Cross-cultural communication failure: Multilingual vs monolingual

A pre-registration interview at the Japanese school was a big culture shock for me, as I realized that we held completely different assumptions as the educators from a monolingual society.

A few weeks ago, we had to take Entropy (6) to the Japanese school for a pre-registration interview.

The school asks to have this interview with families where one parent is not Japanese, i.e., the families of international marriages, ostensibly to assess whether the child has enough Japanese language skills to keep up in school.

(BTW, the Japanese school in Singapore doesn't have this requirement, so I'm imagining there is some history behind it at the Bangkok school...)

We went through with this for Engineer and Tigerlily years ago. I never liked it, but the educators we met with back then treated it as a somewhat embarrassing formality, so I went with it.

But this time, the interview was more grueling, and I came home fuming and upset.

It took me a while to calm down enough to recognize the experience as a classic case of failed cross-cultural communication (one would think I'd know better by now 😂).

Here's what I think the educators thought they were doing

  • They were making sure that the child had enough skills to be able to keep up so he would not fall behind and get a proper education in this school.
  • They were taking the time to give the family solid and practical advice to make sure the family could provide the necessary support so the child could succeed in his educational career (as far as I could understand, as defined as making it to as good a high school and university as possible).

How I experienced it:

  • They interrogated us about our family lives in ways I didn't think was any of their business.
  • I felt we were being condescended to as an "impure" mixed family and we were expected to be grateful for their negative predictions (in front of the child!) and, frankly, bad language advice.

☘ Expectations for an international setting

We were coming from very different expectations and experiences.

Because we were in Thailand and the educators had chosen to go outside of their country, I assumed that they also shared a wider, international viewpoint. 

But I was wrong.

These senior educators carried Japan with them. Their expertise came from JAPAN, Inc. 

If we were in Japan, I'd sigh and think "this is why I had to get out of Japan" 😆

Even though it's operating outside of Japan, the Japanese school most definitely is not an international school. As the educators repeatedly emphasized, the school's raison d'etre is to help prepare students to return to Japan and assimilate there as painlessly as it's run to match the system in Japan as closely as possible.

Purely by luck, a day later, I stumbled upon an article by Charlotte Murakami: "Japan’s Overseas School System" in Intercultural Families and Schooling in Japan: Experiences, Issues, and Challenges (Melodie Lorie Cook and Louise George Kittaka, eds., 2021).

Her article explains the history of the overseas Japanese schools and how these schools were from the start created to address the "problem" of bringing overseas Japanese children back into the fold.

Charlotte Murakami also points out that there are increasing numbers of overseas Japanese (or part-Japanese) families without any plan to "return" (like ours!). Those families are turning to Japanese schools as a way to keep their children in touch with their heritage (like us!). And the schools aren't quite sure what to do with them.

It was eye-opening to learn the history of the Japanese schools and see where our family's experience falls. And comforting to learn that I wasn't imagining things, that we're part of a trend.

☘ Multilingual family

Now, about the bad language advice. 

The educators looked grave that our 6-y.o. Entropy wasn't speaking Japanese at the same level of his fully Japanese peers.

They pointed out that he couldn't conjugate adjectives correctly and his Japanese vocabulary wasn't very extensive, although he seemed to understand what the teacher was asking.

They advised me to do more to support his language acquisition at home, suggesting that perhaps as a youngest child, he'd never had to fully express himself; everyone understands him anyway.

I explained that whenever my child says something in other languages, I echo back what he said in Japanese (so he'd hear the words—a classic approach). 

The administrator snapped back with "See? He feels you understand him without him having to speak Japanese! So you have to tell him 'the correct way to say that is....' to force him to speak properly!" 🙄

They also expressed concern that he wouldn't be able to fully communicate with his peers at this level and that he may have a hard time adjusting.

I explained that I understood—I also had a similar experience returning to Japan in 2nd grade from the US and that I had to learn quickly. The administrator ignored my story entirely 😆

I guess from a monolingual point of view, it's problematic if a child's vocabulary and language development isn't up to speed.

But if you added up a multilingual child's vocabulary in all their languages, the total would often surpass the vocab of a monolingual child. So a smaller vocabulary in one language is not a serious problem; it's to be expected.

I was irritated that an expert in monolingual education—not in multilingualism—was using their position of authority to advise a multilingual family.

It also made me reflect how common it is for multilingual families to be discouraged by authorities (teachers, doctors...) who in fact might not know as much about raising multilingual children.

☘ Lesson learned

It wasn't an easy or pleasant experience, but I think I've learned some things here.

First, I've adjusted my expectations somewhat, and I think I can better accept the role that the Japanese school can play in our children's growth.

I am still grateful for the fantastic education the school is providing our children. Our kids' teachers have been wonderfully supportive and open. And there have been administrators whose more international vision I resonated with.

Second, heeding the educators' warnings about educational careers (進路, for those of you who read Japanese), Engineer (12) and I have been able to discuss what he wants to do for high school and we've started figuring out our strategy going forth—so that's a good, practical outcome that perhaps we wouldn't have gotten to (yet) if it weren't for the interview.

All you multilingual families out there, it's not always easy...but let's carry on!



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