like a foreigner!

This happened to some friends who left Japan about a year before we did. Upon their first return, everyone noticed that the kids had developed English accents. After that first visit, the parents signed the kids up for Japanese lessons, and the English accents had apparently slipped away by a second visit last month.

the girl's story

When our son was four and a half, we had a daughter. She joined the family hearing Japanese spoken around the house except when Daddy was around. Unfortunately, Daddy was in the midst of a master's degree and simply wasn't around too much when the infant was awake.

So she grew up with Japanese as her first language. And just like her big brother, she spoke very little for quite a long time. Instead of speaking, she'd simply regard us with a level gaze, following our movements with a turn of her surprisingly flexible neck. Instead of speaking, she'd screech. We started calling her "owl" (it stuck so well I eventually got a tattoo owl).

The girl's first words were, it turned out, a hummed tune. I had the habit–when I was around–of singing a clip of a Doors song called "Bird of Prey" that had been sampled in another song in the 90's. I did it so often while holding her aloft that one day while we were picnicking on the beach she approached me with her arms up and hummed the tune. She was communicating, but not with words.

The language constraints may have played a part in the girl's developing quite a gripping shyness much as her brother had done. At one birthday party after another, she refused to speak with the friends she saw every day at kindergarten. One time when I asked why she didn't want to play with her friends she said in a tiny voice, "I don't know what to do."


The kids are fluent in English, of course. Mari reports that their vocabulary in Japanese is limited, but that they have a legit Japanese account (following her region's dialect). They don't sound like foreigners.

Helping a child understand two languages at once seems to be a slow process of steady support with conversation and media. And I suspect that friends—and a relaxed atmosphere in which to meet them—are also key. Sadly, I spend my weekdays in another part of the city so I don't get to witness the daytime stuff that's making this happen, but I enjoy my nightly reading. Soon we should get started with writing, I reckon.