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ParentingLearning a Second Language with My Child

Learning a Second Language with My Child

Motherly Collective

My son is 5 and already he knows that he has something valuable and specific to teach me. Not in the way that all of our children teach us something: about who we are as people or about how to see the world in new ways, but when I gave up some parental power it allowed us both to connect and flourish in unexpected ways.

When we were on our honeymoon in Japan, my husband, whose mother is Japanese and who spent summers growing up in Kyushu, told me that being able to feel at home in Japan and being able to move comfortably in both Japan and the US was one of his favorite things about himself. Over the years, I’ve traveled to Japan many times and I have also fallen in love with it: both as a place and as an intrinsic part of who my family is. I have friends and family there now and there are places in Japan that feel like home: in a way that is familiar and influential, but never mine to own.

I wanted to help my son to not only fall in love with the world, but to know his precious and unique place in it.

When I gave birth to our son, I knew that I wanted him to feel the same way: proud of his Japanese heritage, and a sense of belonging there. I wanted to help my son to not only fall in love with the world, but to know his precious and unique place in it. I wanted him to have the same fluency between worlds that my husband had. But how could I give him ownership of something that didn’t belong to me? What was my role here as his white parent?

I knew that part of my responsibility was to ensure that English language and American “culture” (such as it is) are not the default in our home. I knew this would require working against muscle memory: not just my own, but our country’s, where white and American are still in most places considered the default.

Part of the solution was to send him to a Japanese preschool close to our house. We also eat lots of Japanese food and watch movies in Japanese. My spoken and listening Japanese is slowly getting better. I was taking classes before the pandemic, but when my son’s school closed, my time for classes evaporated.

Since we were both at home, we embarked on learning together. I joked that I knew toddler Japanese: how to count and the names of farm animals. Because of his interest in vehicles, we learned all the Japanese words for garbage truck, fire engine, delivery van and bulldozer.

This is an offering of love, a gesture of recognition that this part of him is part of what makes him special. 

Even after he went back to school, I continued to practice my Japanese with him. I put effort into speaking his language, yes, but I consider this to be the bare minimum. This is what we do to love our children: we choose to enter their world and remind them of how much they enrich ours.

I try not to make my lack of Japanese his problem. I keep myself out of frustration by inviting him to teach me. I hand over a source of power that parents often have: a command of language. I humbly hand over that power; I smile and shake my head. I make notes of words to learn. I practice and he giggles at me sometimes. I try to measure up, to make him proud of me. To learn a new word, to watch his face light up when I master a new expression. This is an offering of love, a gesture of recognition that this part of him is part of what makes him special. 

Our children shape us. They are our fragile hearts living outside our bodies. I do not explain yet that there are people who would harm him for his race, although I think about it. I think about the spa shooting, and the fact that Asian elders are attacked here in our city. 

But I do not let the fear rule me. If we are out running errands together, I will speak to him in Japanese. He grins up at me, relishing our shared (and somewhat secret) language. It is a part of us: him and me. This is part of what makes us special. 

At the end of the school year, many of his friends were moving away to other schools, including mainstream public schools where only English would be spoken. I asked him, hypothetically, whether he would want to go to a new school or stay at his current school. He said going to a new school seemed fun—until I explained that they would only speak English there. When I asked him why he wanted to stay in a school where he spoke Japanese, he told me, “So I can teach you things.”

This story is a part of The Motherly Collective contributor network where we showcase the stories, experiences and advice from brands, writers and experts who want to share their perspective with our community. We believe that there is no single story of motherhood, and that every mother’s journey is unique. By amplifying each mother’s experience and offering expert-driven content, we can support, inform and inspire each other on this incredible journey. If you’re interested in contributing to The Motherly Collective please click here.

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