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Unraveling how children become bilingual so easily

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This is nothing really. Rosetta Stone uses the same methods, so they apparantly have it figured out. I really desperately need to get one of those because even though I can read and write a good chunk of Japanese and a little bit of listening comprehension I still can't speak it.

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Not meaning to criticise HD, but the speaking is the easy part. How can you be able to read and write but not speak? Surely if you can write a sentence down you can simply say it? Listening is another matter, and normally requires a lot of exposure.

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Not meaning to criticise HD, but the speaking is the easy part. How can >you be able to read and write but not speak?

Probably about 80% of the Japanese I've met were that way with English.

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I have the same problem as HonestDictator, I think it is just that this problem of the dominant native language shows up the most when speaking. You don't have any time to adjust your brain. And I think you don't have to have done much teaching in Japan to know that this idea of brain flexibility makes a lot of sense, especially when you have two unrelated languages like Japanese and English. It helps explain the problem of the permanent beginner for one, and also the poor results of English education in Japan. If the theory is correct it doesn't make much sense to try and teach English to everybody, because a lot of people just can't overcome the effect of their dominant language.

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For me, spoken Japanese is a process of slang. A new way to describe something. Writing/reading it? Forget it.

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Nonsense research. Learning to pronounce l and r as what bilingualism is all about? The bilingual ability of 18 month-olds and the bilingual ability of a 25-year old are in no way comparable.

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Well, for me Anomoly I don't get a lot of people to talk to in 日本語. But gosh darned if I don't have lots of penpals that WRITE to me lol. My mother was lucky and I'm jealous that she speaks German fluently because she was raised there for a while at a young age.

I just don't have enough exposure to Japanese listening and speaking for it to stick.  I'm going to try and use the program I used before, since I don't have enough time to take a class, and I'll be able to study on my own time.

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bleah, rephrase that. I'm going to try and use the program I mentioned before in my 8:08 post.

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There is nothing new about this report. Infants don't speak languages. They only communicate using the models around them. The seeds of communication are planted in the first 12 months of life and must be continuously propagated and consolidated. Bilingual or multilingual kids are the result of exposure to the languages in the first one or two years of life. Japan is the perfect model for this conclusion. 6-10 years of intensive English study in Jr and Sr high and into college produces a population of adults spending copious amounts of money to right the wrongs taught to them. Many families have started exposing their infants to native English speakers and to English in general, but in most cases, only for an hour a week, which is only a waste of money. I suppose I shouldn't complain cos I've been living off this situation for nearly a decade.

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If you speak a second language, speak it at home. Or find a play group or caregiver where your child can hear another language regularly.

that's a good point... and make a point of teaching the kids at home too... don't rely on the schools!

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I read somwwhere that to gain a native accent of any language require that you move to that country before you reach 16. After that you cannot gain a perfecr accent. This I found true: I moved to both U.S. and Japan as an adult and was never able to gain a native-sounding accent of either American English or Japanese.

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It is remarkable that babies being raised bilingual—by simply speaking to them in two languages—can learn both in the time it takes most babies to learn one.

Babies supposedly being raised monolingually are really learning lots of different languages from the people around them.

Dad - Look, a dog.

Mum - Oh, look at the sweet doggie.

Grandma - Ooh, see the ikkle bow bow!

This multilingualism pervades every waking moment of a baby's day, and clear-cut bilingualism is peanuts compared to this stuff.

Pinker's The Language Instinct is a superb read for those interested in language acquisition. It's his belief that human babies are born with language hard-wired into their brains, and what we call language-learning is actually a series of cerebral switch-flipping as children learn that the particular language spoken by the people around them does or doesn't obey this or that rule. Children brought up bilingually simply have two separate sets of switches. Or maybe it's that monolingual children have more switches to flip Off (like the switch that distinguishes between l and r). Pinker makes the observation that all human languages are basically nothing but variations of each other; an alien studying us would quickly come to the conclusion that we all speak 'humanspeak', and that English, Japanese, Turkish, Chinese, whatever, are merely dialects of the universal human language.

When my kids started speaking, it was a mish-mash of English and Japanese, and I was advised by well-meaning folk to drop the English and let them 'concentrate on learning Japanese first'. Glad I didn't listen to those folk.

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LOL Cleo-

I plan on having the "mish-mash" of english, japanese and spanish in our home come time the baby is born.

I see it as something we should all be doing, I plan on learning more japanese because of my child. Kinda got the problem HD has; read, write, but speaking is a whole different thing. I try my hardiest to find the words to use without looking totally lost. I've been told many times over, my japanese is jouzu.....but I shy away from compliments knowing that I've only barely scratched the surface.

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I bet if they took adult learners of a new language, and put them in an environment that was identical to a toddler, they'd pick up a new language fairly quickly.

No worries, except playing. Can grab mommies boob whenever you feel like it, get massive approval when you get something right. you are expected to run around and make a mess...

Little bit different then sitting some boring lecture motivated only by the fear of public humiliation if you mess up.

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Cleo brings up an interesting point. Cerebral switch-flipping or however you want to call it is only part of the bigger question. How does the mind actually store information and how is that processed? What processes are at work when you are a child vs when you are an adult? How much of this information is retained throughout your life and does it really ever disappear? Your brain is like a a hard drive on your computer. Some files get misplaced, hidden, deleted even corrupted. Although in most cases the information is still there in some form. The big question is can that information be recovered and put back in it's proper place? My guess is that as an adult the difference is that your brain has mealy been partitioned. The real trick is how to merge the two back together again of which was lost in our childhood.

Language is really only a giant stored database of entries of which is retrieved via a sort of web spider so to speak. That information is then processed via the memory CPU wherever that is. I had suffered some brain injury when I was younger and actually my language got formatted, so to speak. I had to learn all over again but I did. So in this since I was able to maybe access those same capabilities as I did as a child which got misplaced. Otherwise I doubt I would have ever learned English again. I guess it is sorta like tricking you mind into thinking it is in a certain state when it is not, who knows. I think this definitely deserves more study and who knows what the future holds. A sort of Matrix download effect hehe. Nanotechnology may hold the keys to some of these answers and for my sake the sooner the better. To learn Japanese is my sole goal in life but hopefully before my life line decides otherwise lol.

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No matter how many times I hear this, I find it astonishing that Japanese people have trouble distinguishing between R and L sounds. I know it's true for almost all of the Japanese population. But personally I believe I do not have any trouble distinguishing different sounds in any language. My ability to distinguish sound differences is not limited to the sounds that make up the English and Japanese languages. Does anyone else think the same thing? I'm more than willing to have this tested - not that I think anyone will want to take me up on this.

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abromofo, can you tell the difference between the Japanese words, hashi and hashi and okashi and okashii?

Interesting point about the language switch. That is exactly what you DON'T want. Both (or all) languages should flow and having infants use mixed languages is a good thing as they are setting up for language distinction as they become more wise in the ways of the force (bi/multilingualism). My kids are bilingual although Japanese is and always will be there first language no matter how much I kid myself. However, my biggest fear is not the clash of language, but the clash of culture.
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My wife and I speak to our 3yr old in English at home. He gets his Japanese input from everyone else, mostly grandma. As a result, he successfully codeswitches between English and Japanese depending on who he is talking to. He will only ever speak English to me, and only ever use Japanese with his grandma. Sometimes he even translates (or just repeats what he says in English in Japanese) when speaking to me and grandma at the same time.

That said, given his chance for English communication is much greater than Japanese, English is for now the dominant language. When he goes to Japanese kindergarten, that will no doubt change.

Bilingualism isn't really some great mystery... it's just that most Japanese are monolingual (or think they are - though they can usually speak their local dialect) so think it is some amazing feat.

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Disillusioned: Mmmm yes, those word pairs are distinctly different to me. I'm fairly fluent in Japanese. I'm also talking about languages I've never heard before. I'm willing to bet that if a native speaker of any spoke two distinct but similar sounding words, I'd be able to hear the difference. That's why it baffles me that Japanese people just "can't distinguish" between R and L.

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I don't think we lose this ability as adults, it just becomes harder to "find" or "access" in our brains. I've come across a few multi language people in my time, like 5 or more (a couple up to 14) languages at a time and they ALL agree 100% that after the 4th learned language, learning any additional languages becomes SUPER easy. Up the 4th language, you always fall back on the most recent learn language, this is true for any adults. (for example, my first language is English, but I self taught Italian many years ago even though I have forgot 90% of it) when I was learning japanese, I sometimes brought up the Italian word instead of the english word when I couldn't think of the Japanese word. I went to Thailand and each time I tried to speak the Thai word, I accidentally spoke the Japanese equivalent. Same thing now that I'm learning Korean, I always fall back on Japanese, i almost never think of the enlgish word first. This phenomena is the same in most adults for the first 4-5 languages learned. Somehow, when learning the 5-6th language, you stop falling back on previously learn languages, your brain tends to remember the new word much easier. Native accents in that language become MUCH better as well.

My close friend and his wife speak 14-15 languages. The first 4 are fluent but accents are not correct where as the later learned languages have near perfect accents. The brain is awesome.

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Disillusioned -

Interesting point about the language switch. That is exactly what you DON'T want.

I think you misunderstood what I was trying to say, or maybe I didn't say it very well. I wasn't talking about flipping between languages. Within any given language, the brain 'chooses' one of two or more paths, eg whether r and l are the same or different, how the subject of a sentence is marked, whether the verb comes at the end of the sentence or not, etc. Pinker explains it very succinctly. I don't. :|

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Papasmurf has the right idea. One language at home/with family, one with the rest of the world. We have done the same thing with our son (now 13) and it has worked very well. When the three of us are together (wife, me, son),it is English only, no matter where we are. With extended family, its Japanese. At school, Japanese.

IMHO, the "one parent one language" system ignores a very important element- the language the parents speak to each other. This is critical.

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Japan's obsession with english language makes me sad. Don't know why. All these shows on TV in english, too. The fact that japanese children call me "amerikajin" at pool, too. Sellers in shops saying "two hundred yen" or "second floor" because I'm blond, and despite my not so bad abilities in japanese, too. All these jokes about R and L, that english speakers who can't speak japanese at all like to tell, too. And in general, living here in this americanized country whom culture basis are all but american, too. 頑張りましょう。

Moderator: Back on topic please.

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100 years from now there won't be any need to learn languages as such any more. Only 5 will dominate the planet and for this we will stick a universal translator earpiece into our ears and hey presto, everything is instantly translated into your required native language. Won't that be great?? Well, maybe not for english teachers in japan, translators and interpreters!

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When my kids started speaking, it was a mish-mash of English and Japanese, and I was advised by well-meaning folk to drop the English and let them 'concentrate on learning Japanese first'. Glad I didn't listen to those folk.

There is a dangerous myth that circulates in Japan that bilingualism is dangerous at an early age and that children need to perfect Japanese before starting anything else. I have heard it from a number of different sources, so it is clearly widely held, but flies in the face of all the evidence to the contrary that shows that bilingualism is only a benefit.

Does anyone know where this myth comes from?

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Both of my sons (12 and 6) speak 4 languages. I speak to them in my own. My wife speak to them in her own. They attend French school and pick up English from TV, friends and when me and my wife talk to each other. We purposely let them picked up different languages since birth. I remember watching a PBS program a long time ago mentioned that a baby could actually identify 50 different languages. And, yes, they pick up those languages really quick.

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There is an old Japanese kotowaza that says a person cannot learn another language until they have mastered their own. Sounds good on the outset, but not really good advice. Assimilating languages by youth is much easier than learning languages as adults.

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Does anyone know where this myth comes from?

it comes from the need of those who cannot/will not speak foreign languages, to continue to delude/oppress those who have the potential to become bilingual/multilingual. if they can't do something, they want to ensure that you won't be able to do it either. jingoists and other nutjobs mostly.

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it comes from the need of those who cannot/will not speak foreign languages, to continue to delude/oppress those who have the potential to become bilingual/multilingual. if they can't do something, they want to ensure that you won't be able to do it either. jingoists and other nutjobs mostly.

this, as well as thinly-disguised arrogance/insecurity about the supposed superiority of the japanese language

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There is an old Japanese kotowaza that says a person cannot learn another language until they have mastered their own

which implies that languages belong to a group of people, and that language is a badge of identity/allegiance to a group. yet more dated, multiculturalist clap-trap

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abromofo

I'm betting that you can't distinguish between the various pronunciation patterns inherent in Mandarin Chinese. Believe me, it is a difficult language to understand, much less master. The complexities with the pronunciation is something to behold. Then again, I haven't even mentioned Cantonese.

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There is a dangerous myth that circulates in Japan that bilingualism is dangerous at an early age and that children need to perfect Japanese before starting anything else.

When my kids were little and I was being advised not to let them speak English until they'd mastered Japanese, I read up widely on this topic, and corresponded via a newsletter for bilingual families with a number of couples in different countries raising bi- and trilingual children. The 'children should master one language first' myth isn't exclusively a 'Japanese' thing at all, it's found all over the world.

When bilingual children first start to speak, it is a hodgepodge of language, with vocab from one language used with the syntax of the other language, and weird cross-references between the two languages being made*. People (usually monoglots, of course) hearing it for the first time are alarmed that the child isn't learning either language satisfactorily, hence the advice to pack it in until the child is older.

I've looked through my book of Japanese proverbs, but I can't find anything about a person not being able to learn another language until they have mastered their own. Would anyone like to give us the quote?

*some true-life examples -

Child asks mother what's for dinner, mother replies in English, "cauliflower"; child then goes and tells father in Japanese that they're going to have kollibana for dinner.

Child hears neighbour moaning that young Taro has "shiken ni ochita", goes home and tells mother that Taro has fallen into his exam.

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The idea that kids can't/shouldn't learn another language until they've mastered 'their own' is bogus. Quite frankly, any child born in this day and age who does not have at least two languages that they are fluent in (or at least semi-fluent in the L2) is not going to get too far in the world when they grow up, and/or are going to always be depending on others unless they excel in other fields -- and I mean at genius levels.

One of the most amazing and fun things I saw was when I was walking around in Singapore and saw a group of school kids, obviously of mixed background, speaking to each other in four different languages and just switching back and forth (they are distinctly different, so it was easy to tell). The reason I say it was so funny was because each child would be speaking one language to answer a question/comment from another student in another language. When they heard me listening, they switched to one uniform language to mock me, I'm assuming... haha.

One thing I WILL say to those that have kids in a 'foreign' country (where at least one parent is not 'native', I mean), is that you DEFINITELY have to keep things at home in the language that is not the official language of the country, if you want your child to be bilingual (or more). In Japan that means keeping the language at home English, French, Korean, or what have you. Limit what the kids watch on TV, what they read at home, etc.

This is no news, really. Once kids reach a certain age their 'mother tongue' is hardwired into their brain, grammatically speaking, and it becomes hardER for them to pick up an L2 or L3 if they've had little or no exposure. They CAN of course learn it over time, but it becomes a matter of 'learning' vs. 'acquisition', and the latter is by far superior when it comes to pronunciation.

As for a lot of Japanese learners of English, I consider the attitude of many to be much like the attitude of retired men and older home-makers who take on 'life-long learning' hobbies; it's simply something they take a simple interest in, if that, and don't really believe they will accomplish much on their own and so don't work hard for it. With kids it's something they are FORCED to learn and many don't want to, and who can blame them in some cases?

One thing I will say that is a shame is the 'half' children in Japan, or the 'returnees' that are treated with contempt when they do poorly in something, as though it's because of their 'halfness' or their time overseas that they are inadequate in other areas. I had a friend of mine cry to me on the phone that her daughter's Kokugo (Japanese) teacher said, "I know you're daughter is bad at Kanji because you lived overseas." In reality, her daughter, a junior highschool student who was overseas in the US for two years from 9 to 11, hated kanji from the time she started learning it and that hasn't changed. Both parents are Japanese and the girl attended a Japanese school in the US, and was made to keep up the language at home (a rarity for Japanese, in my books... they usually try to acquire the native language as much as possible, whereas Chinese families speak nothing but Chinese at home with parents, etc.).

Anyway, if I could go back to being a kid again knowing what I know, I would press my parents to put me in Chinese immersion, and work a lot harder at other languages as well

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As to the whole 'l' and 'r' thing, it's not nearly as problematic as differentiation between short vowel sounds (you can LEARN how to pronounce the former differently, and therefore start to hear the differences a little better. You can't as easily with vowels), or simply words that end in 'l' with no subsequent vowel sound. Don't even get into consonant blends, and 'R-coloured' dipthongs! The problem is simply the fact that the Japanese language lacks vowel and consonant sounds, and has zero consonant only sounds save for 'ん'. Every syllable in Japanese is therefore either a vowel or consonant-vowel pairing. Koreans who learn English have no trouble with the different vowel sounds, and LESS problems with 'l'/'r' contrast. Korean people have instead troubles differentiating between 'p' and 'f' at the beginning of words, as well as 'g' and 'k', and run into a few inflection problems since there is a little more inflection in Korean than it's monotone counterpart in Japanese.

People who accuse others of cracking jokes about 'l' and 'r' problems as being incorrect are simply not correct themselves -- adults who have had little or no exposure to producing the different sounds cannot possibly begin to do so without trouble and/or lack of ability to differentiate the sounds when listening.

Once again, the old farts in politics who insist that children master their own language before embarking on another are just fools. They're often the same ones that insist on teaching the kids the 'Nippon-shiki' system of Roman character equivalents instead of the more accepted and certainly more accurate 'Hebon-shiki', because THEY learned it that way when they were kids. Of course, they get a bit upset when they write their names as: Sibamatu Tiduko and you can't naturally understand it's pronounced 'Shibamatsu Chizuko'.

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Oh, and sorry... I WILL qualify what I said above and say that understanding even Nippon-shiki or Kunrei-shiki Romanization is not nearly the nightmare that Pin-Yin or the different ways of Romanizing Korean are. Being phonetically smaller gives Japanese at least THAT advantage.

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this, as well as thinly-disguised arrogance/insecurity about the supposed superiority of the japanese language

I suspect there is something in this. As every Japanese knows, the Japanese language is utterly unique and very complex, and so must require 100% of a child's brain and not share it with other languages.

I have argued with my wife over this - she was seriously concerned for a long time that our offspring would only be able to speak pidgin versions of English and Japanese.

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Speaking and understanding Japanese does not require 100% concentration and probably could be learned alongside speaking and understanding another language like English with no ill effects. But with the large "vocabulary" of Kanji, Katakana, and Hiragana, reading and writing Japanese probably should have more emphasis than reading and writing English.

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cleo and cliffy, If you could (or did) do it over again, would you do it the same?

We are about to have twins in a few months, wife Japanese, I'm American. We are both fluent in each others languages. I was thinking she would speak mostly Japanese and I would speak mostly english to them, but now I'm thinking we should both speak each language occasionally. However, after reading some things here and elswhere, is it more important to teach them as much as possible before they are 12 months or concentrate on later years, or both...?

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societymike - good luck with your twins. However, one of the ways that children learn is the interaction between others in the family. What is the language you and your wife speak with each other and what country are you in? If you are in Japan and you speak Japanese with the wife, it will just be you speaking English at the children. If you are working full-time, they would actually get relatively little time with the English language.

I would make English the language of the house in Japan and vice versa.

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The idea that kids can't/shouldn't learn another language until they've mastered 'their own' is bogus.

I agree. In Japanese society, lots of people in educational institutions tend to think that bilingualism is dangerous simply because it will mess up the kids' first language, whether it is Japanese or English. What is funny about bilingual myth is that those who take a dim view on teaching English language at an elementary school often suggest that kids who struggle in organizing ideas in Japanese won't be able to communicate in English fluently. They have no ideas on child's language acquisition process because they don't look into these studies seriously.

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Great advice from Ah So. Kids pick up on what language is and is not really needed or valued, based on the attitude of the parents. So, if mommy and daddy use Japanese all the time with each other, the kids will see it and figure that English really isnt that necessary. Believe me, they will get MORE than enough Japanese outside the house! Plus, from the standpoint of pronunciation, Japanese is easier to master than English, so if kids learn English pronunciation they also learn about 97% of Japanese pronunciation at the same time.

I have a LOT of couples in the same situation (Japanese wife, foreign hubby) whose kids don't know much more English than the usual Japanese kid. The reasons? Mommy and daddy speak Japanese to each other all the time, mommy is not really confident about her English or interested in it, daddy is a "kanji king" who is desperate to improve his Japanese, and so on.

Mottainai.

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Here are some top tips on raising a bilingual child.

http://www.twfcymru.com/EN-GB/ADVICEFORPARENTSANDTHEFAMILY/Pages/Howtobebilingual.aspx

In our case I speak only English at home to my son and wife, whilst my wife speaks only Japanese to him and me. Result: bilingual boy. Those who advocate monolingualism can be ignored.

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societymike

I second Ah So and DS's comments. If you are living in Japan, make English your home language (all household members only use English at home). Your kids will get enough chance to learn Japanese outside.

If you live in an English speaking country, make Japanese the home language and they will learn the other one from everyone else.

Although it depends on the child, generally input from only one parent in the second language (and more importantly the communication that stems from it) is not really enough to raise a child bilingually. Of course there are exceptions, as Scrote notes above.

I know many families in similar situations, and more often than not, when only one parent speaks English at home (and the child becomes old enough to realise they can speak in Japanese to that parent and they will understand), the child becomes a passive-bilingual. They can understand the language well enough, but their output will be Japanese.

Masayo Yamamoto has done some useful research on bilingualism in the Japanese context if you'd like to follow up on it.

http://www.amazon.co.jp/Language-Interlingual-Families-Japanese-English-Sociolinguistic/dp/185359539X

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societymike -

congratulations, and good luck with the twins. If I could do it again, would I do the same? Lordy, yes!

Because I was the one at home with the kids, they started out with a heavier input of English, with Japanese becoming dominant once they started kindergarten. I spoke/speak only English to them, but mostly Japanese to Mr Cleo, so our home language was a bit of a mix. If you're in Japan and you're the only English input they have, I think it would be wise to make English the sole home language, assuming that your wife is truly fluent in English to the extent that she's happy speaking English with them. If she isn't totally happy with that, there's no harm in her speaking Japanese with them occasionally. I think you should speak English to them outside the home as well, as far as interaction with others will allow.

If you're not in Japan and your wife is the sole Japanese input, then all that needs to be turned on its head, of course; Japanese as the home language. In either case it's the language that isn't the dominant language that needs to be supported.

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Well first, the issue of pronunciation and the issue of language-learning are two different issues. Children learn pronunciation better, and that research has been around for some time.

Second, the issue of language-learning when young vs when old has also been around for a long time, and that is still debatable. Key points: 1. children have more motivation to learn, and specifically to name things in a language 2. the issue of plasticity of the brain draws from studies of brain damage - young people can reroute the language part of their brain, and it seems to be more difficult when one ages. 3. It's ridiculous, really, to compare a 50 word vocabulary of a child with the much wider range of an adult, although the child's pronunciation will be better. Children do not require as many words to function as adults do, and I personally know adults who are fluent in a second or third language, though they are not perfectly accurate and have an accent. Still, they are functioning in terms of language at a much higher level.

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Not meaning to criticise HD, but the speaking is the easy part. How can you be able to read and write but not speak? Surely if you can write a sentence down you can simply say it? Listening is another matter, and normally requires a lot of exposure.

I can read books in Japanese, understand movies with subtitles, passed 2kyu, studying for 1kyu, write a blog in Japanese, etc.. but I can't speak either

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It's ridiculous, really, to compare a 50 word vocabulary of a child with the much wider range of an adult

The average 3-year-old has a vocabulary of about 1,000 words, the typical bilingual child more than that.

I personally know adults who are fluent in a second or third language

lol You do realise a good percentage of the people posting on JT not only personally know adults who are fluent in a second or third language, they are themselves adults who are fluent in a second or third language?

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they are themselves adults who are fluent in a second or third language?

I don't know about this... Reading this discussion on the importance of second and third languages makes me really wonder why so many of the (Western) foreigners around me have a Japanese language ability that will barely allow them to buy a stamp at the post office.

I have a feeling there might be quite a large gap between what is posted here and the reality.

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Reading this discussion on the importance of second and third languages makes me really wonder why so many of the (Western) foreigners around me have a Japanese language ability that will barely allow them to buy a stamp at the post office.

simply put, being a native english speaker (unfortunately) disincentivises learning a foreign language

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so many of the (Western) foreigners around me have a Japanese language ability that will barely allow them to buy a stamp at the post office.

You always say stuff like this SARC. I can only assume you frequent the short term english teacher circles. I mean everybody I know, company colleagues and friends are fluent in japanese. It's a pretty easy language compared to Russian and Mandarin don't you think??

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You always say stuff like this SARC.

I always say it because I think it is true.

I can only assume you frequent the short term english teacher circles.

What I frequent, my dear WMD, is mainly postdoc and researcher circles. Not exactly idiots, I would presume.

I mean everybody I know, company colleagues and friends are fluent in japanese.

I personally know only 2 or 3 Western foreigners that I would dare to call fluent. Maybe your definition of "fluent" is significantly different from mine. Do your friends read novels in Japanese? Do they discuss the present political situation in Japanese with their co-workers? Do they know what 皆既日食 means when it suddenly comes up in a conversation? I would be VERY surprized if they did.

It's a pretty easy language compared to Russian and Mandarin don't you think??

How about English? How about French? Why the sudden urge to compare to Russian and Mandarin? But anyway, if Japanese is SO easy it makes me wonder even more about why so many Westerners seem to be talking in English all the time...

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Just wanted to add my sixpence to the argument. Our sons English ability, aged 4, is quite breathtaking. From a native speakers point-of-view, there are times when it is not grammatically correct, however his timing is impeccable. Reading the situation and knowing what to say at that specific time, means that he is really in tune with not only the language, but the culture behind the language. FYI, I am British, and he can be at times quite sarcastic in his comments.

In regards to the L and R patterns in Japanese, I have found that if my son, or wife for that matter, speaks in a non-cognitive way, the correct pronunciation of each syllable will naturally flow. This is true of general conversation. On the contrary, when he's asked to slow it down and think about his pronunciation, some words can get sloppy. My particular pet hate of the increasing number of gairaigo that the local nurseries are teaching kids does not help matters. Typical words such as lion, or raion, is one that springs to mind. Not that I worry too much, though my wife will beg to differ, as these can be ironed out when teaching how to read and write.

As for when to speak which language, I feel it is key for the home to be immersed in the non-dominent language. This means that, in the case of our son, he naturally speaks in English to both me and my wife whether in the home or not. He does not mish mash his language and he is comfortable speaking in either. Though he is part of the Japanese educational system, his English ability is most probably on a par, if not superior to his Japanese.

Lastly, commenting on what Cleo mentioned earlier, I heard him say to grandma once that daddy would like 'koppu no kocha'. Clearly a direct translation of 'a cup of tea'. Quite amusing really! Though only 4yrs old, he also understands that he has the edge over his friends. It's not uncommon for him to throw English phrases to his peers, in a way mocking them for not understanding him. I've also heard from his teachers that he likes to do this to them too, amused by the puzzled looks that come his way.

I think the best thing about the whole experience though, is the ability for our children to naturally absorb the language and use it in the correct way, timing and manner. Something that hours and hours of teaching will never achieve!

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Do your friends read novels in Japanese? Do they discuss the present political situation in Japanese with their co-workers? Do they know what 皆既日食 means when it suddenly comes up in a conversation? I would be VERY surprized if they did.

I read novels daily, discuss politics and know "solar eclipse," but I wouldn't dare call myself fluent. After all, I post here.

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There are very few truly bilingual children here

That depends on what you mean by 'bilingual'. If you mean equally fluent and proficient in two languages, then there are very very few truly bilingual people in the world. Most bilinguals have a dominant language. It doesn't make them any less bilingual.

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Who is Kuhl? and where is Washington? I really dont think it takes much to realize the r's and l's, and why a child will or won't pronounce it, being varied. But Id like anybody to explain how a brain tunes out sounds that don't fit, what is it that doesn't fit. Id also like to know how many kids, is that Mrs, Miss or Ms, Kuhl has and how she has practically applied her theories on an assignment that she wasnt being paid for?? Wonder which language the birds voice sings in? Communication with children is the ultimate goal, and should be by the parent, using which ever language accessories they might will. Id also like to ask, by one, whether the child has even unfurled their fingers. Man! you could sit at the computor open the dictionary or translation page and just read all the languages given for a word and the kid'll learn the whole world of speech before they are 2, guaranteed!

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But Id like anybody to explain how a brain tunes out sounds that don't fit, what is it that doesn't fit.

Read Pinker, he writes brilliantly about language acquisition.

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Most cases it's the dad who is the native English speaker

I have to admit, the cases I know well, including my own, all involve an English-speaking mother, and all the kids speak pretty decent English, albeit their Japanese is stronger. Interestingly, one family had a stay-at-home mother whose Japanese was stuck at the basic aisatsu level and you'd think her kids would of necessity speak better English than the kids who knew they could get Mum to understand Japanese if need be; but that wasn't the case. Maybe the parental example of 'another language isn't necessary' was a stronger influence than the actual amount of input. If that's the case, fathers can help their kids not only by giving them English input but by demonstrating their own belief in the importance of learning the other language. Or maybe the monoglot mother passed on a language-learning-is-too-difficult gene. I dunno. I do believe though that it's important for both parents to be involved in and committed to the child's bilingual education.

I had Noddy's help when my kids were little, but they referred Thomas the Tank Engine and My Little Pony. (Who are Dora and Bob?)

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I know that it's the dad who is working and there is little other English input. The wealthier have international schools etc. to help them along of course, so getting bilingual kids is easier for them.

Reading is the key here, not DVD's or TV programmes. TV is mind numbing. Use your time wisely and interact properly with your tykes for maximum exposure. Get a book and spend lots of quality time together. You should be aiming to spend at least an hour every night with your little ones. I get through three or four books a night personally, and not only does the little tykes vocabulary grow, it's a great introduction to reading. After a while you will find that they will be able to finish the entire sentence through memorisation. Alternatively, you should use picture books and get them to explain to you what is happening in the picture. You can fill in the blanks and assist where need be.

I know an acquaintance who grew up in Moscow, Russia until the age of 18, who then went onto university in the UK. He now speaks with a well spoken British accent. Granted his parents were both English, however the fact his mum and dad had a large library from which they encouraged him to read was the key to his development. He said so himself. Given the motivation and tools to develop, they will, end of!!

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sarcasm: "Reading this discussion on the importance of second and third languages makes me really wonder why so many of the (Western) foreigners around me have a Japanese language ability that will barely allow them to buy a stamp at the post office."

BS! You are obviously choosing to hang out at the foreign pubs and simply surmising that those people are poor at English... or else you've chosen foreign 'friends' for the fact that they can't speak much Japanese. Anyone I know who's made the SLIGHTEST effort to learn Japanese is more than functional, and I know plenty of people who are more than fluent (they often know more Kanji than your average Japanese does). If you are choosing friends who teach ESL, fine, but don't play daft and pretend no one can speak the target language here.

"Do your friends read novels in Japanese?"

Do you know children under 10 who read novels in English AND Japanese (Soseki, Murakami, Shakespeare)? Why are you comparing the fluency of adults with children here anyway? And yes, I know plenty of foreigners who read Japanese novels (I wonder if you take into account Chinese and Koreans... or if you think foreigners are simply whites and blacks).

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To add to what whitepocky says, young parents today have it easy! Virtually anywhere in the world with an Internet connection, a new book for Junior is no more than a couple of mouse clicks away. Back in the days when I was reading to my kids, there was no Amazon, and only a very poor selection of children's books in English in the local (ie Tokyo, hours away) bookshops. I had to rely on family sending me stuff from England, subscription to a book club, etc. Cost me a bomb.

Don't skimp on books for the kiddies.

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True, DVDs will soon be forgotten, but good books are a great investment.

My 3yr old is hooked on Mr Men...

Now he is running around saying "drat and bother" from the Mr Mean book, and calling his mum a "meany"...

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I still love to by books when it comes to studying another language, because I like holding pen (or pencil) to paper and producing the language as such. With Kanji, Chinese, Korean, and the like it also helps acquire writing skills (strokes, etc. Hangul characters are merely phonetic, but they still need to be written clearly). BUT, a computer is a WONDERFUL resource full of audio clips, quizzes with instant results, chances to chat via skype or what have you, see movies... you name it. And it's all 'free'.

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sarcasm:

Do they know what 皆既日食 means when it suddenly comes up in a conversation? I would be VERY surprized if they did.

Why do you see yourself fit to criticize other people on their linguistic abilities when your own English stinks? Surprized (SIC)? what, as in sarcazm, or ztoopid?

smith:

BUT, a computer is a WONDERFUL resource full of audio clips, quizzes with instant results, chances to chat via skype or what have you, see movies... you name it. And it's all 'free'.

Yes, with the internet now, there is so much material and resources out there. I can find loads of stuff for Korean and Japanese.

So what if some people confuse L and R? I myself can't tell the difference between d and dh in many of the Indian languages. The poster who says he can tell the difference between any 2 sounds in any language is talking BS.

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Pukey: Agreed... and then you ALSO have to take into account that 'any two sounds' does not necessarily even include inflection and intonation and how important those are in distinguishing meaning (most Asian languages outside Japanese and Korean).

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To societymike, congratulations on your twins.

If I have to do it again, YES, I will let both of my boys learn different languages since birth again. They do have strange ascents and you can tell that they are from overseas but that does not really matter because they can communicate with others without issues. I also notice that they do not have enough vocabulary, but they could pick up more over time.

The bright side is they can always work as a translators :)

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abromofo:

Disillusioned: Mmmm yes, those word pairs are distinctly different to me. I'm fairly fluent in Japanese. I'm also talking about languages I've never heard before. I'm willing to bet that if a native speaker of any spoke two distinct but similar sounding words, I'd be able to hear the difference. That's why it baffles me that Japanese people just "can't distinguish" between R and L.

So it was you! I'm willing to bet you're going to have trouble distinguishing the tones in Chinese. And I'm not talking about Mandarin, which is easy compared to the southern dialects. Or perhaps some of the Indian languages?

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Children are amazing. I was sitting in a Chinese restaurant and overheard the owner's young son and niece talking. At times they would be speaking English but would lapse into Chinese with ease. Sometimes they would speak both languages in the same sentence. They appeared to be about 5-6 years old. Beautiful, I wish I could do that.

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I had to rely on family sending me stuff from England, subscription to a book club, etc. Cost me a bomb.

Exactly the same as what I do now. Research the books online and get my brother to buy them from the shops and post them over. Most books here are American English. They usually come with a CD too, with some twit attempting to narrate it. In order to access good books, best order direct. Costs me a bomb too, ordering in bulk every six months keeps costs down, it's well worth it!

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Pukey, my dear...

Thank you so much for making fun of my poor English, which is - I have to admit - not my first language, but my third.

Yes, I agree! My English is sooo bad, and you were very right to point out this huge mistake of mine, writing "surprized" instead of "surpirsed", a mistake native English speakers would never make... What was I thinking!

I am sure that your foreign friends here in Japan would never make such a mistake in Japanese. For example, making mistakes between 2 very similar Kanji, using "ga" when it should be "ha", or "ga" when it should be "wo". No, such big mistakes, they never make them!!

No, you were absolutely write to criticise (wait, should that be "criticize"?) me for such a big mistake, and pointing out that I am in no position to criticize people who live in Japan yet wouldn't be able to make a 3 word sentence in Japanese without failing horribly.

And smitty, my friend

Why are you comparing the fluency of adults with children here anyway?

Because I presume you are an adult and most other posters here are also adults. There seem to be many here who think learning Japanese is very easy, all kids should be at least bilingual, etc... BUT! The cold reality is that most of the Western foreigners here (yes, you seemed to have missed "Western" in my previous post, but I forgive you) speak Japanese at a kindergarten level.

Hence, my conclusion: I have a feeling there might be quite a large gap between what is posted here and the reality.

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I grew up in Japan and moved to the US in my mid 20’s about 20 years ago. Now I’m a Japanese American who can speak fluent enough English to live and work. I started to go to language schools at the age of 16 and passed step test 1st class (Eiken ikkyu) at age 20.

Previously, I didn’t believe what brain scientists say (they say that after puberty there is no way to be able to speak a foreign language as well as native speakers). Since I came to the US, I spoke in English at work and at home almost 100% of time. My wife studied in Japan for a while and she can speak Japanese, but at home we talk in English. After 3 decades of studying English, my listening skills in English are as good as in Japanese. I still have a bit of a Japanese accent, but it doesn’t get in a way of communication with others.

Until recently, I strongly believed that one can be fluent in any language at any age. I met with people who came to America in their high school age and can speak English almost as well as native speakers. However, after I read this news article about “how children become bilingual”, I changed my mind.

I remembered two things in my childhood that I had forgotten. When I was 7 years old, an American family lived near my house and I played with their son. Since I was 5, my big sister who was crazy about American music played American songs and American radio shows in a small room I shared with her (I tolerated FEN shows at age 5). If I believe the scientists, these conditions in my childhood were indeed the most important English learning in my life and my years of learning merely enhanced what my brain already learned. It may be that my early exposure to English made me feel like studying English hard. Come to think of it, the people I know who became exceptionally fluent in English have parents who do international business and seem to have early exposure to English. Now I think these scientists may be right.

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The idea that kids can't/shouldn't learn another language until they've mastered 'their own' is bogus.

I think that like most sayings / old wives tales there is some truth to the matter. FWIW My wife and I are both talking to our baby (in Japan) in our native languages at home and between us we generally talk English (for my wife's and baby's English abilities).

Back to the issue of mastering their own language first. We have Chinese friends in Australia and with their 2 sons, the first learnt English and Chinese at the same time. The second however, had a lot of learning difficulties with both languages through primary school. After lots of attempts to discover and fix the problem, on the advice of language experts they cut out Chinese and all communication was in English. Within a year or so his English ability improved to the same level as his peers. He was then also able to learn Chinese.

I believe his case is the exception to the rule but it does explain how the saying could have started.

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sarcasm123, I agree with what you are saying. Sometimes, native speakers of English from the different countries have a problem undertsnading each other, but when a non-native speaker says somethings, the remarks are quite rude. I totally ignore that because I wonder how many can speak more than 2 or 3 languages like in Asia? But one thing I find very true is that due to the language structure and the culture, I find that Asians to a great extent can easily be misunderstood and misunderstand the native speakers. So I do not favor English being taught by Asians.

I can relate to what majimeaussie is saying too. Many such experiences among my friends. I really do not believe in many of these theories. I learnt Russian when I was in my twenties and I am able to conduct meetings in Russian. I cannot understand how the brain works, but I am able to switch between 5 languages. But the most painful part is there are moments when the brain stops working and I cannot say a word in any language. So I recommend that the children be allowed to learn the language naturally without any coercion.

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