This week I attended an English Language Learners workshop with my coteachers. In our classroom, we have 4 families who have bilingual homes, and soon we'll get 2 more from our toddler room. Our families speak French, Spanish, German, Polish, and Dutch. Although we're supportive of these language differences and attempt to bring books and language into the classroom to reflect the children's homes, myself and my coteachers are all English language speakers. I often wonder how it feels for children in our class used to the fluidity of bilingual households and what it means for them to come to our fast-paced, all English classroom.
In high school, I attended a school where many of my classmates spoke English as a second language or were multi-lingual. My advisor was also multi-lingual, speaking English, Hebrew and Spanish interchangeably and flowing easily from one into the other. Our advising group discussions were often interspersed by bursts of Spanish phrases and words, and the majority of my classmates spoke Spanish at least half the time at home. I grew up in a culturally rich but monolingual household, before the era of Dora the Explorer and bilingual children's toys. My first real exposure to “foreign” language wasn't until junior high, when I took Latin for two years. Following that I managed to get out of high school with only one year of foreign language (French, taught by an ancient multi-lingual Brother who often lapsed into German, Latin and Somali) and attended a college that had no language requirements. In all of my 22 years, even after a month touring Europe, I've managed to learn no more language than I could pick up on a show like Dora.
For my students, the world is slightly different, both from my own experience and that of my high school classmates. The children in our class come primarily from upper middle class households, families that chose to immigrate to our country as opposed to refugees, migrant workers and other less choice based immigrants. Even our bilingual students speak English as their primary language, with their parent's native tongue being their second or third language. Many of the cultural and linguistic difficulties between families and childcare providers don't effect the often American educated bilingual families we serve. Although the workshop was interesting, and important for providers working with many families, it didn't feel particularly relevant to our current families.
In fact, as my coteachers and I discussed later, many of our bilingual students have developed better letter recognition and literacy skills than our students who only speak English, probably in part because of the focus their parents put on English literacy in the home. Food for thought.