Bilingual Development is a Challenge

My daughter is a lucky girl.  She has a Japanese mother and a Canadian father who speak different languages.  My wife speaks Japanese, while I speak English.  Sure, my wife speaks English, but not fluently.  I speak Japanese, but it’s really just survival Japanese.  But what will my daughter speak?

Since we live in Japan, she hears Japanese all the time.  She goes to a nursery where it’s all Japanese.  The only time she hears English is when I speak to her and when she watches Disney Junior on TV.  My wife does speak English to her, but usually uses Japanese.

So far, at 2 years and 4 months old, my daughter can say words in both languages.  However, she doesn’t seem to be able to string together words to form a coherent sentence yet.  Between 25 and 30 months, children are supposed to be able to say 2 to 4 word sentences, including verbs and nouns.  She doesn’t do much of that yet.  She’ll make single word requests, though.  For example, if she wants yogurt, she’ll say, “dodurt?”  If she wants to sleep in her bed, she’ll say, “bed?”  If she wants to watch TV, she says, “bee?”  She can say phrases such as “sit down” and “no no no no no.”  She mixes English and Japanese.  If she wants to be picked up, she asks in Japanese.  If she wants to eat something, she asks in Japanese.  She can count from 1 to 10 in English.  She knows the names of many fruits and vegetables, as well as animals.  She knows car, bus, and hikouki (airplane in Japanese).  She seems far more able to say phrases in Japanese than English, though.

Understanding is a different matter.  I can ask her to do something and she’ll do it.  Here’s a sample of what she knows.

  • Can you give this to Mommy?
  • Let’s change your diaper.
  • Did you pee?
  • Let’s go to the bathroom.
  • Wash your hands.
  • Stand up.
  • Turn around.
  • Put it in the garbage.
  • Do you want (insert food of choice)?
  • Where’s (insert any word she understands)?
  • Be careful.
  • Slow down.
  • Leave it alone.
  • Don’t touch.

And so on.

She watches Disney Junior and she listens and tries to repeat a lot.  Earlier today, she had a Lego Dale and Lego Minnie Mouse and was pretending that they were doing something.  I have no idea, but she created a whole dialogue between them that consisted of a mix of English, Japanese, and gibberish.  She likes to sing, and she’s often trying to sing the songs she hears on her favourite TV shows.  She hums a lot.  When she hurts, she says “ow” or “ouch” or “itai (Japanese for ouch).”  When she’s hungry, she says, “gohan (Japanese for rice or food).”  She knows her name, but doesn’t use pronouns yet.

If you were to judge her language abilities in only one language, she would seem delayed.  But when you look at both languages, she’s doing pretty damned well.  Studies have shown that children who are raised bilingually appear to have delayed language skills until 3 or 4 years old, but by the time they’re 5, they speak fluently in both languages.  The apparent delay in language often dissuades parents from using both languages at home and focus only on one language.  I think this is a mistake.  Use both languages.  Keep using them and don’t give up.  Once the child starts school, he or she should be great in both languages.  Also, people who are bilingual tend to be able to learn new languages much more quickly than others.  Later in life, knowing multiple languages is a benefit for mental health, especially in warding off Alzheimer’s.

So, if you want your child to have many advantages growing up, don’t give up on bilingualism.  I definitely won’t.

I wrote this post as my opinion for the HarsH ReaLiTy Challenge.