We keep a bilingual environment in our family. I think there are different reasons for families to keep or not to keep a bilingual environment at home. In my case, I would like my daughters to be able to communicate with my family in Japanese. I feel strongly about my kids speaking Japanese because it is my language and my identity. I would like them to be part of my culture.
People sometimes tell me “you speak Japanese to your kids at home, so I’m sure your kids will retain Japanese.” I wish I could be as optimistic as that. Since I’ve seen enough mixed kids between Japanese and non-Japanese who live outside of Japan (just like my kids) and do not speak Japanese, I feel a bit pessimistic. Not to mention that Japanese is one of the harder languages in the world and there is nothing really in common with English except for some gairaigo, borrowed words.
I hear many blame their inability to have a second language on their parents for not teaching them non-English language that one of their parents speak. Now I have two kids and teach them Japanese, I see that it goes both ways. It’s not just parents’ unwillingness to teach. The desire to learn and speak their second language has to come from kids.
The reality is that once kids start going to school full-time, in our case an English-speaking school eventually, they will be showered in English for 6-7 hours a day. Their friends speak English, so they are likely to speak English after school at a play date or after school activities.
However, I know a few Japanese people who were born to their Japanese parents, were raised overseas and speak both Japanese and English like native speakers. What is common among them is that their parents were very strict with their speaking Japanese at home, they (my friends) went to Japanese school on Saturdays, and went to Japan almost every summer.
We lived in Okinawa, Japan, before we moved back to Arlington, Virginia. Even before we moved back, I started searching for a Japanese Saturday preschool. I enrolled my older daughter, who is now 5, to one of the Japanese speaking preschool program called Himawari in Northern Virginia. The school opens only on two Saturdays a month. It is not a Japanese language school, so it does not teach how to speak, but it provides the environment where kids can learn about the Japanese culture in Japanese.
I would not do these activities myself for my kids, so just to be able to provide an opportunity to have such a Japanese experience for my child through the school was very special to me.
I even signed up to be a board member last year (our school year just ended this month, March). I had to volunteer much of my free time to work for the position and be in charge of PR and new members in the past year. It was quite challenging as I had to give up my night-time for the volunteer job.
Yesterday, March 20, was the last day of the school year and we had the closing ceremony at my daughter’s school.
Did this preschool help my daughter keep Japanese? Honestly, no, but that was expected. I didn’t send her there in a hope for her to retain the Japanese language. I wanted her to be exposed to other kids who speak Japanese. I wanted her to have the cultural experiences that I cannot provide with at home.
She still speaks Japanese though. I think this is attributed to her not being in school full-time yet and spending most of the day with me after she finishes her preschool in the morning. I take her to Japanese play groups twice a week. I don’t know what will happen after she starts an English-speaking kinder in September though. I don’t think there is a Japanese Saturday school in Jakarta, Indonesia, as there is a full-time Japanese school there. We’ll see what will unfold after summer in our bilingual quest.