Are you trying to raise a bilingual (or maybe even multilingual!) baby? Teaching your child Japanese is a great choice!
There’s absolutely no age limit to learning languages, but why not give them a head start… especially if you’re learning too? Speaking with your kids in another language, no matter how imperfect, still improves both of your language skills. It gets them used to hearing the sounds of the language from an early age. Plus, it trains their brain to listen for both foreign and native words. If you’re using the words often, their brains will send a signal telling them it’s important to remember. As a bonus, you get to practice!
While trying to teach my own son Japanese, I’ve learned there are some unique difficulties. For instance, my son can’t really read too much yet, but he recognizes the alphabet. Reading Japanese children’s books is more difficult because he doesn’t yet understand the kana and kanji, but he recognizes the text is different. Not seeing familiar words seems to distract him from the book. Likewise, some books have cultural differences he doesn’t yet understand. So these are things I have to explain or tackle with him along the way.
But, trying to teach him Japanese has been incredibly rewarding. And I’ve learned a lot, too. I’ve learned Japanese onomatopoeia (because what kid doesn’t love animal sounds and effects?) and loads of vocabulary you would only pick up from a children’s book. So even if you’re new to it, don’t be shy about giving it your best and teaching your child what you know.
No matter their age or your skills, you can use these “Japanese for kids” resources to give your child a head start in Japanese.
Learn Japanese for Kids: Infants
Studies have shown that babies begin to process language even while they’re still in the womb, and music and baby-talk can help them learn faster. Lullabies can be soothing while teaching your child the cadence of Japanese.
There are Japanese lullabies on YouTube you can find by searching 子守唄 (komori uta, “lullaby”). You’ll find pretty songs like “Lullaby for the Beloved” or the classic ねんねんころり (Nennen Korori, “Go to Sleep”). You can also try searching 日本の子守唄ベスト (Nihon no komori besuto, “best Japanese lullabies”). All these will pull up examples of both soothing Japanese lullabies and English lullabies in Japanese.
Keep an eye out for the suggested videos, too. If you search in Japanese, you’ll get more related suggestions that are popular in Japan.
Japanese Nursery Rhymes and Music for Kids
There are loads of YouTube compilations of Japanese nursery rhymes, songs and videos for kids. If your child has found videos he or she likes in English, chances are they can watch and learn the same thing in Japanese.
My son loves nursery rhymes and songs, especially this video of 10 popular children’s songs from JapanesePod101. どんぐりころころ (Donguri Korokoro, “The Rolling Acorn”) is a favorite among Japanese children. Another popular video is ボウロのうた (Bouro no Uta, “Bolo’s Song”).
And if you haven’t gotten totally sick of it yet, you can even watch “Baby Shark” in Japanese, called チビザメ (Chibi-zame).
For my son, videos with songs work best because he can associate the pictures with the music to learn what the words mean. But Spotify also has Japanese songs for kids!
Learn Japanese for Kids: Toddlers Cartoons
Kids can pick up a lot from cartoons, especially ones that are in other languages. Plus, it’s nice if you’re a beginner to the language too because the vocabulary and grammar are much simpler.
There are plenty of Japanese cartoons for kids, but here’s a few of the longest running and most popular among young children:
Doraemon is like the Mickey Mouse of Japan. He’s been around forever and is well loved by all! Doraemon is a cat-like robot from the future with a magical pocket to the 4th dimension. He’s always pulling new things from his pocket! He tries to help his owner’s great-great-great-great-grandfather, Nobita, through life (and pass his school exams).
The show is fun, light-hearted, and easy to follow. Sometimes, they feature educational plotlines about history or folk tales.
Sazae-san is another Japanese household staple, and one of my personal favorites. Sazae-san is a young woman who lives with her husband, son, parents, and younger siblings in Tokyo. They’re a typical Japanese family, and their interactions and dialogue are easy to follow. Even though the situations can be silly, the show offers more “real world” speech than most cartoons.
アンパン (anpan) is a popular Japanese bread snack, filled with red bean paste. Anpanman stars a bread-headed hero and his snack friends. This show is aimed at toddlers more so than the other two mentioned, but it offers a lot of insight into Japanese food culture.
Learn Japanese for Kids: Reading with Toddlers
You’d be surprised how easy it is to find reading resources for Japanese nowadays! You can get them as easily as ordering from Amazon or Kindle.
You can find classic Japanese books like ぐりとぐら (Guri to Gura) and はらぺこあおむし (Harapeko Aomushi, “The Very Hungry Caterpillar”) right on Amazon with Prime shipping. You don’t even have to pay to import it.
A quick search of Japanese children's books on Kindle will show quite a few short, bilingual books to read together. Some are even free, while others are only a couple of dollars. My son and I have read “Am I small?” わたし、ちいさい？ and “I Love My Dad” おとうさんだいすき.
If there is a Japanese community where you live, you can also see if they hold yard sales or if a Japanese friend would let you borrow books. I went to a few Japanese yard sales at our local Japanese Saturday School, and scored a lot of books that way!
A couple of other reading resources for your children as they grow (or you!) are free reading resources online with fairy tales and traditional stories. There’s even an online newspaper made for children!
Learn Japanese for Kids: Kindergarten and Up
Japanese Games for Kids
At this age, your kids are probably pretty good at finding their way around your smartphone or tablet (if they’re anything like mine!). And they’re at that curious age where they love to solve puzzles. So take advantage of it!
Japanese apps for kids are an excellent way to help them learn the basics of the language. While they won’t teach your child by themselves, they’re a great tool to assist in learning mnemonics, kana, vocab, and simple grammar. It’s best if you reinforce what they’re learning by encouraging them to speak to you with what they know, using the things they’ve learned. Talk back to them in Japanese! If they don’t use it, they’ll lose it.
Here are my favorite Japanese apps for kids:
- Duolingo is a fun game that is perfect for kids once they hit kindergarten and 1st grade. Especially because they’ll be learning similar grammar in English at school at the same time. So instead of having to relearn it and make the connection, they’ll learn it together. Duolingo also teaches kana and some kanji.
- Gus on the Go has bright colors, simple pictures, and some basic words to get started speaking! They only use kana to simplify learning like how children learn in Japan. While the vocabulary isn’t robust in this app, it’s perfect for something fun and colorful to get started at this age.
- Mindsnacks Japanese is only available for iPhone currently, but it’s a cute game. You play as a woodland creature, learning the kana and vocab. It also tests your reading and listening skills, depending on which character you pick to play during the game.
Japanese Kana and Kanji for Kids
You can teach your kids how to read and write Japanese with apps, too. First, there’s an excellent app, Dr. Moku, which teaches Hiragana and Katakana, as well as phrases. They’re working on the Kanji app, but it’s still in development.
The app Drops also teaches kana and kanji with over 2,000 vocab words. Some of the exercises may be more challenging for kids, but it’s a good option as your child grows.
Besides apps, there’s a Nintendo DS game called Japanese Coach. It teaches kana and kanji, and includes a dictionary in-game. You’ll only be able to buy it used now though, since it’s quite a few years old.
Regardless, try to encourage your child to write in Japanese with pen and paper to really learn them. You can find free printable writing sheets for kids here.
Learning Japanese Together with Your Child
It’s never too early, or too late, to start learning a language together with your kids. Even if you’re not bilingual yourself yet, giving your child a headstart is a great thing. It opens their minds up to more than just new words. You teach them about a whole world and culture outside their own. And it gives you more practice!