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.