Planting the Seeds of Bilingualism: One ASIJ Mother’s Experience

Mami Yamada

     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