Toddler being raised with two languages
November 22, 2011 2:58 AM   Subscribe

My 2-year-old daughter is growing up in a two-language household. Any advice on ensuring a balanced retention of vocabulary?

I am a native English speaker and my wife is Japanese. We live in Japan and are raising our 23-month-old daughter in a two-language household (although my wife and I communicate only in English).

I speak to my daughter in English and my wife speaks to her with a mixture of Japanese and English.

Her language development has been somewhat slow, although she loves to banter away with a mix of English, Japanese and gibberish.

I'm slightly concerned as, recently, she seems to be developing her Japanese much quicker than English. I suppose this is to be expected as she spends her days at a Japanese daycare and is picking up the local language much faster.

Are there any ways, aside from continuing to promote new language at home, that I can ensure that her English keeps up?

My own Japanese skill is quite poor and I don't want to feel like I can't communicate with her as she grows older.
posted by Tenacious.Me.Tokyo to Human Relations (19 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
We're a bilingual household, with three kids aged seven and three and one baby. One advice we live is that none of the parents should mix languages. It just confuses the child and slows down development.

Our experience is also that the host nation language develops faster. Both the seven and three year old have normal development in the host nation language, the seven year old even faster than normal. Mum's language, the "foreign" one, has developed slower. The seven year old will answer back in whatever language she's adressed, the three year old haven't mastered this yet.

Both kids have shown tremendous development when visiting their maternal grandparents. They can't "cheat", as only one language is understood in that household. They have extended family and friends there they want to communicate with as well. So after, say, spending the summer holidays over at grandma's, they've taken great strides toward being fluent in mum's language.

One useful thing we've done at home is ensure that most DVDs and books are in the "foreign" language.

PS: You should really focus on learning Japanese when you're living there. It has all kinds of benefits to know the language where you live, and it will help you relate better to both your wife and daughter in the future.
posted by Harald74 at 3:12 AM on November 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

I am a native English speaker, and my wife is native Japanese. We have a 9 year old boy. I speak to him only in English. She speaks to him only in Japanese. He speaks both fluently, natively. He spends most of the time in the US, and I do believe that that has made his English more dominant, but we send him to J-school once a week, he has J-homework every night, and we he gets to watch shows, they are usually Japanese.

And even though the dominant influence on him is English, most of the times he talks in his sleep, it's in Japanese.

So you are in a pretty similar situation, just in reverse locations. If you are talking to her, she will learn it. Don't worry. Maybe English cartoons/movies to supplement. But assuming your wife has an accent, it might even be better for your daughter's English if your wife only uses Japanese with her. When I was the only English influence on my son, he spoke exactly like me. If he had been learning English from mom at the same time, his native English would've been accented, maybe permanently.

And on preview, the grandparents are an awesome influence not just with language, but with development as a whole. Definitely send her to her grandparents overseas.
posted by BurnChao at 3:26 AM on November 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

We're a Japanese/Canadian household with two boys. I speak, read and write Japanese (I'm a translator), but I'm too lazy to speak it when we live in Canada (we spend about 2 months a year in Japan). My wife speaks, reads and writes English, but she's too lazy to speak English in the home. I speak English to the boys, she speaks Japanese.

Both of our sons started speaking "at level" late. Our youngest is turning 3 in March, and his first words are mostly Japanese, and it was the same for our eldest, now 9.

I think you're going to find that your daughter's Japanese vocabulary is only going to increase.

For us, ensuring our eldest (and eventually our youngest) speaks Japanese has been very important, so we have enrolled him in "Japanese Language School" in Canada since the age of 4. The school is intended for Japanese-Canadian kids, and he learns how to write, how to read and how to speak, and it has worked really well.

We also keep lots and lots of Japanese books around the house, especially manga, and for a while (until an automatic update bricked it) we had modded a Wii to read Japanese game software, so our eldest was doing Super Mario and other games in Japanese.

We also download Japanese tv shows and movies.

As well, for various reasons, we really only socialize with Japanese-Canadian families, so there is a lot of exposure to the language in our social life. For all intents and purposes, our home life, even in Canada, is Japanese.

Naturally, you're wanting your daughter to speak English, so you could try doing this stuff with an English, rather than a Japanese focus.

But shared interests are also important, so it's going to be really important to demonstrate how interesting English-language culture is. That will be tough, because Japanese culture is so interesting.

On an interesting note, our eldest son attends French immersion school in Canada, so his lessons are all in French. It's been really really difficult to get him into reading in English - he likes to read in Japanese the best, then French, then English. This was not what I was expecting.
posted by KokuRyu at 3:50 AM on November 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Our kids are all bi-lingual with mum a Chinese speaker. We found it came really naturally. With our first (she's 8 now) it was a bit of an effort - we were pretty keen for her to be bi lingual, but gentle about it. Mum went back to Taiwan for a few months to help elderly parents and bub just picked up the language. Now mum only speaks Chinese at home with the kids until I'm around - when we all speak English - unless there is some secrets, or they want top plot and scheme behind my back, We have three kids all can speak Chinese and English effortlessly. Kids are pretty amazing with language, but consistency is needed.
posted by the noob at 3:53 AM on November 22, 2011

By the way, I don't think that "mixing languages" is confusing for children at all. Our brains are able to tell the difference in language from an early age, although it is more challenging for toddlers to actually switch between 2 languages when speaking (listening is fine), which is why they mix them up.

Fundamentally, it's important for both parents to demonstrate that speaking the language pairs is fun and easy to do. So we have no hard and fast rule about me speaking English and my wife speaking Japanese, and the proof of this "mixing languages" strategy is that our eldest son is now attending Japanese elementary school for a couple of months.

So it doesn't really matter if you mix languages. Modeling behaviour is good!
posted by KokuRyu at 3:55 AM on November 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

Another bilingual house here. My husband is Tibetan and only speaks Tibetan to our two and five year olds. I speak only English. We live in Australia with very little regular in-person contact with other Tibetsn speakers.

LittleTaff, the five year old is excellent in both languages but speaks in English if I'm around. ToddlerTaff, the almost three year old stammers a little in Tibetan but she does that in English too. It's not true stammering...sort of a faltering, looking for the words.

The kids and MrTaff all have an early breakfast together (left over from ToddlerTaff's 5 am starts when she was still breastfeeding-it was my sleep in for the days mental health) and the chatter in Tibetan completely. Every morning it's an hour of pure Tibetan. Till I get up. Sundays it can be two hours ...bliss.

But nothing was quite like the trip to India this year to visit Grandma. They were immersed in the language and as said earlier, couldn't cheat as Grandma doesn't speak English. It did wonders for both their language speaking and language confidence.

One thing I read about was OPOL. One parent, one language. You're not in the same boat, but Tibetan language and culture is under dire threat by the Chinese so MrTaff is desperate and militant in keeping his language alive. I'm not so passionate about that, although I totally get it, I'm passionate about communicating with their precious, far distant Grandma.

So MrTaff will never ever, ever,ever speak anything but Tibetan to the girls. To me he speaks English as my Tibetan is shite. If there is a word that doesn't exist in Tibetan he might make one up, like Santa Claus... something like English Old Man. (He also translated the song Happy Birthday in to Tibetan.) Alternatively he uses the English word or a Hindi word. English is his least favourite option though.

Our kids don't watch tv but we bought a stack of crappy inappropriate Tibetan kids books in Delhi that MrTaff modifies and reads to them. He also reads them English story books in Tibetan but renames the characters and changes the plots for cultural salience.

We ring Grandma almost every night. (Cheap phone card.) and sometimes they talk, sometimes they don't. MrTaff puts it on speaker so the kids can hear the language. Sometimes they just listen to Grandma babbling on about life in her tiny Himalayan village. But you know what...nothing in the world could beat the sound of Grandma's voice when her only granddaughters rang her from Australia and sang her the Tibetan national anthem.
posted by taff at 4:21 AM on November 22, 2011 [5 favorites]

Kids in two language homes tend to be a bit slow to start with, but soon get up to speed in both languages. You speak to her in English, have your wife speak to her in Japanese, she'll be fine.
posted by joannemullen at 4:39 AM on November 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

My wife is a native Mandarin speaker who has very good English. We live in the US. Mom has been speaking almost exclusively Mandarin to our now nine-year-old daughter, and it's worked out just as Harald74 described, with the grandparents and DVDs and all. So long as your daughter hears both languages on a regular basis, I think she'll be fine.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:39 AM on November 22, 2011

Best answer: Topics related to this are dinnertime conversation at my house: my wife's an early childhood education consultant, I have a linguistics degree and a nerdy interest in language, and we have a three-year-old with creepily advanced language skills. The last couple of years have been the course in language acquisition that I always wanted to take when I was in school.

Education plans for European and Asian expat families who have moved to Greater Boston for work (mostly related to tech and/or the local universities) are pretty routine for my wife. Here's what I've learned:

Her language development has been somewhat slow, although she loves to banter away with a mix of English, Japanese and gibberish.

This is absolutely typical. Children raised with two languages in the home generally hit language development milestones significantly later. Your daughter has to develop the fine motor skills for a much wider set of phonemes than my kid who only had to master the set for English, and she's also learning two disparate grammars and compartmentalizing them. The end result, however, is that besides eventually having two fluencies, she'll have a broader understanding of the nature of language and expression when she's older. Many bilingual kids have smaller vocabularies than their monoglot peers for many years, but they eventually catch up.

I'm slightly concerned as, recently, she seems to be developing her Japanese much quicker than English. I suppose this is to be expected as she spends her days at a Japanese daycare and is picking up the local language much faster.

This is a broader childhood development theme: nothing develops evenly. A child's capacity to develop is limited in breadth, and the pace of one of the languages is going to develop more quickly. Ability to develop is finite at any given point in time (though it's infinite in the sense that we do it our whole lives). Development in one area always comes at the expense of development in another, and while you want to intervene if it's interfering in their broader development, it's just a fact of early childhood. For example, my daughter whose language skills are so advanced, has the gross motor skills of Jabba the Hutt after four beers. Her developmental focus was on language and expression and she's not a risk taker, so she walked late and still doesn't have the same capacity for some physical skills that most of her peers do. Development in one area comes at the expense of another, and you can think of Japanese and English as two areas. There's an underlying neurological development related to capacity for language in general that's universal, but she has to learn two sets of sounds, two lexicons and two rules of usage. She's going to pick one up more quickly and it makes perfect sense that it would be the one used in her larger world.

Are there any ways, aside from continuing to promote new language at home, that I can ensure that her English keeps up?

I wouldn't think that you'd need to do a lot, and you're going to see marked improvement in her English skills after she's more or less comfortable expressing herself in Japanese. She wants to be able to express herself, so she'll focus on one language (Japanese in this case) and then her English will just come. Trying to nudge an increase her English fluency at this point is going to frustrate her because she'll end up with less language ability in Japanese and therefore at less ability to express herself than she wants. I have a feeling that my wife would insist that you pretty much can't do it anyway-- your attempts at encouraging English will just be discarded in her race to make herself better understood. So you probably can't do much to increase her English use right now, and even if you can, you shouldn't try too hard. If I were you, I would just continue to converse in English at home and I would get some English language books and read to her in English. Kids generally love to be read to, so it's good time with your daughter that keeps her exposed to your language.

My own Japanese skill is quite poor and I don't want to feel like I can't communicate with her as she grows older.

This is the crux of the issue, I think. Man, that must be really frustrating. When I mentally put myself in your position it's uncomfortable. However, this is a universal fear for every parent: "How can I ensure that my child and I relate to each other?" I have my own worries about this, but they're "how can I make sure that my child develops to be the kind of person that I would love even if they weren't my kid?" Again, it's universal but you are in a situation where something as fundamental as language is there to illustrate this fear. Good news! You don't need to worry about it.

As I've discussed previously, the English is around her, it's coming, you just have to wait. You've given her the tools to access it, and she will when she's ready. Know why? Because your daughter wants to relate to you just as badly as you want to relate to her. She can't verbally express it yet, and the egocentric nature of every toddler obscures it, but your daughter is fascinated by you and feels reassured and loved when you're near. She's not self-aware enough to realize it yet, but she wants to relate to you as best that she can. She will learn English as well as you or I in order to do this. She's just not able to do it yet and still meet some other needs that she has to take care of. Patience, Dad!
posted by Mayor Curley at 4:46 AM on November 22, 2011 [7 favorites]

I'm in a similar situation. Two kids, 4 and 7, here in Japan. I speak mostly English, but it's hard for me not to slip into Japanese (I'm a translator too--hi KokuRyu!).

Basically, given that the environment is Japanese, that will be the kids' "dominant" language. You just have to keep speaking English (not hard if you don't speak Japanese) and, if you want your daughter to start SPEAKING English and not just understanding it, she should be spending a month or two in the States every year.

My experience, and I think this is typical, is that kids need to be in an environment where everybody else speaks their non-dominant language before they start actively using it themselves. You're probably ahead of the game in this respect if your daughter can't use Japanese with you, but you still want her to spend at least a month in the States every year to make sure she starts using it actively.
posted by zachawry at 5:48 AM on November 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

There's a good list of resources at the end of this article at "Ask A Linguist":
posted by tractorfeed at 6:53 AM on November 22, 2011

you want your daughter to start SPEAKING English and not just understanding it, she should be spending a month or two in the States every year.

My experience, and I think this is typical, is that kids need to be in an environment where everybody else speaks their non-dominant language before they start actively using it themselves.

Yeah, we just arrived in Japan on the weekend for our two-month stay, and our eldest just finished his first day of school. In just a couple of days, his Japanese has improved exponentially.

We found that reading comic books (specifically Doraemon) has really helped build up his vocab. I'm not sure if there is anything your daughter might like in English when the time comes, but Archie seems to be popular with girls.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:27 AM on November 22, 2011

Keep speaking English to your child, and it is also good advice to spend some time in an English speaking country so she can be surrounded by that language. What you are doing is wonderful because it is easy for babies and young children to learn two languages, much harder when you are older.

I was bilingual, Polish and English, until I went to school and was shamed about the Polish part. My grandparents took care of me as my Mom worked. My Dad only spoke English, and I was never confused, but sadly lost the language as I did not keep it up. I very much regret that.

My brother married a Russian woman, and their 7 year old daughter is fully bilingual and fluent in both languages, She also reads and writes both alphabets. They live in Arizona.
Same as you, her mom speaks Russian to her, her Dad English. She and her Mom have spent several summers in Russian with the Russian grandparents which greatly reinforces her use of that language,

Your daughter is lucky being raised where both languages are spoken and cherished.
posted by mermayd at 8:22 AM on November 22, 2011

My husband grew up in a 2 language household in the U.S. Until he was four years old, my mother in law spoke only her native tongue and my father in law spoke only English. He is fluent in both languages as an adult, so it seems to have worked. He also spoke his mothers language during his vacations.
posted by bananafish at 11:07 AM on November 22, 2011

On the Japanese side (I think it will pretty much work with English), we always have charts posted on the wall above the kitchen table of, depending on our eldest son's age, hiragana and katana, to kanji characters his grade level should be learning (a kanji-hyou), and these charts become topics of conversation at dinner, and we even play games with them.

You could do the same thing with English words and phrases.
posted by KokuRyu at 3:11 PM on November 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

I am a teacher and have taken the odd linguistics class over the years, and I second the 'one parent, one language' idea. I have even read that if a child knows that Dad is let's say the English parent and is introduced to someone new as being a relative of Dad, they will assume that person is an English speaker and address them that way.

I also think that it's better for the child to learn the language from the one who speaks it properly---you don't want her learning bad Japanese from you! We have a boy at school who we are struggling to catch up right now because his well-meaning Polish-speaking parents thought it would be better for him to know English, so they started speaking to him only in English. But their English was not nearly as good as their Polish of course, and the result is a child who speaks neither language particularly well and whose 'first language' is broken English. It would have been better for him to have solid Polish and then learn English at school, then at least he'd have one proper language.
posted by JoannaC at 4:22 PM on November 22, 2011

We're just now embarking on this journey ourselves, so I can't yet speak from personal experience. However, one tip I've read which I haven't seen mentioned here is that each parent should act as if they understand only their own language when the child is speaking to them. So if your child speaks to you in Japanese, you simply pretend not to understand. This will ensure that the kid gets practice speaking, not just listening. (Apparently it takes a while for it to dawn on kids that it's strange the parents can understand the other language when talking with other adults...)
posted by wyzewoman at 6:42 PM on November 22, 2011

Totally agree with pretending you don't understand the other language. Kids will just take the easiest route to communicate and if they can get by mixing languages up, then they will. It can lead to what I think is one of the worst situations - when they speak to you in your spouse's language and you talk back in your own. Once they truly realise you understand the other language, you'll be in trouble... Oh and don't see them as a way to learn your spouse's language, of course! When they use vocab from the other language, look confused and even pretend to understand something else. Then you can prompt them a little with, errr did you mean s, sp, spoo.... Yes, daddy, spoon!

Yes, DVDs are good for learning vocab and language skills, but....

You may have tangible wealth untold;
Caskets of jewels and coffers of gold.
Richer than I you can never be --
I had a mother who read to me.
Strickland Gillilan (1869-1954)
posted by guy72277 at 2:23 AM on November 23, 2011

I grew up in a bilingual household (mom and grandma spoke Polish to us, dad spoke English to us). I took a language acquisition course in college and found it very interesting information for reflecting on my experience. Eventually, I became more English-dominant after realizing that my mother also understood English. I still have very good comprehension of Polish (I get along just fine understanding all the mumbled gossip at family gatherings) but because I haven't really needed to speak it my mouth finds it challenging to make the right sounds. My personal recommendation (not anything based in science or the course I took) is to make sure kid always has a reason to use the non-primary language. As for pace of development, I remember learning in the course that learning two languages at the start doesn't delay development, and in fact interchanging the languages is a sign of understanding language as a whole--knowing that a word in two languages means the same thing.
posted by Terriniski at 1:15 PM on November 24, 2011

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