Little Ricky

One thing we’re often asked is, “What language do you speak at home?”

We have quite a lot of friends with international families, and see that everyone has their own way of doing things, based on their own individual circumstances, strengths and weaknesses. In our case, mummy and daddy pretty much only speak English when Ricky’s home.

The reason for this is that Ricky spends about 9 hours a day, 5 days a week, using Japanese at nursery. With so much exposure to the language (and the fact that they don’t understand him if he uses words he first learned in English) it’s only natural that Japanese has become his dominant language.

Further encouraging that tendency is the fact that both mummy and daddy understand Japanese. We know some families where the non-Japanese English-speaking parent pretends that they don’t understand Japanese (or in fact actually doesn’t understand Japanese), thus forcing the child to speak in English. For me (Joseph), that just wasn’t going to work. Rather, what we decided to do at an early stage was to talk back to Ricky in English.

So, if Ricky says to us (in Japanese) “今日は暑いですね” (“Today is hot isn’t it?”), we might reply to him in English, “Yes, it is hot isn’t it?

This way, Ricky has (to a certain extent) been able to pick up the English equivalents of the vocab that he’s first learnt in Japanese.

Earlier this year, when Ricky was about 2 years 6 months old, I was wondering if we should make an effort to explain to Ricky that there are two languages we use… would he even understand the concept? Having never raised a child before, and reading a lot of conflicting advice online, I wasn’t sure if this would just confuse him further.

I needn’t have worried though, as about a month ago, as I gave him a shoulder ride home from nursery, he suddenly pointed at a bicycle and said;

“自転車! English は ‘Bicycle’!”
(Jitensha! In English that’s ‘bicycle’)

I was pretty surprised – and delighted by that. He understood that we used two different languages, and that words had their equivalents in the other language.

We’ve encouraged him to contineu with this kind of translation exercise, and he seems to really enjoy it, now and then spontaneously coming out with translations both ways.

It’s not easy though, as of course Japanese contains a lot of loan words that sound very similar.
For example, ‘Bus’ in English is ‘バス’ (Basu) in Japanese.

He does seem to get it though. For example, ‘tunnel’ (representing one of his favourite things in the whole world) is pronounced tonneru in Japanese, but he will use the correct pronunciation depending on what language he’s using.

There are further challenges for him though: I sometimes use Japanese words within my English sentences. A recent example that caused confusion was the verb ‘抱っこ'(Dakko). When asking Ricky if he wants to be carried by me I have always asked him, ‘Daddy Dakko?”
So, the other day when he asked me what the Japanese word was for dakko I had to explain that actually dakko is Japanese, and the English he actually wanted was ‘carry me’. I apologized to him for the confusion, but that didn’t really help.

Whilst Ricky usually does use English at home, there are a few situations where he does switch to English:

    1. When mummy and daddy don’t understand what he’s saying in Japanese

    Whilst he can talk, his pronunciation is of course not perfect, so sometimes we really can’t catch what he’s saying. So, if for example he’s asking for お水 (omizu, water) and ask hime to say it again, he will simply say “water!”
    It seems he has come to understand that we understand his English better at times. On the other hand, if he is talking about the bath and we keep on asking him why he doesn’t want a bus, he’ll then switch to Japanese (お風呂 ofuro, bath).

    2. When he knows the English and Japanese for a word

    As I mentioned above in the bicycle situation, he does like to demonstrate / check his knowledge check with us.

    3. When he doesn’t yet know the Japanese word for what he wants to say

    For example, he doens’t yet know how to say ‘wash hair’ in Japanese. So when telling us he won’t let us wash his hair, he’ll just put the English vocab into the Japanese sentence.
    “リッキー wash hair しない!”

It’s fascinating observing Ricky pick up two languages, and trying to support him the best we can in that process.

We’ll continue to document how we get on going forwards.