Home > Life in Japan > Features
  print button email button

Sunday, April 26, 2009


Like it or not, becoming bilingual involves being bicultural, too

Several weeks ago in this column, I wrote about some of the nonlinguistic aspects of raising a bilingual child. These can be social, financial and marital, involving the milieu the child grows up in, the necessity to move back and forth between countries, and even the periodic separation of husband and wife in the interests of exposing the child to one of the native-language environments.

I want to return to the subject of bilingual children because some readers have responded with letters following that earlier column, and it's also surely a matter of concern to many others who aim to give their offspring the benefits of being both bilingual and bicultural.

Let's look at five aspects of bilingualism — when one of the languages is Japanese — from the standpoint of modes of communication. As parents who have brought up bilingual children will know — my wife and I raised four — a truly native command of a language involves far more than just the amassing of a large vocabulary and stringing words together in what appears to be a fluent manner.

The five aspects revolve around titles, politeness, apologizing, showing gratitude within the family and expressing intimacies to loved ones.

First, titles. Whereas in English a simple "you" will suffice to allow the child to interact with parents, relatives, teachers, older and younger friends and strangers, a child speaking Japanese has to address blood relations with any one of many titles for papa, mama, auntie or uncle in place of "you." Teachers are always addressed as sensei; friends are addressed in accordance with their age, where a variety of second-person pronouns comes into play, in addition to senpai for elder friends and kohai for younger ones; and, usually, aunt (obasan) is used for female strangers and uncle (ojisan) for male ones.

The point about this from the standpoint of a non-Japanese parent aiming to rear a child who speaks native Japanese is that there is no practical way to master this except in Japan or at a full-time Japanese school overseas. It is almost impossible to bring up a native-speaker of Japanese in a totally non-Japanese environment — even if one parent speaks Japanese to the child all the time.

While English and other languages abound in formal and polite turns of phrase, it is hard to find one where terms of respect and humility are as integral to everyday speech as they are in Japanese, in which they are known as keigo. A Japanese child learns at a very early age to relate linguistically in a different manner to adults than to other children, using a different set of verbs for eating and going somewhere, for instance.

I am not talking mere niceties of decorum here: This is the way the language is spoken. Of course, a child who speaks like a child is cute; but as an adult speaking Japanese, he or she cannot address a client or stranger as they would a friend or family member.

The third aspect of communication in Japanese is Japanese people's penchant for apologies when, in English for instance, no apology is called for. If a Japanese student of English makes a grammatical error and is corrected, they will often say "I am sorry." Although I am always telling my students not to apologize for mistakes, they are only doing what comes naturally in their own language. So, if you are not a Japanese native-speaker and you make a mistake in the language and are corrected, you should apologize because you inconvenienced the person who was obliged to correct you.

The fourth aspect relates to showing gratitude to people within the family. This is a thorny one that crops up often in discussions about well-behaved children.

Every English-speaking parent knows the phrase "What's the magic word?" It refers, actually, to two little words: "Thank you." We English speakers expect our children to say thank you when they are given something, whether it's a present or a glass of milk. Japanese — and most East Asians — often find it bizarre that a child should be expected to thank their parent for something it is the parent's duty to provide. Japanese children given a glass of milk by a parent would not normally say thank you. That is why children brought up in Japan have such a hard time getting out the magic word(s) in the presence of their non-Japanese parent.

These children have to learn that languages not only have different words for things, but that social norms often dictate different expressions. So, don't chastise your children if they have trouble saying thank you; there is nothing magic about that expression: It is merely a convention that varies with context.

Finally, there are those intimate things that some of us say to each other, such as "I love you" or "I worship the very ground you walk on." Spanish, Russian, German and every other language on the planet has these, though how often and under what circumstances they are used differs greatly from country to country. Japanese, however, would surely be low on any list of "gushers."

Over the years, I have frequently been asked how often I telephone my wife during the working day and tell her that I love her. Be sure that I am not about to divulge such intimate details here. When I did answer this question frankly some years ago, the Japanese people asking it were more shocked that I even called my wife during the day — let alone expressed worship for the soil under her feet.

With the advent of e-mail and text-messaging, however, we can now tell our partners how we feel about them without actually "speaking" to them. How this will affect bilingualism in children, I have no idea whatsoever — but I do know that bringing up bilingual children is worth all the effort that parents can muster. Your children will thank you for it . . . even if only, someday, with a nod, a smile or an SMS.

Back to Top

About us |  Work for us |  Contact us |  Privacy policy |  Link policy |  Registration FAQ
Advertise in japantimes.co.jp.
This site has been optimized for modern browsers. Please make sure that Javascript is enabled in your browser's preferences.
The Japan Times Ltd. All rights reserved.