Raising Bilingual Kids: How to Help You Child Learn Japanese at Home

Raising Bilingual Kids: How to Help You Child Learn Japanese at Home
Team Nishimachi
learning Japanese at home_young student working in a workbook at her desk in school

Becoming fluent in a second language will help your child improve their cognitive functions, boost their confidence and provide them the opportunity to grow beyond a single culture. It will strengthen their resumes and is likely to advance their careers.

“People who speak more than one language have improved memory, problem-solving and critical-thinking skills, enhanced concentration, ability to multitask and better listening skills,” writes Leading with Language.

And those qualities are what an increased amount of jobs are looking for with the number of positions in the U.S. geared towards bilingual candidates more than doubling between 2010 and 2015.

It’s clear that your child will see countless benefits from becoming bilingual - it's why you’re interested in enrolling them in a school with a strong Japanese language program.

But with 30% of your child’s input having to be in the additional language, you need to do more than solely rely on the school to raise them to be fully bilingual, according to Marsha Rosenberg, Language Development Expert who manages Tokyo Association of Foreign Speech and Language Pathologists. Rosenberg is also a former Speech and Language Pathologist at Nishimachi International School.

According to Chika Keough, our Department Leader of Japanese, the above statement is something she encourages parents to understand.

“Parents and home support play a large part in their child’s Japanese language development,” Keough said. “The Japanese class is only one hour or less a day, depending on the grade-level.”

But where is this rich, 30% input coming from?

This is an important question to answer according to Erin Kent, Literacy Strategist for international schools.

“Parents need to understand it doesn’t all come from them,” said Kent. “You have to set up an environment where kids are interested in the language and the activity, and that it is coming from multiple sources.”

According to Kent, this can be friends, family members, teachers, coaches, any person that your child is communicating with will help them discover new terms and concepts.

Below we outline three tips to reinforce language learning beyond the school doors.


1. Setting Goals on How to Raise Bilingual Children

Keough, Rosenberg, and Kent all agree on the first step: parents need to set clear and realistic goals for their children.

A Harvard Business study revealed 14% of individuals who have goals are 10 times more successful than those without goals. The study further went on to illustrate that 3% of people who wrote their goals down are three times more successful than the 14% who did not write them down.

Moral of the story? You need to not only set goals, but also write them down to ensure success.

Setting goals gives us clarification, motivation, and direction.

Are you wanting your child to complete higher-level academics in both languages? Or are you more concerned with your child being able to be conversational in their second language so they can use it in the community?

“Parents, in most cases, leave it up to the school and then are disappointed when the goal isn’t met,” Rosenberg said. “You need to set your goal and then plan for that goal.”

In addition to setting realistic, clear, and concise goals, Kent encourages parents to go one step further and include the child in the discussion and focus on the child’s passion.

“When you’re setting goals, if you base it around their passion, the academic skills will be absorbed, and your child will also get to do something they enjoy,” said Kent.

Possible questions to ask your child include:

  • “What do you want to be better at?”
  • “What are you excited to learn about?”

Once you have a comprehensive understanding of you - and your child’s - wants and goals, you then need to plan.


2. Planning to Reinforce Bilingualism at Home

“One of the most important things is to plan, not to think it’s going to happen on its own,” said Rosenberg. “If you don’t plan it, it won’t happen.”

And now that you know exactly what your child is interested in learning about - be it cooking, coding, sports, arts, etc. - you can incorporate that into your planning.

As mentioned above, in order to be bilingual your child needs 30% input in this second language, you need to ask yourself the following questions:

  • Where is it going to come from?
  • Who is it going to come from?
  • How will it happen?

“If you’re a bicultural family [living in Japan], maybe one parent is going to use Japanese, and the other parent will speak in English. Maybe you will just use Japanese at home,” Rosenberg suggests.

You’re going to need a detailed plan outlining how exactly they are going to put their language skills to practice. Keep in mind the resources you have at your fingertips:

several children running a race on a track at school
  • Use a planner
  • Enroll them in after-school activities in their second language
  • Organize playdates with a family who speaks that second language
  • When you’re on a family outing, have your children converse in their second language
  • Put them in a summer camp where they use this second language
  • Get them a tutor

“The school can give the base and they can do a good job teaching the language, but one hour a day is not 30% of your day,” Rosenberg said. “Whatever you’re doing to use the second language in a communicative way, you have to plan how your child is going to gain the second language.”

And according to Kent, this process is much easier if your child is involved with decision-making.

“If they are involved, it means more achievement and more engagement,” said Kent.


3. Immersing Your Children in their Second Language

Now that you have clearly defined goals and a well laid out plan for raising bilingual children, you need to make sure you’re immersing them in this second language.

“I enrolled my son on a Japanese hockey team and he stayed on it throughout his schooling and after he graduated,” Rosenberg said.

According to Rosenberg, the pace in which her son picked up the language greatly increased after putting him on the team.

“You need to continue to be immersed in the language in a significant and constructive way, it’s not just academic learning, it is learning the language meaningfully,” Rosenberg said. “The only way your children are going to learn a second language is to do something outside of the school; it’s not just learning the language, it’s using the language.”

Some ideas to help you with raising bilingual children are:

immersing your child in a second language_student working at her desk in the classroom smiling

According to Kent, the more social the activity, the more likely your child is to absorb the language.

“Language is a social thing, and kids are motivated by social activities,” said Kent. “They will be persuaded to speak and to work on their language because it’s not just learning this thing that they love, it’s making friends in the process.”

With regards to learning Japanese and/or English, Keough has some guidance for both non-native and native Japanese parents in raising bilingual children.


A Note For Non-Native Japanese Parents

Raising bilingual children in Japanese is not like learning Spanish or French for English speakers.

For English speakers, learning Spanish or French is easier because they are similar to their mother tongue.

According to the U.S. Foreign Service Institute, learning the aforementioned languages takes between 24 and 30 weeks - or between 600 and 750 class hours.

With regards to that same source, complex languages such as Japanese, Korean, Arabic, Cantonese, and Mandarin, it takes up to 2,200 hours of learning in school - or 88 weeks - for a student to reach “professional working proficiency in the language”.

And according to Keough, children can take even longer.

“Parents need to understand their children learn languages differently,” Keough said. “They need to be patient and trusting of their children and their teachers, maintaining strong communication with the teaching staff.”

Parents need to be role model in learning all aspects of Japan.

“They need to show that they enjoy Japan, the people, the language, and the culture,” Keough said.


A Note For Native Japanese Parents

a smiling mom hugging her smiling son from behind

For native Japanese children, learning English while maintaining Japanese is no easy task.

Children who learn English as a second language need a lot of support in both languages.

According to Keough, it’s a myth that young children simply learn languages like sponges, without any structured learning or support.

Just like any skill, what children learn in the classroom needs to be reinforced at home.

“Parents need to show interest in their children’s language studies,” Keough said. “They have to have a commitment and give support whenever necessary.”

Raising a bilingual child is something that needs to be continually worked on. As outlined above, you need to make clear goals, plans, and immerse them in the language in whatever means possible. Another tactic is enrolling them in a school with a strong language program.

Learn more about our Japanese Language Program.

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