Does multilingualism cause temper tantrums?

Does bilingualism cause temper tantrums?

Does bilingualism cause temper tantrums? (Source:

My husband and I are raising our children (aged five and two) to be trilingual in English (my L1), Spanish (my husband’s L1) and Japanese (the majority language of our community). For the most part, reactions to our children’s language background have been generally positive with many people showing a genuine interest, particularly regarding the future opportunities that they believe may be open to our children thanks to their language abilities. Unfortunately, the other day we encountered our first negative attitude incident, concerning my two-year-old son.

As any parent will tell you, being two years old is sometimes quite tough. You can’t always express in words what it is that you want to say, you may have difficulty coming to terms with people who won’t let you do what you want and you sometimes have such strong emotions that the only thing you can do is lie down on the floor and scream your little head off. Hence the existence of terms such as “the terrible twos” in English and “ma no nisai” (literally “two-year-old demon”) in Japanese. Now imagine that multiplied by 18 and you can get a rough idea of what life must be like in the two-year-old class at my children’s daycare nursery. During the course of any one day there will be a number of conflicts, usually over some toy or other, often resulting in one child hitting, pushing, kicking or biting another child. The carers at the nursery generally do a pretty good job of keeping the peace but it’s inevitable that they won’t be able to catch all the disputes before they escalate into full-blown ‘fights’.

The other day when my husband picked up my son, one of his carers, let’s call her Mrs. X, came over to apologize for the bite mark on my son’s arm. (My first reaction to this was actually ‘Phew! Thank goodness he wasn’t the biter!’ which although off the point illustrates how common this kind of thing is at our nursery.) My son it seems had been involved in a fight over a toy bike and had come out the worse for it. Mrs. X then went on to explain how this kind of thing is just part of normal development and often occurs because two-year olds don’t yet have a good enough command of Japanese to be able to resolve their disputes through the use of verbal communication, so they have to resort to physical force. Then came the whammy: “Of course in your son’s case, this is probably exacerbated by the use of two other languages at home.”

Under other circumstances I might have actually started to believe Mrs. X and started spiraling down the tunnel of self-doubt, worrying whether raising my children in three languages was actually the right thing to do and what kind of long-term effects it was going to have on their behaviour, but fortunately this time we had a star witness. My five-year-old daughter had witnessed the whole ‘fight’ and relished in giving us all the gory details of the incident, including all the pushing, hair-pulling and biting and a pretty convincing impression of my son yelling at the other little boy. According to my daughter he had been shouting in Japanese “kore wa Leo-kun no! kore wa Leo-kun no!” (loosely translated into English as “This is mine! This is mine!”), as he had tried to wrestle the toy from the other child. If we are to believe my daughter’s account, then my son had not been using physical force to compensate for his lack of language skills, as Mrs. X had argued, but had actually been using Japanese quite effectively to stake his claim to the toy bike. Of course the toy bike was not his and the other little boy had been playing with it first, so my son was by no means an innocent party in this fight, but to blame my son’s behaviour on multilingualism, rather than the usual two-year-old problems of not understanding that not everything is yours, that you must wait for your turn and that you should be nice to other people, seems bizarre to say the least. How on earth had Mrs. X managed to link my son’s fight to a condemnation of trilingualism? And furthermore, how had she managed to overlook the fact that my son had actually been using Japanese as part of the fight?

When I mentioned this incident to a psychology professor colleague of mine, she suggested that I look at it in terms of Leon Festinger’s (1957) “cognitive dissonance theory”. According to this social psychology theory, our minds contain a mechanism that “creates an uncomfortable feeling of dissonance, or lack of harmony, when we sense some inconsistency among the various attitudes, beliefs, and items of knowledge that constitute our mental store” (Gray 2007: 493). In order to avoid this dissonance, people may choose to focus only on information that supports their attitudes and beliefs and avoid or ignore information that may contradict those beliefs. If we look at Mrs. X’s behavior from this perspective we can assume that Mrs. X holds a belief somewhere along the lines of ‘trilingualism can harm the social development of the child because it can prevent the child from developing adequate Japanese communication skills’. However, as my son’s use of Japanese as part of the fight is in conflict with her belief, her mind conveniently ignored it in order to avoid dissonance. She had also conveniently been able to ignore other contradictory evidence against her belief, such as the fact that the most fluent Japanese speaker in my son’s class comes from a bilingual home and that my son’s five-year-old sister had also been one of the most fluent Japanese speakers in her class at the same age.

Trying to understand why Mrs. X came to the conclusion she did, however, is only part of the battle. My next challenge is to help her change her beliefs and attitudes towards trilingualism. This one I assume is going to be a little more difficult, possibly even more difficult than raising my children with three languages.

Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Evanston, IL: Row, Peterson.
Gray, P. (2007). Psychology. 5th ed. New York: Worth.

Author Lisa Fairbrother

Lisa is an Associate Professor at Sophia University, Tokyo, where she teaches intercultural interaction, sociolinguistics, classroom discourse, British and American culture and English speaking skills.
She’s particularly interested in problems that occur in intercultural contact situations and how people manage those problems. She uses Language Management Theory extensively in her research and has recently been focusing on the management of ‘foreignness’ and the management of language and power in intercultural interactions. She’s also interested in interactions where English is used as a lingua franca and she’s currently collecting data from multilingual workplaces in Japan.

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  • Rosemary Kuwahata

    It seems to me that you have sort of answered your own question. Even though your son was speaking Japanese it seems to somehow have caused a ‘tantrum’ / overreaction on the part of the caregiver and not the child! I think that if the same situation had occurred in an English or Spanish language based child facility and your son is, as you say, trilingual, he would have reacted in the same way using the relevant language.
    That multilingualism might cause ‘tantrums’ in others and not the speakers themselves is a scary concept.

  • Lisa,
    Enjoyed this entry 🙂 We, too, are raising our children as multilinguals, in our case, as German-English multilinguals in the United States. We’ve generally had positive reactions to our efforts, though not always, for instance, in the case I wrote about recently on —

    I agree with the importance of working to change attitudes toward multilingualism, but I also think it’s a very difficult challenge. Perhaps the biggest over-arching challenge, especially in the U.S., where the nationally dominant language aligns with the globally dominant language, is persuading members of the dominant fundamental language group that they have something to gain from supporting and, better yet, actually living multilingualism on a daily basis. Of course, in the U.S., this requires persuading the dominant group to learn “down” the global language ladder. This is definitely a challenge given what I view as an over-arching tendency for humans to create self-serving, hierarchical, exclusive social structures.

  • Thanks for this interesting post! It is always illuminating how ideology comes up when people talk about language!
    Interestingly, attitudes can also be in favour of multilingualism but nevertheless express hegemonic attitudes. I live in Germany and it has happened to me several times that people were surprised that I do not raise my children (1 and 5) bilingually. Me and my partner are both native German speakers and we live in Germany and our children go to German speaking daycare (pretty boring, I guess).
    As we have a lot of contact with English speakers, we often speak English in our daily live and English monolinguals (who live in Germany) are always surprised that we do not speak English with our children. Although I want my children to learn English one day, I would feel very alienated to speak English with my kids. I have learned English at school and why should they not be able to do the same? Although I can use English in scientific environments, I have no repertoire when it comes to emotional issues and child care (a truncated repertoire, see Blommaert 2010).
    I feel this assumption of English speakers that people who are able to speak English will raise their children bilingually with English to be an example of the global hegemony of English and of the intrusion of neoliberal governementality into education. Are we supposed to make toddlers ready for the global job market?
    So the issue is not multilingualism per se but the ideologies that are expressed with it…

    • Britta, the last two paragraphs in your comment reminded me of this Thai-Japanese-Australian family (from 4:05 onwards):

    • Thanks, Britta! Couldn’t agree more! That’s precisely why I mostly have such a negative reaction to the advice literature on how to raise your children bilingually (see this review of Suzanne Barron-Hauwaert, Language strategies for bilingual families: The one-parent-one-language approach or this review of Kendall King and Alison Mackey, The bilingual edge: why, when, and how to teach your child a second language). In the bilingual parenting advice literature, bilingualism is usually presented as a socio-politcally neutral linguistic and cognitive formation that it is an individual (parental) responsibility to instil in your children as part of making them ‘competitive’ – ‘neoliberal governmentality’, as you say. As such (and although I’m sure that’s far from the intentions of the authors of these works), the discourse of bilingual parenting also forms part of the broader onslaught on public education.

      • I agree that all talk/practice surrounding language is ideological and that we ought to be equal opportunity critics of various language ideologies. That noted, while it might be that there is an “elitist” discourse about bilingualism in the U.S., conveyed, for instance, by the books you’ve reviewed, Ingrid, one of which I’ve read myself (The bilingual edge), I’m not quite sure what you mean by “bilingual parenting” as an “onslaught on public education”. I don’t see much evidence of this onslaught in U.S. public education, at least not in terms of actually practiced multilingual education and learning. And, although I’m not quite sure what you mean by it, I will say that I would welcome such an onslaught in many respects as, ideally, it would mean that rather than having far less than 1% of American public schools offering language immersion education, we’d have a lot more of this in the U.S. and a lot more language choice.

        In fairness to the authors of the books you mention, I think a big reason bilingualism gets framed via neoliberal competitiveness is because neoliberal capitalist economics is the single most over-arching ideology of our times. Sadly, for anything to “sell” — this includes everything from environmentalism to language — it must be framed this way, or it risks being completely marginalized and ineffective.

  • I believe there will always be hiccups along the path of language learning, both in terms of how the children feel about the language at different stages during their lives, and how those around them feel about their multilingualism. Sadly, the idea that multiple languages can somehow damage a child remains prominent, especially in relatively monolingual countries such as Japan and America. Travel to Sweden or Thailand where bilingualism is abound, however, and this attitude changes completely.

    I would personally like to raise my future children in English (my native tongue), French (my fiancee’s L1), Italian, the language of the country where we live, with an added language (I am yet undecided). We shall see how my ambitious project goes!


  • Annamarie

    I’m a few years behind you with an eight month old who currently attends public nursery school (hoikuen) in Tokyo. We are trying to raise her in English (my L1) and Japanese (her father’s L1). At eight months, of course, she can’t speak either but I read your post with interest and trepidation.

    Wanting to know more about how Japanese nursery school teachers form opinions about multilingual kids’ development, I downloaded past copies of the child are worker exam (hoikushi shaken). Nothing on the test addresses how the development of kids raised in multiple languages differs from that of monolingual kids in Japan, so Mrs X’s belief likely came to her from other channels.

    I’d love to know how child care workers in Japan think about kids raised in multilingual environments.

    Like you, most people around us have spoken approvingly of our plans to raise a bilingual daughter, speaking often of the future career opportunities she’ll have because of her presumed language skills. But in nursery school in Tokyo it seems that learning to behave well as a member of the group is top priority–maybe teachers are willing to throw multilingualism and all irs presumed future competitive advantages under the bus in order to make sure kids learn to behave well in the group? Hmm, what an interesting research topic…

    I enjoyed your post and I’m curious to here more about your experiences raising multilingual kids in Japan.

    • Hi Annamarie, what a great idea to look at the child care worker exam in order to understand what they might (not) know about bilingualism! Only a few days ago, Hanna Torsh observed that in the parenting advice literature (Dr Spock and the countless contemporary incarnations …) she’s reading one thing that is never mentioned is bilingualism and how, for instance, language milestones might be different for bilingual children. So, it’s a huge body of knowledge that serves to normalize monolingualism by rendering linguistic diversity invisible. Together with the training and professional development aimed at childcare workers and teachers this would make a fascinating PhD project!

  • Angela Turzynski-Azimi

    The childcare worker’s response was one I am familiar with from the Japanese pre-school and primary school my son attended. At one stage, his pre-school teacher tried to persuade me that it was in his best interest for us to speak only Japanese to him at home, since he would “automatically” speak English later as his mother is a native speaker! She also refused to teach him katakana when all the other five-year olds were learning it (this was a very academic pre-school) since he did not have a broad vocabulary of onomatopaeic words.
    I recall the principal of the pre-school too linking certain behaviours to the “unfortunate” mixed language environment at home. More generally, there seemed to be a propensity to latch on to the non-Japanese background of the child to account for anything that did not fit the perceived norm.

  • khan

    Dear Lisa Fairbrother

    I really dont know what to start with . On a personal level am very sorry to have read this unpleasant experience. Must have been very upsetting for the whole family. But I am glad that you have taken both a close and distance view of this nasty episode and have addressed it academically. I like the application of social-pscychology theory to the problem because it actually help us understand it using a differnt lens. Linguistic ethnographically I suppose we will have to see the problem in the personal biography of Ms X, the institution and histories of ideas. Look how nicely Ms X have correlated two diverse phenomenon by drawing on her understanding of multilingualism. I think the episode shows us the complex ways in which people respond to the problems and how cleverly actors draw on stable, pervasive and reified ideas . If we look closely Ms X explanation actually covered her up. She has been so successful here in shifting the question to a different dimension all together.