In terms of language learning, I went from poolside spectator to deep-end diver when I decided to raise my son Chris to speak both Spanish and Japanese, in addition to my mother tongue, English.
At the shallow end of the water were my doubts and excuses. When I felt overwhelmed, this is where I wanted to stay. Eventually, though, I taught myself to breathe through the struggle, and to keep going. Not every stroke would be perfect — but I’d still be swimming. And crucially, I realized that I didn’t have to know everything for Chris to get exposure to three languages.
Here’s my own story of learning multiple languages, and of raising my baby trilingual.
My Own Journey To Multilingualism
I’ve been studying Japanese since I was 12, when I found a Japanese phrasebook that my mother happened to have lying around the house. My small spark of curiosity from that phrasebook sent me on an eye-opening path that forever changed my life.
Fast forward to college, and that small spark turned into majoring in Japanese Language and Culture at my university. But at the same time, I was experiencing severe burnout from my Japanese studies.
During my senior year in college, I met Javier at a restaurant that we both worked at. On our first date, we used Google Translate to talk to each other because I couldn’t speak his native Spanish and he couldn’t speak English. I decided that I wanted to be able to speak Spanish to him directly instead of using a machine translator all the time.
As I began speaking Spanish every day, I spent less time using my Japanese. I especially worried about forgetting my Japanese after I married Javier. I even stayed in the U.S. for him instead of starting a job I had waiting for me in Tokyo.
So when it came time to teach multiple languages to our baby, Chris, I had little confidence in my speaking skills. At first, I fooled myself into believing that Javier was my Spanish life jacket. He’s more of a lifeline, I soon realized. And for Japanese, I found myself drowning in negative thoughts: I’m not a native speaker and we certainly don’t live around other native speakers! What’s the point?
But I realized that I don’t have to know everything for Chris to get exposure to three languages. I just had to make an effort.
Teaching Language Through Culture
The first part of my effort involved spearheading my son’s multicultural upbringing. I hauled mountains of bilingual books from our local library. I joined Facebook groups and followed blogs on multilingual parenthood, language acquisition, and Mexican or Japanese culture.
In our home, I became more proactive in celebrating holidays like Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) and Dia de Los Reyes Magos (Epiphany). I built altars for our ancestors. I memorized recipes for tamales, Chile en nogada, Rosca de Reyes and other classic dishes.
Javier would ask me why I was bending myself over backwards like this. He told me that eventually Chris would go to Mexico and learn about his heritage there, but I didn’t want to wait.
I wanted to show Chris that a culture lies not only in a place but a people. Languages will stay with him wherever he goes. And if all goes according to plan, then so will a love of languages and a desire to learn more.
Towards the end of December, I thought about the traditions that I wanted to establish in our home. I focused so much on Mexican holidays until I remembered a little tradition I took on as a Japanese language learner. Every year I would practice my calligraphy by writing nengajō (New Year’s postcards) and send them to my friends in Japan. I also held on to the ones that I received over the years.
I took them out and read each one. Most of the kanji I could still recognize. I even still had a set of Japanese postcards that I had never used! With Chris in my lap, I spent hours going over stroke order and Japanese phrases for Oshōgatsu (New Year). I started to wonder why I ever lost confidence in a language that I loved so much. More importantly, I dwelled on how not using Japanese with my son Chris would be a waste.
Learning Alongside Your Child
Once the New Year came around, I refamiliarized myself with Dokugaku (studying alone). This time, however, I had my son with me. My goal was to be consistent and courageous with my studies going forward.
For myself, studying a language as an adult is very different from soaking in your native language as a child. We’re no longer sponges. Maybe some of us are, but then there are language learners like myself who need to be as proactive as possible in order for a language to stick.
I tell myself that if I can understand everything in an exercise, then there’s a problem. I’m not going to grow by giving myself the easy stuff. I have to practice what I preach and be willing to learn alongside my son. I’ll admit that it’s not easy being a learner and a teacher at the same time, especially because I have to be on the lookout for material that’s going to be both entertaining and challenging.
Within a week of making my New Year’s resolution, I learned that although there are many methods for raising a child multilingual, each method can get messy! Online communities especially are a mixed bag. On one end there are parents who believe in methods like OPOL (one parent one language). Then there are households that juggle more than four languages at once. Sometimes, too, the technical jargon would bog me down.
On top of that, once I became comfortable with a certain learning routine, I was getting bored and wanted to switch things up. So I settled into a more flexible routine instead:
A typical day will include me speaking mostly in Spanish with Chris. Especially in the morning, I’ll usually greet him with a Buenos Dias. Making sure that Japanese words make it into our daily routine is where the challenge lies. While I’m comfortable with sneaking in phrases like, Daijōbu? (Are you OK?) or Onaka ga suita? (Are you hungry?) I usually lack the confidence to continue the “conversation.” My son still doesn’t say much beyond ba ba ba and ya ya ya at the moment, so it can feel as if I’m talking to a brick wall for now.
That said, as the mother of a one-year old, I have so much agency over what goes on our bookshelf, what apps end up on my phone, and even how much exposure Chris gets to the language. I want this time to count.
Instilling A Love Of Languages
I hope that my passion for language learning stays with him. That, in the end, is my ultimate goal. That’s what I aim to do with speaking three different languages to my son. Instilling curiosity in my child means everything because that’s what my mother did for me.
As a mother and a polyglot, I’m constantly taking initiative. I’m always alternating between the roles of a teacher and a learner, but it’s worth it. Language learning is a life-long investment. It’s not just a lap from one end of the pool to the other, and it’s not a race either. For my son, I’m willing to take the dive.