Mar 20, 2012

Writing names in multiple languages

Happy spring equinox!

This is a day off work in Japan, and sometimes it is nice enough to spend out in the park under the almost blooming cherry blossoms. Not this year though, it's cloudy and grey and cold.

My daughter starts kindergarten on Thursday so I am spending the day adding her name to her uniform and bags (4 homemade, 1 purchased backpack) and all of her tools. Ever wrapped a name label around a chopstick? It's a special kind of talent.

The big question I encounter on these days is which language her name should be written in. I've talked before about how there are 3 different syllabaries in Japanese; kanji, katakana, and hiragana. Technically my kids both have kanji names - but these are too difficult to learn in kindergarten (in my son's case, a kanji selected by my mother-in-law, I'm guessing he'll be in university before he can write it). However, most of my friends write my kids' names in katakana in text messages. At first I was a little put off by this as I thought it was because my kids are not full-Japanese. But then I realized they do that with all the kids whose kanji they don't know.  There are a lot of possibilities and it's considered rude to get the kanji wrong, so you can't go wrong with katakana.

Hiragana is the syllabary that the kids learn in their second and third years of kindergarten (it's a 3-year programme here, from ages 3-6). It's the one my son is learning now. When he started kindy I wrote everything on his stuff in hiragana. At the time his English was stronger than his Japanese and he looks much more caucasian than his sister or many of his mixed-race friends, so I didn't want him to stick out for something as silly as his mother writing his name in English on his stuff.

I've done a 180 on this issue in 2 short years though. This time everything I need to handwrite on labels is going to be written in English.

First, there is no hiding that my son is part-foreign so I think that I was silly in the first place to even think that something like the way his name is written would matter.

Second, I have realized just how hard it is for kids to tell their stuff apart in the first year. At 3 there is almost no kid who can recognize the differences between their name and someone else's. That's why the kindergartens use symbols next to each kids shoe and bag locker. They don't tell us in advance what those symbols are going to be, and they change with each year anyway, so we can't match the symbols on our labels to theirs. I know how often this happens because Spinky came home with someone else's clothes at least once a week during his first year. It happens less now that he can read his name. Of course that doesn't work if he doesn't even look...

I do think that kids can tell the difference between Japanese and English letters at 3, even if they can't figure out what those specific differences are. Babies younger than a year can distinguish between spoken languages. Since my daughter will most likely be the only child with a native English-speaking parent in her grade, she will likely be the only one who has name labels in English, so I hope that she and other kids will be able to identify the clothes on sight. I am hoping this works in her favour and I spend less time calling X-chan's mother to track down her gym uniform.

My other reason for writing things out in English is just to give her a little more exposure to environmental print. I want her to recognize the letters in her name organically. In a place with so little English every little bit helps!

Is your child's name written differently in your majority and minority languages? Which do you choose?


  1. It's a pity the weather ruined plans for a hanami.
    I would love to see a picture of a sucessfully labelled chopstick - that would be an art!
    Good luck to you and your daughter when she starts kindergarten.

  2. Great idea. I`ve been thinking about how to right M`s name on her labels for things. i think I will go ahead and use English. She actually does know all her letters now, not sure if she actually knows her name or not. I point it out to her but no response, she won`t even say her name. For the most part I think she refers to her self as "This"......not sure why

  3. Most kindergartens tend to insist that the names are written in hirigana, but our kindergarten asked that all names were written in kanji - they believed that the kids naturally pick up the patterns and remember the kanji quickly. And they were right - all the kids from about age 3 were going around looking at signs saying "that's the naka from Nakashima's name" etc. I do the same with English classes and most of my 5 year old classes can read not only their own names, but all their classmates names just from seeing them so often. Good luck with all the labelling.... the good thing about having to use kanji was that I pleaded that I couldn't write it nicely enough so my husband had to do it all!

  4. Here I print my kids name ( in stickers) in both English and Mandarin. However when it comes to labelling other items I write their whole name in English and Hanyu pinyin.

  5. Sounds complicated! ; ) A very interesting post though!!Luckily I don´t have that problem!!

  6. That's interesting that you've changed your opinion on it, as I've been thinking "Must make sure everything is as Japanese as possible so she fits in" - a long way off for us though I know. Now that she's started how has it gone? Did the school say anything?


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