Raising Bilingual Children-TELL Exceptional Children

The room was pretty crowded, parents, teachers, onlookers were all huddled trying to learn the secret to raising a bilingual child.  Questions peppered the floor, should my spouse speak in his/her native tongue to our child and never speak to them in English?  Should I force my child to speak in our native tongue while at home and ignore her if she refuses?  One of the most interesting questions of the evening came from a mother who said, “My husband speaks Hebrew, I speak Portuguese, and my son speaks English at school. How can I urge our child to speak in my mother tongue at home?” Wow, I would have loved to been on that first date.

Raising a bilingual child seemed a daunting task for most of the parents in the room.  You could feel the worry and fear in the room.  You may wonder why, but I believe a lot of it has to do with the fact that your native language is an all-access code to our family, culture, past, present and future.  Without the power of language and/or the ability to relate to both cultures parents may foresee limits in connecting with their child.  These limitations in communication may also stymie  the child’s relationships with grandparents, other relatives, future employers, and their dual cultural life.

Marsha Rosenberg, Speech and Language Pathologist, from the American School in Japan (ASIJ) assuaged parents feelings as best she could.  She regaled us with first hand experience as an American mother who sent her children to Japanese school over 30 years ago.  How did she balance the role of parent, teacher, and Japanophile?  She hired another teacher.  Rosenberg wanted her children to be bilingual, in order to make sure they were prepared to enter an international school, she had her children study daily in their mother tongue.   She supported their reading, but she didn’t do it all alone.  She had help. She was fortunate, both she and her husband speak English.

What about the parents in the room with a spouse from Japan? China? Hong Kong? Nicaragua? Australia? When most people think of a bilingual child in Japan we think of the typical English/Japanese combo, but bilingualism has many forms. Personally, I think this talk should expand to multi-lingual.  The parents in that room were living in situations where three or four languages were being bandied about as if this were a tennis match.  One parent stated that her native tongue is Cantonese.  She speaks Mandarin, English and Japanese.  Her husband is Japanese.  How can she teach her child to speak Cantonese, English, and Japanese?  These are difficult questions that parents have to face.

Rosenberg encouraged families to try to immerse their children in their native tongue as much as possible.  Leave them with grandparents for the holiday, drop them off at a camp for kids just like them, create as many authentic experiences as possible.  All of these were great suggestions, but I think the one thing that would really help with the assistance of modern technology is online classes.  Just google a few online tutors and your child can be taught by someone who lives half-way across the world, but can provide an online curriculum that will allow your child to remain up to date with her reading, writing, and speaking skills.  Children can speak to people from their parents native country and this person can teach them in a way that a parent just can’t.

In this day in age where we have a new phrase called third culture children, someone who has spent a part of their upbringing in more than one culture, bilingualism will be even more important as we navigate this global landscape. What strategies are you using to help your child?


About Michaela Chatman

Michaela Chatman is the founder of Camp Roadless Summer Visual and Performing Arts Summer Camp based in the Tokyo area. She has taught in Chicago, New York City, Hiroshima, and Tokyo. She has worked with children from ages 5-16. She is a dedicated fan and supporter of the arts. She performs locally in Tokyo with Kaguratei, a blues band. She is an active member in TELL:Exceptional Parents Group, Japan Affiliate of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum (JASCD), Tokyo Investment Group, and Pink Cow Connections Networking Group. For fun she organizes The Tokyo Lovers Pizza Meetup Group.
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