In the course of my working life, particularly when teaching children, the issue of bilingualism crops up fairly often. There are more than enough parents out there who despite their own language difficulties are dead set on producing bilingual offspring. It may be more common in cosmopolitan cities like New York, but there are plenty of people here in small-ish town Japan who see bilingualism as something of a holy grail, something to be pursued but largely unobtainable.
Now, if you happen to be a multi-lingual set of parents with two native tongues between you and have the opportunity to immerse your children in two languages then good for you, you honestly should be aiming for that goal. Culturally it’s an obvious boon and from what regular pieces in newspapers suggest it may indeed have long-term health benefits.
More importantly you can go about that education in a positive and enjoyable way because it’s more than an extra tool, another line on the resume and all that for your child; it’s access. Access to another culture, another way of thinking and the chance to widen your child’s horizons so that whatever they may choose to be in the future, the world you came from is a possibility for them.
For those of us born with just the one native tongue at hand it’s usually a rather more expensive matter. Particularly so here in Japan; parents spend an absolute fortune over a child’s lifetime putting them through endless cram schools and English conversation schools with disturbingly little to show for their efforts much of the time.
However, I don’t want to get bogged down in where the industry lets people down and where students let themselves down. Been there already. I’d rather focus on the most popular question.
How do you do it. That thing. Switching between languages like flicking channels on a TV screen. What is the reality of being bilingual (even in my rather limited fashion)?
Speaking to Japanese people, in particular English teachers, who speak a fluent or close enough level of English I generally get an answer that is akin to my own feelings. We shift gears.
In a land of automatic cars the metaphor doesn’t work quite as well as you’d hope but I can’t think of anything else that really comes close to encapsulating the nature and process of becoming bilingual quite like it.
When you first start to drive a manual you’re pretty much praying you’re in the right gear, the gear box isn’t making any unwanted noises, no screeching, grinding and churning of teeth. You inevitably stall the engine, curse yourself and angrily, and rather uncouthly shift the gear into the correct position with an unceremonious ‘geeeerunnk.’
Slowly you begin to get the feeling that this driving lark isn’t so tough after all. The gears change more smoothly, you no longer crawl up a too steep hill, race briefly and then sharply break before hitting a tree. Eventually you move on to an automatic car. On those simple long straight roads and run of the mill intersections where marks on the road, flashing lights and a line of other cars can direct you within the herd you suddenly find some pleasure in the activity (unless you’re in a traffic jam). Then, just as you relax a boy racer screeches past, all high-speed maneuvers, fast turns and necessary pinpoint accuracy in the manual shift.
You look on and smile, if only I could manage that… safely.
The truth is slightly less fun to write. I grew up and learned (very slowly) to drive in Yorkshire. The whole county, unlike Japan, is an endless stream of winding roads, endless roundabouts and utterly random inclines and cambers. I’m sure a decent automatic car can handle it but most people learn to drive manual, simply because people generally respond faster than automatic gearboxes to the lay of the land.
I can’t do that yet. I can’t play with language. I can’t see an odd turn in the road coming a mile off, I can’t adjust naturally to sharp bends in the conversation and an unusual camber might send my car rolling off the road and down the mountainside.
With proper guidance I can choose the right phrase but in the absence of signposts and road markings I lose my way. It’s certain I’ll never go off road in Japanese, but if I’m honest I’ll happily settle for automatic (cruise control too if it’s available); until Google invents the self-driving language at least.