Over the summer holiday, my son became bilingual.
That’s probably not technically correct, but that’s my experience of what happened: We flew to the U.S. in August—our first family trip home in three years—and then, after about a week and a half, Boy started speaking English. Fluently.
Anyone observing our son in his current Japanese context would assume him to be a native speaker of English. Old women passing us on the streets in our neighborhood frequently gasp at his Day-Glow pale skin, his somber cuteness. Some lean in close, pat his head, and try out a few phrases, thinking perhaps this will put him at ease: Hello? Name? How old?
These words are gifts. I know the women are trying to be generous—they are being generous—but it is always exactly the wrong thing to say. He clutches at my legs, refuses to speak, his gaze falling to his shoes.
Often, he doesn’t know what is being said or asked of him. After all, Mama and Papa’s English doesn’t sound like that. “He speaks Japanese,” I explain again and again. “He goes to daycare here.” The conversation is always a lost cause from that point on, though. Those kindly old women must think it’s very sweet that I think my boy speaks Japanese.
If pressed, my husband and I would say our son’s first word was “moon”—he screamed “mooooooo!!!” every time that glowing orb appeared in the pages of a picture book, or in the night sky outside his window. But he was saying a lot before that—a garbled mess of nonsense baby talk, or “babbling,” according to the experts.
One day, our friend Naomi visited us, and we realized that she understood him. Koun is a translator and an interpreter—and I know enough Japanese to get by in my day-to-day life in Kumamoto—but only Naomi could hear through the mush-mouthed sound that was his first attempt at language: aru (it exists), and nai (it doesn’t exist), the two most essential verbs in the Japanese language.
After that, we started really hearing him, too. There was cho-cho (butterfly), itai (It hurts!), koko (here), iya da (No/I don’t like it!), densha (train), and wanwan (doggie). And then for a time it was mostly just densha, screamed with gusto, over and over, at every possible opportunity, even just at the thought of one.
I know that children’s language skills pick up dramatically in the second year of life. It’s a developmental fact. But I will always wonder when, exactly, this transition from not-having to having began for my son. We don’t know, because we couldn’t hear him.
After we returned from our holiday to the U.S., Boy had become, for me, an entirely new person. I knew him—deeply knew him—as a person who spoke primarily Japanese, save for a few English words thrown in here and there to fill in missing concepts. And now I know him as an English speaker almost exclusively—so much so that I often forget that Japanese self of his. I forget that it is there, always, that it is a real and true part of him.
And so, I am sometimes shocked into recognition by little things—how he becomes Japanese the moment we enter the gates of his daycare center, how he brags to the pizza delivery man about his own superfast motorbike, how he happily chats away to the lady up the street who brings us vegetables from her garden.
Inside the boundaries of our home, I often don’t see my Japanese boy. But sometimes he comes out in a word, a phrase, a mannerism. Occasionally, he turns entirely into his other self. The other day, my husband asked Boy how to say something in Japanese—I don’t remember the word now—but it was a trigger. He was Japanese until bedtime, and the next day, he awoke in English.
What is my son’s authentic self? I think this is what a person might ask if they’d never spent time immersed in another language or culture. It must be hard to believe that a person can truly be more than one person—and not have some kind of mental disorder. I think in the West, especially, we want to say a person is like this, or a person is like that. But that can’t tell the whole story, it just can’t.
I have come to understand, sometimes grudgingly, that we are many people, depending on our contexts, on our relationships. I know, for example, that there is a kind of core nature to myself—a set of ethics and patterns that I tend to work from—but who I am at home is probably not exactly who I am at work; who I am talking to my husband is not who I am writing this. And that doesn’t make the concept of me any less authentic in any of those instances. They are all me. And that goes for my kids too.
Now, our daughter is edging toward two, toward that magical linguistic window. We’re not certain this time either, but we think her first word was nai—“It doesn’t exist.”
A version of this post appears in Lotus Petals in the Snow: Voices of Canadian Buddhist Women, published by Sumeru Press, 2016.
Intriguing inquiry into the Mind of the child….and how all that wiring conspires to understand and produce language. I’m curious as to whether different qualities of character are discernable in him dependent on which language track he enters.
You got the first comment at Nyoho Zen, too! Impressive. Thank you.
Yes, he’s different in both languages, which becomes more and more fascinating the less we’re exposed to the Japanese side. He speaks English in a way that models how we speak to him–we’re almost his only exposure to the language. So he can be really polite, almost kind of formal in his speech sometimes (though still a crazy boy in his actions). But in Japanese, he sounds a little like a thug to me–a little rougher, with clear touches of Kumamoto dialect. Sometimes we think he’s being rude, then realize that he’s doing something culturally normal for a Japanese child; his Japanese teachers probably have similar experiences with him at daycare. I think he would be less sure, for example, how to talk to someone his own age in English. It will be fun to watch him discover North America.
He’s going through the same thing I went through with languages I believe. I was shy with speaking English until I moved back to Alaska when I was 5. Then in Elementry school when I went back to Okinawa I would be shy the first week or two and then get back in the Japanese groove. I’m still shy in Japanese sometimes though because I never learned how to give off and read some of the social-linguistical cues that people my age give off, especially when trying to meet new people. It’s so much easier to make new friends in English than in Japanese for me.
Thank you, Lynn, for offering your highly informed perspective. I suspect that you would understand things about our children that we will never fully grasp. Self/identity and multilingualism/multiculturalism in Japan — these are huge, fascinating topics to explore. Hey, come down for a visit sometime!
I really would love to come and visit. I’ve realized that one big difference from being a student and now is that my free time is much more restricted, especially when I get all caught up in local events and activities. I need to make some time to see you and Koun and your awesome kids!