Raising a bilingual child? How about a trilingual child in Japan? Here, we spoke with global, multilingual mom - Javi - on her perspectives raising multilingual kids. We loved hearing about how she nurtures her own multilingual family, speaking Spanish, Japanese, and English at home.
Tell us about your multilingual background - you speak Spanish but live in Tokyo!
I was born in Chile. I grew up in London, speaking Spanish and English. I can’t say which one is my mother tongue. I only spoke to my parents in Spanish. I also know a bit of Italian - my grandmother taught me. And I studied French in school.
Japanese came about because I had many friends in school that were Japanese, and I loved Japanese food (I really really love sushi). One day my friend said “I’m going to Japan - do you want to come?” I said “Absolutely.” I remember also thinking then - I wish I could speak Japanese, it would be like my superpower. So I chose to take a University course in Japan as a formal way to learn. I didn’t expect to stay, but I met my husband, and the rest is history!
So many! What does multilingualism and language learning mean to you?
Language is everything. It is linked to our background, our culture, our stories, our likes, our food, our being. It’s hard for our family right now - because we have 3 languages - Japanese, Spanish, and English. I am hoping my son will be trilingual, that he will feel comfortable in all three. English is the main language - because it is the one my husband and I share. We speak Japanese of course too, because we live in Japan. But I also want my son to learn Spanish - because it is the language from my background.
Why does raising a trilingual child seem so natural as an expectation?
I grew up in London, which is a very special place - it’s a melting pot and very multicultural. All the schools make a great effort to explore and celebrate all the different cultures represented. For example, in our classrooms, we had children from Greece, Korea, India, Japan, and so on. On the calendar - we listed different cultural celebrations. We celebrated Easter, Eid … all the holidays. That’s the norm in every school there. If there was one child that spoke a different language, we tried to understand them, celebrate their holidays, eat their food. It wasn’t unique or strange. It was just normal there.
What does conversation in your multilingual family look like now?
Right now, it is primarily English between my husband and me. English just comes out most naturally. With our son, we try to have my husband speak Japanese with him. And I will try to remind myself to make the effort to speak Spanish.
If Spanish is the minority language, how do you plan to teach him?
Right now, it’s me speaking to him. I also let him watch videos in Spanish from Netflix and Amazon. And I try to connect with other people who speak Spanish - so there is a small ecosystem and interaction. It’s a really casual approach right now. He’s 1.5 years old. I would also love to find a Spanish club for kids. That way, he has kids the same age to speak with. It feels more approachable - with friends - versus his mom pushing him to do it.
On the learning tools front, there are so few products in Japan that are not Japanese. We don’t have the same product selection that you see in places like London. If it weren’t for COVID this year, I was planning on going back to shop around. I love your product - because it exposes kids in a really natural and fun way. Also - it’s not just bilingual, it’s multilingual! I would love it for my little one!
Do you have any worries or challenges you expect on your multilingual family's language learning journey?
No, not really. Others do sometimes … they ask “Aren’t you worried that he is not going to be Japanese enough - or - Aren’t you worried that too many languages will stall his speaking and reading development?” But I don’t see it that way. I see it as all beneficial. I see it as a cumulative set of experiences that stay with you as you become an adult and that make you more aware and confident.