Making Space for English in Japan

We have a new rule in our house: No Japanese at mealtimes. Our two oldest are in Japanese school and kindergarten. Most of their playtime in the week is spent in a Japanese environment and context, and so their play language is Japanese. Even when they are at home they spend a lot of time speaking in Japanese together. We’ve been in Japan for two-and-a-half years and our children are becoming bilingual.

2 Minute Read

By Mel Jessop

I studied some linguistics at university, so I find it interesting and enjoyable to watch these three little people become bilingual in their unique ways.

Six-year-old Miss H is competent in English and Japanese. There are a few gaps in her vocabulary, like “dice” and “hydrangea,” but overall her language skills are age-appropriate in both languages. This year she began Japanese primary school and her reading and writing skills are now catching up with her verbal skills.

Four-year-old Miss P mixes the languages a lot. She was only just over two when we came to Japan so has spent more than half of her life here in Japan. She commonly mixes English and Japanese at least once in many sentences, and we sometimes have to help her to find the right way to express herself in English.

Two-year-old Miss A was born in Japan and speaks mostly in single- or two-word sentences. English is definitely dominant, but she uses a lot of Japanese words. This morning she came running into the room shouting “Kowai mushi!” (Scary bug!) I went and checked and, sure enough, there was a bug.

It’s a joy to see their amazing little brains soak in language and somewhat effortlessly acquire a skill which requires so much effort as an adult. Thankfully, because kids speak in a simple way with simple words, I am still able to follow their Japanese conversations and interact with them in Japanese.

But we realized we needed time to really encourage English conversation. So, we have a new rule; no Japanese at mealtimes. It is helpful to have times each day to avoid the mixing of languages and encouraging the growth of our children’s English skills.

We have had our new family rule in place for around a month now, and the number of times we say “No Japanese!” is more than I thought we would need to. Enforcing our new rule can be tiresome and irritating for everyone at times, especially as we can all understand one another without this rule. But we’re taking a long-term view of our children and want to make their ability to communicate in English, as well as Japanese, a priority.

When we first moved to Japan, the kids spoke no Japanese at all. It was hard to imagine that they would be able to learn to speak Japanese. But now we find ourselves at a completely different spot as we say, “Stop speaking Japanese!” Even if just for a few moments in the day.

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