When I was a flight attendant, I lived in a house full of Hawaiians of Japanese descent. I am not Japanese or Hawaiian although at the time they included me as such. Even as an African American woman who was much taller than them, they said I kind of fit in. I felt honored by such an inclusion. During this time in my life I became incredibly comfortable around Japanese people. Maybe that’s why my first husband was Japanese.
With all that exposure, you’d think I would have picked up more than a few Japanese words. Well, you’re wrong. I know a little Spanglish. I proudly know how to say hi and bye in Hawaiian. Aloha. I can also offer you some coffee or soda in Japanese. Yes, I am multi-talented. You are welcome.
Even with all this talent, I am by all accounts an African-American monolingual English speaker. My first husband, who is Japanese American, knew only a little Japanese. I was determined to make sure my biracial son was bilingual. As a mother, with little understanding of the Japanese language or culture, there were a few things I needed to consider.
Why is this important to me?
What are the benefits to me?
How is it possible?
Where would he learn?
How will he retain his skills?
Why is this important to me?
“Ma, Japanese gives me a headache,” he said while still in kindergarten. “You’ll get over it,” I responded with a kiss on his forehead. This conversation was one of many more like it. None of it bothered me because this was happening nonetheless. His dad somehow convinced his mother to let him out of Japanese school when he was nine years old. Now he regrets it.
I have had so many people over the years ask me how I taught my son Japanese when neither of us could help him with homework or even effectively communicate with his teachers. In my experience, all it takes is dedication to the goal and lots of exposure.
When I was in college I wanted to learn how to speak an Asian language. I was a flight attendant, in college, and living with the Hawaiians at the time. I wasn’t sure if it would be Japanese or Chinese. A common conversation in my circles, was that one day being bilingual in Chinese would be of real benefit. With over a billion people, it was a matter of time before the sheer numbers would create opportunities for them to move ahead economically especially with the internet. As predicted, it’s happening. But Japanese is a little easier to learn.
As an African-American mother, I need to make my brown child understand that even if he is half-Japanese and speaks a foreign language, he will be looked at as a black man.
For reasons I still can’t explain, I graduated without finishing either of my foreign language goals. I already had four years of Spanish in high school which was enough to test out of in college. However when I started dating my son’s father, I wished I had followed through with my original plan. I didn’t realize that he did not know enough Japanese to teach me so I was out of luck. Basically, we were two people with rudimentary language skills. For that reason, when I had my son, I had to make sure he was constantly exposed to Japanese from the start. Now at age 13, he is completely bilingual.
What are the benefits to him
For my son, it’s important he experiences all sides of himself including Japanese and African-American culture. Of course knowing how to communicate with many types of people is a benefit but language connects you in a unique way. You can ask more questions, observe more deeply, and even understand others from a new perspective.
As an African-American mother to a brown child I also must share what it means to live as a black male in this country. Although I don’t want to pass on this reality, it’s absolutely necessary for his survival. He needs to understand that while he may be half Japanese, speaking a foreign language, he will be looked at as a black man. Nonetheless, having connections to more than one cultural will elevate how he thinks of himself.
How is this possible?
As I said before, neither me nor my son’s father speak Japanese fluently. So how is it possible that my son speaks it so well? I was an International Studies major in college. I did a paper on linguistics and learning languages at a young age. It was then that I devised my plan. Apparently, if you start early, a child can learn multiple languages. As long as they are exposed to it, like little sponges, they will pick it up. So I started by putting him into Japanese nursery schools, daycare centers, summer schools, and preschools. No one believed me at the time, but I knew as long as I stayed dedicated to the plan it was going to work and it did.
If your race or culture is different than your spouse’s then you end up learning while the child is learning. I didn’t know any Japanese when I first married my husband but in those first few months of being around my child’s babysitters and the grandparents, I learned quite a bit. On another note, because the grandparents didn’t think my plan would work, they didn’t speak Japanese to my son regularly. They thought it was a waste of time, since it didn’t work for either of their adult sons. So I had to work twice as hard to find ways to keep him exposed.
Where would he learn?
If you aren’t from California, you may not know that some neighborhoods have concentrations of ethnic groups. We lived in an area called Torrance, CA which happens to have a significant number of Japanese Americans. In that community, there are many Japanese language options, because when Japanese Nationals move to LA, many of them choose Torrance as their residence. The daycare centers and preschools that have Japanese teachers cater to those language speakers. That’s great… kind of.
Although, I wanted my son to learn Japanese, I didn’t want him to feel left out since he wasn’t full Japanese. It’s hard to explain, but when my son was in preschool, I was probably the first and only African American mother that ever came to that school. I didn’t always get information until it was too late. It actually wasn’t intentional but I was a working mom and many of those mothers were not. They were also not comfortable speaking English so they’d plan all these activities, snack days, and events and I just had to figure out.
I was probably the first and only African American mother that ever came to that school. I didn’t always get information until it was too late.
When he got to elementary school, I had a choice of either putting him in an all Japanese school in Torrance or putting him in a language immersion school in another community with a Japanese language track. I decided to put him in an immersion program because that would expose him to Japanese, Japanese mixed children, and a multitude of other diverse languages and cultures. Also, the mothers in the language school spoke english. Another benefit is with a language school, my son automatically thought all kids spoke multiple languages. That helped him stay focused.
We also put him in a summer school sponsored by the Japanese Buddhist church starting at two years old to make sure he got year round language exposure.
How can he retain his skills?
I have always been open to learning new ways of doing things, which I feel has made me a better mother. I learned a lot from watching Japanese mothers with their children do things that my parents never did with us. Some of those things I adopted. I know I have said it many times but constant exposure is the key. Japanese cartoons, movies and anime were always on while he was young. Whenever possible, I encouraged him to speak, ask questions and carry on conversations with his grandparents. Finally he started doing annual trips to Japan with his dad. Next year, he enters high school and we will send him to Japan for the summer months to be immersed in the culture. He will be entering into Japanese 3 advanced and after 10th grade, there will be no more Japanese classes for him to take until college.
Although I didn’t take advantage of learning the language I had planned as a student, I am proud of my son’s accomplishments. Hopefully I’ve encouraged him enough to continue his language studies. And maybe I’ll finally learn a few more words to add to my collection.
Tam has been an entrepreneur and investor since 2002. She’s a wife, mother, author, speaker, blogger and world traveler. Her passion is writing so she focuses on helping women create a balanced family and work life as an entrepreneur giving them the tools to be their best self and create a lifestyle by design. Follow her on Twitter @kitmoovin and on instagram @kitmoovin.