Jan 24, 2012

Environmental Print

In trying to teach my 4-year old son to read in his heritage language, I keep coming back to Learning to Read and Write in the Multilingual Family, which I read last autumn. This book stresses the importance of relevance for keeping kids motivated, and suggests environmental print as a way to keep kids motivated.

Since then I have been collecting environmental print in English at a variety of levels for my kids to use in the future. I have also been keeping a notebook of places where I see English signs that are correct so I can point them out to my kids. I was surprised at how many there are! I do remember a decade or so back when those were the only things I saw, as I blanked out on everything in Japanese I could not read! I wonder if my kids do the same before they can read?

Thank goodness for the internet, I have to say. I remember back in high school German, my teacher would produce laminated menus that she had gotten her friends in Munich to send - they were quite the treasure! Now I can bring anything I want up and print it out. I even have a Pinterest Board dedicated to environmental print in English.

The problem isn't finding good English examples. For us the problem is identifying good English vs. bad English. For every correctly spelled "toilet" there is a "Moter Rand" or "No Smorking" sign. Plus, there are so many Japanese words put into the alphabet for stylistic purposes. It's hard for my son to differentiate between these, but I guess only time and practice will take care of that.

We have another problem. In Japanese there are three syllabaries; hiragana, katakana, and kanji (complicated ones known as Chinese characters). Kindergarten kids learn hiragana and then katakana and kanji are introduced in elementary school. My son points out the hiragana he sees, but there is even less of that around than English! Unbelievable! Hiragana is used to join kanji and indicate tenses etc so you see it in books but rarely on signs. The fire hydrant sign above is typical - English above and the kanji only below.

This Mos Burger slogan is another example of environmental print in our neighbourhood. It has English, katakana, and kanji. No hiragana.
So now I am wondering if I should be making an effort to gather and post hiragana environmental print? I am leaning toward no just because I want to concentrate on English during our limited time together. Besides, everyone else seems to learn hiragana without that, right?

See the follow-up to the this post at Environmental Print Part II.


  1. The only places that I remember seeing hiragana quite frequently was at train stations! I learned Hiragana a little better than katakana at first, so when I was taking trains I could always er...usually see where I was.

    Not sure if this is helpful or not!

  2. I've often giggled at the funny signs I see in other countries with strange English translations or spellings but I never considered it's impact on budding readers.

  3. Really interesting post! I hadn´t heard of Environmental Print before I read your post so it´s given me some great ideas of how to incorporate it although my daughter is still too young to notice it at the moment!

  4. I agree - fascinating! I don't know anything about Japanese. But what you say seems to makes sense that if these are the forms taught in school, that your child will get what he needs without the extra help. And it would be better to focus your time on English.
    Like Tracey, I, too, am hearing about Environmental Print for the first time. It makes sense, though. I really like your Pinterest Board, too! There are indeed so many great resources online these days!
    I found your post through the Blogging Carnival and look forward to reading more!


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