My dear friend Lori, who teaches English at a college in Japan and is married to a fellow American, was gracious enough to answer some questions about her three-and-a-half-year-old daughter's language acquisition process.
Lori and her husband plan on spending one more year or so in Japan and then returning to Colorado. I'll ask her for an update on Amelia's progress in Japanese next year and then again after they've been back in the US for a few months--it'll be interesting to see how much Japanese she will have learned by then, how much she'll remember when she receives less input in Japanese in the US, and if Lori will be able to teach her more Spanish when they live in Colorado (where it's more commonly heard than in Japan!).
What is your language background and history?
I majored in Spanish and received an MA in TESL/TEFL. I have taught ESL for almost 10 years in the US, Mexico and Japan. I am familiar with British English [Lori's mom is from England] and have a basic understanding of Japanese.
What languages are you exposing your child to, and how?
Japanese: We have been living in Japan for the last 2 1/2 years. She goes to a bilingual international preschool; she interacts with native Japanese speakers at swim class; she plays with the Japanese neighbors; we read Japanese books and watch TV together.
Spanish: Occasionally we read a book in Spanish; I sometimes translate phrases; she enjoys watching Dora the Explorer and picks up some words from the show.
Why do you want your child to learn a second language?
I want her to have as many positive experiences in her life as possible, and being able to communicate with and understand people of different cultures can help her.
How well does your child understand and speak the second language? What does she think about it? Does she have language preferences?
She speaks a little Japanese and I believe she understands somewhat more than she speaks. She knows some simple adjectives (hot, cold, delicious, ouch); can count to 10; knows some body parts (elbow, hand, eyes, etc.); sings short songs; knows some high-frequency phrases (come here, let’s go). She thinks Japanese is ‘good,' and it’s ‘strange’ when her father tries to speak it. However, at times she pretends to “speak” Japanese with imaginary friends, which is generally babble with a Japanese word thrown in here or there, although I’m not sure that she is cognizant of their meanings. She doesn’t like being prompted to speak the Japanese that she does know to acquaintances.
What challenges have occurred as you teach your child a second language?
Attention and focus – She’s 3; what can I say? She likes to play and changes activities often throughout the day. Her father has shown little interest in learning Japanese, and he is the stay-at-home parent, so she gets little exposure when she is with him.
What resources have been most useful to you?
Children’s TV programming for 2 hours once a week in the afternoons; her school – she learns songs and high-frequency phrases; books (especially song books); neighbors.
What do you think parents, caretakers, teachers, and/or researchers need to know about teaching a second language to children? What do you wish you had known when you started?
Tap in to children’s natural attraction to singing and dancing. Many instances of her productive use of language have been singing songs she has learned at school. She also enjoys the children’s TV programming because of the songs and music.
Answer your own question now--what did I not ask about that you want to comment on?
What are the sociolingistic messages that are being sent to the child?
Personally, I think she recognizes that many of our Japanese friends and acquaintances speak English, so perhaps she doesn’t see learning Japanese as imperative or important. Also, the children’s TV programming has some English instruction, so she knows other people want to learn English, which may be leading her to presume that English is “better” than Japanese. I considered putting her into a kindergarten, but when I learned that there was a strict rule against using Japanese in the morning classes, I worried that she would conclude that using Japanese can be bad or wrong.
Back to Sarah now: I'd like to hear if readers have noticed similar perceptions on the part of bilingual children that they know--do they place a greater value on one language over another? Where do they get that message originally? How and why and at what age does that change (if ever)? What do you do to encourage kids to think favorably of both languages that they are exposed to? I would imagine that the older the child gets, the more important his peer group's opinion becomes. And I am also reminded of countless stories I've heard about immigrants to the US--including my own great-grand-parents--who devalued their mother tongue in favor of embracing English, encouraging their children to speak only English, even refusing to teach them the family language. I've read that typically by the third generation in this country, children don't speak or even understand their grand-parents' language. What a shame to lose that richness and closeness and cultural heritage!