What Can I Do? My Bilingual Child Must Take Basic Language Classes!

by expert · 11 comments

I am an English speaker living in Spain with my Spanish husband.  We are raising our son in OPOL (one-parent-one-language) and I am his only English influence.  My concern is when he starts school.  The Spanish government has begun a huge push to promote English as the current level is very low.  Most English teachers in fact hardly speak the language themselves, especially at the primary level.  How do I deal with my fluent child being stuck in several hours a week of memorizing lists of vocabulary in his native language? — Rea

Dear Rea,

First of all, I quite like your description of the methods that are used to teach language subjects in school. To my mind, these methods are also the reason why school learners of languages have acquired the reputation of being “bad” language learners.

What we need to realise is that such learners are in fact not learning languages at all, they are learning about those languages, which is a very different thing altogether: vocabulary lists, lists of grammar rules, all presented through printed forms of language, memorizing in order to regurgitate and in order to pass school tests, none of this is what learning languages is all about.

Now to your question.

You may have two alternative ways of dealing with this. If the school authorities are compliant and have the resources for it, you could ask them to provide your son with a certificate of English proficiency, equivalent to a certain level of school English. This could mean having him tested in his knowledge of English, not about English, and having him excused from attending English school lessons.

I nevertheless doubt it that the school will want to do this, for the reason that “language subjects” in school are aiming at teaching grammar which, again, is not the same thing as teaching a language.

Your son may know English, and Spanish, but he most likely does not know what adjectives, or direct objects, or passive constructions are. Teaching what these are is the purpose of school language subjects: you learn to talk about languages. This is why Latin was taught as a compulsory subject in school not so long ago and this is, I should add, as important to learn as it is to learn to talk about numbers, the human body or the laws of motion. A chemical compound is a chemical compound regardless of where you find it, just like a noun is a noun regardless of language. He and his classmates will probably learn the same things in their Spanish lessons.

So the alternative is to explain to your son that this is what he’ll be doing in his “English” lessons. He will have the advantage of being able to draw on his intuitions about English to get at its grammar and its vocabulary sets, and he may even find that he can be of help to his non-English-speaking classmates here. He might well enjoy doing so.

Whether he’ll enjoy the memorising bit involved in all this, whether grammar rules or vocabulary lists, is another matter. But then again, memorising is still a very strong component of much school learning, whatever the subject.

Do feel free to contact me privately, if you wish to discuss these matters in greater detail.


Madalena Cruz-Ferreira, PhD, University of Manchester, UK, is a multilingual parent, educator and scholar, and the author of Multilinguals are...?, a book on myths and misconceptions about multilingualism. Her blog Being Multilingual deals with multilingualism at home, in school and in clinic. Her contact, and details on her work, are at: beingmultilingual.com.

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Carolyn July 2, 2010 at 11:19 am

It wasn’t until I started taking Latin classes that I began to understand English grammar. Hopefully, having classes about grammar in both languages will mean that the learning is being even better supported.


2 Rea July 2, 2010 at 3:00 pm

I really appreciate your input, Magdalena. I hadn’t considered the “language of language” aspect. It is true that I didn’t undersatnd English grammar until I learned Spanish. Thanks.



3 Madalena Cruz-Ferreira July 3, 2010 at 2:13 am

When I started learning English, my first foreign language taught in school when I was 10, I found out that I really enjoyed having word lists laid out by topic for me, and neat rules of grammar that explained how I should put all the “small” words of the language together with the “big” ones. I guess that’s when I realised that grammar was my thing. If your son, Rea, is like me, he may well end up a happy member of the linguist fraternity.
Several years later, in my first visit to an English-speaking country, the backlash came. In the speech I heard around me, there was no trace of all the auxiliary verbs that my textbook told me should be there. And the people I tried to engage in conversation with all the neat grammatical constructions I’d learned looked at me as if I were babbling away in ET-speak.
On a side note, your comment about “the language of language” was really interesting. That’s the title of an introductory linguistics textbook I’ve written with a colleague.


4 Alice July 3, 2010 at 9:12 am

The downside to this situation is that some teachers feel threatened by having a native speaking student in class who knows the language better than him/her. Just saying because friends of ours have been in this situation and had problems because of this. I am not saying this is the rule, but I think it can be an issue.


5 Melissa July 3, 2010 at 12:11 pm

I quite agree with Alice. I’m sure it depends on the personalities of the individual teacher and child, and the teaching style of the country you’re in, and many other similar factors, but I also have good friends who had problems with this. It isn’t ideal to know the subject better than the teacher, and it isn’t ideal to put a student in a “teacher’s helper” role to address the issue, either.

On a related note, my husband is not a native speaker but started learning English at a time when the teachers were also trying to learn, and often got into conflicts and received bad grades because he said things that weren’t in the textbook and the teacher didn’t recognize them.

I do like Madalena’s point about learning the formal aspects of language, though, as a school language class, even in a language you already speak, is an excellent place to learn that.


6 Sophie July 5, 2010 at 4:49 am

I wasn’t excused French lessons at school, but as a shy child it did tend to give me some more confidence that this was one class I didn’t have to work too hard at, and was able to help my friends (though one did get a backlash – from me! – when she became too reliant on that help!).

I wasn’t the only child with a foreign-language parent either, and most of us were offered the opportunity to take GCSEs in those languages early (they’d normally be taken at 16 years old in the UK, we were 14 or 15), and progress to A levels while our peers were still in GCSE-level lessons. This does depend on school though, unfortunately – my brother’s was only next door and they didn’t give him that option at all, but then he wasn’t too fussed either..

P.S. We had compulsory Latin classes at school too, and while I grumbled mightily at the time about dead languages, I definitely appreciate it now!


7 The Globetrotter Parent July 26, 2010 at 4:55 am

I am in the same boat. My daughter will be starting the first grade this year in the French system and will have English class twice a week.

The problem is that at that age, they will not be learning about parts of speech or anything else to do with English grammar. They won’t even be learning full sentences. They’ll be learning how to count to 10 in English, colours, parts of the body (Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes anyone?) all by a person who is not a native speaker, possibly makes mistakes and who has a non-native accent to boot. I do not believe my daughter will be learning much of anything “about” the English language in that class. If this were junior high or highs school, maybe, but not in grade one.


8 Corey July 30, 2010 at 10:24 pm

How frustrating! Hopefully your daughter will find ways to make the class time interesting and beneficial. It is so exciting that kids are learning languages earlier and earlier but multilingual families get stuck in the middle. Sigh. Another unique problem for us multilingual families!

Thank you for sharing! Please let us know how things go! It is a fascinating topic!


9 Susan C. H. Siu August 26, 2010 at 8:50 am

A couple of points to add to the excellent comments that everyone else has already made:

(1) Your son’s English teacher may want to recruit him to help model English sentences to the class, which may be a great boost to his self-confidence public-speaking skills. (I agree with Melissa that this is not the “ideal” situation for your son, but I have enjoyed being in this position several times as a student; it taught me that I have skills that are valuable to others.) This will depend, of course, on whether the teacher is smart and self-confident enough to see the value of having such a “helper” and isn’t insecure about his/her own inferiority as an English speaker.

(2) If your son is able to sit quietly by himself and can read independently, he may be allowed to just sit in class and read more advanced English books to himself, as I did during my year in a French school in Istanbul. I read a lot of great books that year!


10 Corey August 30, 2010 at 10:35 pm

Thank you for your real-life feedback, Susan! It is always wonderful to hear from others who have children who have gone through something similar (or parents, like you, who have gone through it themselves)! I love your optimistic twist on the whole thing: looking for the positive to what could otherwise be a very frustrating situation. I bet you read some great books that year! What fun! Thank you for your comment!


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