|Planting the Seeds of Bilingualism: One ASIJ Mother’s Experience
I am a Japanese author and a mother of two bilingual children. Recently
I published my twelfth book, Sansai made ni Eigo no Tane wo Makinasai (Plant the Seeds of English During the First Three Years of Life) (Spice,
2006). The book is targeted for young Japanese parents who want to bring
up their children to be bilingual. Did I write it because early bilingual
education is a new trend in Japan? No, that’s not the case. I’ve wanted
to write on this subject for more than three decades.
I was born and raised in Nagano City, about 200km northwest of Tokyo,
four years before the Tokyo Olympic Games. In those days, there was really
very little chance to see a foreigner in regional cities like Nagano. My
parents were traditional Japanese, and non-English speakers. English radio
broadcast services such as FEN couldn’t be received outside the capital
region. Needless to say, there were no bilingual TV programs. I did not
take my first English lesson until I reached middle school at the age of
12. Worse yet, my teacher was Japanese and had never been abroad. I definitely
wasn’t an advantaged child in terms of early English education.
When I turned 14, I saw a foreigner at close range in my hometown
for the first time in my life. It was a very young American child playing
in the sandbox in a park. I walked up to him with hesitation and spoke
in a halting way, “Hi, what’s your name?” Then immediately, an answer came
back in a very fluent Japanese; “Anata no ‘what’ no hatsuon wa, sukoshi
okashiiyo. (Your pronunciation of “what” is somewhat funny)” Can you imagine
how shocking it was to be criticized by a smart bilingual kindergartener?
His straightforward words hit me like a bomb. Thanks to him, at that very
moment, I swore to myself that I would become bilingual in the future,
at any cost.
After many twists and turns, I’ve more or less reached my goal of becoming bilingual. To protect my children from the difficulties I faced while trying to learn English, from the moment I knew I was pregnant, I became determined to raise my children bilingual. I gave my children bilingual lessons before they were born. I wanted to give them the exact opposite of my own bad experience. My latest book details exactly what I did, step by step, to raise my children to be bilingual.
One chapter of the book, “The Ten Commandments for Raising a Bilingual
Child,” includes my basic educational policy, including such points as
“You must not neglect your mother tongue.” Nowadays some Japanese parents
raise their children only in English in an attempt to make them “international”,
despite the fact that both parents are Japanese both biologically and linguistically.
In my opinion, it’s a sheer waste not to make full advantage of their Japanese
ability when raising their children. Every language has its own cultural
background, philosophy, history and mentality. Why discard their one and
only mother tongue? Lacking a mother tongue is like being linguistically
homeless. For the children’s sake, it’s important to assign the highest
priority to teaching them to use their mother tongue correctly and beautifully.
The book also contains a survey of 100 Japanese students and alumni
of international schools. To cite a few examples, let’s look at answers
to the question, “In what language do you communicate with your family?”
The majority answered, “Japanese with the whole family (68%)”, then “Japanese
with parents and mainly English with siblings (12%)”, “depends on the situation
(11%), “English with the whole family (5%)” and “English with father and
Japanese with mother (3%),” To the question, “If you could start your life
over again, would you choose an international school?,” 78% answered “I
would choose an international school” while 5% answered “I would choose
a Japanese school”. The survey results will be of particular interest to
families with children attending international schools and parents considering
international schools for their children.
So far, I’ve learned to some degree more than 20 languages, including
Hebrew, Malayalam (a South Indian language), and Pidgin. After learning
Hebrew, I wrote a novel “Yoake no Ban ni”(Gentosha, 2002), about the ancient
link between the Jewish and Japanese. Learning Malayalam inspired me to
write two books; a nonfiction book about Indian magic called “Mango no
Ki”(Gentosha, 1998) and a novel, “Black Umbrella”(Gentosha, 2002), that
describes a polyandry society in South India. Learning Pidgin encouraged
me to write a comical English learning book “Boosuke to Panda no Eigo de
Supai Daisakusen”(Gentosha, 2003), which became a best seller.
To me, learning a language is like hunting for a dazzling treasure.
A language reveals almost every aspect of the people who speak it. In 2004,
I received an audience with H.H. The Dalai Lama for a special interview
and wrote “Shi to no Taiwa”(Spice, 2004). After the interview we promised
each other to meet again, and that we’ll speak in Tibetan next time. So
I am studying this fascinating language, waiting for our next meeting.
As for my children, both of them are fully bilingual, so I feel that
all my efforts when they were growing up were well rewarded. My daughter
graduated from an international school in Japan and is now majoring in
fine arts at the University of Sydney, her first-choice school. She has
learned Spanish and Korean, and recently started to learn a new language,
Swedish, which I’m sure will lead her in exciting new directions. My son
is a ninth grader at ASIJ, and even though he has been educated in English
at international schools, he is very strong in Japanese. He read the complete
works of Yoshikawa Eiji, a great figure in Japanese literature, when he
was only in fifth grade. And his dream is to write books himself one day!
After all, I love languages. Although I wasn’t blessed to be born in a home that promoted multilingualism, I overcame that handicap and am enjoying languages of the world whole-heartedly. I want to communicate that wonder of languages to young people, and that’s one of the major reasons I became an author.
| - First published in 2006 in “Ambassador”, the monthly magazine of ASIJ (American School in Japan)
- Copyright by Mami Yamada