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Subject: Timing for Third Language Acquisition in Moving from China to Japan for Three Children
Question: 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.

Reply: I agree with the others -- there are no rules or clear guidance on this one.

You have some strengths here on which you can build:

1. You are half-Japanese and have some access to the culture. Hopefully you will be able to develop your own Japanese-ness and may have relatives and contacts in Japan. This will help you to negotiate Japanese society.

2. Your elder children have had positive experiences of bilingualism and are anticipating the experience.

3. Their education in Chinese will be helpful in developing literacy in Japanese.

One thing that would be useful is to look at the Japanese schools that they would be attending and perhaps get a feeling about how th schools would approach your children. Are there any choices to make or will a school be allocated? Are there any other foreign children in the school? Can you set up any meetings for the children with children they would be in class with?

One thing you say is that "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." Do you know where you might be moving to? It takes roughly a year for young children to be able to cope with ease in a new linguistic environment (probably longer for the oldest child, and less long for the youngest) so you're only likely to see the benefits after about a year in Japan. If you move back to China it shouldn't take them long to get back into the swing of things there (especially if you do stuff at home to keep them in touch). If you move somewhere else (France, USA, Finland....?) then you may have to face the fact that Chinese will not continue as a major language for them. As Madalena said, the languages of childhood bilinguals come and go, though they never totally disappear. You might want to make sure your children get plenty of Skype addresses from their friends in Shanghai.

Children move countries all the time, and adjust pretty well as long as they feel loved at home and comfortable at school and with their friends. So don't worry too much. They may well be happier in Japan with you and their father rather than in Shanghai without him. You certainly have to discuss it with the older children.

My own inclination would be to keep the family together, in Japan, and spend the time between now and September giving and getting some Japanese tuition and some orientation to Japanese society and Japanese children. But there is no real evidence on what strategy would work best, so respect your own feelings.


Reply From: Anthea Fraser Gupta      click here to access email
Date: 18-Jul-2012
Other Replies:
  1. Re: Timing for Third Language Acquisition in Moving from China to Japan for Three Children    Nancy J. Frishberg     (26-Jul-2012)
  2. Re: Timing for Third Language Acquisition in Moving from China to Japan for Three Children    Madalena Cruz-Ferreira     (16-Jul-2012)
  3. Re: Timing for Third Language Acquisition in Moving from China to Japan for Three Children    Susan Fischer     (16-Jul-2012)

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