Thursday, January 6, 2011

Language in a Transition

The transition from living in the U.S. to living in Japan (and vice versa) never ceases to amaze me. Once again we're back in Japan and things are different once again. I think living with a toddler (okay Peanut is really a preschooler now!) only highlights differences that I wouldn't otherwise see. Because she is constantly evolving and growing as a person, each transition thus far has been a unique one. Upon arriving here in Japan just last week, we once again reminded my in-laws that they could speak Japanese and Peanut would have no trouble understanding them. It may take a little while for her to feel comfortable enough to reply to them in Japanese as English is currently her dominant language (no surprise since we've spent the last 9 months living in the U.S.). But Gboy has continued to speak to her in Japanese and comprehension isn't an issue for her. Still, my MIL and FIL attempt to address her in English (neither of them is particularly comfortable with English) and to admonish her to speak in Japanese. Luckily this isn't an issue with either of my sisters-in-law or brothers-in-law; they simply address her in Japanese.

One of the frustrations I have is that my FIL in particular can't seem to understand that Peanut understands Japanese. He had friends over yesterday and when they asked if Peanut understands Japanese he said, "a little". "No. Not just a little," I wanted to say. She understands as much Japanese as she understands English. But he seems to think that since she speaks mostly English that's all she can understand. I sort of see why he would think this, but we do live with her every day and have a pretty good sense of her abilities. If we say she understands Japanese, then she does!!

But ultimately what this post is about is how difficult it is to be a parent and to stand by and watch your child struggle to master something. Peanut is learning to master two languages and in a sense, two cultures. Each community and culture has a set of social protocols that she has to adapt to in addition to becoming proficient in each language. On the first day we were back, a friend of Gboy's came over to the house with his daughter who is just a year or two older than Peanut. They've played together in the past, and Gboy seemed to think they'd fall immediately back into a rhythm. But the older girl now has a 1 year old sister to tote around and play with and the language barrier was clearly an issue. Peanut stood to one side and looked on with some trepidation and I could tell that she was frustrated because the girls couldn't understand her non-stop English dialogue. Also, while playing with her cousins, she gets frustrated when she asks them to share with her or explains to them that she'd like for them to wait for their turn rather than take her toys from her, but since she's speaking in English they don't understand. And I know that allowing Peanut to be frustrated, to a point, can be a good learning opportunity particularly when we explained the situation to her (i.e. "your friends don't understand English"). In time, it will come. Peanut will figure out how to use her Japanese with more folks here. In fact, just a few days after this incident she was playing with a group of girls of a similar age and language didn't really seem to be an issue at all.

However, in the meantime, watching Peanut struggle to communicate with my MIL and FIL and to communicate with her friends is a new parental milestone for me. I didn't grow up as a multilingual speaker and don't really have first-hand experience with what this all feels like from a child's perspective. I just have to trust that it all makes sense to her (or will in time) and that the benefits far outweigh the costs.

1 comment:

  1. I did grow up in a similar situation and remember how frustrating it is that friends/family don't understand what you are saying. But I learned how to navigate it. And my kiddo is going through it, too. She still speaks almost entirely English, and it can be a little tricky with other children, but she understands Swedish and is using it a bit more all the time. Just takes time!