Why I decided to speak my language, Hungarian to our kids and raise them multilingual04 Jan 2024 | #parenting | #japan
We are expecting our first child very soon, so we have been thinking and discussing which language we want to speak to them. In this post I’ll go through some of the things we considered and how we arrived to a conclusion.
My wife is Japanese, speaks English fluently, and recently started learning Hungarian. I’m Hungarian, speak English, and have been learning Japanese for 4 years now (probably around N3 level now, so I can handle most everyday conversation, but can’t work in Japanese yet). When we are together, we speak 80-90% in English, rest is Japanese. I communicate with my wife’s family almost entirely in Japanese. Most people in my family speak some level of English, so that’s what my wife uses to talk to them.
We currently live in Japan, and intend to stay here for the forseeable future. Even if we would move to another country, it likely wouldn’t be Hungary due to the political and economic outlook of the country, so it would likely only increase the number of languages further.
The Hungarian language
The Hungarian language is almost exclusively only spoken by Hungarians in Hungary and neighboring countries (many of them have a Hungarian minority). This includes overall 17 million speakers worldwide with 9.6 million of them living in Hungary.
The language is an Uralic language (and the most spoken one at that), which means that it is not similar to any other European language (the closest one is Finnish, however speakers of the two languages can’t understand each other anymore). This is important especially in comparison to other European languages, where knowing one language makes it easy to learn similar languages (e.g. Italian and French, or Czech and Slovakian, or Swedish and Norwegian). Hungarian doesn’t provide any benefit like this, so its utility is mainly limited to communicating with Hungarians.
I’ve talked with many friends and colleges in similar situations about their choice of language to speak to their kids, and found 3 general options. (These examples consider a non-English-native foreign father and Japanese mother):
1. Monolingual Japanese
Both parents speak Japanese to the kids. This helps the non-Japanese parent practice the language and keeps the communication simple and similar to fully Japanese families, but the family looses out entirely on the benefits of being bilingual.
2. Japanese and English
Mom speaks Japanese to the kids, dad speaks English to the kids, parents communicate in English. This is similar to how many families with a native English speaker parent raise their kids. The main benefit of this approach is that kids will know English almost natively, which is a super valuable skill.
3. Japanese, non-English foreign language, and English
Mom speaks Japanese to the kids, dad speaks his language to the kids, parents communicate in English. The main benefit of this is that the kids will have a chance of learning the father’s language, which will help them connect with that side of the family, feel closer to the culture and that side of their identity. The downside is mostly that their English won’t be as good as #2 and that the non-English language might have lower objective benefits than English. Also the family will need to put in more effort compared to #2 (e.g. having an English speaking tutor to help kids learn to read/write in English is much easier than doing it in a not so common language).
Learning a language as a kid is a big part about exposure to that language. Once kids start going to nursery, kindergarten and school, they will spend a big part of their waking hours there (and even the rest will be partially taken up by homeworks or hanging out with friends made at school increasing further the use of the school’s language), so the language spoken at school will have a huge impact on the language development of the child.
As for regular nursery, kindergarten or school, there seem to be two main options in Japan:
- Japanese-speaking ones, some public, some private, but even the private ones are pretty affordable for most middle class households
- International schools holding some or most activities in English. These are usually pretty expensive (between 1-3 million yen per year). While schools might exist for some other popular foreign languages (e.g. the French lycée français international de Tokyo), there is no full-time Hungarian school in Japan.
Then there are the after-school activities.
- Some of these are similar to regular schools (a teacher teaching a group of students), and they might allow students to get into a higher level group based on their language skills.
- Some are more like daycare with the staff speaking English. These might be less useful, as kids can end up speaking mostly Japanese to each other.
- There is also the possibility for private tutoring or foreign speaker babysitter
We decided that my wife will speak Japanese to our kids, and I will speak Hungarian. We will continue to communicate in English, but focus on teaching the kids Japanese and Hungarian primarily. We haven’t fully decided on international vs Japanese-speaking schools, as we have options for both around where we live, and while we could likely afford international school for at least some of our kids (at a time), it would still be a major expense that we want to consider carefully.
The reasons for teaching our kids Hungarian comes down to culture, identity and communication with family. Hungary shares lot of its culture with the neighboring countries (including food, festivals, history), so the main thing that sets a Hungarian apart from e.g. a Slovakian or a Croatian is the language. Our kids will be Hungarian and Japanese, so to be able to fully have the Hungarian identity, having some knowledge of the language seems paramount.
Also I really enjoy Hungarian humor (especially the author, Jenő Rejtő. It’s a bit similar to French humor like Tais-toi!), however it just doesn’t really translate, so being able to share that with my kids is really important for me.
I do recognize that teaching and maintaining Hungarian with our kids is going to be a challenge, so based on books and articles that I read, I prepared a list of strategies to help with it:
- At home we will follow the one-parent-one-language method, I will only speak Hungarian to the kids, and my wife will mostly speak Japanese (it is less strict for her, as kids will get exposed to Japanese outside of home anyway). I will stick to this even if the kids speak to me in a different language, or if they mix the languages (which seem to happen often early on). When we are outside or with friends, we might speak another language though.
- I will read children books in Hungarian, listen to songs in Hungarian, watch cartoons and movies in Hungarian with the kids.
We plan to stay in Hungary for a month each summer. This is not only to let the kids practice Hungarian, but also to let them connect with that side of the family and their cultural heritage. (Both my wife and I work remotely, so we can partially work during this one month.) Also as the kids get older we plan to leave them with my family, while we have some couple time and travel around Europe.
We recognize that as the kids get older and they have more strict school attendance and extracurricular activities (e.g. sport trainings, which often continue during summer break), these stays might get shorter, and we will adjust them as needed.
- There is also the Hungarian School of Tokyo, which is a Saturday morning school twice a month for kids aged 1-15 in the Hungarian Cultural Institute in Minato-ku. We intend to join this from early on.
- We are also considering a Hungarian baby-sitter or au-pair, but the formers are hard to come by in Tokyo, and we don’t have enough space in our home for the latter. But these are also options that we might consider again later.
Some books recommend setting a bilingual goal for your children, usually from the list of
- understanding the language
- speaking the language
- reading in the language
- writing in the language
It is generally believed that this order is increasingly more difficult and later stages encompass earlier ones (e.g. if you can write, you can also read and speak a language). Most books also recommend adjusting your goals as necessary (e.g. if you can’t travel to your country as often as planned, you might need to aim lower).
I feel that if the kids can have a conversation with their Hungarian family in Hungarian, enjoy movies in Hungarian (for all that comedy), that would make me very happy. Still I don’t want to set a strict goal, as I don’t want the language learning to be burden for the kids. So I’ll do my best initially, and then work from there with the children themselves.
I read a few books on raising bilingual kids, and my favorite one was The Bilingual Family by Edith Harding-Esch, Philip Riley. This book goes through the academic literature on the topic, debunks common myths and generally provides a well-rounded overview of research in the area. Then it describes the stories of multiple families raising bilingual kids. The book is very European-centric (the authors both live there, as well as most families appearing in the book), which I personally prefer over some of the other, more US-focused books.