The most important learning takes place outside the classroom. I don’t generally teach children, but my two most important students are still very small.

When I first came to Japan ten years ago, I didn’t think this would happen. To your right, you will see my wife and two boys, all Japanese passport holders. If all of us were bilingual, what a marvellous thing that would be! I’ve already recounted my linguistic shame on this blog; far better to start from scratch with these fresh malleable brains….

There is an immense body of literature on bilingualism but, due to the unique nature of every family context, it is very hard to find clear direction on the best way forward. I’ll explain our particular context, the choices we have made and why, and how it’s going so far….

Some families operate a “one parent, one language” policy, but we have decided to use only the minority language (English) at home. Our rationale is that, once the children start kindergarten, they will receive ample exposure to Japanese so we ought to give them a head start in English. Of course, this relies on both parents being confident and comfortable speaking in the minority language. Even if one is extremely proficient in a second language, it may still feel strange to use it exclusively in communication with one’s own children.

We haven’t been especially strict about it. I know of some families who will not allow the children to watch Japanese television in the house, but what would we do without anpanman?! If we have Non-English speaking guests it seems polite to use Japanese, although I usually gloss in English for the kids. Outside the home, too, we both use Japanese if it feels appropriate (if there are non-English speaking children around, for example).

So far, it seems to be working well. The little one is just a ball of noise at the moment, but his older brother is very talkative. English, currently, seems to be dominant. My wife phoned me at work in a state of excitement last week to tell me that he was using reported speech structures (English teachers as parents…). It’s fascinating to see him fix things as he goes along. Switching vocabulary is easier than sentence structure, it seems. Pronunciation seems to be settling into place. But he’s only two and a half, so who knows!

There are ‘international’ schools around but we probably won’t be sending the children to one. From a purely practical perspective, they are expensive. Beyond that, literacy in Japanese requires plenty of work and, if we are planning to stay in Japan for the long term that has to take priority. But further still, school is socialisation and (for better or worse) we would prefer not to separate the children from the majority culture.

Parents expectations for their own children are very complex. In the case of ‘mixed’ children even more so. I imagine everyone would like their children to be bilingual, but complete mastery of both languages is extremely unlikely. What sacrifices are you willing to make? What level of attainment in the less dominant language would you be satisfied with? Linguistic competency does not automatically equate with cultural competency, either. Can one feel culturally estranged from one’s own children?

Parenting, I suppose, is always a research study… and one which often goes on a lifetime. From a language teacher’s perspective many issues start to become less abstract and intellectual, I suspect….

So what would you do, are you doing, or did you do with your children?

(These three books are worth reading, as a starting point)