What’s the best way to learn a language? We spent two years at OMF’s language school in Sapporo studying every day, but our children (aged three, six, and eight when we first arrived in Japan) went in at the deep end.
They knew virtually no Japanese and went straight into Japanese school and kindergarten. Everyone stands up and you stand up. Everyone bows and you bow. You get asked a question and you guess or shrug your shoulders and hope for the best. But, as we are often told, children can be very adaptable. We had the blessing (curse?) of living opposite our daughter’s elementary school, so we could go out on the balcony and see how she was doing in the playground. I would sometimes see her chatting to a new friend and think,You don’t know Japanese and your friend doesn’t know English, so what on earth are you saying to one another?
This “in at the deep end experience” can result in confusing situations. A year after our youngest son started at kindergarten there was a sleepover at his kindergarten. In Japan this is a common event. It is a big deal for Japanese children because this age group usually sleep in the same bed as their parents. Our son had just had a massive move (from England to Japan) so didn’t really want to be away from home for the night. I met the teacher at the school bus stop and said “Caleb doesn’t really want to go to the sleepover.” She laughed a bit and said “He’ll be fine.” The next day I tried again, this time a bit firmer, “Caleb will not go to the sleepover.” She smiled and said, “All the children will cry but he will be okay.” Eventually, a Japanese friend called the kindergarten to explain that we really didn’t want him to go and managed to get the message across. A teacher then told us the problem—in Japanese culture people don’t choose whether or not they will go to events like this—they simply do what they are told and go.
As we’ve gone through five years of our children learning Japanese “in the deep end”, we’ve laughed and we’ve been deeply confused. But we’re thankful to God that he’s blessed us with three children who now speak Japanese better than we do.
I remember another missionary saying, “They do adapt but they still feel the pain of transition.” It’s not easy making friends all over again or being the only weird foreigner in your school. It’s not easy learning English and Japanese at the same time. It’s not easy having to cope with all of this whilst the rest of the family is also going through a stressful transition.
But what can we learn from all these experiences of our children on the mission field? I think that the most important lesson is that our children belong to God. If that’s true, he’ll never forget them. The path he chooses for their education and their lives might end up different to the one we had in mind but he knows what will happen to them in advance. Isn’t it great that we can have a God we can trust with the future of our children?
By Mark, an OMF missionary
Will you pray for Japan?
- Pray for missionary families new to the field, as both parents and children learn both language and culture.
- Pray for Japanese people who will help new missionary parents negotiate the education of their children within the Japanese system.
- Pray for missionary leaders, that they will have wisdom in guiding missionaries as they made educational decisions for their children, not just in the early stages of their missionary career, but later also.