Japanese study for children living abroad: 7 things to keep in mind

People start living outside of Japan for various reasons, such as international marriage, finding a job abroad, or being stationed overseas, etc. If you are one of them, I imagine that you have made great efforts to establish a life in a place far away from Japan. I know it is not an easy task. In addition, if you are raising children in the country, there are so many things you need to consider, and one of them may be the Japanese language education for your children.

There are also many people who were born and raised outside of Japan with a Japanese father and/or Japanese mother. If you are one of them, you would have inherited the Japanese language and culture thanks to the efforts of your parents. In this case, it seems also natural that you would like your children to inherit the Japanese language and culture in the same way.

Many children with roots in Japan are living and studying Japanese abroad. Usually, the language at school will be the local language, so it would be inevitable that the local language gradually becomes your children’s dominant language in daily life. It is really hard to learn Japanese in such a situation. While recognizing the difficulty for the children, I have the utmost respect for their parents who are trying to provide their children with a Japanese language environment.

The situation of each family and each child is different, so it is difficult to make a general statement about how to assist children in developing their Japanese language capacity. I however would like to introduce here a few hints that I think it might be helpful for those who are trying to teach Japanese to their children. 

Create a less-stressful environment where children have to use Japanese

People use languages for smooth communication with the people they want to communicate with. If you are good at Japanese and not good at English, and the person you are talking to is also fluent in Japanese, would you bother to use English? If it were you, I wouldn’t.

Let’s say you live in an English-speaking country. You are a native Japanese speaker, but your children are better at English. Would your children bother to speak in Japanese when their mother and father are fluent in English? I think it would be difficult to imagine.

In such a situation, I think it would take a lot of ingenuity and efforts to create an environment where the Japanese language should be used.  I don’t have much space here, but I would like to share with you what I at least learned a bit in my future blogs.

Recognize and praise childrens’ efforts and progress in small units of activity

You may have already heard about the importance of “praise” in many places. However, it is not enough to just keep praising them using the phrases like “I know you can do it!” or “You’re so smart!”

On the contrary, praising children emphasizing their “innate” disposition and ability, such as “you’re so smart,” will not motivate them to try harder for the next time because they are more likely to be afraid of making mistakes.

As we agree, praise is very important. Therefore, why don’t we go one step further and think about how to give praise? I have already written several blogs on praise as below. If you are interested in them, please kindly visit them.

Don't decide "what children will be able to do" by comparing them with other children

The Japanese language level of children living abroad varies greatly. Some children came to Japan after having experienced elementary school life in Japan, while others have used almost no Japanese at home or at school.

Your children may have attended a local supplementary Japanese school, a heritage language school, or other Japanese communities on Saturdays/Sundays, or they may have interacted with friends from similar backgrounds. Under this circumstance, it is inevitable that you are concerned about how your children are learning Japanese compared to other children.

You don’t need to decide what your own children should be able to do, observing other children around you and your kids. Parents are the ones who understand their children’s characteristics and situations the most. If so, you would be in the best position to judge to which extent your child should be able to speak Japanese. Simply thinking about your children and their surroundings, why don’t you set your own goals for your children?

Don't just bring methods/materials used for “Japanese study” in Japan

Children born and raised in Japan always using Japanese and those born and raised overseas cannot be in the exact same situation in terms of Japanese acquisition, even though their parents have been making continuous efforts for language learning. 

At local schools, children living abroad are more likely to use languages other than Japanese. They might go to a supplementary Japanese school or a heritage language school on weekends, but the amount of time exposed to Japanese is not naturally the same as the time spent in Japan.

Considering these differences, we need to carefully consider whether the learning tools that children born and living in Japan use in Japan are really effective for children living abroad to learn Japanese.

The way Japanese is taught in Japan and the learning tools provided for children living in Japan may not be suitable for children who are learning Japanese as the heritage language. (I’ll write more about this for another occasion.)

Depending on children’s situations, it might be better to take some distance from Japanese language education as the “Kokugo – National Language” as well as learning materials designed for children living in Japan,  and let’s consider learning methods that would better match the current situation of your children. 

Prepare an environment where they can encounter things and places where they can enjoy "Japan”

One of the most common concerns about Japanese language learning for children living abroad is how to continue Japanese study under the circumstance that children are more likely losing their interest in it.

As children are getting older, they would have many other things to enjoy, such as sports activities, and it might be difficult for Japanese language learning to compete with such “competitors”. You however would like to keep in mind that your kids might still enjoy something related to Japan even though they are not at all interested in the Japanese language. 

In fact, your children would not find such things easily. Even so, it is always a good idea to give it a go, preparing things in their daily lives, which might attract their attention, such as hobbies, entertainments, etc. The actions should not be pushy, but simply be ready for the moment that the things get children’s interest.

By planting such “seeds” in their daily lives, it may become an opportunity for your children to come back to Japanese study in their future, even if they give up learning Japanese.

Discuss with your family the language policy at home.

As children begin to speak in a multilingual family, parents would start to talk about what to do about the language used at home. Perhaps you have already heard of the “OPOL approach (One Person One Language)” or the “MLAH approach (Minority Language at Home)”.

The linguistic environment at home is important not only for the educational purpose for children, but also for the long-term future planning of the family. It cannot be also decided without thinking about the identity of each parent and other family members. I therefore personally believe that there is no simple “right answer” for the family language policy.

I hope to write about this in more detail in a future blog, but what I would like to mention here is that it is a good idea to discuss a family language policy with your family at the early stage thinking of the policy with a long-term perspective and a specific sense of purpose. It is also important to set a language policy that can be implemented without any burden.

It’s all about daily life. Please don’t force yourself to do too much which would also end up avoiding situations that might confuse your children.

Praise your (parents') efforts and don't blame yourself

Last but not least,  please praise your own efforts. I have met many parents and they have been making all the efforts on a daily basis. I have full respect for their endeavors and ingenuity from which I have learned a lot.

You are now reading this blog. It means you are also spending your time in order to gather information about your children’s Japanese language education. By recognizing your sincere efforts, I hope your children’s Japanese language education will go from “daunting” to “enjoyable.

Each family has a different situation: Each child has his or her own unique characteristics; some families live in an area where there are many opportunities to experience Japanese language and culture, but the others do not; and/or some families often go back to Japan, but the others do not, etc. 

Parents are the ones who know their children’s situations the best. I would be very happy to hear from you in the future through various opportunities.

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