Heavy Hearted

Me First is being demoted in his English class. He just can’t keep up with the other kids, most of whom are older than him. We’ve worked really hard over the past few years, plodding through bit by bit, little by little, every single day.

He has learned to read, and pretty well! His writing isn’t as good as the other kids, and his spelling? It’s like reading Chaucer. Without the puffy pants.

But this feels like my failure.

He has a mom who is a native English speaker, after all, and the other kids do not. Dad is the native speaker, or Mom is from some other country altogether but taught her children English.

I am the only non-Asian mom in his class. And this is the difference, I think. My priorities are different. Bedtime is non-negotiable. Their kids stay up to do homework. I insist my children play. They insist their children read. I worry most about how they get along with other kids at school. They worry more about grades.

I don’t see pushing the children into a certain school and obtaining a diploma from xx大学 as my ultimate goal as a mother. Actually, I think that’s for the kids to decide and work for themselves.

So in this instance, we are “behind.” But I hope that in the long run, my approach will help foster a love of reading and learning. But I guess we’ll see.


10 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. DS
    Oct 31, 2012 @ 12:26:43

    As a fellow gaijin parent, and as a language educator, I can with confidence tell you two factors that are HUGE in developing your childrens’ bilingual skills.

    a/ What is your home/play language? If possible, it should be English
    b/ What language does your spouse use with your kids? Again, it should be English

    The “one parent one language” system falls short quite often. The minority language (English in Japan) needs all the support and input you can possibly provide. From you, but especially from your husband. HE is the key. If he doesnt support your efforts, and insists on speaking J-go to you and the kids, you are going to have trouble. I’ve heard loads of excuses, such as “my hub/girl isn’t good at English”, or “they don’t enjoy English”, but too bad for them. Your children will take their cues from you and your hub. If your kids see you two speaking Japanese to each other, then your kids will likely do the same.


    • hamakkomommy
      Oct 31, 2012 @ 12:47:36

      The play language at home is English. My husband is supportive and our goal is the same. He helps create an environment where English is valued, but he doesn’t speak English with the kids. That is his decision, and I agree with him that being able to communicate fully with your own children is the most important thing. That’s the main reason I want them to be able to speak English, after all.

      So far this has worked well for us. He is rarely home on weekdays when the children are awake, so before/after school time is all English. I’m not worried about their speaking ability at this point. Right now we are working hard on literacy. English has so much great literature to offer!


    • hamakkomommy
      Oct 31, 2012 @ 12:56:33

      Forgot to mention that the kids do see their dad studying English every morning before work, and that he is very proud of their ability.


  2. Carol Iwanaga
    Oct 31, 2012 @ 15:06:57

    Don’t feel bad! My DS who is now 15 and in the 9th grade always heard English from me but our family language is Japanese as my DH doesn’t have confidence to speak in English. My son started in an IB program at a Japanese school in 7th grade which is all taught in English. He struggled for the first 2 years but this year he has gotten so much more confident in English and his schoolwork has greatly improved. He spent so much time in 4th, 5th, and 6th grade going to cram school we had no time for English but he is catching up. If your son finds a motivation he will do it.


  3. ds
    Nov 01, 2012 @ 00:07:21

    Carol’s story backs up my point that BOTH parents need to be on board and using English as much as possible to avoid problems. It’s tough on the non-native speaking parent, but they really should put their children first if at all possible. If they start early, they can make progress in English themselves as they use it with their children. Plus, they can be a great role model as a language learner.

    When the kids are young and home with their English speaking parent most of the time, it won’t seem to be troublesome. But once they go to school and are surounded by Japanese for most of the day, it will be. I have seen it with a lot of my friends, their children need a translator to talk to their own grandparents or cousins. Looking back, they regret not making the decision when their kids were young. Another advantage is that you don’t have to “make time” for English, it is just a part of daily life.

    Like Carol, I have a son in high school. He’s never gone to school outside of Japan, or even been overseas for more than a couple weeks at a time. But, thanks 90% to his mother making the effort to make our home and family life function in English, he has no trouble using either language. He’s aced the Eiken and TOEIC tests, reads at grade level, and even can watch/understand/laugh at Bill Cosby on Youtube.


  4. gaijinwife
    Nov 02, 2012 @ 05:29:12

    I disagree somewhat to getting other people in the family to speak English as well – when they are not native speakers. Although your hub definitely sounds like he is more motivated and better than mine to begin with.

    My downfall is me. My husband and I have an entirely ‘Japanese’ relationship – always has been bar some very ridiculous English that comes out in the dark. My kids have by far the worst English ability of any other similar position kids I know and slowly I am realising that I can’t expect them to be fluent over night. They have always gone to Japanese kinder and will not go to an international school – for geographical reasons.

    We have been in NZ for half our two month stay. Shou still wants to go to school every day, shows me his writing and eats all his lunch. Marina and Ryu spend a lot of time playing together at the kinder but still have about half the day, lunch times, mat time, story time etc when they are on their own and surviving.

    I speak a lot more English to them and while I don’t tell them off for talking to me in Japanese I do only answer them in English – unless its dangerous and I need action now.

    Good luck.



    • hamakkomommy
      Nov 02, 2012 @ 07:07:17

      Your situation is really different, with the MIL in the same house, and your husband is home a lot. My kids basically don’t see Dad on the weekdays at all.

      If the roles were reversed and we were in the US, and my husband wanted me to speak only Japanese with the kids, I don’t think I could do it…


    • ds
      Nov 02, 2012 @ 21:54:12

      Hi Gaijinwife;

      Love your blog! Actually, to tell you the truth I AM the “hub”. I’m GaijinHusband, my wife is Japanese. We decided early on to create an all English environment at home. It worked very well and we are actually watching CNN together as I type!

      No need to worry about your non-perfectly English speaking spouse communicating with your kids. Any and all input is good- the more the better. I mean, how fluent do you have to be when communicating with a bay or toddler? Plus, your spouse can improve in English as the kids grow up. A win-win for everyone.

      I have seen the “one parent one language” system fail more often than work. When you add in all the Japanese around your kids, it’s no wonder their Engish suffers. Raising bilingual and bicultural kids is hard work, especially for the Japanese speaking spouse. But the payoff is enormous. Don’t be discouraged. Start today!


  5. hamakkomommy
    Nov 02, 2012 @ 07:21:01

    I think there’s been a lot of commenting about bilingualism in general, so I feel the need to clarify this situation a little. Me First is by far the most fluent English speaker in this class. But the other kids, for the most part, are older and have had more “formal” education in English, be it having gone to international school or what have you. Their reading and writing are quite good, but many of them struggle when they are speaking.

    I’m feeling a bit better about the situation now. Another Mom told me she would be sad to see him change classes because he was always introducing new words and different subjects of discussion in the class. The other kids have a tendency to revert to Japanese, but he doesn’t do that.


  6. Amy
    Nov 04, 2012 @ 02:39:22

    Hi Hamakko-mama san,
    I’m delurking here to and wanted to say how I really enjoy your writing. The poems and books you shared on this blog are particularly touching.

    My situation is the opposite of your children as I grew up in a bilingual family in Hawaii where we had Japanese parents who wanted their children to be fluent in both English and Japanese. I guess it may be slightly easier in a place like Hawaii to be bilingual, but it’s still challenging growing up “different” from much of your classmates. I’m fortunate that my parents’ focus was on being able to communicate rather than getting to a certain “grade level.” I have to admit my parents did enforce “language rules” in the household tho.

    I think a big factor that may influence children and their extent of bilingual fluency is the extent that they find interest in the other non-dominant language. If they find interest in the non-dominant language through books or other means, then they’ll naturally seek it out themselves and the language will stick with them for a much longer time. If they’re not interested in it, then no matter how much school you put them through, it just won’t stick. Just from my personal case, I don’t see a huge difference in Japanese language capabilities between me, who learned basically through comic books, TV and J-pop, and others who went through the structured Japanese-schools focusing on kanji and other things the Japanese find important. In honesty, I think my brother and I speak and communicate more coherently and with empathy than some of folks we see encounter from Japan (exchange students, tourists, etc).

    I applaud you for focusing on your children’s health and emotional well being. It’s so important to feel comfortable and confident in your own skin; as long as they’re comfortable and confident in who they are, I think everything else will fall into it’s rightful place in it’s right time. Your son being dropped a level is concerning tho…I hope the content of the class will still be intriguing and challenging enough to keep his interest. Good luck!!!


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