The Bilingual Dilemma

“Mommy, why didn’t you teach us Japanese when we were younger?”

“Yeah, why didn’t you talk to us in Japanese when we were babies so we could learn to speak it like my bilingual friends at school?”

 Why didn’t I, indeed?  I am certain that if I had spoken to our kids exclusively in Japanese as babies, they would have become native speakers of the language by now.  It wouldn’t be a foreign language to them, which is how they view Japanese in spite of the fact that they’ve been enrolled in Japanese school once a week since they were each in kindergarten.  The word they know the best? “Shizukani! Be quiet!” the term they most often hear from their Japanese teacher during their 90-minute weekly class.

We do have friends who spoke their native language exclusively to their babies, which requires some diligence and patience, as these kids often become late talkers.  Gulp – who would wish that on their baby?  But from what I understand, eventually they do open their mouths and start speaking…in their mother’s native tongue!  They also pick up English just by being immersed in it, and the end result is a bilingual baby.  In fact, we know one couple who spoke two different languages, and they did this experiment on their child with the amazing result: their child is trilingual!

I’m ashamed to admit that our children also could have been trilingual, as David speaks Cantonese and I speak Japanese.  However, we both emigrated from our respective countries when we were fairly young – 8 years old – so that English has really become our primary language, particularly around our household.  It just would be odd for me to be talking to our babies in halting Japanese.  But perhaps I should have, anyway.  Babies wouldn’t know that I was speaking in baby Japanese.  Now the window of opportunity has passed, and they will forever lead their doomed life speaking in only one tongue, English, all because their mother failed.  Big time.

I must admit that life was crazy when we had two very young children at our home, and we were simply trying to make it day by day.  Yes, we were in survival mode!  If I could fit in a shower and some sleep between all the diaper changes, I was good.  Are the kids breathing?  Check.  Are they clean?  Check.  Are they fed?  Yes.  The last thing I needed was the added stress of trying to talk to my babies in my no-longer-native language.  In addition, the thought of having a slow speaker was scary enough.  Even this Panda Mom has a little tiger left in her.  All of my friends’ babies were reaching their mile stones at a much faster rate than our child – sleeping through the night, rolling over, crawling, sitting up, walking, etc.  I couldn’t imagine delaying our kids in this major milestone, one of the most basic skills that a human could possess: speaking.  No way!

All that amounted to our kids now blaming us for not raising them with multilingual skills.  I do take solace in the fact that a) I learned English late, yet I now sound like a native, and b) I know quite a few Caucasians who decided to learn Japanese later in life and have succeeded.  Many of our missionary friends, for example, now speak much better Japanese than even I do, and they didn’t get started until college or even later!  Therefore, I reason, if my kids eventually want to become native Japanese or Cantonese speakers, they can become missionaries and go live in Tokyo or Hong Kong and learn the language themselves.

They do speak English quite well, sometimes too well now that they are entering their teenage years.  We’re just pleased that they are basically well-adjusted young people who can communicate and express themselves just fine.

I’m obviously not a Tiger Mom.  I’m just glad they were eventually potty trained, and now I get to sleep at night.  That’s good enough for this Panda!

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