The Opportunities and Obstacles of Growing Up Bilingual

Now that you have watched “The Benefits of Bilingualism,” scroll down and read for our discussion about raising bilingual children. First, a little intro to our home life language situation:

Anouck: Fluent in French and English. 1 daughter. Husband speaks limited French, but is working on fluency. French and English are both spoken at home. “Fringlish” is also spoken all too often at home.

Maki: Fluent in Japanese and English. 1 son. Husband doesn’t speak Japanese. English is the prevalent language at home.


A: Ok, so now that readers have watched the video about “The Benefits of the Bilingual Brain,” we heard about the researched reasons how bilingualism increases brain neuroplasticity. But that was not my reason for wanting to raise my child bilingual and that was not yours either, right Maki?

M: True, so what was your reason?

A: My reason was actually really simple, which boiled down to family dynamics and continuing a language that was passed down to me by my mother. I am first generation American. My mother is French, my father is Indian, both are naturalized citizens of the US.


A: My mother spoke exclusively in French to me when I was little, this morphed into a “Fringlish” as I got older. This worked in tandem with my thoughts getting slightly more complex to express. My mother was a stay at home mom until I was about 14, so I was around her a lot.

I spoke with her in French fluently growing up. Each summer we’d go back to France to visit her mother and sisters, so I got my language immersion experience then!

No other member of my mother’s family speaks English even remotely fluently except, of course, my mom. So, it forced me to connect with them in their native language in their country, and I was immersed in the culture. Currently, not much has changed, my French relatives are still not very fluent English speakers.

I wanted my daughter to be able to have a relationship with them that was not dependent on my having to be present and acting as an interpreter. I wanted her to be able to communicate freely with them and be understood and have her own, autonomous relationship with them. So, I decided to pass on French fluency to her. I tried to do the same thing that my mother did for me, I spoke almost exclusively to her in French when she was an infant.

How about you- why was your reason to try to raise your son bilingual?

M: Similar for me. I was born in Japan, and I moved here when I was eleven because my father’s job transferred him to the States. My parents could of course speak English, but Japanese was spoken at home. Growing up as a Japanese kid, and coming here at 11 and being thrown into an American school in New York– it was so hard.Bilingual_Kids It was so hard to learn English. So, after my experience, I wanted to make life easier for my son, and I thought, why not raise him bilingual. That way he won’t have to go through the hardship that I went through. And, like you, I wanted him to be able to communicate with my parents in their first language, because you know, it leads to a more natural flow.  But they do speak English, so you know, it’s not the end of the world if my son doesn’t speak Japanese to them. I just didn’t want him to have to struggle with language the way that I did. But, I think I was projecting my issues on to him, and I think that is why it all went wrong (we shall pick up on that in a  moment).

The other reason is I think that I wanted to raise my son to be bilingual is all the things I had read about the benefits of being bilingual. My time as a translator showed me how beneficial facility in two languages can be. It enriches your life, you know? Knowing two languages, knowing two cultures. There is twice the number of literature that is available to you. Knowing different expressions…some that translate practically globally and some that are so specific and indicative of one particular culture, these are some of the most interesting things I discovered in my career as a translator. I wanted to expose my son to all of that.


M: So, here is where I went wrong, and I am not raising him bilingual anymore. A lot of my reasons for raising him bilingual came out of my own desires for him to be bilingual. I can’t really “sell” him on the idea or importance of being bilingual anymore in part because, at this point, I feel pretty disconnected from the Japanese culture.

After 30 years in this country, I just don’t feel all that connected to Japan anymore. When there isn’t that cultural connection, there is no story. He has nothing to cling on to. What he was doing was really mechanical, just learning the language. He wasn’t building some sort of cultural bridge. He wasn’t connecting to the culture behind the language. At the Japanese preschool, he wasn’t really connecting with the kids. He was culturally different.

A: Was he the only biracial kid at the Japanese preschool?

M: No, no, there were a lot of biracial kids at the school. But, many of the moms were more recent arrivals from Japan. They identified as Japanese. I didn’t fit in with them. They were re-creating a mini-Japan to live in and you know, my mannerisms were all wrong…I just didn’t fit in.

For a long time I was really proud that I hadn’t lost touch with my Japanese heritage, my culture. It was only after having my son that I realized just how disconnected I was to my heritage. For example, I figured the easiest thing to do to get my son excited about the Japanese language was to show him Japanese cartoons. But so many of the cartoons were just so sexist, I couldn’t handle it.

I found that the cartoons were going against my values. After being in the US for so long and working in the comics, animation and gaming industries, I could just see that so many things presented in the Japanese cartoons would just not fly here. So, I just couldn’t go along with it. It didn’t feel good.

A: So, at what point did you take him out of the Japanese immersion school? How old was he?

M: He stopped going at age three. He started going to a regular preschool at three and a half. The environment just wasn’t right for him. He was really stressed, and he was lashing out. So, I figured, if he wasn’t enjoying his time at the preschool, then what was the point of continuing? I didn’t want him to hate learning Japanese. It was not his fault that he wasn’t as culturally immersed as the other kids. I didn’t want him to associate negative emotions with learning Japanese. I came to the point where I just said to myself, he’ll learn if he wants to learn. He can pick it up in the future if he chooses to. It’s up to him now. And once I let go of that goal for him, I realized how much of it was coming from my own personal ego.

Once he started going to an American preschool, he did fine. He was a lot happier and all the problematic behavioral stuff went away.

There is so much pressure for kids to succeed and be accomplished. It is a very competitive environment that we live in now. I see so many articles in the media now that invariably make parents nervous. We are not doing enough for our kids, if they are not fluent by the time they are 7, forget it, they will never be truly bilingual or multi-lingual.

A: Yes, we seem to have forgotten that language is there to communicate, right? In practical senses, it’s there not for academic rigor, but to be understood.

M: Society is encouraging the worst of our “Tiger Mom” instincts!

Language And Cultural Connection


M: Since they don’t need to learn a second language, it becomes an extra activity.

A: That’s the thing. There’s so much they pack into the curriculum already, but language is so much easier to learn when you’re young. If schools (non-language immersion) incorporated learning another language from first grade onward, it would just be a part of the school day. In the case of bilingualism, it’s important, but what’s the best way in for people? Can the schools offer the flexibility to explore languages without being too overwhelming for the students?

M: There’s also the question of which language to learn too, if it’s part of a school program. And if you aren’t using it daily, you’ll forget. For instance, I learned Spanish in middle and high school, and I remember those lessons, but not enough to speak. It was beneficial to learn it. And I chose Spanish because a lot of people in the world use Spanish. It wasn’t because of any cultural connection I felt to the language.

I know that for a lot of late learners of Japanese—like high school kids—who speak Japanese fluently now and work with Japanese in some capacity, they feel a strong desire to learn the culture because of games or anime, and they wanted to work in that industry someday. That brings a level of commitment to learning the language. So, cultural connection does play a role.

A: Yeah, definitely. I wasn’t sure about signing up my daughter for French classes after school, but she was like, “Yes!” She really wanted to. There’s a family connection. We go to France and spend time with the family and she uses the language.

M: I still try to get my son interested in Japanese culture. Pokemon Go has actually been pretty good in reeling him in.

A: It all comes back to Pokemon Go!

M: My best intention was that if he knew another language, it doubled the number of books he could read. It was kind of utopian, but it’s true. The more language you know, the more insight you get into how people from other cultures think. As the world becomes more globalized, those are the kind of people we need to be raising.

But then I hit a wall. I don’t want to be one of those parents that push their kids for no other reason than to give their kids “an edge in life.”

I was reading this recent Guardian article, and it was all about how language dictates your demeanor. For example, Japanese is an indirect language, so there are a lot of passive sentences. When translating from Japanese to English, a novice translator might translate directly into passive voice.

When they studied bilingual women’s brains, it was almost like they had two different ways of thinking, depending on which language they were thinking in. That’s true of me. There’s a Japanese side of me and an American side.

A: That’s similar with me too. I tend to have a duality in my thinking, one that I partially attribute to the cultural exposures I have had. Now, as parents, we want to make our children understand the different parts of their heritage.

M: Yeah. You know, some times my son asks me, “Why do you want me to learn Japanese? I am not going to go live in Japan.” I have no good answer for that. It becomes, “Because I just want you to…” He is half Japanese, it is a part of his heritage. But, you know, this is also not a contest for how well I’m adhering to my Japanese-ness. I don’t feel like I fit into the Japanese community here, but I do want my son to have some connection to Japan.

A: The other problem is that English is such a prevalent language in the world.


But Everyone Speaks English Around The World!

M: As English speakers, we get spoiled. On a recent trip through Central Europe, I tried few phrases in German, but they would all tell me, “Oh, you can use English. It’s okay.”

A: Haha, and they usually speak better English than we do.

M: Yes! Every place I went, I hardly had to use the local language. That’s even less incentive to learn another language, right?

A: Yeah, I mean even with all the efforts I put in early on with my kiddo, I spoke French almost exclusively to her in as an infant, she went to an in-home day care (since I was a working mom) where it was French immersion (it was run by a native French speaker). As a toddler my daughter would babble in French, and understood the French that was being spoken to her. Then she transitioned to an  American preschool when she was two.

She was still acquiring language, but she wasn’t completely non-verbal. That is when things got more complicated. During that time I could see that she was a little frustrated with having to switch over from one language to another and that her communications weren’t always understood (because she was probably saying it at first in French to the preschool teachers).

Similar to what you said, my daughter saw the outside world  speaking English, her school was speaking English, even her father was speaking English to her and it was just the nanny and I insisting on French. When I’d pick her up from school, and I’d start speaking to her in French, she’d say to me really sternly, “No French.”

This panicked me. I was really afraid of her losing her ties with the language, so at the pre-K transition year, I transferred her to a French immersion school.

Differences in Educational Systems and Cultural Priorities can Complicate Matters

A: Here is where things get complicated. Because I had spoken to my daughter almost exclusively in French for the first 2 years of her life before needing to switch her to an American preschool, when we did make the switch (the switch was out of necessity, the French daycare was closing its doors), things got a little messy.

At the American preschool, I saw that, compared to a lot of the other kids, her language was a little slower, she had a delay, which, from what I hear, is pretty common when kids are raised multi-lingual.

This language delay was enough to concern the preschool teachers and they sent me to the school district’s early intervention specialists for testing. The irony here is that there was nothing wrong with her language piece of her processing. The delay was caused by the dual languages, which the school district acknowledged, and deemed it within the “norm” for a child being exposed to multiple languages at once.

There were, however, emerging problems with her gross motor and fine motor skills, which was partially overlooked at that time. That would only be unearthed a few years later (at the French school).

When I chose to place her in a French immersion school for her pre-K year onward, we also ran into some trouble. This time not because of language difficulties, but because of education styles. The French immersion school had a VERY different structure than the old preschool. The old preschool was a Reggio Emilia preschool, which is child-centric and play-based (not unlike Montessori schools). The French immersion school followed the prescribed curriculum from the Ministry of Education in France. So, all of a sudden, the structure was far more academic. She was expected to do pre-writing exercises, puzzles, pre-reading exercises, as well as communicate entirely French.

This caused some confusion for my child. She liked speaking in French and singing songs in French, but she didn’t understand why she couldn’t just play when she wanted to play, like at her old school. She’d see things in her classroom that interested her, but wasn’t allowed to play with that object because it wasn’t what the class was doing at that time. This stressed her a little.

The teacher approached me and told me she noticed that my daughter didn’t have a clear dominant hand, and that she had trouble making a mark with a pencil on the paper.  She lacked strength in her hands. Through witnessing these difficulties my daughter was facing in her new classroom, we (after a long while) uncovered that she has a learning disability.

We stuck with the French school, partly because of my own pride that my daughter was engaging in such a “rigorous” program. I had this education plan mapped out for her. My fantasy was that she’d complete all her schooling in French, from French-accredited schools, she’d pass her international baccalaureate, and then go to college in France, where the schools are very good and the tuition is comparatively low.

I wasn’t looking at first at what an acutely stressful situation I put her in. The French system has a lot of good things about it, but it also had some aspects that were just not ideal for my daughter’s learning profile.

Alternative Learners And Second Language

A: I was thinking about the specificity of introducing language young, especially to alternative learners. I remember one case at the French-immersion daycare that my daughter went to when was still a baby. This kid was maybe three years old and he was struggling.

The immersion environment was actually adding more complications to his speech difficulties. Speech BubblesHis parents didn’t have a diagnosis at the time, only that he was having trouble with his speech. When the French daycare closed down and this child transferred to an American preschool, he thrived. He was so much less stressed. His doctor told the parents that he’ll be fine with learning a second or third language eventually, but the immersion wasn’t the right way “in” for him. It put him into sensory overload.

So it’s complicated. You (as a parent) think you’re doing the right thing by introducing language early, but then you’re actually creating confusion in their brain.

Another complication happened when we moved from the Northwest to the Bay area. We knew we wouldn’t be able to afford private French immersion school down here, and the local schools had a great reputation. My daughter was placed in her local public school and honestly this transition was mostly positive for her. We transferred mid-year through her first grade year. Because my daughter transitioned from a French immersion school to an American public school, my daughter’s reading level in English was really low, comparatively, and her new teacher freaked out.

Her English reading level was at the level of a Kindergartener rather than a mid-year first grader. Again, this was, in part, due to the schooling differences between the French system and the American system. In the French system, the students don’t start reading until the first grade, because many well-researched studies point to first grade being the beginning of the window where children are cognitively ready. Many of those studies say that actually third grade is when children’s brains are optimally ready to learn reading skills.

In the American system, the kids are being taught to read in Kindergarten. All this to say, that even though my daughter was pretty good at reading in French, she only had English twice a week while at the French school. This meant that her English reading skills were not on par with her peers once she started public school. The language that had the best reading fluency was moot at her new school! It’s all fine now, she is beginning third grade and is reading at grade level. It just complicated the transition and stressed out her new first grade teacher a bit. My daughter was forced to play catch-up that first year.

The trouble seems to arise from differences in the rigors of formal education. There are different cultural emphases. Those particular emphases may not be jibing with where your child’s needs are in terms of processing. It’s good to stretch them, but in an effort to build children’s mental flexibility, we as adults become pretty rigid in our thinking. The children have to adapt to our way, the system’s imposed way, which can be incredibly stressful to them. And that happens across the board, not just with language immersion schools.

There are many positive, productive ways of dealing with kids who are more kinesthetic learners or auditory learners—and I don’t even want to categorize alternative learners as people with learning disabilities— we all have different ways of taking in information. Educators and educational systems just need to remain open to finding suitable solutions.

The Way Forward

M: Raising a bilingual kid is a huge investment in time. It is hard.

A: Oh yeah, it requires so much discipline on everyone’s part.

M: I have to separate my ego from my son, which isn’t always easy. He has to be the one to want to learn.

A: Some kids are willing to go on that journey with the parent and are more moldable, so to speak. As far as language is concerned, I would’ve dropped it a long time ago if my daughter weren’t on board with me. You’re creating your own misery if you are constantly fighting your child. I remember a former co-worker who went to French school all her life, and even though she could speak it and understand it, she wanted nothing to do with the French language anymore because her schooling made her so miserable. It isn’t worth creating the stress and resentment.

M: Exactly. I don’t want my son to hate learning Japanese.

A: Especially when it’s your culture, your language.

M: So, in conclusion, listen to your child and what his or her needs are?

A: And honor that. Work with what’s being presented.

M: Your child’s learning style is important too, since the number of teaching styles in language immersion programs will be more limited, especially depending on the language. You work with what you got. And sometimes not.

A: That was a long conversation to reach, “Listen to your child.”

M: Haha, basically. But a lot of parenting is like that, isn’t it?

Additional reading

BBC – The Amazing Benefits of Being Bilingual

New York Times – The Benefits of Bilingualism

The Atlantic – The Bitter Fight Over the Benefits of Bilingualism

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