Growing Pains

in the cold

As much as I try to support my daughter in her bicultural life, there are some times when it is painful to be the minority language parent. This is an example of one such difficult time.

My house is a One Parent One Language (OPOL) household. Last week my daughter had a friend from her nursery school class round to play. As usual, I spoke to my daughter in English when I needed to talk to her but on that day I got my least favourite reaction of all. She said to her friend “What’s he saying? I can’t understand him.”

It was not the first time this has happened. In a room full of non-English speakers, she gets shy. As soon as we leave, she is back to her usual (for me) self. But while I understand shyness, the reaction that day made my blood boil. As a friend of mine said to me, perhaps it is as much to do with my own feelings about being different as it is to do with her exclusionary comment. I am sure he is right, but there is nothing like being put out in the cold (hence the photo) by your child.

On page 105 of ‘Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism’ (Colin Baker) there is reference to a case study of a bilingual child living in London (Dewaele, 2000). Baker writes and quotes “However, by five years of age, status and acceptance by peers had become important. Her father reports that she ‘does not want me to speak French to her at school and addresses me …in English, or whispers French in my ear’. She wanted to avoid standing out from her peers, even in multiethnic London.”

That was quite reassuring for me to read that. Japan is not renowned for its multiethnic lifestyle. It would be easy to blame it on the culture, but also it would be untrue. The harsh reality is that my daughter is growing up and trying to find her place in the culture she lives in. My dreams of her future internationalization mean nothing to her at the moment. She spends on average 10.5 hours a day in  Japanese nursery school and on weekdays she only gets a couple of hours together with me in the house. You can see why she might feel the need to fit in.

Talking with my brother-in-law the other day, I was looking for a way to accommodate both our needs. I refuse to speak Japanese to her. What can I do? Finally I came to the conclusion that the only thing I can do that will allow us to move forward together is to call her over and speak to her one to one if I need to talk to her. I can’t demand that she becomes an outspoken ambassador for biculturals at the age of 4 (nearly 5). It’s just not going to happen. I resolved to follow this course of action when we are in a monolingual environment from now on.

I would like very much to hear from other parents about the ways in which you dealt with or expect to deal with this aspect of growing up. It’s a difficult age for the children and parents alike.


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5 responses to “Growing Pains”

  1. Niall Walsh says :

    Hello Nick, I hear you loud and clear. I notice with my 5 year old do the exact same thing. At home you can’t stop him speaking English but when he is among his Japanese friends he will speak to me in Japanese only. I am caught between responding to him in Japanese or English. If in Japanese his friends won’t stop and listen to us, and my son will probably feel more comfortable. But I want to persist with the English. I want him and his brother (3) to feel that English is nothing to be ashamed of. It is part of our life. It is who we as a family are. Mammy speaks Japanese and Daddy speaks English. I have found recently that his friends are speaking the usual “hello”, “my name is ” to me in English. I see this as a good thing and respond to them in English.My hope is that his friends and the people around us will come to realise that English is part of our life. Maybe my methods are wrong but I feel strongly like you do about this. The last thing I want him and his brother to do is feel that there is something wrong or embarrassing about speaking English. It seems to be working a little as before when we played in the park the 5 year old would be very conscious of speaking English with me but recently he doesn’t seem to have any inhibitions.

  2. teachthesprog says :

    Here are some other responses from the facebook page:

    “Up until now I’ve had mixed reactions myself to these situations, when we are surrounded by Japanese speakers, I have done both: kept it all English and sometimes switched into entirely Japanese… I’m not really sure on what’s the right thing to do… Is there a right thing to do?”

    “My son had just hit 6 and doesn’t want me to talk so much when I pick him up from daycare (he pointedly said shush!). 1to1 I asked him the problem and he said he doesn’t like the attention from his friends (“Speak English for me” “Is your father foreign?” etc). I can live with that. In the presence of his foreign friends I keep communication to a minimum, if I do need to say something I’ll ask him to explain to his friends in Japanese what I’ve said, I think this takes a bit of the mystery away from English for his friends.”

    I don’t think we can change this, just work with it. No matter how much I read around the subject, the reality is tough to deal with.

  3. Stephen Greene says :

    I haven’t really hit this problem yet as my son is still only 20 months old. At the moment I speak Portuguese when other people are around who won’t understand English, but I am not convinced this is the right thing to do. On the other hand, I am not convinced that only speaking English is the right thing to do either.

    I guess it is one of those situations where we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t. Thanks for sharing your experience, though, It helps me to prepare for a similar situation.

  4. Chris Drew says :

    Hi Nick – it happens. It might happen today, and not tomorrow, and then not for another week, or month. But it happens. The key thing (in my book) is not to lose sight of the OPOL principle. And not to be to heavy on sprog about it…and that is probably the hardest part. She is her own individual, and like us all she’ll have good days and bad days. But she’ll still love you tomorrow! And I agree with your friend that it might be more to do with your reaction than with her actual comment. As long as she still speaks to you in English when it’s the two of you, that’s what really matters. Try and be daddy cool! And best of luck!!!!

  5. teachthesprog says :

    As always Chris your experience shows in your comments. Thank you. I believe that those who read and responded to this post are only the tip of a large iceberg. There must be hundreds of thousands of parents out there dealing with this frustration every day. Of course we all have to find our own ways to deal with this but your point about not ‘being heavy’ with the children is really important. I didn’t mention in the post but I did go that route the other weekend. It didn’t work out very well for me. Support your child in the situation they are trying to deal with. It doesn’t mean accepting rudeness, it does mean understanding ther situation better than they do.

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