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When you don’t speak the same language as your kid…

muslim mom daughterLast week, we talked about parent involvement, and how the term may not mean the same thing to immigrant parents as it does to educators or majority-culture parents. This week, we see that any parent can struggle with relating to their child’s education.

Southern California Public Radio recently did a feature on a family whose daughter just finished kindergarten in a Mandarin immersion school. The family is English-speaking, and their anxiety and challenges will sound familiar to immigrant parents.

Before the first parent-teacher conference, Brooke, the mother, mused that her daughter “was making good progress” and enjoyed school, “but was she learning all she should given she might not be fully understanding the teacher?” Even though she was reassured that her daughter was advancing at an appropriate pace, Brooke wondered how to gauge “whether her daughter was speaking correctly or even if her accent was right.” To verify, she made recordings of her daughter speaking Mandarin for a fluent coworker to assess. While not a major concern in kindergarten, how the family managed homework assistance likely required some troubleshooting, as well.

Decided differences remain between parents of English Language Learners (ELLs) and parents of Foreign Language Learners (FLLs), and those shouldn’t be neglected. The teachers of FLLs are usually fluent in English, and so can interact with parents in their native language. FLL parents also share a concern for the English language development of their children, while native language development often falls by the wayside for the parents and schools of ELLs. Finally, if FLL parents are unhappy, they can simply change to an English-only school, and be well within their comfort zone once again. Not so for parents of ELLs.

But despite these differences, two-way immersion programs can potentially build solidarity among parents from different backgrounds. Theoretically, the students in two-way programs learn from one another, and the parents, too, have the shared experience of feeling displaced by the presence of a nonnative language. We hope that, with the exponential increase of bilingual education programs around California and the US, precisely this kind of solidarity can grow. If parents, educators, and students all develop tolerance for the ambiguity of hearing multiple languages around them, then perhaps that’s key to a more tolerant future as a nation.

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