When should we move from Shanghai to Tokyo? Factors are my children's development and
lifetime linguistic gain/loss and successes/failures.
My family and I are to move from Shanghai to Tokyo. We are originally from New York City. Our
three children (8, 6.5 and 3 years old) are bilingual English/Chinese and have attended Chinese
schools only, though they speak, read, and write fluent English. They are at their grade levels in
local schools in Shanghai (they are the only Caucasian children, meaning they do not attend
international schools) and are awarded as being at the tops of their classes. I speak Japanese,
English, and French. Though Japanese is my first language (my mother is Japanese), English is
now my stronger language.
My husband's first language is English, his second language French (he lived in France until he was
eight and attended a local schools there -- his father is French), and studied Mandarin seriously in
college, so is fluent in Chinese.
So, I have a linguistic/child development issue that will most likely decide when we will move to
Tokyo. My husband's job will start there within the month -- quite sudden.
My children and I can decide when to move to Tokyo. We plan to put our children into local public
schools in Japan.
When should we move? The school year in Japan starts in April, but they are on the trimester
system -- the trimesters begin in April, September, and January. China's semester system begins in
September, and their second semester begins in February after Chinese New Year.
My issue is the language acquisition/loss (speaking, reading, and writing) of Chinese and Japanese.
When is the optimal time of your move, if there is such a thing? Would it be better to have three-five
more months of Chinese for my 8 year old in Shanghai's third grade for before moving him to
Tokyo? He would be in the second grade, based on his age, in Tokyo. For my second son, who
would be starting in the serious primary school system in Shanghai in September, is it better to give
him a few months in the Chinese system to give him a stronger base (reading, writing) before
moving him to Japan? I also have concerns about moving out of China and into Japan -mid- term,
though I have been re-assured this is quite common in Japan. To compound the decision-making
process, we will not know for how long we will be in Japan. Meaning, if we decide to move in in
January or March 2013 and not right now for Sept school start, maybe we would only have one full
school year in Japan before we would have to move again. This could be a lost opportunity for
Japanese language acquisition. But, maybe their Chinese language would be strengthened. So,
basically, if we were to start the kids in Sept in Japan, how much Chinese language loss would they
have vs. how much more Japanese language gain? This is also probably age-dependent.
My children are pretty gifted, so maybe I should be worried, but I am not too worried about the
academic challenge. They are also quite keen to learn Japanese.
So, might you have some parental and academic advice for our situation? Our timing is stressfully
short. Clearly I am confused!
Thank you very much for your time.
I think that in your case the issue of language exposure is subordinate to the stress
and strain of moving to a new place. It is a difficult adjustment for children to go into
a new school in the middle of the school year, and my guess is that it's even more
difficult in Japan. One thing you need to ask yourself is whether you want your kids
to maintain their Chinese, which could be pretty difficult. unless you put them into a
bilingual Chinese-Japanese school. What I would suggest is to move to Japan at the
end of the Chinese semester, and give the kids a couple of months to adjust to living
in Japan (maybe get a Japanese babysitter to start exposing them to Japanese before
they enter school in April). Make sure they learn kana before entering school; they'll
probably have fewer problems with kanji (though I'm more familiar with the Japanese
system than the Chinese; if they start with pinyin and only switch to Chinese
characters after a certain age, you may need to work with them so they won't feel like
idiots in class). Remember that the Japanese system is probably somewhat more rigid
in terms of how outsiders are treated for example, returnees who were partially
educated in the US may have an advantage once they graduate, but in school there is
less tolerance for diversity. Your first job as parents it to give your children the
confidence -- and wherewithal -- to have a successful entry into a Japanese school.