The School Director Disagrees with Raising Children Bilingually

by contributor · 10 comments

By Isabelle Lazonde

My son is 5 now but when he was 2 it was suspected he had a learning difficulty. He didn’t speak much and the words took a while to get out. We were worried naturally. I speak English to him and my husband French, given those are our native languages.

On starting school in France, the director told me that my son was not learning properly because he spoke English.  I can’t tell you how guilty she made me feel. I cried and felt really isolated.

There weren’t many people in the community supporting my situation. However, there was no way I was going to speak French to my son, especially since at the time my French grammar was really bad, not to mention my pronunciation problems.

So I looked up a few organizations and found some support.

I found a wonderful bilingual psychologist specializing in bilingualism French – German, and she wrote a wonderful letter to the school full of research findings proving that bilingualism was not effecting my son’s learning. The director didn’t say anything after reading the expert’s opinion.

We did some tests at a major hospital but given the delays and waiting lists, this process took 2 years. My son was still considered too young to do some of the tests due to his age. So we had to wait a bit longer. It was found that my poor little mite suffered major damage during an ear infection early on that neither the doctors nor we as parents realized. He was given medication for the infection and after that we didn’t notice any significant changes until he started school.

We just thought like lots of people he was quiet and reserved and liked to play on his own. He would turn his head when I called him, so I didn’t think there was a major problem.

He saw a speech therapist in France and when we came to French Guiana, the speech therapist believed that if my son was to progress further in school, he should only speak French. So again I had to justify my decision and provide evidence.

It was funny though, in her office there was a much younger speech therapist that had just graduated and said that now, in the French Education of speech therapists, students can take up bilingualism as a specialty and speech therapy is swaying towards a better understanding and appreciation of bilingualism. Bilingualism was not seen as causing any problems to a child’s speech problems.  Indeed she disagreed with her older colleague and after a meeting between the two, or between the old and new schools of thought, my son’s therapist has never said anything more about his bilingualism.

I can proudly say that my boy is excelling in his class and is purely bilingual. He can read a little and is proud of his two cultures. Thanks to Dora the Explorer as well!

Experts are experts its true but there are also different schools of thought. What was taught and believed years ago is not necessarily the case today.

Colin Baker in his excellent book: A Parent and Teacher’s Guide to Bilingualism brings up this issue:

a doctor or a teacher is not usually trained to answer such questions about bilingualism….(they) tend to reflect in their answers the prejudices and negative beliefs of previous decades. Such advice is contrary to current research and expert opinion about bilingualism.

He adds that it is best to consult specialists in bilingualism (psychologists teachers, speech therapists who have taken a course in bilingualism).

What have been your experiences?  How have you dealt with the negative reactions of school administrators and experts to bilingualism?

Isabelle Lazonde is Australian, trilingual (or perhaps more accurately quadralingual!), and lives with her family in French Guiana.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Karen Nemeth December 8, 2010 at 2:43 pm

Such a difficult story – but this kind of thing happens too often in US schools as well. Here is a new position paper from the national association for early childhood special education that makes a strong statement about supporting both the home language and the school’s language even when children have delays or disabilities. I hope this helps


2 Isabelle December 8, 2010 at 10:31 pm

Thanks so much Karen! What a great link, I especially like the glossary of terms at the end.


3 Andrew December 8, 2010 at 6:05 pm

I cannot believe how ignorant some people are, why did you even feel the need to justify your decision to raise your child bilingually to them? I wouldn’t have even bothered. This immediately reminds me of Jennie’s recent post about how terrible the education system is in most countries, you should go have a look at it.



4 Isabelle December 8, 2010 at 10:44 pm

Thanks Andrew. In regards to the difference in school systems: Growing up Italo-Australian, I had no problems with this. The Italian side was welcome and nurtured in the Australian School system. Indeed, Italian was taught in schools. Multilingualism was and I still think is, encouraged. I never had any problems anyway.
However, my children are Franco-Australian, and the Education system in France do sway towards a one-language system. I am sure there are exceptions and I am by no means criticizing the French School System which is generally of a high standard – It’s just to say attitudes are different between countries.


5 Tom December 9, 2010 at 1:16 pm

My kids are still very little, but officially we got lot’s of support for raising them bilingual. The bigger problem I’m facing is the family, where on both sides I am the only one who speaks more than one language, and therefore it is not as meaningful to them. It is much harder to argue with somebody who thinks their lives was good enough speaking one language, than with a professional who is missing supporting evidence.


6 Susanne March 31, 2011 at 4:31 pm

This reminds me of my youngest daughter: at the age of 5 her entire year group was tested by her school as part of a routine check to pick up latent dyslexia, so the condition wouldn’t hold anyone back and support from early on would give everyone the best chance to maximise their potential.
Laudable idea, I thought, until her teacher told me that she had been assessed as having a below average vocabulary. Knowing this to be nonsense as both her languages were very well developed as 3 big sisters talked to her constantly, I wasn’t unduly worried, but asked her how she had found the tests. Her answer: “The test was really easy but the lady didn’t smell nice, so I tried not to breathe so much! I only answered three questions before she sent me back to the classroom…”

In their desire to detect problems early they found problems where there were none. I didn’t take any notice of the assessment as I knew the result to be utter nonsense, but was surprised the teacher who had seen her for several months didn’t dismiss the findings until I told her how they had come about!
That, to my mind, was where the real problem with testing lies: when those who know the child best can be made to doubt their judgement and implement inappropriate measures. I took it up with the headmaster as I didn’t want other parents who would maybe be less dismissive to be put in that position and found him not very helpful at all as he doesn’t believe languages to be an asset. That, as Tom says, is a person who doesn’t have any idea what he has missed out on by not having more than one language set and all that entails in terms of culture, outlook etc at his disposal


7 Abby May 28, 2011 at 6:57 pm

My daughter was similarly assessed right after entering kindergarten. She was nearly a month late starting duet us being out of the country and was shy and intimidated at first. They “had to” assess her English ability because I told them there was a second language spoken in the home-occasionally and only by her father-Arabic. Stupid assessment made me really angry because she hardly shuts up at home and had a very large vocab early on. The teachers told me the results and I shrugged it off at the time. But I think what the assessment should have been was setting up a video of the two of us chatting about specific subjects. They would see her wide vocabulary much better in a relaxed, unpressured environment.


8 Antonia April 16, 2011 at 4:01 pm

I’m a bit confused – are you saying his actual problem was deafness caused by the infection?


9 Suze Nowak May 11, 2011 at 1:46 am

What a great article, you made me feel much better. I am going through a similar experience right now:


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