A friend recently wrote the following on his blog about his son (1 year, 4 months old):

I have to work harder at teaching him [English] words, but I get the feeling he will speak more Japanese first, because there are so many easy two-syllable words for him to pronounce easily in Japanese, and most English words that I say to him are longer and harder to pronounce in comparison.

To which I responded, in a comment (I’m posting more or less verbatim, so this is a bit rough-hewn):

just my two yen of course but I wouldn’t fall for the “japanese is easier to pronouce than english” trap too quickly….i heard similar when my little one was taking his first verbal steps….just remember, your little one isn’t saying anything is difficult, his parents (and other well-meaning folk) are! for him, the concept of “difficulty” doesn’t exist.

the fact of the matter is, is that kids in an English environment, or kids in a Swahili environment (okay, i know nothing about Swahili but you get the idea), learn perfectly well how to start repeating sounds, regardless of whether the word is “difficult” to pronouce. the very concept of “difficulty” is arbitrary and tends to reflect the speaker’s point of view, not an objective fact. I mean, for most of us native English speakers, French is at the same time an incomparably beautiful and exceeding difficult to pronouce correctly language…yet the very fact that there are millions of people who can speak the language beautifully gives the lie to the idea that the language is difficult at all, for those born into that language.

I have found that if you are serious about your child learning your own language, as I trust you are, you have to view that development within your language, not via the pov of the other language. Granted, being that English is the minority language, and that the child is surrounded by Japanese almost every moment of his life, it IS an uphill battle, but that doesn’t mean you should be raising any white flags. In actual fact, there is little difference between “atta” and “there it is”, or “baba” and “grandma”, but even to acknowledge that is to worry too much about it. just teach him what you want. hell, I’d start him on “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” right now!

(of course the same applies to your [Japanese] wife wanting him to speak Japanese as a native, which means we need to try not to correct his pronunciation when he says “makudonarudo” [McDonald’s in Japanese])


I’m curious what others think, especially those raising (or trying to raise) a child bilingually. I’m no expert of course, and Kaika still has a long way to go before we can hope to proclaim him bilingual, but I guess I’m natually suspicious of this idea that Japanese, which doesn’t have a lot of words longer than 2 syllables (at least not any words a toddler needs to know!), not to mention that it does have a lot of onomatopoeic words that can at times be mistaken for “baby talk”, automatically makes it easier to learn.

On the other hand, I suppose one could make the argument that the child really isn’t aware he’s repeating “words” but rather is just sounding out sounds, sounds he’s only vaguely connecting with meaning. In which case, I guess the easier to replicate sounds (or syllables) would get the advantage. I don’t know.

Well, you can see I’m no linguist, but if you have an opinion or your own experiences to share, please leave a comment.


11 Responses to The arbitrary difficulty of language

  1. Peter says:

    Great entry Kurt. Here’s my take.

    It’s only when you view another language through your own that you perceive it as being ‘difficult’. Kids are language free from day one so I don’t think there’s such a concept as a difficult language to them.

    The bigger problem you face bringing your kid up bilingual is retaining their skills. There has to be a good incentive to learn and progress in those languages all the way up to their teens. A Baba who doesn’t speak English and a Granny who knows no Japanese are a great incentives. Mum refusing to speak English and Dad refusing to speak Japanese are not good long term incentives.

    Language is also very heavily tied to culture so plenty of time in each country would be very important if they are to truly understand both languages.

  2. Quinlan says:

    I wrote the text that Kurt is responding to, so I will explain myself further here.

    First, I agree with what you are saying over the long term. But my son is now 16 months old, and at that stage he mostly speaks in two syllable words, and likes to repeat them. I’ve done some reading, and it seems to be widely recognized that at this linguistic phase, saying words like “dada,” “poo poo,” or “atta atta” are possible, while saying “there it is” is simply not going to happen at this age, at least for most kids.

    This has nothing to do with English or Japanese. It’s just a matter of being able to form the sound in your mouth and string that many syllables together. Basically I was just whining when I wrote that, as I should just work harder at using shorter English words when I talk with him so he can imitate them, or not worry about it for another few months or however long it takes for him to be able to say longer words. You could say this is all my fault, as over the last two weeks when we were visiting my wife’s relatives, I was out skiing, bathing in hot springs, and sleeping in the kotatsu. I didn’t have as much direct playtime with my son as usual, so what should I expect?

  3. Kurt says:

    Thanks guys for contributing to the discussion.

    Quinlan, I guess part of what you’re saying would go along with my question about whether children are just sounding out sounds rather than what we would consider words. But the very fact that a child is distinguishing between calling his grandmother “baba” and his grandfather “jiji” seems to me to indicate that it’s not sounds alone, but rather meaning, and therefore words, or language.

    Not to beat my point like a dead horse, but I wonder what your thoughts would be were you and your wife both native English speakers, in a monolingual society, with no second language ability, raising a child. Of course that wouldn’t mean you’re trying to get your son to say “refrigerator” at age 1.5 but I think it’s safe to say you wouldn’t worry nearly as much about what is “difficult” and what is not.

    Another thing I was thinking as I read your comment was that, maybe we (meaning parents) place too much emphasis on productive language, meaning language the child is actually saying (or trying to say). Speaking of my own experience here, I think hearing a child utter actual words somehows allays our worries that “ah, my child is normal”, or perhaps even feeds our ego that “wow, my child is smart” etc. So naturally we’re going to “feed” the child words he/she will be (hopefully) able to utter back, hence the desire to find “easy” words (as an aside, let’s not forget that the 2-syllable words “mama” and “papa” are considered English words too! 🙂 ). But perhaps what’s more important than getting the child to repeat words is just exposing them to as much of the language(s) you hope they eventually speak.

    On this point, I think something those of us trying to raise an English-speaking child in Japan need to be aware of is that naturally, the pronunciation requirements of each language are quite different, resulting famously in the difficulty Japanese have with l/r or b/v minimal pairs, or with the “th” sound (and of course this applies vice-versa to native English speakers of the Japanese language). Studies have shown that basically a child very early on has the ability to learn any language in the world. the younger the child, the more “accepting” (for lack of a better word) a child is of the sounds they’ll reproduce….in other words, every sound of every language is open to them very early on, but quickly they start to whittle away those sounds they don’t need as they hear the language(s) around them. So, whether because we’re working or skiing or whatever, not speaking to them, or speaking to them enough, I think we run the risk that they’re pronunciation will suffer. This might be my own paranoia at work here, but really I wonder, due to my lack of work with my own son in this area, whether he’ll ever be able to pronounce my name as it’s pronounced or whether it’ll always be “cart” which is how most Japanese say it. Which of course means that “shirt,” “bird,” “earth,” “world,” etc. would also be difficult for him.

    a couple of links for those interested:
    http://www.indiana.edu/~hlw/PhonProcess/learning.html (some interesting stuff about 1st/2nd language differences re: phonology, including some English/Japanese examples)

    http://jan.ucc.nau.edu/~jar/TIL_4.html (about how to teach a second language to native English speakers, pertinent in terms of how fixed first language phonology can become)

  4. Dirk says:

    And let’s not even get into German.

  5. Sean says:

    I do not want to bring down the level of discussion with my little observation, but I found this quote interesting:

    “there are so many easy two-syllable words for him to pronounce easily in Japanese, and most English words that I say to him are longer and harder to pronounce in comparison”

    As a native English speaker, the large number of syllables in oft-used words was the things that really struck me about Japanese.

    I, me, you, he, she, it, we, they, stop, go, fire!, $#@!, you name it…

    Perhaps the grass is always greener, but the words have more syllabes, on the other side?

  6. Maria Lin says:

    I’m the child of a Chinese and American couple. My mother told my father to start teaching me Chinese at an early age, because kids start learning language almost as soon as they are born, (and from what I’ve studied this is true)

    My dad waited until I was around two years old to start speaking Chinese to me. by that time I had established English as the language I was confortable with an it was very difficult to learn Chinese.

    There were probably other things my parents could have done to teach me chinese, but since I could communicate with both my parents it didn’t seem like I needed to learn Chinese I guess, and my father never taught me.

    Right now I’m 19 and know hardly any Chinese. It’s very difficult to talk with some of my relatives, and I feel a little cut off from my own culture. As someone who wishes her parents had forced her to learn the ‘difficult’ language when she was a baby, I have to say that your friend should -not- put off establishing english fluency with his kid.

  7. Bookie says:

    BTW, I’ve only taken a few courses in linguistics so far, but from what the professors have been trying to pound in my head I’m pretty sure that there’s no such thing as a more difficult language. Humans are capable of fluency in all languages at the same level, granted they learn early enough.

  8. Kurt says:

    Your experience resonates a lot with my own. My mother is from Finland. However, very early on she made the decision not to speak to my brother and I in Finnish. For her, Finnish would have been useless and a waste of her time and effort (there was probably some subtle pressure from my father not to teach us, though I’m not really sure on this). (Ironically, she would always later brag that Finnish was the second hardest language in the world, after Chinese.) In any event, while most younger Finns (like my cousins) speak English almost native-speaker like, I was never able to communicate with my grandmother or my uncles and aunts. The concept of usefulness, like that of difficulty, is obviously a very relative one.

  9. david says:

    though i am coming late to the conversation…
    I thought i would share my experience as a father in japan.
    my wife speaks nearly native level english and is a native japanese speaker. i am a native english speaker and a mixed level japanese speaker. we have decided that we will use the minority language, being english for the time being, as the language of the house. outside the house, we still defer to english, but when we are around non-english speakers we use japanese.
    this means that my japanese suffers, but my son’s is developing as would be expected for any 3 and a half year old. his japanese is coming along the same. but we have an unexpected side-effect. his japanese can be a strange mix of oba-chan and kid japanese since he is in pre-school and spends time with his great-aunt and grandparents daily. this drives my wife nuts as she is also quite accomplished as an announcer and instructor in japanese.
    the key to all of this is that my wife has committed, as the primary at home parent, to use english with our son.
    the long and the short of it for us, so far, is giving our son clear and consistent context seems to be working for him. he regularly tells us which language he prefers books and videos to read and watched in. and very rarely does he request an english book in japanese and vice-versa.
    he is confident and comfortable, thankfully, in both languages.
    the point to all of this is that he has not shown any hint that he feels/thinks that either language is more difficult to pronounce than the other. the only thing that trips him up a bit is japanses english pronunciation versus american pronunciation of the same word in english or in japanese. this only gets him at first, but we always ask him if he is speaking j or e as he sometimes mixes when he only has the word in one language and not the other. once we know what he trying for we give him the appropriate pronuciation for the language he is using. at this point he tests it out a few times and then goes on his way and doesn’t make the same mistake.

  10. I read this posting and the comments with interest, and though I can’t say I have much insight into relative difficulties that children may have with English and Japanese, I can say I’d suggest making every effort you can to speak and teach both languages to your son while he is still a toddler. Because it gets much harder later.

    I have an daughter who is almost 8 and has been living here for the last 4.5 years. She was born outside of Japan and we didn’t make much effort to speak English to her when she was a toddler, because we figured she could pick it up later as she grew up. But things changed and she ended up growing here in Japan instead, and she’s not been hearing English everyday, let alone speaking it, with the net result being that she doesn’t speak much English at all. I wish I had made an effort to talk with her more in English when she was younger, and I know I should be talking with her more in English now. We do a little, but after a while we usually just fall back on speaking Japanese. I am sure that she will wish later that I had done more to teach her English when she was younger.

  11. Kurt says:

    [I accidentally deleted this comment. Sorry, Francoise!]

    I’d like to add my experience to this. First, a little background. My brother and I are 40 and 42 years old, respectively. We were raised in several languages.

    My mother is French Canadian and spoke limited English when she married my father, an Italian American from Brooklyn. My Dad spoke English and Sicilian, which he’d learned from his mother. I was born in Quebec, my brother in St. Petersburg.

    My mother spoke French to us from the start. At first, my Dad spoke French with us, too, but his French was accented (and to our ears, pretty funny). We moved to Germany when we were 4 and 6. I attended German school in German and became fluent. My brother attended German school but owing to isssues with the pedagogy, my mother, a teacher, moved him to the only other option – a Danish school in northern Germany for Danish expatriates. My mother gave strict instruction that my brother should only be spoken to in German (the school was bilingual). Three month later, my brother’s teacher called, told my mother that it had been impossible to keep my brother as a German speaker, that he refused to speak German at school and would only speak Danish.

    Scroll forward. At age 8 and 10 we moved to the US. Neither of us spoke English at that point, but my parents made an executive decision that we would speak French to my mother and English to my father and at school. I went to Saturday German school to keep up that language. A few months later we spoke French, German and English, plus Danish for my brother.

    Scroll forward a few decades: my brother and I both speak French, though not at a level that would be considered ‘professional’ since most of our conversations have been day-to-day family chatter. We can communicate with our French speaking relatives fairly well. I took German in college and nearly double majored in that and biology. While my German is rusty, I can certainly function in the language. Because of my French knowledge base and a few courses, I can pretty much slash my way through Italian. English, my third tongue, and my brother’s fourth, are our main languages.

    The process is being repeated with my young cousin who is being raised in Amsterdam by an English speaking mother and Dutch speaking father. The boy is now 5 and answers in whatever language is used to address him. It’s pretty awesome, and who care if Dutch is spoken by only a small number? I’m pretty convinced, based on our experience, that the child’s mind is a language sponge until age 10 or so. It’s consistency that matters. AND it gets difficult to force the kid to speak a different language at home that what is spoken by the friends. No teenager wants to be different, have foreign parents, etc.

    I’m grateful for my language skills. Though I’ve never been able to parlay them into any sort of extra pay, I’ve always appreciated being able to shape shift into another culture seamlessly. I look French. I speak English best. But in Germany, I sound like a native northern German. It’s cool. My brother no longer speaks Danish or German (he did not go to Saturday schools – and certainly there is no big Danish expat community in Southern California!) but he does speak French and English and some Spanish.

    Just my two cents worth.


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