Oct 28, 2011

A Language Explosion

For the last three weeks, I hear almost no Japanese in my house. This was because my parents were visiting, and the kids knew that they would have to speak English or not be understood.

This has never happened before in our house. When we went to Hawaii in February Domba was still barely talking, and what she did say was mostly in Japanese. Of course in Hawaii so many people speak Japanese, and so even the Americans there would speak to her in Japanese, and there were many Japanese people around. The grandparents and her uncle and aunt spoke to her in English and she still answered in Japanese, or with signs. Spinky did pretty good answering but most of what he came up with was still in Japanese, and he needed quite a few reminders to speak in English.

This visit, however, it seems that everything went right. First, I have been talking it up. We have been counting down to the visit since March. I have been reminding the kids ever so gently (maybe!) that they need to practice their English so their grandparents can understand them when they come to stay. It worked enough that General Spinky could be found telling his sister off for speaking Japanese when I left the room occasionally and he was in his bossy mood. But I wasn't sure that it would actually transfer over to results.

But, BAM! My parents arrived and it was like a lightbulb went off. That language their mama is always speaking? Useful. You can actually use it to get through to people. People they love!

I don't think I hear a word of Japanese out of my son's mouth all three weeks. Even when we went to practice for his Sports Day (the BIG EVENT of every kindergarten), and it was just me and him practicing a dance with all the other moms and kids, he spoke to me, in English, in front of his friends. This is a first! Luckily there was a fist pump in the dance so I didn't look like an idiot when I celebrated.

Then there was Domba. In September, Domba was a chatty little thing. However, outside of a couple of songs (like her mashup of Twinkle Twinkle and Baa Baa Black Sheep) the English vocab she actually used was very small. I could count her words on my digits (if I took off my socks) the number of English words she actually knew. But that kind of exploded when my parents arrived.

Here's the thing. I'm scared to death that this won't continue. I need to understand why this happened and recreate that now that my parents are far away.

In Domba's case, I think a lot had to do with her being out of daycare. Spinky kept going to kindy and we met him afterwards, but Domba was at home with my parents and I all day. There was no escape from English. The words she had been hearing and understanding for so long actually became necessary on the couple of days I had to work and she stayed with my parents. Sink or swim, baby Domba.

Spinky, however, was really enjoying the attention. No matter what, there was someone around to listen to his silly stories and protest when he cheated at soccer. (No, I don't think the score is You-474, Granda-0). Mama might be washing dishes but someone will feed his ego. He loved it.

Unfortunately Domba isn't going to be quitting daycare anytime soon. And Spinky will not have my undivided attention all day everyday. But what I can do is put more effort into recreating that. Usually it's Mr. Medea who is out playing soccer but I will make more of an effort with that. I will sneak down to the daycare at lunch sometimes for a bit of mama-daughter girl talk time. And I'm going to make sure they remember how awesome it was to have their grandparents here and communicate with them. I've already framed some pictures.

How do you recreate the ideal situation for your heritage language?


  1. I have no advice but I am so happy for you! It is not just because your parents were here it is because you have been putting in so much effort lately with the kids and it is paying off- they are on there way to becoming fully billingual! It must make you so happy too!

    I almost cried when you write Spinky spoke to you in English at sports carnival in front of his friends. How precious!

    Are you still trying to do ML@H even though your hubs English was not so great? I would love to do this but in a simliar boat to you. Especially now we live so close to the in-laws Noah is starting to understand more Japanese where as in january I don`t think he understood any. I am excited about our trip home next March and hoping that by then Noah will be speaking a bit more {he will be 27 months}...and that Shion will absorb a lot!

    Will your parents be able to come most years, or you go back there? I think that is an important thing- ie, hearing English and using it with more than one person. Ie, skype chats even are great!

  2. We are still trying with ML@H. My husband tries really hard, actually, but sometimes it's hard for him to speak to the kids in English in front of people in the community. That's a pretty bad habit, but still pretty ingrained so he wants to work on that.
    I think that will be a great age for Noah to go to Oz, and Shion too! We went to Canada for 7 weeks when Spinky was about that age and his language really grew then. At that time he was only speaking English to me even in Japan because I was on maternity leave. It was only starting kindergarten that made Japanese his more dominant language. That's why I've decided to keep Domba out of kindy until April, I don't want to lose those hard-earned gains too early!

    I don't know when my parents will be able to come again, and I don't know when I can go again either. It's so much money and a lot to coordinate with missing work for so much time. Plus with Japan increasing income taxes I think most of our vacation savings will be wiped out. Very scary. Video chatting is our saviour now.

  3. We had a similar situation last year - our then 3 year old was mixing and matching like a mad man until the day Oma arrived and he started speaking in complete sentences in German, starting with making her read a minority language book to him that he had picked out hours earlier as soon as she had arrived.

    When she left, he then tried to go back to his regular mixing - but with gentle prodding on my part, he kept up the German (and has been improving ever since).

    It totally seems that as time goes by things become easier, though I'm not holding my breath exactly. I know enough people with older kids who absolutely refuse to speak the minority language, though they continue to understand it.

    But back to your kids - you can do it!

  4. English DVDs! The Dora series and others. I work full-time and my kids have been to Japanese daycare from 9 months and 3 months. (When I say I work full-time, it means that during the worst of times, I sometimes see my kids only on weekends.) Their English is not as strong as their cousins back home but definitely much better than I expected. I totally credit the Dora series, the Little Einstein series and the Wheels on the Bus series. I would happily pass these off to you but it seems that my boys have rediscovered these recently and are watching them all over again. And having fun with them, even though they are much older now. If my boys do not show any talent as they grow, I think they will do well enough as translators. We speak in English and they translate quite a few things for me.


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