Cultivating Bilingual Skills: Living and Learning in Japan

バイリンガルへの道

“Bilingual” in this context refers to individuals proficient in both Japanese and English. Becoming bilingual offers opportunities in a globalized world, including employment in international companies, international studies, intercultural friendships, and travel. While past assumptions limited bilingualism to children of returnees, those in international marriages, or attendees of international schools, there are now numerous pathways for Japanese children to become bilingual while residing in Japan.

Achieving bilingualism in Japan is a time-consuming process. English proficiency diminishes in the absence of an English-speaking environment, necessitating continuous exposure until high school graduation. Parents must also engage with the language. Even experts in bilingual education must remain diligent until proficiency is attained. Despite the challenges, pursuing bilingual education for children is a valuable endeavor.

Exposing children to English from a young age in their daily lives enables them to speak it naturally as adults, realizing the gift of bilingualism. Successful bilingual education is achievable even when both parents cannot speak English, and conversely, English-speaking parents do not guarantee bilingual children. The key to success lies in parents and educators having a correct understanding of bilingualism and utilizing both the home and educational institutions to ensure consistent English exposure until high school graduation.

What is possible for bilingual education for children in Japan?

Bilingual education for children doesn’t follow a one-size-fits-all method. Instead, let’s outline the distinctive features of each approach. Regardless of the approach chosen, it’s crucial to understand that gaining proficiency in English is a long-term commitment spanning several decades. The key is to blend various approaches and progress in a manner that is manageable for both the child and the parents.

Summary of bilingual education possible in Japan

MeritsDemerits
At-home EnglishEasy to start, can be started at a young age, no costHeavy burden on parents, difficult to create an English environment
English schoolEasy to start, a wide range of choicesChild needs to get used to it, requires support from parents
Pre-schoolEnglish environment is somewhat established, less burden on parentsCan only be enrolled during kindergarten, a new English environment is required after graduation
Immersion schoolEnglish environment is somewhat established, less burden on parentsRequires basic English skills, a small number of schools
International schoolEnglish environment is fully established, less burden on parentsExpensive tuition, high English proficiency required, difficult to transfer to Japanese schools

At-home English

This approach, known as “At-home English,” primarily involves using English materials, such as picture books and YouTube videos, for bilingual education within the home environment. The chief advantage of “At-home English” lies in its ease of initiation and cost-effectiveness. It plays a significant role in fostering a natural English-learning environment in Japan, allowing children to access English content from an early age through video watching and book reading.

However, the main drawback is the substantial parental involvement required. When given the choice between their mother tongue, Japanese, and English, children may naturally lean toward the easier option, which is Japanese. To ensure that children engage with English content joyfully, parents must actively seek ways to facilitate their children’s enjoyment of English videos and books.

“English schools” come in diverse forms, including online and physical classrooms. Bilingual education places great emphasis on increasing exposure to and usage of the English language. In Japan, where English is not part of daily life, these schools provide an effective English-speaking environment.

The advantages of “English schools” are the extensive options they offer. For instance, online schools enable students to access lessons and converse with teachers from around the world, fostering motivation for learning. Finding the right school can lead to meaningful interactions with teachers and peers.

However, a drawback is the initial adjustment period. In the case of physical schools, students must acclimate to the school’s environment, while online schools require adaptation to computer-based interactions. Parental support, including transportation and supervision, is crucial in both scenarios.

Pre-school

Various types of “pre-schools” offer English classes or employ foreign teachers. Unlike international school kindergartens, pre-school graduates generally transition to Japanese elementary schools.

The advantage of “pre-schools” lies in their established English environment. Children can enjoy English learning in a kindergarten setting, where interactions with peers in English expand their conversational range and foster interest. At this age, children do not consciously switch between Japanese and English yet. Using English at school and Japanese at home aids easy acceptance of English, without impeding their Japanese language development.

However, a disadvantage is the abrupt change in the language environment post-graduation. After leaving pre-school, there is often no English exposure, leading to potential language loss within six months of disuse. Additionally, some preschools prioritize individual freedom over cooperation, making it challenging for children to adapt to the cooperative environment of elementary school.

Immersion school

Immersion education involves students taking classes in subjects like elementary, junior high, and high school in a second language, such as English, simultaneously learning both the subject matter and the second language.

The benefit of “immersion schools” is the establishment of an English language environment. In some subjects, all classes are conducted in English, providing students with more exposure to the language and advanced English necessary for subject comprehension. For bilingual individuals, it’s crucial to reach a level of English proficiency enabling them to comprehend all compulsory education in English, making “immersion schools” highly effective.

However, a drawback is the prerequisite of basic English skills. To follow the classes, students must possess a foundational understanding of English. Being in a class where one cannot grasp the content is a stressful experience. Enrolling in “immersion schools” is more effective when preceded by preparatory education in pre-schools or English schools to acquire basic English skills.

International school

“International schools” cater to foreign residents in Japan, providing education in their native language. High school graduates often pursue further studies abroad, shaping the curriculum accordingly.

While most international schools serve foreign residents, some also enroll Japanese children with Japanese parents. The key advantage of “international schools” is the establishment of a fully immersive English environment. With classes conducted entirely in English, students learn in a fluent English-speaking atmosphere. Moreover, these schools offer a diverse range of extracurricular activities, including sports and music, fostering interactions with individuals from various countries, and enhancing the overall school experience.

However, there are drawbacks, including high tuition fees, the requirement for advanced English proficiency, and challenges associated with transitioning to Japanese schools.

How can we educate kids to be bilingual?

5 Factors That Affect Your Choice

There are now many options for bilingual education.

Let’s consider the following factors to determine the best bilingual education:

① The child’s motivation to learn English

② The child’s time (age)

③ Parent’s time

④ Tuition

⑤ Desired level (at high school graduation)

① The child’s motivation to learn English

A child’s motivation plays a pivotal role in their English language learning journey. The extent of a child’s interest and curiosity in English significantly influences their motivation. To cultivate a strong motivation for learning English, early exposure to the language and a multitude of positive experiences with it are crucial. These positive experiences may include enjoyable interactions, engaging activities, and encouraging feedback in English. Such early positive exposure can foster a lasting and enthusiastic commitment to language learning.

② The child’s time (age)

Achieving proficiency in English is a time-intensive process that cannot be mastered within 1-2 years but demands exposure to the language for over a decade. Ideally, from preschool through second grade and beyond to high school graduation, there is a sufficient timeframe to acquire English skills.

To safeguard against the erosion of English proficiency, maintaining an English-rich environment until high school graduation is vital. Consistent exposure to English, for at least a few hours a week and preferably daily for those seeking improvement, is necessary to ensure sustained language competence. This extended duration of language exposure allows for a gradual and thorough grasp of English.

③ Parent’s time

Parental cooperation is a crucial factor in a child’s English language learning. To foster an English-speaking environment at home, parents should actively engage with the language and enjoy it alongside their child. With parental support, it is possible to create a substantial English-speaking environment at home, whether through methods like “home English” or participation in “online English schools.”

This engagement goes beyond mere exposure, as parents’ active participation and enjoyment of the language serve as powerful motivators for the child. It creates a more immersive and effective learning experience, enhancing the child’s English language acquisition.

④ Tuition

Learning English is a long-term endeavor, often entailing significant costs. While cost-effective approaches like “home English” exist, “international schools” typically demand considerably high tuition fees.

The expenses associated with English learning can encompass various aspects, including language courses, materials, and, in the case of “international schools,” substantial tuition fees. The choice of approach depends on individual circumstances and budget constraints, and\ parents should consider these factors when planning their child’s English education.

⑤ Desired level (at high school graduation)

The time invested in learning English varies significantly based on the goal of either achieving bilingualism or acquiring basic English conversation skills.

For bilingualism, where one aims for a high level of proficiency in both English and their native language, a long-term commitment spanning many years is necessary. This requires consistent and extensive exposure to English.

Conversely, for basic English conversation skills, the time frame is generally shorter and may focus on practical language usage rather than a deep level of language mastery. The specific duration depends on individual objectives and the depth of English language acquisition desired.

Case-by-Case: How to Raise a Bilingual Child

Let’s consider the best method for each case based on these factors.

Case 1. Bilingualism is the goal! But parents don’t have much time

The combination of “preschool” with “international or immersion schools” is advisable for a balanced bilingual education approach.

For those aspiring to achieve a high native-level English proficiency, “international schools” are the preferred option. This path can lead to bilingual fluency in both Japanese and English.

To complement this bilingual journey, it’s recommended to read Japanese books and study age-appropriate kanji at home to maintain and enhance Japanese language skills.

On the other hand, if the goal is to graduate from a Japanese school, “immersion schools” are a suitable choice, as they can provide the necessary language skills for success in the Japanese education system.

Case 2. Want to raise a bilingual child but want to keep time and tuition costs low

Combining “preschool” with “online English schools” is a recommended approach.

When English becomes an integral part of a child’s life, fostering their interest and curiosity, bilingualism can be achieved even alongside a Japanese education. Online English schools provide a cost-effective way to facilitate this process.

Investing in creating an environment that enhances a child’s interest and curiosity in English, such as enrolling them in preschool, is a worthwhile expenditure. This encourages language development and sets the stage for successful bilingual education.

Case 3. Want to raise a bilingual child! Parents have enough time, but want to keep tuition costs low

Combining “home English” with “preschool” and “online English schools” is a recommended strategy.

Parental time and support play a crucial role in a child’s English education. Establishing an English-speaking environment at home early on and enjoying English interactions with parents contribute to a positive and enjoyable English learning experience for the child, thus fostering language development while nurturing a genuine liking for the language.

Case 4. Want to become bilingual, but the child is too busy to find time

Achieving fluency in English is challenging without dedicating sufficient time. To reach this level by high school graduation, English must be the foremost priority, and an immersive English-speaking environment is essential.

If English isn’t the top priority, aiming for a level of “understanding but not conversational fluency” by high school graduation is recommended. Subsequently, combining English learning at the university level and studying abroad can lead to achieving the ability to engage in basic English conversations.

Case 5. Want to become bilingual, but the child is not motivated

Children may find learning English extremely challenging without motivation. However, when they have enjoyable and positive experiences in a 100% English-speaking environment, their interest and curiosity in English tend to grow over time.

In such cases, enrolling in “preschool” is strongly recommended. For children who haven’t started kindergarten yet, beginning with “home English” is a good choice. The initial focus should be on cultivating a fondness for English during preschool or home English sessions. If they develop a liking for the language, they can then progress towards comprehensive bilingual education.

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