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.
There are no straightforward answers to what you ask, as you There are no straightforward answers to what you ask, as you suspected. We cannot pinpoint the right time for a move to another country, nor how much of one language will be gained and how much of another will be lost because of a move. We are all individuals, children included, and we all react differently to whatever life has in store for us.
What I can tell you is that your children will certainly respond to the languages that are, and will become, relevant to them, as and when they become relevant to them. Languages are simply tools to assist us in our everyday needs, and there’s so much more than languages involved in a move to a different environment.
It may happen, as it did to my own children, that one of their languages will wane while it is not being needed, and that another will develop for the opposite reason. The point with healthy multilingualism is not to keep as many languages as possible going, it is to keep going those languages that perform a useful role, here and now.
You may find these blog posts of mine of relevance to you:
‘Languages lost and languages regained’,
‘The trick is in the input’,
Do feel free to contact me privately, if you are still wondering about anything.