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Joyful in Any Language

I’m an improver. I’m always looking to make myself and the things I work with better, and always hoping to celebrate achievements. With parenting I have plenty of material. There are so many ways to be a better mother, be a better example, keep a better house. And growing children provide so many opportunities to celebrate achievements.


However, one parenting memory I particularly want to treasure forever is a small moment, almost a non-event. This moment is precious not because of a big revelation or a milestone, but simply because it was joyful.


I was born and raised in Indiana and live there now with my husband Hiro, who is from the Osaka area of Japan, and our two kids. One summer, when our youngest child Lucas was four years old, we were finally all going to make the trip to Japan together as a family of four.

Lucas was so excited to see his bahba, his grandmother in Japan. She had only met Lucas once, when she had visited us in Indiana during his infancy—a time he, of course, could not remember. As a toddler, Lucas even thought his bahba lived inside our laptop, so he would look behind it during our weekly Skype sessions and try to find her.


As our big trip to Japan approached, we were curious to see how Lucas would fare with the Japanese language. Hiro and I had made big plans for both our kids to be fully bilingual in English and Japanese. With our firstborn, Sophia, my husband Hiro spoke Japanese to her the majority of the time, and she always understood what he said, although she often answered him in English. At this point Sophia had already visited Japan a couple times, and there her language skills had blossomed.


But the second kid, Lucas, threw off the linguistic balance in the house. Both his big sister and I were speaking English to Lucas, but only his dad was speaking Japanese to him. Plus, Lucas entered daycare as a baby, so added all together, his days were filled with mostly English input. Making matters worse, we had waited a longer time to take Lucas to Japan than we had hoped. All these things added up so that kid #2, didn’t acquire nearly as much Japanese as kid #1 did.


Ahead of the trip, Hiro started practicing Japanese with Lucas more frequently, using a few different methods, but it didn’t really seem to click. If only we hadn’t waited four years to take Lucas to Japan, I kept thinking. That would have been a kickstart to acquiring the language. Would he be able to talk to anyone at first? Would he be frustrated? Surely in Japan he would learn more and more each day, I figured. Children learn languages so easily when immersed in them.


Finally, after 24 hours of travel, we arrived. Bleary-eyed and rumpled from the three plane trips that brought us to Hiro’s hometown, we finally entered my mother-in-law’s small, bright, warm home. As Hiro, Sophia, and I were saying our polite greetings, Lucas ran right into his bahba’s arms, gave her a huge hug, and began talking a mile a minute to her.


It wasn’t Japanese he was speaking, really, but English with the intonation and word-endings of Japanese. His grandmother was so surprised and delighted. The family member that she knew the least out of all of us had much to say to her.


I will never forget that moment—my son was so excited and determined to communicate with his grandmother, and a look of open joy spread across her face. It was so simple, a child reaching out to talk to a loved one, unencumbered by self-doubt or by concern about speaking proper language. He had something to say, as simple as that.


Although he was mostly babbling in an in-between language, his bahba understood him. He was talking about the plane rides he’d just taken and showing her a toy he had in his hand, and in his childish simplicity he was easy to comprehend. It was a beautiful moment, and everyone laughed.


It’s a common lesson of parenting: we can’t control everything, so we can’t actively improve everything. Many times that means a difficult situation is out of our hands, or our children are teaching us a life lesson we’d prefer not to learn right now. But our children can offer up such pleasant surprises as well. We can’t plan or foresee or control their specific knack for causing joy.


When reminiscing over the day I often get stuck on frustrations, the tasks left undone, and the things I could have done better. But I want to spend more time remembering small moments like this one.



Elizabeth Imafuji is a mother of two, an English professor, and a lover of language and books. She’s an Enneagram 1 and a Ravenclaw. You can follow her on Twitter at lizimafuji.


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