Monolingualism Can Be Cured

The title here, Monolingualism Can Be Cured, is from a poster my junior high Spanish teacher kept in her classroom. We all thought she was talking about the other mono, of course, and much snickering ensued. Ironically enough, I had this teacher for English class, since Spanish was only available for 9th graders, except when I became a 9th grader and then suddenly the rules were changed so that you had to be in 10th grade or higher to take a foreign language…. But that’s life in the Deep South where money doesn’t flow like sweet tea. We were generally pretty happy when we didn’t have to share books and could actually take them home to study.

I wouldn’t choose to grow up anywhere else, though. Mostly because then I would be an adult who says things like “wicked” and “friggin'” and “you guys,” not that there’s anything wrong with that. Insert sound track from “Seinfeld” here.

HRH has been more frustrating than the children and in-laws put together this morning, and I have decided to resist the urge to weep and gnash my teeth and instead address a subject that causes lots of, well, weeping and gnashing of teeth.


In some ways, I believe that we are all bilingual. I call my sister and say, “Wachall gawn doo fer Krissmus?” I call my Australian friend and ask, “What will you do for Christmas?” I speak one language when I’m happy, a more colorful one when I’m angry.

Multilingualism is a way of life for many peoples around the world. But for those of is in “international marriages?” It’s a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-didn’t topic.

I thought I would compile a list of things I have found necessary in imparting to my children the gift (or curse, depending on who you ask) of bilingualism.

1) Support from your spouse. Or at the very least, lack of resistance from your spouse.
2) Dogged determination.
3) A very thick skin.
4) Wicked good luck.

I wasn’t sure if I possessed any of these when we started on our bilingual experiment. Ideally, I would like my children to be as proficient in English as their American peers, though I realize this is a pretty unrealistic goal. At the very least, I wanted them to have a passive knowledge of English. That means I wanted them to be able to at least understand it, even if they couldn’t speak it.

We are fortunate in that English has some “prestige” in Japan. I think it would be much harder to persevere if the minority language (which means the language that is not the community language) was not highly valued or was seen as “low class.”

My son was born during a very busy time, career wise, for my husband. He was never home. In retrospect, this was good for Me First’s English. We had an almost completely English environment at home. I made the decision to always speak English to him everywhere, no matter who else was there. My in-laws had problems with this. Other new mothers in the community had problems with this. “Why do you speak English to your child when you can speak Japanese?” I have been asked on numerous occasions, most recently two days ago. The impression I get is that many people feel another language is something you fall back on when you can’t speak the “superior” majority language (language of the community.)

To his credit, though, HRH went with the plan, in spite of initial reservations. Well, he didn’t exactly go with the plan, which had been for each of us to speak our own language to the children. Me First’s first words were in English, and HRH would get lazy and switch to English pretty quickly.

My in-laws were both still working at the time and not constantly in our faces. Having them around moaning about not being able to understand their grandkids would have been a real guilt inducer for me and probably would have made me second guess myself.

Anyone who knows me will probably describe me as a stubborn mule, or maybe another member of the equidae family. (Yep, I looked that up.) Once I’ve invested time and effort into something, I find it really hard to give up. That also makes my husband a lucky equidae anal orifice, just my opinion of course. I wouldn’t describe myself as doggedly determined, though. That sounds too, um, hard. But once you get into a habit of speaking a certain language with someone, it is really hard to change. So maybe you just really need sporadic dogged determination and can leave the rest to inertia….

Next on my list is thick skin. If you don’t have one to start with, you would probably never find yourself in a foreign country. If you happened to find yourself without your thick skin in a foreign country, not to worry: you are pre-programmed to begin developing one within about 1.6 seconds of landing. I think I can precisely pinpoint the moment my emotional “skin” actually became thicker than that nasty, hard, white stuff I refer to as the “heel” of my foot. (I’m not actually sure what is under there since I haven’t seen it since it in years.) Any other former JETs or public school teacher’s assistants will remember it, too: the moment one was asked to read this story to a group of ninth graders about a tree that survived the bombing of Hiroshima. I blocked out can’t remember the name of the story. To my just-off-the-boat 23 year old self it felt like it should be called Blame It All On the Americans: An Introduction to the Warped Official Japanese View of WW2. It was in the English text, before the kids had studied it in history, mind you.

So my skin has grown pretty thick. Japanese people, on the whole, are pretty accomodating. They don’t have the same kind of deep seeded prejudices that we have in the US, but they also have no sense of political correctness. Today I heard some young men on the train commenting on “the foreigners” ie my children and I, and then moving on to talk about how foreigners have big boobies. This is so wrong on so many levels: my kids aren’t “foreigners,” just because I’m not Japanese doesn’t mean I don’t speak Japanese, my boobs aren’t really that big!! But anyway, skin continues to grow thicker every day. Practice makes perfect, I suppose.

But let’s forget the boobies and get back to the bilingualism, shall we?

We have had lots of good luck along the way, sometimes mixed with bad luck. We are lucky to live in the Hama where there are other English speaking families. Dad’s illness and death led to us spending a lot more time “at home” than we would have done otherwise. The kids had lots of chances to use their English with people who aren’t me. Yeah sure, they had to deal with Mommy being a loopy emotional mess, but they may very well have happened whether someone died or not. The kids English ability really improved in those weeks spent stateside. Lucky-lite. We are lucky to have been able to start an Saturday English school, and to have had a teacher fall right into our arms straight from Heaven. (Sometimes she lets me dust her wings.) We are lucky she gives lots of homework. We are lucky I’m a hard@ss who makes kids do said homework.

Lots of families succeed at teaching children two languages; many families don’t. Some families choose not to try. It’s not as important as teaching your children to be good people, in my opinion. Families will get grief from somewhere, no matter what they decide. I think it was my sister who said she had an acquaintance who said parents raising their children bilingually were her pet peeve. And this woman was a linguist! Others will moan over a lost opportunity for children who could have picked up another language with “no effort.” This is total bs, by the way, children are putting in a lot of effort! (Maybe I’ll make this MY pet peeve.)

At some point, ultimately, it’s up to the kids to educate themselves. Monolingualism can be truly cured only through individual effort. And some friggin’ luck doesn’t hurt.


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Rose
    Oct 31, 2011 @ 04:57:01

    I grew up in English-speaking Canada with both parents speaking almost exclusively Portuguese at home, especially in the young years. English came easily to me from school, tv, etc and I used to count myself so lucky that I spoke Portuguese, too. As I got older I realized that I didn’t work hard enough at it, as you describe, because I didn’t correct my grammar or expand my vocabulary. Now I’m self-conscious because my Portugese is that of a 9 year old, with worse grammar.

    I taught in Japan briefly. It wasn’t so hard to be different there when you couldn’t understand what people were saying, I imagine it’s much harder for you. Good luck with that skin-thickening!


    • hamakkomommy
      Nov 05, 2011 @ 21:01:37

      Oooo, I love hearing from adults about their bilingual experiences growing up! I used to work with “returnees,” children who had lived abroad and were taking English classes to maintain their ability, and they had lots of the same problems you described. One girl in particular spoke extremely well, but her writing was still at the first grade level. Others were missing age appropriate vocabulary and grammar patterns, but they had good ways of getting around it.

      My kids have some grammar mistakes that seem to have fossilized, like saying “That’s my’s!” I’m hoping learning to read will help them help themselves…

      Can you read and write in Portuguese as well?


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