Back and Forth between Two Languages, and Following My Child’s Lead
Updated: Nov 28, 2022
I want to share with you what I experienced in the month of October as part of my Artist Residency in Motherhood. Key concepts that came up this month for me: Bilingualism, language as a cultural identity builder, and the dominant American culture's beliefs about non-English languages.
The images above describe my experience of being bilingual and raising a bilingual child. A child will not become bilingual, just because another language is spoken at home. My husband is not Japanese and does not speak the language, although he understands some; and when our child was born 11 years ago, we made a conscious decision to raise her bilingual. For us, it meant that I would only speak Japanese to our daughter for the first several years of her life, read to her in Japanese at night, arrange for playdates with other Japanese-speaking children, and send her to Japanese schools on Saturdays. As she got older, I also sat down with her for one hour a day to go over her Japanese homework.
In this process of fostering bilingualism in my child, I have gone back and forth between two languages—as I conversed with her and my husband, as I taught her the language, and as I functioned at work with others in English and at home in Japanese. I went back and forth in my thoughts about how to pass the language on to my child. The older she became, the more demanding the Japanese homework became. There was more give and take in our attempts to understand one another when we continued using Japanese as the main language between us, because my daughter became gradually more fluent in expressing herself in English.
“Back and Forth between Two Languages,” 8 x8 inch collage on wood panel. Scraps of paper used
for this image come from papers used by my daughter as I taught her Japanese alphabets,
frottage from wood plates I carved for Mokuhanga, and prints with mishaps.
Is it worth it to raise a child bilingual? It is still stressful for the both of us, and still places significant demands on my time and labor. Some people around us encouraged us to continue. Others saw it as an attempt to force my culture and language onto my child. Once when I told my American friends that it was up to my daughter to decide if she wants to continue learning from me, they replied, “How can she say no to you though? She’d feel too guilty to say that.” In their view, I was “too intense” about my language and culture. I have also been told by others that English was more important than my native language because my daughter lives In the U.S. Is it an egoistic act to put my effort into this? Am I doing it for me?
Here is what it looks like while I work on my images. I keep leftover scraps
from previous projects for later use. For me, it is an embodied practice
of Japanese philosophy “Mottainai.”
My daughter and I shed a lot of tears over my native language in the last several years. At times the amount and fluency level of Japanese homework were overwhelming for us both. On several occasions we have discussed leaving the Japanese school. A couple of years ago, we moved her to a less rigorous, online Japanese school, instead of a local one. But recently we had a very serious discussion about this again, because her English school’s activities and homework became more demanding. At the end of the discussion, she decided to stop going to the Japanese school. I understood. I agreed and congratulated her for investing herself in learning Japanese for this long. We both became emotional and cried because of many different feelings—sorrow, pride, and relief etc..
One hour later, after a long shower, my daughter came back to me. She burst into tears and said, “That was the stupidest thing I’ve ever said. I want to study Japanese. I want to continue.” I thought she was trying to make me feel better, so I told her it was ok for her to let it go. She can just maintain what she has learned so far. That’s good enough. Then she got frustrated and straightened me out—-”You are not hearing me, mom. This is my language too! I am Japanese too, and I feel so stupid if I can’t speak it.”
This conversation left a strong impression on me. My perception of “forcing” the language onto her clouded my ability to see who she was becoming. I also recognized the assimilated part of myself, a conditioned belief that investing in a second language somehow hinders a child’s development—although this belief is a myth and is recognized as a colonizing strategy. The artwork “Following My Child’s Lead” was borne out of this interaction. She’s the one who leads the boat. I sit with her as a support in the same boat. I witness and support who my child is becoming. Per Sayedayn (2021), “It is through language, culture, and identity that we perceive ourselves, and our places in the world.”
“Following My Child’s Lead,” 8 x 8 inches on wood panel, with scrap papers used
by my daughter, frottage from Kamihanga plate, and
torn Mokuhanga prints with mishaps.
Can you see which of my Mokuhanga prints’ mishaps I used in here?
Thanks for reading! I will share my experience in November at the end of the month. Let's stay in touch.