The United Nations has six official languages. Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish. Fortunately, the United Nations International School (UNIS) only requires its Junior School students to learn two. English and French.
Many parents choose to put their children in UNIS because foreign language instruction starts in first grade. M was going to begin daily French lessons at the age of five. And I was not going to let it happen.
M is Japanese. She was born in Japan. She has a Japanese passport. Her first words were in Japanese. She spoke Japanese at home. At least before home became an apartment in New York City.
English is my primary language, but when I became pregnant with M, I decided that Japanese would be our language. I spoke to my unborn child in Japanese, and I sang her to sleep with Japanese lullabies.
We moved to Lagos, Nigeria when M was a year and a half. There is a lot of distance between Nigeria and Japan. No direct flights. Not even today. But it was not difficult to maintain a Japanese language environment in Lagos.
We spent my husband’s 30-month assignment mostly within a compound. His office was in the compound. Our two-bedroom house was in the compound. A small playground was in the compound. Everything was in the compound. And because carjacking was a serious threat, and people were killed for their cars, whatever that was not in the compound, I arranged to have brought to the compound. I hardly went shopping. I paid double for everything. Just as long as it was brought to me. In the compound.
M played with the other Japanese children living in the compound. Lagos was safe for small children. So long as they remained in the compound. She watched NHK’s Okaasan to Issho (With Mother). I recorded sixty-two episodes before leaving Japan. Two for every day of the month. One to be shown in the morning. Another one in the afternoon. Just like the way NHK did it.
At the end of six months, M was singing all the songs even when the television was turned off. I decided she needed new programs, and that it was probably time for Disney movies. In their original language. English.
My husband left for a trip to London, and I made sure he went to the Disney Store on Regent Street. He came home with a suitcase full of Disney toys and movies. We could afford the stuff. Even in British pounds. We were being paid a little more to spend most of our days within the walls of the compound.
We spoke Japanese at home. But English was unavoidable. We watched CNN, read the Herald Tribune, haggled with Nigerian merchants, invited non-Japanese friends for dinner…I used the English language in M’s presence. I just never used it to talk to her.
M started attending the American Community Pre-School at the age of three, and she was an extremely well-behaved and attentive child. She did not say much though, but she always did as she was told. And to me, that meant she understood the language used in class. English.
M talked a lot. But always in Japanese. Until that day in New York. A few days before her fourth birthday. We had said good-bye to Lagos, and she was now attending the International Pre-School on Manhattan’s 45th Street. I went to pick her up at noon. I always do, and on that day, I spent a few minutes in the empty classroom discussing her birthday celebration in class with her teacher Ms. Hickson. All the other children had left. M sat there listening to us. And something must have happened in that little head of hers.
As we walked home along Second Avenue, she started telling me about her day. Nothing unusual about that. She did it everyday. But she was telling me about her day in English! And she never spoke to me in English!
I refused to panic. She spoke in English. I spoke in Japanese. She asked a question in English. I answered in Japanese. This continued until bedtime.
M: Good-night, Mommy. I love you.
In English. For the first time in her life.
I went to bed that night thinking of strategies. I knew that the Japanese-English battle had begun.
The next morning. At breakfast. M was telling my husband about the birthday cake we were bringing to class. In Japanese. But when she turns to address me, it was in English. Mornings are hectic. Too hectic for mommy talk. I waited until we came home for lunch. Just the two of us.
I began. In English.
Mommy: M, why are you talking to me in English?
M: Because you speak English.
She answered. In English.
Mommy: But we always speak in Japanese.
I persisted. In Japanese.
M: But you speak English.
She insisted. In English.
I decided to lie. In Japanese.
Mommy: But I don’t speak English.
M: Yes, you do. I heard you talking to Ms. Hickson.
She reproached me for lying. In English.
That was a bad lie.
Uh…We were talking in Japanese.
I resisted the urge to tell a ridiculous lie.
Mommy: Well, you have to speak to me in Japanese. Or else, I won’t answer you.
I threatened. In Japanese.
That afternoon, M spoke to me in English. I refused to reply. She stopped speaking to me.
A change of tactic was required.
I said something in Japanese. She replied in English. I translated her words into Japanese before continuing the conversation.
We ate dinner chatting. Mommy in Japanese. M in English. But I was translating everything she said into Japanese. This went on for a few days. I got tired. I continued speaking in Japanese, but I gave up translating. She was losing her Japanese. I accepted that, but I was not going to hasten the loss with the addition of French lessons.
The Junior School Principal was known to be a very wise woman, and a very experienced educator. And I went into her office ready to do battle. Over French lessons for M.
M cannot have French lessons. She is Japanese, and she is not even speaking Japanese anymore. I cannot have her speaking French without knowing Japanese. She should be having Japanese lessons instead of French. I will arrange for a private tutor to come and teach her when the other students are having French.
I could hear the agitation and panic in my voice.
The Principal sat there. Calmly. Smiling. I could see that she was used to dealing with hysterical mothers.
Please Mom. Relax. Everything will be all right. The studies have shown that if you develop one strong language, all the other languages will be pulled up by this strong language. In M’s case, she should be reading and writing in English. You should read to her every night in English. But please continue to speak to her in Japanese. And let us teach her French. Everything will be all right.
The Principal must have hypnotic powers. I walked out of her office determined to follow her advice. Some voice in my mind told me that I should trust this woman, and everything will be all right.
M had French lessons. Everyday. For two years. First and second grade.
Her first teacher, Madame B, gave her a grade of Satisfactory. M was aghast. She never had anything but Very Good. I made an appointment with Madame Brezinsky.
Madame B: M is a very good student, but she is too quiet. She seldom says anything. But whenever she does, she is always right. She has to be more active in my class. This is a language class. She has to speak up.
I repeated every word to M. She was a smart girl. She realized instantly that it was all right to say something wrong in French class. As long as it was in French. Being talkative in French class was acceptable. As long as she was talkative in French.
M had discovered the secret to learning languages.
French lessons ended when we moved back to Japan. At the American School in Japan (ASIJ), they were replaced with daily Japanese lessons. M could hardly read nor write the Japanese hiragana and katakana alphabets, but she was placed in a class for native Japanese speakers. And the students were working on Kanji characters. Lots of them.
R sensei handed me two Kanji textbooks used in the past two years.
Gambatte kudasai. Do your best.
I knew she meant those words for us. M and Mommy.
M was an excellent student. She had very strong speaking, reading and writing skills in English. And after three years in Japan, she had the same strong skills in Japanese. She proved The Principal right. The stronger language lifted the weaker language to the same high level.
As for French, it was again a required subject when we moved to Vienna. M took a placement test, and was put in the class for beginners. She was learning French again. From scratch.
A few months later, right before the winter break, she came home with a letter from the Head of the French Department at the Vienna International School (VIS). M would be starting the second semester in a French class for native speakers, and she was excited! Now that worried me. Very much.
I was in school early the next morning to argue against it.
It is not possible! Of course, M had two years of French. But it was in New York. And we were in Tokyo until a few months ago. New York and Tokyo are not Francophone cities. My husband and I do not speak French. We cannot even order from a French menu in a French restaurant!
The French Department Head just sat there. Calmly listening to me rant. Smiling. The French male version of The Principal. He was also an expert in dealing with hysterical mothers.
Please, Mom. Relax.
Why do they all tell me to relax!
The Head: M is wasting her time in the class for beginners. She belongs to the class for native speakers. We know what we are doing. Please let us do our job.
This French male version of The Principal also had hypnotic powers. When I left his office, not only had I agreed to native French classes, I was considering private French lessons in the summer. I made him promise though that as soon as M appeared to be struggling, she would be allowed to leave the class.
And then I went home to triumphantly announce to M that I had arranged a way to escape should the going get tough!
In M’s junior year in Bangkok, she was given the French Native Language Award. This award is in recognition of the recipient’s achievements in learning her mother tongue, or native language.
Many were puzzled. M was asked lots of questions.
Are you French?
M: No. I am Japanese.
Are either of your parents French.
M: No. And they do not speak French.
Were you born in France?
M: No. And I have never lived in a French-speaking country. And I have never attended a French school.
Where did you learn French?
M: In New York and in Vienna.
But they don’t speak French there!
M: I know.
And they continue to be puzzled. I am puzzled myself.
And The Principal. She must have known all along that the puzzle was the art of language, and that M would put all the pieces together.