Child Development: Words with character(s)

The Tomato Princess has been expanding her vocabulary day by day, and it’s interesting watching the way she’s trying out the use of various words.

When her older brother was the same age, we actually used quite a lot of English at home; so much so that sometimes it catches me off-guard when we watch videos from those times. But when he started going to daycare (where they spoke mostly English and a little bit of Spanish), we got worried that he would end up like so many American-raised children whose parents speak a second language. I’ve met quite a few people who are able to understand the non-English language; they can speak and read it to some degree, but they’re hesitant about speaking or writing and tend to default to English, even to the point of carrying on bilingual conversations where they reply in English while their parents speak to them in their ostensible mother tongue. If possible, we’d like our kids to be fully bilingual, so when the Kid was in daycare we switched to (almost-)all Japanese at home, and that’s been working out pretty well for us so far.

So, the Tomato Princess has picked up “Oh no!” somewhere, and will pull it out for the cutest exclamations at odd moments throughout the day, but other than that her vocabulary is largely in Japanese.

The word for “ear” is mimi (耳), which she’s been able to say for a while now. But she also uses a lone mi to say both “eye” (目 = me, pronounced like “meh”), and “glasses” (眼鏡 = megane).

She’s picked up her brother’s love of drawing, and will ask for a pencil with empichi (鉛筆 = enpitsu) before drawing dozens of little blobs, solemnly declaring each one a bee (蜂 = hachi, which she pronounces correctly).

She can say both “poop” (うんち = unchi) and “pee” (expressed onomatopoetically in a book on potty training as しいしい = shiishii), but tends to use unchi to announce every diaper event. This is still a little worrisome, because we need to check every time, but before we got used to it, this habit caused a few high-alert situations.

Finally (for now), she’s somehow managed to combine “raisin” (レーズン = reezun) and “water” (水 = mizu) into miizun, and uses the same phrase to ask for both, so it takes a little context-assessing or back-and-forth to discover whether she’s asking for a drink or a snack.

She’s also learned a number of other words and phrases, of course! She’s even started combining them into multiple-word sentences of a sort. But the above are what stand out in my memory right now as particularly interesting or cute.

Lest the Kid be forgotten, he’s progressing in his studies as well! We’ve started a practice of daily sentence-writing (he invents one on whatever topic he wants, while one of his parents dictates another). While one hopes this refines his skills in grammar, word choice, and creativity, the two primary goals are good handwriting and kanji mastery.

And… it’s working! While he grumbles and complains about being sent back to erase and rewrite, his characters are more legible than the handwriting of many university-age students of Japanese – even ones with comparable amounts of practice in reading and writing, and presumably superior study skills – and he’s closing in on being able to write 200 kanji characters at will.

Compared to the Japanese school system, this puts him more or less on track. While the standard curriculum only demands that students master 80 kanji by the end of first grade, most children know rather more than that by the virtue of simple daily exposure. And I don’t doubt that our home-teaching is lacking in several areas compared to the comprehensive Japanese-language education gained simply by going to a Japanese school and speaking the language with a variety of people all day every day, I feel relatively confident that we’re hitting the mark as far as our goal of bilingualism is concerned, kaynahara.

Now all we need to do is keep it up, every day, for another dozen years (for the Kid) and 17 years or so (for the Tomato Princess), and after that it’s up to them! Easy peasy, lemon squeezy! (Well, no; but at least it’s relatively fun.)

About Confanity

I love the written word more than anything else I've had the chance to work with. I'm back in the States from Japan for grad school, but still studying Japanese with the hope of becoming a translator -- or writer, or even teacher -- as long as it's something language-related.
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