Aug 16, 2013

Fighting the Embarassment

I speak only English to my kids. Even when we are out and about, unless the conversation directly involves a Japanese speaker around us, I keep it in the language they have the least exposure to. They don't always speak back to me in English, but I'm hard-headed enough to keep it up. Most people we see around a lot know this and don't get excited about it.

But in April my son started elementary school, and therefore has a new afterschool setup. Twice a week I pick him up from the afterschool place, and always greet him in English. The other kids seem absolutely mystified by this, and my son is really embarrassed. He's never been embarrassed before! They ask him if he can speak English, or they ask me if he can speak English. But he never ever speaks English in front of them. I talked to him about it, wondering if he wanted me to keep it in Japanese. He said that he hates the question. They can't speak English to him so what does it matter if he can or not?

My son has golden curly hair and freckles. It's not just the linguistic ability that sets him apart from his peers. He will never be able to pass like my daughter does. This means extra attention, and so far he has been okay with that. But from elementary school he has wanted to be taken seriously as a Japanese kid, so much that every picture he draws for school involves the Japanese flag and also usually WW2 Zero planes. These are things most six year olds in Japan don't even think about, but having visited Pearl Harbour and heard things like "60 years ago your parents' countries were at war!", he is pretty sensitive to this issue.

We ended up deciding that he would speak Japanese when he was with friends outside who aren't Japanese speakers but it was fine for me to speak English. Not the best outcome for me but I completely respect his wishes at this time, and we'll continue to talk about it in future as his feelings change.

But recently a new issues has cropped up. We have had a Japanese visitor in our home. We practice Minority Language at Home (ML@H) which means even my husband tries his best to speak English with the kids when we are all here. But what happens when someone is here who doesn't understand?

I'll admit to being stubborn. When I am talking to our visitor, I speak Japanese of course, but when I ask my son to clear the dishes, I won't ask him in Japanese. Maybe this was rude! My husband immediately reverted to Japanese, wanting to make our guest feel at home. But my son converted his feelings of hospitality into something different. He decided to interpret what I said for our guest, without any prompting on my part.

I was pleased as punch! Interpreting is a very difficult skill, and even though he wasn't speaking English, he was showing comprehension and that he is a better host than I am. Spinky did a pretty good job. I asked if he was too embarrassed to speak English but he wasn't embarrassed, just excited to have a visitor and wanting to help out.

Do you speak your minority language in front of others? Do you think it's rude when someone speaks a language you don't understand in front of you? Is politeness more important than practicing a minority language?

This post is for the Raising Multilingual Children Blogging Carnival, hosted right here at Perogies & Gyoza on August 26, 2013. Please comment with a link if you would like to submit a post!


  1. My neighbours are from Cyprus and her mother speaks quite a bit of English, but they always speak greek together. When I am there, her mom tries her best to speak with me, though some things are much easier and clearer to tell her daughter who then explains to me. I don't take any offense and am glad that her mom is willing to go the effort to include me in the conversation.

  2. Very glad to hear that you are not offended and still involved in the conversation!

  3. My children are bilingual Swedish English, me being the English part of our life here in Sweden, and all three of my children have gone through the questions of "do you speak English" (I also have identical girls and they get asked are you twins?) so I think its always a part of the children's excitement and curiosity that they ask...

    I speak Swedish with the teachers, but English with my children... and sometimes I can hear other children asking what language I am using... so sometimes the question is about confirming that they have worked out WHAT language is being used... so its not so much of a question to find out if he can speak English, but a question to confirm that they have worked out WHAT language it is, a brilliant way to boost self esteem ... maybe not for your son... my son was also much more sensitive than my daughters about this...
    But now he had passed all of this and has worked out who he is at school.
    I find that many children over the year have run to me to show me their few words of English - and when they started learning English in school there was a time when my son thought it was embaressing again (as he did not like all eyes on him) but has cometo accept his role as someone who can help others as he know more...
    My girls who are older have just started to learn German too and have discovered forthe first time what it is like to learn a language ... as they have not had to formally learn a language yet like their friends... they now have much more understanding of how hard it was for their friends and why they were so interested in them to help them...

    Over the years I have worked with a lot of bilingual children in preschool settings and I have noticed that children do get excited about languages...
    I have wokred mostly in Swedish settings and there the children LOVE to ask me about English all the time... it is a curiosity...

    I think if you explain why you speak English for your guest they will totally understand and support the whole process, especially as your son is translating... that really is a win win situation...

  4. Growing up in Canada surrounded by bilingual friends speaking other languages at home I always felt left out - not by my friends and their conversations with their family in Latvian/Mandarin/Yugoslavian/whatever else, but because I didn't speak another language at home! I was so upset to be so boring and "without culture!" Don't worry about your guest, I am sure they will understand (and get a kick out of your son translating, that is GREAT!!)


    I will submit a post.

    You have a nice blog. Sorry to hear your son has experienced embarrassment. My son, so far, has never experienced it due to English. He has been embarrassed by my excessively loud talking, though. He is ten.


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