Trilingualism in Tokushima by Carina – July 2013

This article was written for the magazine called Bilingual Japan,

focusing mainly on readers who are members of the Japan Association of Language Teachers

July 2013

Tokushima, on Shikoku Island, has been described as the backwaters of Japan. It is true that Shikoku is rural, but for us as South Africans, used to wide open spaces and nature all around, the so-called rural nature of Tokushima suits us just fine. However, the predominant single language feature of Japan is definitely much more pronounced here in Shikoku than in metropolitan areas of Japan. We are a family of five living in Tokushima for the past four years (from April 2009). Our children are still rather young – Annlie (6 years – July 2007), Cornelius (4 years – June 2009) and Lodewyk (20 months – November 2011) with the fourth one coming in November 2013.

We realized from the start that we have a great challenge on our hands in terms of general schooling as well as in particular their ability in Japanese, English as well as Afrikaans (a variant of Dutch, spoken in South Africa). Our children are not necessarily naturally linguistically inclined. All three of them were late developers in the verbal department (even though the eldest was largely exposed to only one language, Afrikaans, from birth to 18 months). 

We knew that if wed send our children to a Japanese school they will become fluent in Japanese. However, since English and Japanese are both languages that need constant practice, with the added hurdle of Japanese kanji and complex English phonics and grammar, we were seriously doubting whether they will become fluent in a language other than Japanese if they were to go to Japanese schools full time.

For various reasons, we have decided that homeschooling would be the best option for our family using an English curriculum from America called Sonlight. But we are currently sending our children to a Japanese kindergarten so that they may have some head start in conquering the Japanese beast as well as to have some kind of experience of being directly immersed into Japanese culture and customs.

However, our purpose would not only be to help our children in becoming fully bilingual, but trilingual. South Africans have constant practice in trying to understand a fellow citizen because of the very present and real diversity in culture and languages there are officially 11 languages. Most South Africans are bilingual (or multilingual). Almost everybody understands English as well as at least one other language. If you want to learn one of the 11 languages it will be easy to immerse yourself in a cultural setup where you will have enough conversation opportunities to hone your new language abilities. Language is thus obtained in very natural “situations” or just picked up in context.  The two languages that we as European descendants have been using, namely English and Afrikaans, have the same Germanic roots and many similarities. My husband and I have learned both languages almost simultaneously in a completely natural learning environment with seemingly no real effort.

Japan is of course a completely different setup. There are almost non-existent opportunities for natural language exposure in any other language than Japanese, especially in rural Shikoku. Therefore, we felt quite overwhelmed when we arrived in Japan with an 18 month old baby girl and fully realized that we will have to think carefully about our children’s academic future.  Our experience of trilingual language acquisition is still limited since our oldest is still only 6 years old. However, since research suggest that the first few years of acquiring a language on a native level are the most important, it might be interesting to share our journey thus far. 

Until our eldest (Annlie) was 4 years old we spoke mostly Afrikaans at home and Japanese outside our house (but not necessarily directly to our own child). She was also sometimes exposed to some kind of elementary English lessons for Japanese children, but because English has been such a natural part of our lives (we both have done our post-graduate studies in English) we never consciously tried to teach Annlie any English.

But when she became 4 years old we started to think in earnest about our childrens future educational path. After some research and struggle with whether our children will really be able to acquire a language which is such an anomaly in Japan, plus keeping up with Japanese and Afrikaans we decided to follow a dramatic approach of exposing our children to a (premeditated and predetermined) mainly English-only environment. Our main tool would be literature. And not fluffy literature but challenging quality English children literature.

We have always believed that it is through literature that you truly acquire not only the ability of another language but also the understanding of another culture and its development or origins over a wide span of time. Books have been a huge part of our lives from the beginning. It was therefore not so difficult to orchestrate the change to a focus on quality English literature. We set the targets quite high, mingling easier picture books with more challenging chapter books trying to choose times in the day when they were most receptive. Snuggle-up time with mommy or daddy was anyway a favorite time so the impetus to sit still and listen, even though a lot was above their heads, was already there. 

 As parents, however, we have had many days of doubt whether we are not expecting too much of them when they are already on a subconscious level experiencing cultural stress and lack of support and encouragement from a wider family. There were times we definitely felt that it would have been easier on us and them to just revert back to one language at home and one language outside home. It was (and still is) already difficult enough for us to try to have some kind of meaningful conversation in Japanese. Now we had to add another language in a very decisive manner in our house and this caused extra stressors in many ways. We knew our home was supposed to be a haven for our children and for us, considering the very present and pervasive cultural stress outside our house. We were quite worried that they might not be able to share their experiences with us when they really needed to.

However, after about a year of our experiment we saw drastic improvements in their ability to grasp English and even their ability to converse in it. At present, after almost two years of continuing in this fashion, our two oldest (6 years and 4 years) are playing in English, Afrikaans and/or Japanese. They are re-enacting children’s classics in English or Japanese kindergarten situations in Japanese. They are not yet fluent in a native sense in any of the three languages, and they might be a bit behind the average native speaker. However, they have a deep love and appreciation for books and our middle child, 4 year old Cornelius, especially is a story lover. The level of books are usually determined by his older sister’s age, but he always sits in most willingly (and even demandingly) to listen to chapter books above an average 4 year old childs level.

I think the determining factor might be that we as parents really try to spend quantity time with our children and emphasize a variety of good literature. We have always limited screen time (TV etc.), just because we believe that it actually hinders real growth in a language. It might be an occasional indulgence and sometimes even have some educational value. However, we really believe that real growth (especially to obtain the necessary vocabulary to be able to participate on an academic level in a particular language) can only come predominantly from literature or by a very intentional approach of inspiring the ability to use the imagination in a rich and meaningful way – again through story-telling. 

Literature has also showed us the added benefit of exercising our children’s brains to not be merely passive receivers of language, but active participants in processing the meaning and application of a concept, idea or value.

Our youngest child, Lodewyk, still has a very limited vocabulary in spoken language and we often wonder about his experience of exposure to three languages simultaneously.  We are still wondering about our approach at certain times, hoping that we are not putting too much added stress on our children on an emotional level. However, we are convinced that multilingualism can be only beneficial for our children’s future – not only in their academic abilities, but also in their ability to empathize with and to understand other cultures and human beings. And maybe even themselves and their family’s culture in this mysteriously enchanting country.

Carina Van der Watt







Comments (5)

Lynette van WykAugust 6th, 2013 at 2:59 PM

Thank you for sharing this experiment with us, Carina. Will you allow me to put this on my website for other moms to learn from?

Henry MurrayAugust 6th, 2013 at 4:03 PM

Baie dankie Carina en Stephan vir die deurdagte wyse waarop julle julle kinders help om mensies te word wat wyer sal dink en beleef.

Gert MoutonAugust 8th, 2013 at 7:22 AM

Carina, dis ‘n wonderlike navorsingsgeleentheid wat julle het. Ek weet julle het ‘n besige program met die geestelike hulp aan gemeentelede, opvoeding, huishouding en om reg te kom in die Japannese kultuur. Tog dink ek julle kan ‘n baie groot bydrae lewer as jy die bogenpemde feite kan ondersteun met werklike empiriese (ingesluit statistiese) waarnemings.

As julle byvoorbeeld ‘n lys kan maak van die woorde wat elke kind op ‘n gegewe datum reeds gebruik (onderskei in die drie tale) en ook kan aanteken watter taal die kind aan voorkeur gee as hy uit sy eie ‘n gesprek moet begin (en hier sal julle ook moet aanteken teenoor wie sy/haar gesprek begin word) en daardie konkrete syfers stel julle dan aan linguïste beskikbaar sodat dit in navorsing benut kan word, sal julle ‘n enorme bydrae lewer aan mense wat spook met taal-aanleerprobleme.

Iets wat ek ook vir julle kan aanbeveel, is herhaling in ‘n ander taal of tale. As julle byvoorbeeld Rooikappie in Engels lees, lees dit na ‘n week in Afrikaans en na nog ‘n week in Japannees. Teken aan hoe dit die woordeskatgetalle en die begrip aanvul.


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