Haafu and English as a second language

Yesterday, I picked up an extra shift teaching English at a kindergarten and, while out there, I noticed several kids that looked “haafu” – half, the Japanese (borrow) word for mixed race.

My job situation remains a mix of very busy interspersed by periods of being very quiet. This week was a quieter one, and so I happily accepted the offer of an extra shift, filling in for an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher who was absent. More work does mean more money, after all.

The kindergarten where I visited was buried in the outer suburbs. Japan is pretty homogeneous anyway, and we were far enough away from anything like the centre of the city that anyone who looked less than fully Japanese stood out. Two in particular struck me, both boys. Both of them looked to be half-Japanese and half-white. The first was bigger and fairer than the other kids and stayed quiet throughout most of the class. In fact, he looked about as bored and annoyed as a five year old can while still sitting quietly! The other one was also fairer in hair and complexion, wide-eyed, and the opposite behaviourwise; he wouldn’t follow instructions from either me or his regular kindergarten teacher.

There are a lot of assumptions I could make that I need to be careful of doing. For one, we all need to remember that race is a problematic construct (I find the Pantone skin colour project absolutely fascinating). I don’t know for sure if I’m right about them being mixed race or not. There is plenty of racial variation here, even if it’s not always deemed noteworthy, and this is especially the case among kids who are inclined towards fairer hair and skin than adults anyway.

Then there are the other assumptions. One incorrect one that a lot of Japanese people make (and, to be fair, non-Japanese as well) is that being half-white means that you can speak English, and that’s simply not the case. Another is to assume that their problematic behaviour had anything at all to do with English or anything to do with identifying or not identifying with me, the random foreign substitute teacher.

Really, I can’t assume anything about those kids. But they did get me thinking about my own mixed-race little boy and what the future holds for him language-wise. Provided there are no major deviations from our current plan, Mr. K is set to grow up in Japan and he will go to regular Japanese schools, at least initially.  Our aim is to help him to be bilingual, though the amount of time he spends with me and the fact R and I communicate in English between ourselves means that English is currently set to be a stronger influence – again, at least initially.

Unless something dramatically shifts in the current official mindset on the English language here, all of this means he’s going to confront the Japanese infatuation/ongoing grappling with English when he himself can at least understand it very well. At some point, English teachers are going to come into his classroom to try to make the English language fun, exciting, somewhat relevant and help him learn it when, all the while, he won’t actually need any of what they offer, or so I hope.

What will he do? What will he make of the whole thing?

This definitely isn’t the first time I’ve thought about this. I usually shut myself up by reminding myself we’ve got a lot of bridges to cross before we get to that point, but it’s something that, all things going reasonably well, he, R and I will eventually have to confront and the more I think about it, the more there seems that needs navigating. Everything from whether or not he actually joins the class, how/if he uses his language skills, dealing with his classmates and, yes, politely tolerating an English teacher when he knows that, say, being from Australia is normal, not the most exciting thing ever!!!!!!! that they’re presenting it as.

I don’t know yet, really, how to answer any of that. It’s a work in progress, just like all the other ways in which he is developing. Just like him. It’s food for thought, though.



3 thoughts on “Haafu and English as a second language

  1. My hafu children were raised in the states speaking 100% Japanese at home and assimilating with Japanese children through playgroups formed in our transplant community (my ex was an automotive exec for Mazda). Their books, TV programs, music, toys and clothes all imported in monthly shipments from my in laws. We keep up with the Suzukis and Tanakas.

    For my eldest, she struggled with language from the beginning. She was slow to speak and even today at 28 she is woefully behind in her English diction despite graduating with an MBA at the top of her class. My son, two years younger on the other hand, was and still is a master (IMO) at expression. While studying linguistics on the side, I did a small study and recorded several Japanese children– both those who were masters and and a few struggling to express themselves. My conclusion then was that it is precarious for children who start speaking late to be exposed to two languages. When they cannot express themselves they are prone to frustration which seems to carry throughout his their lives. My daughter was hearing English at stores and in different places and she clearly mixed the two languages in her head. Living where you are it may be difficult to control exposure but be aware of any struggles to communicate.


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