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Humanising Language Teaching
Year 6; Issue 2; March 04

Short Article

You Speak what you Like

John Yamamoto Wilson, Tokyo, Japan

I'm English, living in Japan and married to a Japanese woman. About four years ago, a French colleague told me, "John, tu fais une grosse erreur". He had a child who was rather older than mine (who was about two and half years old at that time) and he was ticking me off because I sometimes spoke to my child in Japanese. He had a policy of only speaking French to his child, in order to ensure that he would grow up speaking both French and Japanese (which the child was learning by going to Japanese nursery).

His position is slightly different from mine, because his wife is Swedish (she, too, had a policy of speaking to her child as far as possible in Swedish, though she and her husband converse together in French) and they expect one day to return to Europe. I don't want to go into the ins and outs of the linguistic development of his child, because part of the answer I gave him on that occasion was that there are many ways of going about raising a child to be bilingual, and I'm not so much concerned with commenting on anyone else's way though I will discuss some of the dangers, difficulties and pitfalls in what follows as with explaining my way. I will simply say that his child is now in a French-speaking school in Japan, that French is his first language, that his Japanese is rather weaker but still good, and he has some passive comprehension of Swedish, but doesn't really speak it.

The reason I am writing about this for Humanising Language Teaching is because the central part of the answer I gave him was that I valued my relationship with my daughter more highly than any theory of language acquisition. To that I added that I didn't think it mattered anyway, because what I might lose by not adhering to his theory I would gain twice over by adhering to my own. My theory was that, if she liked me, she would want to speak my language, so I would win twice I'd have a close relationship with my daughter and I'd succeed in raising a bilingual child, but even if that didn't work out I should at least succeed in having a reasonably good relationship with her and teaching her some English.

I also said that, in Welsh-speaking parts of Wales, where bilingualism is the norm, the aim is for children to be fully bilingual by the age of eleven, in which case we both had a long way to go before we could claim success or admit failure, and pointed out that, if we're talking theories, it's a fairly well-accepted theory that learning proceeds by relating the known to the unknown, in which case it is perhaps not a good idea to bombard the child with equal doses of different languages. It would make more sense for one language to "lead" and the other (or others) to "follow". That way, the child can make links and analogies between the stronger, leading language that will facilitate his or her acquisition of the second or subsequent language(s).

Finally, I pointed out that bilingualism is also the norm in many regions of the world where there is a high level of illiteracy, where people haven't been exposed to any academic theories and succeed by just doing what comes naturally. I was thinking of Morocco, because I've been there, but it would apply to many parts of Africa and to some other parts of the world.

I also reflected, though I think I was tactful enough not to mention it to him, that his child had been much slower in producing language than Alice. Alice was producing consecutive sentences in Japanese at the age of twenty months (Mami wa ue ni iru deshou? Dewa, Arisu mo ue ni ikitai [Mummy's upstairs, isn't she? Well, Alice wants to go upstairs too]) and by the time she was two she was fairly fluent and could, for example, control a double negative (Arisu wa ikitakunai to iwanakatta deshou [Alice didn't say she doesn't want to go, did she?]; referring to herself in the third person is something she's only recently grown out of). By contrast, at the age of two my friend's child appeared to understand what was said to him, but said very little in response. I wondered if it might not be frustrating to have to devote so much energy to acquiring receptive skills in (in his case) three languages that productive skills were significantly reduced. Of course, boys are generally reckoned to be slower at acquiring their first language than girls, and the disparity may perhaps have been due to nothing more than that.

It seems to me that my ideas on this issue are a kind of self-contained cluster, pivoting around one central idea, the idea that my relationship with my child should come first, and the language-speaking ability would spring from that. This is something I felt very strongly even when she was a baby. If I'd insisted on speaking English I ran the risk of being an irritating distraction to her. She was getting on with the serious business of making sense of the world around her a Japanese world and here was this weirdo with a big nose coming along and complicating the picture by refusing to be part of that world and imposing some other world on her.

Perhaps with a different child I might have felt differently, but in Alice's case I felt there was a very real risk that she might just decide I was too much trouble to be bothered with and turn her back on me and devote herself to adjusting to the Japanese environment she was living in. I think I was right about this; now, at the age of six, she gets quite impatient with me sometimes when I don't understand something in Japanese, but at least she's generally got enough time for me to slow down and explain. I think if I hadn't met her halfway when she was small there's a very real risk she wouldn't be taking pity on my difficulty in following her conversations in Japanese now, and that would create a gulf between us, especially in the home, where she and her mother usually (but not always) speak together in Japanese.

Anyway, from the earliest days, I settled on using bits of English with her, but also a lot of Japanese, especially when the content of what I wanted to say was more complicated. I should add, at this point, that the main language my wife and I use when speaking together is English, so there was a fair bit of "L2 input" (to use the jargon) at that level, and periodic visits to English-speaking countries (especially to England, where Alice has a grandmother, an aunt and uncle, and two cousins) were obviously an important boost.

My French friend was concerned that, because of my flexible approach, Alice might become confused. He felt that his child would separate the languages out clearly in his mind because they were associated with different people or situations (French = father, Swedish = mother, Japanese = nursery). I didn't think this was a problem because Japanese and English were separated radically for Alice by level of acquisition. She had been speaking in Japanese for a long time before producing (at 26 months) her first English sentence ("Where's the cat?"). Being so much more advanced in Japanese I felt she would hardly muddle it up with English.

Even by the time my friend and I had this conversation I already had strong evidence that I was right about this. There are frequent occasions when, even though I'm speaking English, certain Japanese words creep into my conversation. For example, I might say, "I didn't have time to eat my bentou [packed lunch] today" or, "Stop being shitsukoi [irritatingly persistent]". Even before the age of two, Alice would laugh when I did this and say (in Japanese), "Daddy's mixing English and Japanese!"

On another tack, several of my colleagues have spent a small fortune sending their children to international schools here in Japan, only to discover when the child is in his or her teens (i.e., when it's too late, at least without a huge amount of coaching and extra effort on the part of the child) that the system has failed them, and the child is not fully fluent either in Japanese or in English. These children can handle everyday conversation fluently in both languages, but they don't have the language skills which would normally be required at, say, university level. They'd come adrift trying to read a Japanese newspaper or a Dickens novel. I know some parents in cases like this who, in addition to not fully sharing a language with their children, are also relatively estranged from them. So, while there may be more than one way to succeed in raising a bilingual child, there are certainly ways to fail, some of them very expensive ways, and the failure may involve a double blow, whereby the child not only fails to become fully bilingual but also fails to establish emotional closeness with one or other parent.

Alice is a couple of months past her sixth birthday now, and her Japanese continues to be one jump ahead of her English. Her sentence structure and vocabulary are wider in Japanese than in English, and she still has difficulty with some of the sounds of English (she says "fink" for "think", "tank you" for "thank you" and "bery" for "very"; interestingly, only the last can really be considered to be transfer of a Japanese approximant), but when she speaks English she's lively and inventive and sensitive to nuance. One of my all-time favourites is something she said about six months ago: "Oh, mummy, you're so childish!" Then, slyly, and with a sidelong glance at me: "You can't call me childish, can you? Because I am a child!" I can't guarantee that she will acquire complete bilingual fluency by the age of eleven, but I think I can say that she is on track.

In conclusion, then, I would recommend the approach I'm taking to anyone in a similar position to me. It gives a good chance of being emotionally close to one's child and of leading to full bilingualism, and a virtual guarantee that, if nothing else, one's child will at least have native speaker fluency in one language. But I would go further than that and say that, in general, it is probably wiser for teachers to make their relationship with their students a higher priority than simply working through a programme or agenda. It is said that students will learn best when given positive reasons to do so, but reasons based on logic (e.g., "It will help you to get a better job") don't on the whole cut as much ice as reasons based on affect (e.g., "I really like my teacher").

Of course, I am not suggesting that one should sacrifice one's teaching goals simply in order to "get along" with one's students. I am merely pointing out that students are more likely to want to do well if they get on well with their teacher. Even if the student does not make significant progress at that time, providing the teacher-student relationship is good he or she is likely to remain well-disposed towards the subject and may go on to make progress at some later stage, whereas if the relationship is not good the student may well switch off altogether. To put it another way, it is not altogether frivolous to say "Children", or "People", in answer to the question, "What do you teach?"

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