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Mastering Multiple Tongues With international marriages on the rise in Japan, more and more couples, including many Members of the Club, are wrestling with how best to raise bilingual children. by Rob Goss Photos by Kayo Yamawaki


ducation is a concern for every parent of young children. But when the mother and father are of different nationalities and mother tongues, the worries can be magnified. What kind of school should their child attend and how will that affect their language ability? What approach should they take to best raise their child to become both bilingual and bicultural? For many parents, the process begins by establishing exactly what it means to be bilingual. According to the California-based Multilingual Children’s Association, there is no clear-cut definition for bilingualism, only degrees of language proficiency ranging from rudimentary to native level. American Marsha Rosenberg, a speech and language pathologist based in Tokyo, advises parents to first clarify exactly what bilingualism means to them. That involves parents defining how well they want their child to be able to speak, listen, read, write and even reason in each language; deciding whether they want their child to speak fluently and be fully literate in two languages or whether it is enough to have fluency and literacy in one language, with some element of nonnative-level ability in a second. “It’s most useful to define for yourself what type of bilingualism is important and necessary in your family, within your community and culture, in order to plan a strategy for raising kids with the ability to use more than one language,” says Rosenberg, who

is one of the speakers at the Women’s Group’s Educational Resources Panel Discussion at the Club on October 4. Strategy, Rosenberg says, is also crucial. “Whatever the goals for developing bilingualism in each family may be, success appears to depend on whether a language plan has been worked out in advance,” says the Club Member. “It’s a dangerous assumption to believe that bilingualism will happen. I always tell parents that they have to plan for it.” One of the first steps in that plan, Rosenberg points out, should be for parents to decide on who will speak what language to their child and when. Many people opt to each speak their native language, while others choose to have one language for the home and another for school or in the community. In some cases, the parents can speak both languages but lay down rules for when and where they will use them. While all are viable options, the key, according to Rosenberg, is to somehow separate the languages and emphasize the boundaries between them to make acquisition easier for the child. In turn, says Christina Bosemark, the founder of the Multilingual Children’s Association, a fixed language system in the home should greatly reduce the tendency for children to mix the languages or, worse, flat-out refuse to speak the second language. The preparations, of course, don’t end there. At some point parents will have to turn their attention to formal education and

Mastering Multiple Tongues 27

iNTOUCH Oct 2009  

Tokyo American Club's monthly Member magazine.

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