Notice I didn’t title this “How to Raise a Bilingual Toddler”. I believe every situation is different and there is no one right way to raise a multilingual child. But maybe what works for us will work for someone else? So, here’goes.
My hubs and I both speak Japanese and English fluently. I am our child’s main caretaker, with my husband working stereotypical long hours. He was on business trips 1/3 of the year last year, so using the method of one-parent, one-language simply isn’t feasible. Instead, I change what language I speak with her depending on the social situation. If we are out in public in Japan, we speak Japanese. If we are Skyping my family in the US, it’s English.
At home I am continuously mixing up the languages, with a goal of 3 hours minimum in each language per day. “But doesn’t that confuse her?” I imagine you thinking. Um, no. Don’t underestimate their little brains–they were made to learn language(s) and it is the prime time to input as much as possible. Yes, she will substitute a Japanese word when she hasn’t yet learned the English word, or vice versa, but this is common even among adults who speak multiple languages. And even at 2 she does a damn good job of judging when to speak English and when to speak Japanese.
Recently, it was brought up that I should be teaching her a mother language, her core language. According to these people, humans need a core language in order for our brains to develop critical thinking, make complicated linguistic connections, or some bullshit. That’s all it is. Bullshit. I see my daughter struggling and succeeding to express complex ideas in two languages daily.
By far our biggest tool has been books. We must have 100 books, in English, Japanese, and those written in both languages. She will request the same book over and over again and I can see her little mind working to pick out the vocabulary and grammar. On average we are reading 10 books a day, but sometimes it ends up being one book ten times. Occasionally I have to resort to bribery, “Hey, if we read a couple books we can watch some Youtube…” And sometimes, like this morning at 5 am, she wakes up, grabs the nearest book and prods me until I read it for her.
It is hard, but rewarding, work. She wows passers-by as she shouts songs in both languages from her stroller on busy streets. Still, as English is my first and native language, I feel she has a better grasp of the grammar and a larger vocabulary. I am so worried about moving to India, where she will attend school in English and live in a society where English is the language of business. What will happen to her Japanese? I will do my best to speak Japanese at home, but my confidence is already dwindling and we’re not even there yet! とりあえず、頑張ります。