I have been involved in international education for several years and one of the greatest concerns that I have seen and heard about from Japanese parents is “would learning English damage or impact my child’s first language development?” It’s definitely a very valid, even controversial question. However, for Japanese parents living in Japan concerned about their children’s Japanese language skills, the answer is very simple: No.
Learning English or in English will not damage or harm their Japanese language skills provided that you speak with them in Japanese at home, which is the case, 99.99 % of the time. As long as you are spending some time talking or playing with your children after school and over the weekend, they will perfectly be able to master 2 and even 3 languages easily during their early years. The children’s brain is tremendously flexible and the speed and capacity in which it operates is phenomenal. The sad thing is that this remarkable and almost superhuman ability children have begins to deteriorate gradually as they grow older. Between the age of 0-2, your child is not really learning a second language as a foreign language, he or she’s learning it as their first language.
For us adults and a bit older children, a house is “a house” in English and “ie” in Japanese, for babies and toddlers, a house is an object with two different names. Their incredible brain is able to store twice and three times the amount of information we can store as adults.
I have a bilingual 3-year-old daughter born in Australia and been living in Japan since the age of 1. We sent her to a Japanese day care when we arrived in Japan for over 2 years. My wife and I agreed that we would only speak with her in English at home. Now, almost 3 years later, she’s purely a bilingual, and knows the difference between the two languages quite well. There was no confusion for her because the two languages were spoken by different people in separate places. As long as you draw that clear line between the two languages, your children are completely safe. When at home, speak with them in Japanese and Japanese only. When at school, demand that the teachers speak with them in English and English only. It would be perfectly fine for you to sing a song or read a story for them in English but if they start talking to you in English, respond in Japanese and stick to it. They will soon understand that they can’t use this language with you at home, and even realize it’s inappropriate.
Being bilingual in Japan is no longer an option. The country is increasingly becoming more and more dependent on international consumers. What this means is that speaking Japanese only will only lead to a shrinking weaker economy in a more globalized competitive world. Much money has been spent on English learning by the government, private corporations and parents, and unfortunately, the results have not been very impressive. Providing English education to your babies and toddlers is a little window of opportunity when you could pass on to them one of the greatest gifts of all, the ability to communicate worldwide, in and out of Japan.
Aiwin International School