Is this a bad idea? A bad idea which I don’t recognize as one because of persistent lack of a good night’s sleep? Perhaps my brain has shrunk. That’s what someone said can happen to you when you breastfeed and don’t get enough sleep. Yeah, I breastfed my daughter until she was about eight months old, after which I had a little bit more sleep for a period of three months, and then, at the age of 11 months, she was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. And I can tell you, Type 1 diabetes takes the biscuit, in terms of sleep I mean. Sometimes I feel there must be insomniacs out there who get more sleep than me. I’m not kidding. Testing your child’s blood sugars every half an hour some nights isn’t exactly my idea of recharging my brain for the next day. So, my brain must have shrunk. It should not go without shrinking if one has not had a solid night’s sleep for nearly 3 years, right? So, my shrunken brain thinks this is not a bad idea. It thinks this is a great, fantastic, amazeballs idea.
You may wonder what idea I am referring to. Well, my husband and I have decided to move with our two children to Japan for three years. This is not because we are passionate about the oriental or Japanese culture, cuisine, language or people. In fact, we were not even all that interested in Japan until about six months ago. After having had my second child I ran into what I can only call a complete career dead-end in the UK and moving abroad became something we needed to consider. Perhaps I am being over dramatic. Perhaps our situation wasn’t quite as bad as I make it appear. The situation was the following: both my husband and I love the city in which we live, Brighton. A perfect size city (not too big, not too small) on the south coast of England, about 1h train journey from London, that has apparently the highest number of food/drink establishments in the UK per capita many of which are privately owned and have quirky décor and friendly staff. It has a big gay community and big vegan/vegetarian/ student/alternative communities, and consequently is likely to be one of the most tolerant places in the UK. It is surrounded by the sea and a pebbly beach in the south, and the South-downs national park in the north. The weather is good, in the context of England. That’s Brighton in a nutshell. Living in such a lovely place, we could not see ourselves being as happy anywhere else in the UK and did not want to consider moving…Not until about six months ago, when we realised that even if we didn’t want to move anywhere else in the UK, it did not mean that we could not move somewhere outside the UK.
So here we are. We are moving to the other side of the world, to Osaka, in about 4 weeks. And we barely know anyone there. We do not speak Japanese. My husband and our children have never visited Japan. I have – if you can call six days, mostly spent at my new workplace, ‘visiting’. But we feel that by moving to Osaka we will learn something new, acquire new talents (e.g., in bonsai, calligraphy, martial arts), and do things that we would not learn or do if we moved within the UK. This is not only a way for me to get back to work but also a life-changing opportunity for us to experience a completely different culture and hopefully learn to view life in addition to the British and Finnish way, the Japanese way. And for that, I am not only scared about the move but also extremely excited.
In relation to our children, living in Japan will hopefully mean that they will grow up to be world citizens, and have an understanding that not everyone has pea soup and pancakes for dinner on Thursdays (Finland) or fish and chips on Fridays (the UK). I want them to learn that big cities are not necessarily dangerous. That trains can run on time, even in densely populated areas. That there are countries where one can do skiing during the winter but it gets really hot and muggy during the summer. That there are places in which there are earthquakes (but in which houses are built so that this is not usually a huge problem). That there are spelling/writing systems even more difficult than the English one. And most importantly, being a developmental psycholinguist, I am over the moon about my children and I having the opportunity to learn Japanese and become trilingual of three typologically different languages (Finnish, English, Japanese), a language combination which many linguists would kill (or at least pay good money) to master. I am not sure how our children’s acquisition of Japanese will turn out given that our son will not be attending a Japanese school but will be going to an international primary school. You may think we are mad for opting for an English-speaking school, and, in many ways, I agree with you. The best way for our son to learn Japanese would probably be at a Japanese school and that was what we were determined to do until I visited Japan a couple of months ago. I can still remember my frustration and anxiety when I realized that practically no-one in Osaka spoke English. Don’t get me wrong, I am from Finland and am used to people not speaking my native-language. But wherever I’ve travelled, people have spoken English, and I guess I’ve come to expect that. I now have a first hand understanding why my father, a monolingual Finnish-speaker who does not speak any foreign languages, starts speaking Finnish slowly and turns up a notch or two when speaking to foreigners. That’s exactly what I did when I visited Japan, only I did so with English instead of Finnish. In any case, my short visit to Japan changed my mind – my son would not go to a Japanese school. I don’t want him to experience that same helpless feeling every school day for the first 6-9 months of our stay in Japan, wanting to speak slowly and loudly when he is not understood and get frustrated about it all. No ‘stiff upper lip’ or ‘sisu’ would make the feeling of helplessness go away. A linguist or not, I will not put my children through it. I think they have enough on their plate to adjust to the situation that they are leaving their home, friends and familiar surroundings behind and moving to a new place with an unfamiliar culture. I will not make this transition even more challenging by throwing in an extra level of difficulty unnecessarily. I am optimistic that we can figure out another way for my children to learn Japanese. But we will see.
It may be worth pointing out that even though the aim for me and our children is to learn Japanese at least to a good conversational level over the next three years, my husband will not learn the language, not beyond a couple of common Japanese phrases that our six-year old son already knows now. Before you think I am a horrible linguist who is demanding and judgmental towards my husband’s language learning ability and motivation, I want to clarify a couple of things. First, my husband is English, I am a native Finnish-speaker and our children are growing up bilingually (successfully). Our children’s bilingualism means my husband hears more Finnish at home than English. Him and I have lived together for 12 years, and for 10 years we had two dogs to whom I spoke in Finnish. I have bought him a number of Finnish-language text books and CDs. He even attended bi-monthly Finnish language lessons for 2 years. The punch line is that I have been patient. My husband has had an ample 12-year opportunity to learn Finnish. Guess whether or not he has. We are only going to Japan for 3 years. He will not learn the language. End of.
I feel that I need to add that even though my husband does not excel in learning languages, he excels in other areas of life. That is, him not having learnt Finnish is not to do with lack of determination or mental capability. He memorizes Black Jack strategies (for fun), plays chess on-line (for fun), runs marathons (and achieves respectable times) (for fun) and deals with complicated property law issues at work every day (he is a solicitor, this is not fun). So, he can focus, but not when it comes to language learning.
Ok, let’s get back to the topic of Japan and the reasons as to why we are moving there. Even though my husband and I were not particularly interested in Japan until my job came up, Japan was on the list of one of those countries where I could see myself living. All of us have that kind of a list, right? – A list of places you could consider staying for longer than a two-week holiday. Japan ticks several boxes needed to make it on my list. For instance, Japanese food is great; the climate allows skiing during the winter; there are no major human rights issues in Japan (unlike in some of its neighbouring countries); there is a lot of history in Japan; there is no restriction in drinking alcohol (I am not an alcoholic, but require a glass or two of wine every so often to function); and on the whole the infrastructure and housing is modern. Call me OCD but I wouldn’t, for instance, want to live in a place where going to the toilet involved aiming for a hole on the ground, and where I would not be able to wash my hands after using a toilet. A place like Russia. (I deeply apologize for any Russians reading this blog – in principle, I have nothing against you). But Japan is great. It has western toilets. In fact, their toilets are beyond Western! They are actually not toilets, but combinations of a toilet and a shower! You may wonder who would want to combine a shower with a toilet, but this is something most Finnish (and Japanese) people are used to and expect in a toilet. Being Finnish, you can imagine I am thrilled. I might need to clarify, Finnish toilets are not quite like Japanese toilets. Finnish toilets are equipped with a small hand held shower which the toilet user can use for their private parts while sitting on the toilet. In Japan, the idea is the same but the execution is, perhaps as expected, better than in Finland. You simply sit there, press a few buttons and let the toilet do the work. I’m sure you are starting to see the attraction in moving to Japan instead of, for instance, Russia, or even Finland.