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The Importance (and Hardship) of Becoming Bilingual


A few summers ago I found myself listening to a concert at the annual Okinawan festival in O’ahu, Hawai’i. I closed my eyes and began to sway to the sound of the strumming of the sanshin and to the melodic tilting of the woman singer’s voice. She sang in a way that enveloped me in love, yet pierced me with nostalgic sadness at the same time. Later, as I began to dance with others on the grounds in front of the elevated stage, I realized that the overwhelming feelings of love and nostalgia came from the fact that she sang in Japanese. I had been raised speaking Japanese in my home in Central Illinois, so hearing the language made me feel safe, protected.

But when I returned to my seat to catch my breath, I realized that the audience members, mostly made up of local Japanese, were conversing in English between the songs. For some reason this conflict of language between the stage and the audience was jarring to me. Did those in the audience long to know what the lyrics meant? Did they ever feel like they missed out on not learning Japanese? I thought back to how I learned in one of my college courses that after being put into camps during World War II, Japanese American second and third generations (called nisei and sansei) tended to disengage themselves from the Japanese community. Japanese language schools that were numerous before the war became almost nonexistent. I was saddened by the thought of Japanese Americans feeling as if they had to show that they were as “American” as possible by distancing themselves from both Japanese culture and language.

I remembered my own experiences of growing up knowing both Japanese and English in rural America, and how even as I knew I was proud of the fact that my mother was Japanese, I tended to feel uncomfortable when speaking Japanese to my family when my friends were around. I always hated when someone would find out I spoke Japanese and beg me to “Say something! Anything!” It wasn’t just that I was shy and didn’t like being put on the spot. I felt as if every time I spoke in Japanese, my peers’ understandings of me as different and foreign were solidified. I wasn’t an American, because I definitely wasn’t like them.

America, it seems to me, is not a country that fosters bilingualism. In order to be accepted as an “American”, you must learn English. Nativists urge anyone who doesn’t to “go back to your own country,” as if doing so is a quick and easy task. Ironically, the U.S. is touted to be a “country of immigrants,” yet urges those who immigrate to acculturate and learn English as fast as they can. For this reason, many of the second-generation Asian Americans that I have met in college have lost the ability to speak their heritage language. I have heard a few of my friends say that their parents wished for them to learn both English and their heritage language, but prioritized English learning first. By the time they were fluent in English, therefore, it was difficult to keep up with the heritage language. Many told me that they were jealous of my ability to speak both Japanese and English, and wish that they had been raised to be bilingual.

I am not surprised that many Asian Americans were not able to be raised to be bilingual speakers, since I know from my own upbringing that becoming fully bilingual in this country is no easy feat. The task was made especially difficult for me, as I grew up in the Illinois countryside where my mother was the only native Japanese speaker for miles. Because of our circumstances, my parents had to purposefully set up a system in which I would be exposed to environments where I would only be able to speak in Japanese. Thus, my American father learned Japanese and my parents made strict rules for only Japanese-speaking in our home. Fortunately, we lived close by to a Japanese Saturday School. The school was attended predominantly by the children of Japanese Mitsubishi plant workers and therefore kept up with the national curriculum in Japan. My brothers and I attended the school for nine years.

Yet during the course of those nine years, I gradually came to deeply resent the fact that I had to give up my entire Saturday to attend one more day of school, complete with quizzes and tests that required extensive preparation in order to be on par with the other students. Since the school kept up with the standard curriculum in Japan, every Saturday it was necessary to catch up on a week’s worth of schooling. Summers were ruined by the piles of homework given out by my Japanese language, history, and math class teachers, and I felt it unfair that my “regular” American school classmates did not have to shoulder the same burden. In my fifth year I told my Japanese mother that I wanted to quit, but she steadfastly refused, saying that someday I would thank her.

She was right, of course. Learning Japanese gave me many advantages, not only in terms of practical uses of the language or the ability to flaunt the fluency in future job applications. I realized that through my knowledge of these two very different languages I was able to understand the world in a compounded way. As humans, we are able to understand concepts through language, and in this way knowledge of words shapes our very thoughts. Since in Japanese certain words and phrases exist that have no direct translation into English, and vice versa, knowing these two languages allowed me to understand concepts from both languages and cultures. In a sense it gave me a kind of “double vision”. For example, the phrase “wabi-sabi” in Japanese refers to the Japanese cultural concept of feeling sad when looking at beauty, since everything is imperfect and impermanent. Since learning this phrase, I have come to feel a sense of sadness with my usual joy when eyeing a fully blossomed apple tree, for instance. In this way, the Japanese language introduced me to concepts that I would have otherwise never have been exposed to.

In such a way, learning Japanese taught me more about Japanese culture. The phrase “itadakimasu,” for instance, is said before eating a meal. The phrase simply means “I will eat this meal with gratitude,” but this gratitude is both to the person who prepared it, but also to the plants and animals who will soon be consumed. I have always loved that this single phrase reminds me to be thankful. The Japanese language in general is filled with rules for respect, and growing up speaking it to my parents has led me to be respectful to them in both language and in heart.

But most of all, I am extremely grateful for my parents’ insistence on raising us to be bilingual because speaking Japanese in our home gave my mother the ability to express herself fully. The greatest problem with living in a monolingual country that makes natural the loss of heritage language is the subsequent loss of power that is felt by those who are not fluent in that one language. For my mother, speaking Japanese gave her the ability to raise us fully enveloped in her Japanese culture.

Therefore, for me, Japanese has become the language of love. When I heard it in the middle of Hawai’i, I instantly felt at home, and although I hear it less often at college, I cannot help but smile when I do. I cannot imagine not speaking Japanese to my own future children, and I hope that they, too, can find wisdom and love in the language, and that America will have become a more bilingual-friendly country in their time.