Sunday, February 12, 2012
Reflections of a Dual Language Mom
I came across this letter while perusing some dual language websites. I really love this woman's personal account of how her family has been impacted by their dual language experience. It's worth a read.
Reflections of a Dual Language Mom —anonymous—
I was raised with only one language and primarily heard only that language at home, in school, and around town despite living in a border town. In retrospect, I realize that my town was really two towns, one English speaking and one Spanish speaking with some overlap where the fortunate families spoke both languages and lived between and within two cultures. In high school I had the great fortune of being a foreign exchange student and suddenly realized that the world was multi-cultural and multi-lingual. This changed my direction and my life plans as I became a language major in college and an elementary foreign language teacher as an adult and even married a man who also believed in the power of languages. We knew very little when we were expecting our first child, but we did know that she would grow up with more than one language.
When our daughter was born, I was teaching languages to students in pre-kinder through 8th grade in a private school where teachers were encouraged to keep their infants with them in the classroom. My daughter’s first experience with languages other than English was in this classroom where she often participated...as realia for learning body parts, clothing, colors, and occasionally as an impromptu puppet.
A few years later we moved back to my hometown and I enrolled my daughter in a preschool and requested that she be placed in the bilingual classroom, not monolingual. This earned me an appointment with the principal who questioned not only my request, but my competency as a parent. She said that placing an English-speaking child in an all Spanish classroom was bordering on child abuse. I pointed out that the reverse was often done and considered good parenting, an opportunity for the child. I then wrote what I like to refer to as my “monolingual denial letter” requesting placement for my child in the bilingual program despite having met with administration and having all the benefits of the monolingual program explained to me. And so my daughter’s bilingual education began – sort of. The teacher and the teacher’s aide felt sorry for my daughter and the aide became her personal assistant and interpreter for the year. She grew in her comprehension of Spanish and in manipulating adults – she had those teachers wrapped around her little finger, constantly at her beck and call.
The next year I placed her in a true two-way 90/10 dual language program. My goodness! How she screeched when she realized that she had no personal interpreter in this new setting. She tried other ways of garnering adult attention such as crying in the corner and wiping moco on the wall. She slowed her crying as the teacher approached and then pouted again as she was handed a wipe and told in Spanish to clean the wall. After this she straightened up and joined the class and began to learn Spanish. By the end of the year, she was reading in Spanish at the top of her class and comfortable in both languages with children and adults. I naively thought that the battles were over.
The summer between kindergarten and first grade was the beginning of a new assault – the assault of family members and their concern that their niece, granddaughter, cousin had had enough of this “experimentation” and needed to go to a traditional, i.e. all English school, nearer her home. The cousins could read and write English, when would my daughter? How would she make friends when she attended school so far from home? Best of all the questions and guilt trips was the one questioning if we were destroying her future by limiting her access to English. Wow! Talk about guilt trip and doubt, but we persevered and kept our daughter in the dual language program, even as she began speaking English with a Spanish accent, further emblazing the relatives.
As third grade hit and the relatives’ doubts were quashed, they turned to chastise my siblings who had not had the foresight or opportunity to place their children in dual language. Our daughter excelled in both Spanish and English while the mommy doubts settled in. How would my daughter do on the state-mandated assessments in Spanish when her first language was English? As much as the language teacher in me knew that she would be fine, the mommy gene overrode the research spouting dual language advocate. I was truly freaked out! Somehow I managed to keep it to myself and the testing season came and went with great scores. My daughter was truly comfortable in both languages at an academically and developmentally appropriate level. The remainder of elementary school passed fairly uneventfully as my daughter and her classmates continued to develop in both languages, in their academics, and as advocates for the dual language program to the many visitors that came to the school and in their daily lives.
When my son entered the dual language program the relatives were supportive and I knew what to expect, or at least I thought I did. My son took longer to come to grade level in English and Spanish, struggling with reading and writing in both languages. It was eventually determined that he had a mild learning disorder that affected his processing of print. He struggled in elementary school and meetings with teachers did not go well. They saw no reason for him to be performing below grade level in his second language or for them to shelter and scaffold during Spanish instruction. It felt at times that English dominant students were welcomed in the program as long as they contributed positively to the class as both academic and language models, but it was sink or swim for them. As third grade state testing came closer the principal called a meeting; he wanted my son moved to a monolingual program where he felt he would do better with his mild learning disabilities. I disagreed and insisted that he remain in dual and that he test in Spanish, the language in which he had learned to read. I supported my position with research, the principal with his feelings. My son stayed in the program, but was tested in English, a language in which he had received virtually no literacy instruction. He passed, just barely and I began looking for another school with a more informed administration. He began fourth grade in a new dual language school and took the fourth grade state assessments in Spanish. He received commended scores and has been doing well ever since. Yes, he still struggles with his learning disability, but performs at grade level in two languages and is now in seventh grade, dual language.
Middle school is a new hurdle for the kids as they hit puberty and peers begin to exert more of an influence than parents. Hadn’t they learned enough Spanish? Both of my children remained in the dual language program; they really weren’t given a choice. They have done well and continue to perform in their classes in both English and Spanish.
My daughter moved from middle school and on to high school where dual language became a new struggle—a struggle to get into the classes and combine them with the magnet program she had entered. Dual was relatively new to her high school and misunderstood by much of the faculty who viewed it as a remedial program for ELLs who had not yet mastered English. However, by this time, my daughter had become quite the dual language advocate and insisted, with our backing and the backing of the administration, that she could complete her magnet and dual program requirements. By her sophomore year, many of the faculty had begun to change their minds about the dual program as they learned more about it and the dual students became more visible and sought after.
This past June my daughter graduated from high school with her dual language honor. She completed eleven credits in Spanish including classes in science, math, social studies, Spanish, and electives in her magnet program. In August she entered the university beginning her Spanish study at the junior level. She reported that she was stared at in her Spanish class as students looked at her pale skin, freckles, and auburn hair and assumed that she was in the wrong class. As the class got under way and deep into discussion, my daughter contributed using her Spanish acquired through the dual language program— articulate, academic vocabulary across broad topics. She reports that the class stared at her again, this time in amazement and the professor asked how she acquired her Spanish. My daughter told her that she had learned it in school in the dual language program. Met by looks of confusion, she began to explain the program and her experiences. My text from her that night said that she was in college and still advocating for dual language. I smiled as I responded and again as I read her facebook posting where she was discussing a question from her Spanish professor: would she consider pursuing a master’s degree in Spanish? That’s a lot to think about for a college freshman.
As I look back on her experience in school and her brother who has just begun middle school, I know that we made the right choice, a choice that will provide them with more opportunities in their futures; a choice that should be available for more children.