Being “Bilingual”


The managing partner of my firm’s Tokyo office once said that he considered anyone who claimed to be bilingual to be a liar.  Bilingual himself, he was being facetious, but he had an underlying point that I completely shared:  bilingualism just means that you’re imperfect in two languages.

I’ve documented my limitations with English in my travails with “L”s and “R”s, the SAT verbal, and lack of vocabulary in general.  I came face to face with my limits in English first mostly because I didn’t have to use much Japanese while growing up in New Jersey.  As I’ve come to use Japanese more often, though, I’ve learned that as flawed as my English is, it’s far better than my Japanese (which limitation, admittedly, can’t entirely be blamed on circumstance due to my own (non-) doing).

I would think that, apart from those who are unusually linguistically gifted, my struggles are common for anyone who grew up immersed in two languages.  Normal person can’t “balance” mastery of two languages.   You either become fluent in a new language you learn while losing your native language along the way or you never fully pick up a new language.

I experienced this first hand while I was tutoring English to children who recently arrived from Japan.  In my first year, I tutored a boy who attended a Japanese school in place of a local public school.  Because he wasn’t fully exposed to English at school during the day, his progress in learning English was slow.  Later, I tutored a sibling of four who attended a local public school in Newton, Massachusetts, which has one of the best schools in the state.  Their progress in English was noticeably quicker.  Their mother, though, constantly struggled with how to balance the linguistic education of her children, particularly for her youngest daughter.  On the one hand, she thought she should emphasize Japanese at home because the daughter was exposed to only English at school.  On the other hand, she realized that the daughter’s progress in English could be slowed if she wasn’t immersed in it completely.

Timing matters.  The girl, who was in first grade, was just beginning to lay her foundations in Japanese.  Learning English without being grounded in her native tongue may have given her serious problems in her linguistic capabilities, English or Japanese, as it did to my sister.  My three cousins, who spent a couple years in New York while growing up, retained English to drastically different degrees upon returning to Japan.  My oldest cousin, who I think was in late middle school by the time he returned, is fluent in English and currently works in Boston.  The youngest cousin doesn’t speak a word; she was in elementary school when she returned.

If age matters, so does circumstance.

While my dad was in graduate school in Massachusetts, he met a friend who is a second generation Chinese whose father owned a Chinese restaurant in Japan.   The friend, who according to my dad was fluent in English but not as much in Japanese, eventually returned to Japan,  married a Japanese woman and had a daughter and two sons, in that order. A couple years ago, we had dinner at an Italian restaurant in Tokyo with the friend, his wife and their oldest and youngest children.   The time we spent together was an eye-opener; the daughter could not communicate in Japanese.

Mind you, this is a woman who was born in Japan, grew up in Japan and is Japanese.  She, like her siblings, attended an international school,though, so received her primary and secondary education in English.  She graduated top of her high school class and obtaining a degree from Princeton, yet she told us that now that she works for Bloomberg, she’s being told that she needs to improve her Japanese.  We could see why her Japanese was an issue even at an American company.  Her mother had to give directions to the restaurant in English and have her brother translate her order to the waiter, who was Japanese.   Half kiddingly, half seriously, the mother pointed out the brother’s Japanese was more advanced than the sister’s because by the time they raised their youngest, they let him watch all the TV he wanted.  I’d observed enough of my sister’s remarkable improvement in her Japanese in recent years through manga and Japanese drama to know this was no joke.  Television, the detested form of childhood education, did something a top of the class and Princeton education couldn’t.

What I’ve learned is that bilingualism is difficult to both instill and achieve.  I’m convinced there’s no right way to raise a child bilingual.  To fear that a person’s growth in one langauge will suffer at the expense of the other is a silly concern because you have to grow up with one primary language.  Nor is raising a child bilingual as simple as moving to another country, hiring a tutor or sending a child to an international school.  I don’t envy a parent who wants or has to raise a child bilingual and I feel for the child who has to grow up that way.   I’ve reached a point in my life, though, where I can appreciate the tremendous asset of fluency in two languages.  I’ve learned that for a child growing up, imperfection in two languages is good enough because sooner or later, the child will understand its benefits and things will take care of itself.

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